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Why do cities try to be more like somewhere else?

Paul Finch
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For Paul Finch a visit to Adelaide revealed exciting new architecture, but also an unfortunate readiness to demolish a distinctive building

I spent last week in Adelaide, a unique grid city surrounded by parklands, and now enjoying its growing reputation as one of the world’s most liveable cities. This is partly because in the old part of the city, at least, everything is walkable, and partly because of a thriving food and wine culture based on local produce and magnificent South Australia wines.

Although its economy has been through hard times, with heavy manufacturing industry in terminal decline, Adelaide is fighting back through investment in ‘new economy’ industries to replace car manufacture, and is rapidly become a serious centre for medical services and research. With house prices half of the equivalent in Melbourne and Sydney, it is easy enough to predict that the city will grow rapidly in the next few years, even though the population is currently generally static.

Adelaide Oval is an unmissable symbol of the city’s ambitions

One recent unmissable symbol of the city’s ambitions is the magnificent Adelaide Oval cricket and Australian rules football ground, by Cox Architecture. Open on one side to a hill covered in fig trees, this is certainly the most impressive ground I have ever seen. Any temptation to enclose the ground was firmly resisted, leaving in place a truly distinctive landmark.

That design decision is a good example of what cities can do if they only encourage architects and developers to answer the following question: ‘How can we make this city more like itself, rather than more like somewhere else?’ Assuming that the city in question is not a lost cause, this is surely the attitude that should prevail in the inevitable debates that take place in relation to heritage and regeneration.

Often, heritage lobbyists seem incapable of understanding the necessity for new development, leading to often-unproductive standoffs. By contrast, too many clients encourage their architects to believe that what they are doing justifies any demolition, whatever history or character may be lost in the process.

Maughan Church in Adelaide

Maughan Church in Adelaide

A good example of this is the magnificent 1960s Maughan Church in Adelaide, an exercise in what could be described as a fusion of Modernism and Postmodern-Gothic, which the church authorities themselves wish to demolish to make way for a residential apartment. Heritage protection for the church has been ended; a sad decision in view of Adelaide’s soubriquet as the ‘City of Churches’. Protection should be reinstated in my view, and ways investigated to see how accommodation could be designed above part of the church.

The wider issue is how cities in a state of growth avoid extinguishing their distinctive features, whether historic or recent. An extreme solution would be to ban all demolition of buildings of any character. To be effective, however, this would require a wide acceptance of the need to accept extensions of, or development above, the building being saved. This would require an architectural synthesis of old and new that some would find uncomfortable, but it is by no means impossible.

At the World Architecture Festival, Will Alsop showed a residential tower he is designing where an unlisted building is being incorporated in the base because it is part of local history and adds a distinctive element to what already looks a very striking design. If this approach works for Will, I don’t see why others shouldn’t adopt this ‘add-plan’ idea, discussed in this column in the past. It creates an archaeology of city architecture which is evident rather than buried, and all the better for that.

Spending a few days in Melbourne post-Adelaide, the same thoughts occurred. Melbourne has terrific new architecture as well as the usual commercial me-too towers. It also has a wonderful heritage, which it will sacrifice at its peril.

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