Adelaide’s Architectural Icon

South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute


A mesmerising new building shimmers above Adelaide’s River Torrens. Called everything from the spaceship and the prickly pear to the cheese grater and the pine cone, the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) is anything but ordinary.
Designed by Woods Bagot, the $200 million building is sure to give the state’s international medical science community newfound recognition – and become an architectural icon for the city, perhaps even the nation.

At first glance, the building’s glimmering exterior appears to be floating, a strange intergalactic entity keeping watch over the city. In fact, SAHMRI’s shape and façade seem more at home in a science fiction film then in Adelaide’s new medical and health precinct.

Part of the effect is due to the fact that engineering firm Aurecon created a “flower column” system in which the 36 interior supports are reduced to just six at ground level, allowing the building to “float” over the ground, creating an open space beneath. The effect is completed by a diagonal grid of glass triangles overlaid across the entire building like a reptilian skin. With these 6,300 glass panels flashing a myriad of colours in the sun, the result is nothing short of otherworldly. “The form’s articulated skin adapts and responds to its environment, becoming a living organism that responds to the position of the sun,” the Woods Bagot website summarises.

The building’s distinctive pine cone or cheese grater look comes from the metal hoods shielding each of these glass triangles from the sun’s glare. Using computer modelling, the team carefully analysed how much sun and heat would pour into the building from every angle; they created the hoods to ensure that the building’s interior remained comfortable while still enjoying plenty of natural light.

Inside is 25,000 square metres of light-filled voids, stark white surfaces, and whimsical curves. There are also plenty of laboratory facilities – enough to accommodate 675 scientists. Research centres can be especially complicated projects with very particular demands, but the architects were determined to take the interior design to a bold new level, despite the challenges. So they reshuffled the prevailing orientation for laboratory facilities, pushing scientists out of isolated corners and into the open, encouraging collaboration.

Laboratory facilities typically include a space for meetings and a support space for equipment and supplies, in addition to the workspace itself. As Architect Magazine points out, support spaces tend to occupy the centre of a building, while workspaces and meeting spaces are usually given window-front locations at the edges of the building. But SAHMRI workspaces are in the middle of the building, pushing the meeting and support spaces to the sidelines in order to promote community. The arrangement also protects the scientists from the harsh afternoon sun that hits the western side of the building (where the support spaces have been located). Glass walls, wide open atria, and connecting bridges promote even more interaction among scientists. The ultimate goal is to create a more welcoming working environment, to spur on medical discovery through greater collaboration, and to attract the world’s leading scientists to Adelaide.

The team also had to take stringent vibration requirements into account in order to protect sensitive laboratory equipment. To keep vibrations to an absolute minimum, Woods Bagot and Aurecon developed a special structural system and added isolation bearings on the lower floors. These isolation bearings enable load transfers, but prevent the upper levels from vibrating even when lower floors shake.

SAHMRI is also built to be green. It has even achieved a coveted LEED Gold status – an important first for a laboratory facility in Australia. In an innovative, chimney-like system, the air conditioning system draws cool air from the empty space below the building and allows warm air to escape from the top of the building. There is also an energy saving water and waste removal system. And, of course, the use of natural light has been key; sunlight floods the carefully arranged interior, reducing the need for electric lighting.

The building is located in Adelaide’s North Terrace neighbourhood, between the River Torrens and the city’s downtown and beside a new hospital, university campus, and convention centre. A rail yard also cuts through the landscape like a scar, separating the city centre from a riverfront greenway. The team worked hard to artfully integrate the building into the surrounding space, helping to connect separate entities and create a seamless transition to the nearby cycling and walking paths. With a second SAHMRI building and other related facilities possibly in the works, there is talk that the site will soon become the largest health and biomedical research precinct in the southern hemisphere.

SAHMRI’s bold, innovative design has already been widely celebrated. The unique structure swept the South Australian Architecture Awards this year, taking home five separate recognitions: the Jack McConnell Award for Public Architecture, the Keith Neighbour Award for Commercial Architecture, the Derrick Kendrick Award for Sustainable Architecture, the Robert Dickson Award for Interior Architecture and the Colorbond Award for Steel Architecture. SAHMRI then went on to earn a National Commendation for Public Architecture at the National Architecture Awards.

SAHMRI got its start in 2008, when the government of South Australia pledged to fund a state of the art, leading edge health and medical laboratory. The hope was to not only attract the world’s top scientific minds to the city, but to also bring Adelaide international recognition. The one-of-a-kind building certainly appears to have done the job. Its hovering, pinecone-spaceship-like structure is sure to become synonymous with its city, reminding people that Adelaide is a world-class destination to be reckoned with.

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August 18, 2022, 8:38 PM AEST