What Lessons Can Adelaide Take from the Venice Biennale?

By Francesco Bonato



Why do we look to North America and Northern Europe for inspiration on how Adelaide may further evolve in the future? Much has been said about Adelaide’s identity and direction, but there are those that still cling to some bygone era.

Bertrand Russell in his introduction to a History of Western Philosophy, talks of the “conflict” of ideas between the Teutonic North of Europe and the more “creative” Mediterranean regions to the South.

The shift in our population and our similarities to the Mediterranean climate, make Southern Europe the most intelligent and logical destination for anyone with an interest in our urban evolution. Not to mention the food and wine traditions (read also here interchangeably soil and sun or paddock to plate) and their orientation to the sea, al fresco dining, festivals and public place.

Every Two Years the World's Leading Thinkers in Urban Design and Architecture Descend on Venice for the Architecture Biennale.

Like Venice of the past, the Biennale is a gateway to other places, other ideas, other possibilities

On this occasion, Venice was also the starting point for a tour of like minded Adelaideans with an interest in pursing this very idea: visiting other influential Mediterranean cities across Italy and Spain, such as Treviso (Castelfranco), Torino, Barcelona and Valencia.

Apart from the obvious, the Venice Biennale is also a stark lesson in infill, dealing uniquely with heritage and open space. Castelfranco is a fine example of the contemporary meets the old, with low scale infill development operating in very tight heritage and planning constraints. Torino is a best fit for Adelaide. Its cultural connections, with Colonel William Light having visited Torino before taking his commission to Adelaide, and its industrial connections, being predominately an economy built on the automotive industry.

There are also the agricultural connections, particularly food and wine, often being referred to as the food capital of Europe and the spiritual home of the Slow Food movement, founded by Carlo Petrini in the 80s in opposition to the globalisation of fast food. Then there is its tram network. Like South Australia’s 30 Year Plan, Torino’s strategic plan is one of the first and still one of only a few in Europe. If there was ever a Sister City to Adelaide, it must surely be Torino but sadly, it isn’t.

Barcelona, for its scale, offers little help other than a few incidental parts such as its recently completed trams. In some ways, Barcelona’s apparent free spirit and adoption of ironically a more Teutonic approach, remains to be proven as a reliable model. Suffice to say, the scale of the issues faced is a far cry from our own.

Valencia’s attraction was the Moorish influence and the influence of iconic projects such as those by Calatrava and the waterfront spurred on by the America’s Cup. Looking across the skyline, you could be easily fooled into believing you are looking across the roof tops of Morocco. Valencia is also home of a Formula One Grand Prix. We also managed to fit in a stage of the Vuelta and completed the connection with Adelaide and our own Tour Down Under.

Spain in many ways is a less conservative Italy, more bullish in its approach to development (no pun intended) and seemingly less concerned with its fabric. This makes sense having only been released from the shackles of Franco in 1975. Everywhere design plays an important and dominant role.

Adelaide is at a crossroads with the 30 Year Plan and while TODs represent a significant plank in the Government’s new policy platform, areas outside of these corridors are also expected to undergo significant urban infill.

Bertrand Russell also said there is only science and religion. Adelaide therefore has two possible directions to take.

We pay lip service to food security and brand SA, but we are seemingly happy to let places like the Riverland be literally ripped out of the ground

Traditionally we have divided greenfield land, creating new communities, sometimes with questionable results.The other approach is infill in established communities, but it too has its perils. The cynical view might be the former is contrived whereas the latter has substance by leveraging off an existing community. It is fair to say land division only promotes two dimensional thinking whereas infill demands three dimensional thinking.

Then where is our place in the world? We seem driven by the notion we can somehow still keep pace with our eastern cousins, Melbourne and Sydney. In reality, we are fast being eclipsed by even Brisbane and Perth, albeit for different reasons – the former driven by population growth and the other mining royalties.

So what is right? What is our identity? Who are we or rather, who do we want to be? This idea of identity must be tackled otherwise the now fashionable idea of “place making” has what as its aim? Nice trees and comfy park benches. Adelaide is only a capital city by default and would do better to think of itself more as a regional city surrounded by some very poetic and iconic regional places. By way of example, regions like the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale have anecdotally a higher profile internationally than Adelaide. Do we truly want what is planned for arguably our most internationally important assets?

Unlike contrivances such as our festivals and some of our sporting events, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale (with the Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills, Padthaway, Coonawarra and Riverland to name but a few) are uniquely our own. No interstate or international corporate or government guru can take them away overnight. They can of course, like many other things in SA, die a slow and painful death as our furniture manufacturing has done, a fate now facing our automotive industry.

We pay lip service to food security and Brand SA, but we are seemingly happy to let places like the Riverland be literally ripped out of the ground. What’s next?

Light’s idea (or Kingston’s depending on which camp you subscribe to) of a green belt has been seminal. It reinforces the entry experience as would a similar idea for the wine districts fast being encroached upon by housing – we once called it “Town and Country”.

We are well into the new century and have become ever more connected. Climate change (sceptics aside) is upon us; rising temperatures, water shortages and dwindling resources. History, after all, is told by those who have won the battles.

The regional economic and social development opportunities associated with the tour are many. There is a distinct difference between this tour and others where contemporary built form and urban design tends to be the focus within a different cultural and climatic context.

Although policy plays an important part, design is always there. Not only as an industry, but also as catalyst

– but that is another essay.