Oasis in the Outback - Adelaide's Refreshing Architecture

By Di Lernia, Nicolette | The World and I, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Oasis in the Outback - Adelaide's Refreshing Architecture


Di Lernia, Nicolette, The World and I


Located in remote South Australia, the flourishing city of Adelaide boasts a fine collection of old and new architecture, thanks to a bold and innovative, nineteenth-century city plan carried out by a remarkable figure, Col. William Light.

The architecture of Adelaide, Australia, is firmly rooted in its English colonial past. Adaptations for local materials and climate have resulted in regional variation, but links to Western architectural traditions have remained largely unchallenged. In this way, it is like many other cities throughout the former British Empire.

Because of its geographic isolation and relatively small population of one million, Adelaide has not been exposed to the same level of development and economic pressures experienced by the cities on Australia's eastern coast. As a result, it retains many of its early buildings, especially those from the Victorian (1850--1900) and Edwardian (1900--1920) eras. It is this building stock, in conjunction with the orderly layout of the city, that creates Adelaide's gracious character and human scale, making it a diverse and interesting place.

Adelaide is situated on Australia's southern coast, some 420 miles west of Melbourne. Founded in 1836, it is the capital of the state of South Australia. Unlike much of Australia, the state was not a penal colony but was established as a commercial venture. It offered English settlers the opportunity to escape overcrowding, poverty, and intolerance, with the founders professing ideals of "civil liberty, social opportunity and equality for all religions."1

The reality was somewhat less altruistic, with land shortages soon leading to speculation for quick profit and self-advancement often valued more highly than the common social good. Still, the colony did attract many forward-thinking settlers from England, as well as people from countries such as Germany and Ireland who wished to escape religious persecution. The result was a cultural diversity not common at the time, a high level of civic pride, and a climate of progressive social thinking and social responsibility, evidence of which can be found in the buildings that form the city.

City of Churches

Churches of many denominations and styles are found throughout Adelaide, testament to the success of the colony's policy of religious tolerance. Religious and philanthropic institutions, including welfare organizations, accommodations for young women, a creche for the children of working mothers (established in 1887), and temperance cafes, were located in the city. Education facilities from church- and state-based schools to a university were established early. The number, size, and modernity of the schools indicate the importance of education for both boys and girls. Public institutions were also prominent.

While Adelaide gained a reputation as the City of Churches, a proliferation of hotels and breweries suggests that many citizens were happy to enjoy their newfound prosperity without waiting for the rewards of heaven. By 1880, it boasted more than 120 hotels. The city could equally be called the City of Pubs,2 and both the hotels and churches still form an important part of its building stock.

To facilitate the purchase of land from England, it was decided to survey the site for Adelaide prior to settlement. The surveying work was led by Col. William Light, who selected land on the banks of the River Torrens and laid out the city as a regular grid of streets. There were squares at key intersections, and a ring of parklands acted as a buffer between the city and the surrounding farmland. Seeking to maximize views and vistas, Light modified the strict grid in response to the topography.

The survey ensured that Adelaide developed in an orderly manner, enabling "rapid settlement of land, certainty of title, wide streets and abundant public open space close to the city."3 Surveyed at one square mile, the area allotted for parklands far exceeded the needs of the population for many years and is a testament to the optimism of South Australia's founders.

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