An “island of culture” for the Gold Coast?


A mock-up of Super Colossal's Island of Culture in the Nerang River

This year, the Gold Coast City Council held a “Master Plan Ideas Competition” to decide what to do with a 16 hectare site in the middle of the growing city. The site is planned to house a new Gold Coast Cultural and Civic Precinct, eventually containing the Council chambers and a swanky new art gallery. The competition aimed to “generate creative new visions”, “stimulate community discussion” and “identify specific design features” for the site.

As the Gold Coast  competition website says, “the 16.5 hectare site is located at 135 Bundall Road and is bordered on three sides by rivers and canals. Formerly a simple rural cane farm, the site is now at the heart of a growing city with views across the skyline of Surfers Paradise, Main Beach and Broadbeach.”

Last week, the Gold Coast Council announced the winner of the competition and its $90,000 prize: Sydney firm Super Colossal, who proposed an entirely new island in the Nerang river for the precinct’s various civic and cultural buildings.

Competition judges praised the winning entry for its creation of open space, its many pedestrian bridges and its defensibility in the face of rising sea-levels. One judge even compared it to “the ancient islands in the Laguna Veneta such as the Isola Murano and Isola San Michele.”

“We think the Gold Coast is one of Australia’’s most interesting cities,” Super Colossal’s Marcus Trimble told me in an email. “Nowhere else do you have close proximity of the ocean, high rise towers, waterfront suburbia, natural and man-made lagoons and industrial buildings.” The young Sydney agency is only a little over two years old, but has already worked on the Australian Peacekeeping Memorial, as well as organising the well-regarded Pecha Kucha slide nights.

“We are also interested in the close proximity of the natural and man made waterways present in the Gold Coast,” Trimble expanded. “What is an appropriate typology of cultural building in a city where every home is a waterfront and where rising water levels present a threat? The idea of the island then comes about from an intention to intensify the activity in a single location while allowing it to sit in the round and not [be] owned by any particular part of the city.”

The “island of culture” idea might strike some as rather ironic in a city known primarily for its natural attractions and lifestyle. But the winning design is also bold and conceptually innovative in a way that might just make other Australian cities sit up and take notice.

Respected Brisbane architect Timothy Hill praised the winning entry, commenting that he thought it was “quintessentially Gold Coast,” quipping that “it’s not pie in the sky, but pie in the water.” He argues that the design has been clever by addressing its location in “strategic rather than decorative sense.”

According to Hill, “rather than doing a scheme or buildings with a styling associated with its place, Super Colossal have addressed it strategically, by proposing to build an island.” He added that it shows “the value of a competition rather than a master plan,” pointing out that this idea would never have got a look in as part of a traditional master plan process.

Mariam Arcilla, a Gold Coast curator and the gallery director of 19 KAREN Contemporary Artspace, disagrees. “Honestly I do not believe the idea of an ‘island of culture’ or one physical precinct will work for our city,” she wrote in an email. “We are not built like Melbourne or Sydney, the Gold Coast landscape is unique – there is no main downtown area or present cultural precinct because the city is long and spread out, and this is why there are many cultural pockets like art centres, artist-run initiatives, galleries and festivals peppered around various suburbs.”

But will it actually happen? Hill calls the idea “eminently sensible” and argues the Gold Coast Council “could start it straight away.” But as the unhappy experience of Sydney’s Barangaroo development shows, the vision of competition-winning architects can quickly get mangled by the machine of local politics.

Even so, Trimble is hopeful. He explains that “the island sits over the water as a luminous representation of the city’s cultural ambition,” and for now, perhaps ambition is just the right word.

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