Adelaide’s Festival Centre, designed by South Australian architect John Morphett, is a state icon, appearing in promotional images of the city since 1973 when the centre’s geometric domed Festival Theatre was completed. But this postcard view is set to be radically altered.

The South Australian government has turned to property tycoon Lang Walker to co-finance a massive change to Morphett’s Festival Plaza at a cost of $610 million. The redevelopment will introduce a 24-storey office block to the space that fringes Parliament House and the Plaza; run a two-storey retail space along the rear of Parliament House (which will necessitate the removal of Czech artist Otto Hajek’s unloved and fading 'City Sign' sculpture); and expand the Adelaide Casino and Railway Station building at its northern end.

Morphett, soon to turn 83 [ed: dob is 1 Aug 1932], is keenly interested in the redevelopment proposal but notes that he is yet to be given a detailed overview of the design for the centre. “I’ve got a bit of a problem in that I haven’t seen it - I mean the whole redevelopment,” he says. “But I know in principle what’s happening with the plaza.”

While it might strike some as odd that the architect who designed the Festival Centre is yet to be formally contacted about its redevelopment, Morphett says he has been told that he will get asked his views “at some stage”, and notes that the likely reason he hasn’t been asked yet is that there remain a number of issues that are yet to be resolved.

However, while the proposed new multistorey buildings that will spring up around the redeveloped plaza are currently represented as shadowy blocks on artists’ impressions, they are defined enough to allow Morphett to speak about them.

Perhaps surprisingly, Morphett isn’t opposed to the creation of the proposed 24-storey office tower on the southwestern fringe of the Plaza. “In broad terms, the positioning of the office tower doesn’t look too bad to me,” he says, noting that it would not interfere with his existing design nor cause issues with shadow.

“In principle, I don't object to the need for office towers. They are going to help fund the whole redevelopment of the plaza. It’s been neglected for such a long time and badly needs some funding spent on it,” Morphett says.

“It’s most important that the new buildings are well designed and look good, because it’s a fairly iconic view of Adelaide when you look at it from the north and see the Festival Centre with the city skyline behind it. That view is still on the ABC News every night – has been for the past 40 years. It’s the view of Adelaide. These two towers will change that shape forever, the scale is something that’s going to make them very important on the city skyline.”

But while Morphett is relatively sanguine about the towers, provided they are well conceived, the smaller of the two proposed buildings, the multistorey casino expansion, concerns him because it could impact on his original design for the centre.

“As far as the extensions to the Casino are concerned, that appears to be very close to the Playhouse [a 620-seat Festival Centre venue]. It’s forward quite a long way, over what is now a big hole in the plaza. And without having seen the final designs, I’d say that in principle it might be a bit too close.”

In the mid-’70s, when the plaza was being created, Morphett struck up a close friendship with Czech-German environmental artist Otto Herbert Hajek, who was working on a large sculpture for the plaza space. Morphett travelled to Germany with the artist, visiting the Hajek home. Yet he is not sentimental about the proposed removal of Hajek’s sculpture in the centre’s plaza to make way for a retail space. “Putting shops and activities along behind Parliament House I think would be a good thing. They’re helpful to help activate the plaza. Part of the sculpture was removed when some upgrades to the plaza were done a few years ago [2003-05]. The integrity of the sculpture has already gone.

“So, if it’s going to interfere with what I think will be a good development with shops and activities on that plaza – which badly needs it – I wouldn’t kick up a big fuss about keeping the Hajek.”

Festival Centre Facts

  • Built on time 1973-1977 and on budget: $10 million for the Festival Theatre and $21 million for the entire Festival Centre)
  • The Plaza redevelopment comes with a price tag of $610 million: $180 million of it supplied by the taxpayer, $430 million from property developer Lang Walker.
  • Half of the $180 million from the SA government will be spent on repairing and improving the Festival Centre buildings
  • Work on the Plaza will take 20 months and will be completed by late 2017.
  • A 1500-space car park will be created below the plaza