Canopy of industry: Tonsley Main Assembly Building Redevelopment

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The Flinders University Commons is situated just north of the Main Assembly Building (MAB), which is now an open-air community space.

The Flinders University Commons is situated just north of the Main Assembly Building (MAB), which is now an open-air community space. Image: Sam Noonan

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The MAB was originally a Chrysler/Mitsubishi factory.

The MAB was originally a Chrysler/Mitsubishi factory. Image: Courtesy Woods Bagot and Tridente Architects

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The MAB was originally a Chrysler/Mitsubishi factory.

The MAB was originally a Chrysler/Mitsubishi factory. Image: Courtesy Woods Bagot and Tridente Architects

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A retail precinct has been created at the northern end of the development, adjacent to the Central Forest.

A retail precinct has been created at the northern end of the development, adjacent to the Central Forest. Image: Simon Cecere

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The Central Forest is one of several landscape insertions, created in collaboration with Oxigen.

The Central Forest is one of several landscape insertions, created in collaboration with Oxigen. Image: Sam Noonan

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Site plan of Tonsley

Site plan of Tonsley

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A former car assembly building redeveloped by Tridente Architects and Woods Bagot plays a central role in the ongoing development of the sixty-one-hectare precinct of Tonsley.

I recently participated in a three-hour walking tour of Tonsley in South Australia. Tonsley has been described as “Australia’s first innovation district” and it covers an expansive sixty-one hectares, which will eventually accommodate educational, commercial, light industry, retail, community, residential and recreation spaces. The project began in 2010, when the South Australian Government purchased the site in Clovelly Park, ten kilometres south of Adelaide’s CBD. It is now partially completed and occupied and is due to be finished in 2032. This stage of the project is a great time to visit, because it requires both hindsight and foresight to visualize the transformation, to understand the history of the place and to imagine future possibilities.

The tour, organized by the Australian Institute of Architects as one of the fringe events for this year’s National Architecture Conference, explored three of the main components of the development: the Main Assembly Building (MAB), which has been converted from the original Chrysler/Mitsubishi factory into an open-air central community space; the TAFE SA Sustainable Industries Education Centre (SIEC); and the Flinders University School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics building.

A retail precinct has been created at the northern end of the development, adjacent to the Central Forest.  Image:  Simon Cecere

The SIEC TAFE facility by MPH Architects and Architectus received both state and national awards for interior architecture from the Australian Institute of Architects in 2014. According to the national awards jury, it is “as much urban design as it is interior architecture.” The impressive and extremely well-organized training complex provides enviable “playgrounds” for students to experiment in and practise their trades. Flinders University’s new six-storey building, designed by Hassell, bookends the northern end of the MAB. In the architects’ words, it seeks to provide “a simple, flexible structure that promotes interaction, connection and exchange between all its occupants – students, teaching staff, researchers and private industry – to encourage sharing of ideas [and] cross-discipline innovation and create new business and economic opportunities.” While the building provides the prerequisite well-designed functional spaces for formal learning and research, it also offers beautifully orchestrated connections through the upper floors, irregular atria formed over multiple storeys. Both the SIEC and Flinders University building are success stories in their own right. However, it is the Main Assembly Building by Woods Bagot and Tridente Architects that holds the key to the overall scheme and future success of Tonsley’s new district.

The architects retained and enhanced the sawtooth roof superstructure, columns and canopy of the original factory to create a central meeting place and “umbrella” for the public spaces. The aesthetic is one of industrial, skeletal frames and raw, legible services. There is an awareness of the sun’s path, of changing temperatures and wind patterns. Pockets of vegetation open to the sky provide welcome respite from the surrounding urban hardscape.

Many of the architects’ sketches show organic “desire lines” flowing through a rigid grid of modular and repetitive structural portal frames. These freeform layouts have developed into diagrams for lease areas of varying sizes, which provides flexibility in the plan format for potential tenants to choose from.

The MAB was originally a Chrysler/Mitsubishi factory.  Image:  Courtesy Woods Bagot and Tridente Architects

Rather than following a “typical industrial park approach,” which the architects have stated would have limited value to the industry and the wider community, they “took the alternative, which was to imagine a thriving community within the significant industrial remains of the Tonsley site.” According to the architects retaining and rejuvenating some 50,000 square metres of existing roof structure has saved approximately 90,000 tons of carbon, “which is equivalent to taking 25,000 average cars off the road for one year … Tonsley demonstrates the strength of the nesting of ideas and the importance of a framework which encourages learning, diversity, entrepreneurship and collaboration. It is a unique rich canvas which interrogates the norm and promotes a new way of working.”

The client says that Tonsley is now firmly on the international stage: “The State Government is transforming Tonsley into a collaborative and high-value industry, education and residential precinct, where business people, researchers, tertiary students, industries and companies can interact.” The project “has been designed to unite progressive individuals, businesses and researchers looking to collaborate, test, build and grow in a flexible and supportive environment.”

Designing inviting and engaging spaces for teaching and learning is a fundamental consideration in today’s society and Tonsley provides fertile opportunities for a mix of smaller and larger businesses to test ideas and interact with a choice of learning institutions. It is worth watching how the precinct develops with a changing and expanding community over the next sixteen years of its planned growth.


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