Brisbane’s multidisciplinary design studio Lat27 has completed a generous, layered events space for the first stage of the RNA Showgrounds Regeneration Project – the largest brownfield development of its kind in Australia.
Brisbane’s much-loved Ekka, officially the Royal Queensland Show, has attracted generations of locals and visitors through its gates almost every August since the first Queensland Intercolonial Exhibition in 18761. Agricultural exhibition has been a mainstay of the showgrounds but the site has also been a venue for cricket (including Donald Bradman’s 1928 Test debut), football, motor sports and music. The Ekka’s evolution is reflected in the eclectic panoply of structures, streets and green spaces. Some of the visitors to the Ekka this year would have noticed recent changes to historic buildings and places. These changes signify the start of the $2.9 billion RNA Showgrounds Regeneration Project – the largest brownfield development of its kind in Australia and the biggest urban renewal project in Queensland.
As part of the first stage of the redevelopment, the Industrial Pavilion, a landmark building that until recently housed the hugely popular showbag pavilion, has been transformed into the Royal International Convention Centre – a year-round exhibition and convention venue. The Gatehouse, formerly one of the main ticketing entrances to the showgrounds, has been relocated and is being renovated, while other less significant buildings have been removed entirely. The expansive plaza space that now adjoins the convention centre was designed by Brisbane-based multidisciplinary design studio Lat27 as an extension of the venue and to provide outdoor event space.
Nathalie Ward, Lat27’s landscape architecture director, says the original driver for the plaza was maximizing event space. A considerable constraint was the existing gradient; a concrete slope that “actually fell across the site by 3.5 metres, which is quite significant.” In order to achieve an extensive and useable area, Lat27 created a raised space with a terraced edge that provides seating for events. Terraced steps provide views in the other direction and drop down to a road that facilitates pedestrian circulation within the site and connects it to other parts of the showgrounds. Lat27’s design ensured that water capture and cleaning was integrated into the gardens along the lower edges.
An important consideration for Lat27 was creating an open space that can provide shade and respite from the hustle and bustle of the Ekka and other events. Scattered across older sections of the showgrounds are mature weeping fig trees (Ficus benjamina) that provide prime shaded seating for weary show patrons. Within the plaza, the placement of trees was determined almost to the millimetre by existing constraints such as fire booster cabinets, emergency access and the Dog Pavilion erected each year for the Royal Queensland Dog Show. “In terms of how much shade we could achieve it really was all about getting space on the edges,” says Ward.
Blue quandongs (Elaeocarpus grandis) – large, upright rainforest trees – line the plaza alongside the convention centre. “The idea was to come up with a tree that is very tall, layered and a bit architectural,” explains Ward. “They really do help with the elevation … and they will have a really good shade canopy over time.” Given the convention centre will host interstate and international events, Lat27 pushed strongly for all the trees to be natives of Queensland or the east coast, including hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii), crows ash (Flindersia australis) and the Illawarra flame tree (Brachychiton acerifolius). To ensure that the trees succeed over time and reach reasonable heights, considerable investment went into preparing the ground before planting – large cells were constructed and filled with quality soil.
Trees provide shade for some of the smaller green spaces, which are interspersed along the terraced eastern edge of the plaza adjacent to the planned convention centre cafe. These areas provide seating and help to soften the hard space, and some are also equipped with power and audio-visual capabilities so they can be used as secondary event venues. Design that considers form, fit and functionality is also evident in the striking porte-cochère at the convention centre entrance. The structure provides shade and shelter for visitors and staff arriving and leaving the plaza, and can also accommodate a large stage or screen for outdoor events.
While the plaza is primarily an event and pedestrian space, the surface needed to be highly durable and able to support a heavy vehicle load. Lat27 was also mindful of the surrounding historic buildings. “We didn’t want it to become just a bland-type space,” says Ward. “So we developed a concrete unit brick … a contemporary interpretation where we sampled the old brick to reference the colour and developed something that … looked aged in place.” To further break down the plaza’s harshness and scale, the replica brick pavers are used in conjunction with grey pavers in different areas.
At this year’s Ekka the plaza had its test run, successfully provided a venue for events, and green spaces that were so well used by patrons that some of the newly planted lawn needed to be replaced. Ward explains that for now, the plaza is about supporting the convention centre and introducing the public to the site. Opening up this area to the street, creating much-needed open space and dismantling sections of fencing signal a shift towards encouraging more public use of the showgrounds in the future.
Now that the plaza is complete, the next stage of the RNA Showgrounds Regeneration Project, including residential, commercial and retail redevelopment, is underway. In addition to offering event space, the plaza will provide a pedestrian connection between a new major retail street, the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, and rail and bus infrastructure. At the outset of the project, Lat27 identified opportunities for open space provision in the area and Ward believes the plaza could be linked with green spaces in and around the showgrounds. Extending the role of the plaza and other parts of the site – beyond privatized event space and into community space – might prove to be the biggest challenge facing the redevelopment of the showgrounds.
1 The Queensland Intercolonial Exhibition was cancelled in 1919 when the showgrounds housed isolation wards for patients during an influenza outbreak. It was also cancelled in 1942 during WWII, when troops were stationed there before being mobilized – they slept in the pig and cattle pens.