Construction has begun on a significant upgrade to the Port Arthur Visitor Centre, which sits within the World Heritage-listed Port Arthur Historic Site.
There has been little work done to the site’s tourism building facilities since the visitor centre opened in March 1999. The existing structure, designed by Philp Lighton with Daryl Jackson, was the recipient of the New Public Buildings Award at the 1999 Tasmania Architecture Awards.
Hobart-based practice Rosevear Stephenson was chosen for the redevelopment following a competitive tender established to deal with the ever-growing number of visitors to the site. A statement released by Port Arthur Historic Sites Authority (PAHSMA) at the time noted that, “While the current visitor centre has served us admirably, the infrastructure is stretched and the staff facilities outgrown. Perhaps most importantly the visitor experience during the peak period is diminished, primarily due to a building that no longer meets its key functions as the site’s arrival, entry and exit points, retail facility and food service outlet.”
A period of “broad” consultation has resulted in a design that retains elements of the existing building, and which emphasises visitors’ “emotional encounter” with Port Arthur. According to a design statement from Rosevear Stephenson, “The ambition of the building is to emphasize [sic] the emotional encounter with Port Arthur, and as such the building itself aims to be calm and restrained in its expression, be clear about its position in time, provide orientation and surveillance, and be in proud service to the site.”
The new building will act as a southern extension of the existing visitor centre; a “grand and more legible connection” between the centre’s entrance and the site’s access point. Draft renders of the design reveal a low-lying structure of charcoal-black brick, punctuated with extensive window panels that bring extensive light into the internal configuration of open spaces. The rationale for the interior is to “declutter”, so as not to distract from the purpose of the visit.
Grant funding provided by the federal government in 2015 supported the masterplanning process for the project. PAHSMA adopted their preferred design in April 2016, based on an intended lifecycle of 15 to 20 years.
Due to the site’s World Heritage listing, “considerable” modelling was conducted, in addition to a detailed Heritage Impact Assessment carried out by Mackay Strategic. Both of these addressed all relevant local and national heritage legislation.
Construction on the upgraded Port Arthur Visitor Centre is expected to be complete in time for the summer tourist season. In the meantime, tourist activities – such as the Friday night ghost tour – will continue as per usual.