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Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens Tropical Centre’s last days

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

April 3, 2015
Can you see it? Sydney's new 'SHDA'

Can you see it? Sydney’s new ‘SHDA’

Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens is gearing up for its 200th birthday next year and it’s going to be HUGE. Think everything from flower-shaped fireworks on NYE through to an artwork to rival Christo’s wrapping of Little Bay on to a new horticultural display centre opening in June 2016. Yes, the old Tropical Centre is about to bite the dust.

Sydney Tropical Centre before demolition

Inside the pyramid of Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney Tropical Centre before demolition

First up, the RBG is farewelling that well-known glasshouse pyramid, the old Tropical Centre. Closed to visitors for the past couple of years because of soaring maintenance costs, an ambitious plan will see a new horticultural display centre started on the site this week, and ready to open for next year’s 200th birthday June 2016 celebrations.

Ken Woolley designed 'Arc' glasshouse

Ken Woolley designed ‘Arc’ glasshouse

The Tropical Centre I saw this week looked wondrously post-apocalyptic, with weeds and neglected vines taking over some of the structure. The new centre design looks very schmick and much more practical.

Designed by architects PTW, it incorporates the original Ken Woolley designed ‘Arc’ glasshouse structure at its back, fronted by a new extended glasshouse area, classrooms, and an open circular space enclosed by towering steel ‘ribs’.

Sydney RBG new 'SHDA'

Sydney RBG new ‘SHDA’

RBG horticulture manager Jimmy Turner is very excited at these new display opportunities, as better temperature and humidity control mechanisms will make it possible to show a much wider range of different climate-restricted species (not just hot tropical) and in more enticing thematic displays than a simple parade of plants. So although it’s been called a ‘biome’ up until now, it won’t function as one. The old pyramid being demolished looked good on the outside but, internally, greatly restricted the height of plants it could display, and was always hot and very humid. An ancillary large new glasshouse funded by the RBG Foundation and Friends will provide a place to propagate, grow and house specimens to be used in the displays.

It’s an impressive design with no official name yet, only a tongue-in-cheek clunky working title of ‘Sydney Horticultural Display Attraction’ or SHDA. RBG director Kim Ellis says “it’s all about the botany and the horticulture”, although there’s an obvious ability to also accommodate new commercial opportunities, like more weddings and events inside this new facility. Should that make us uneasy?

I remember the wonder of seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed in the Gardens many years ago and how it turned my then young children on to Shakespeare in a way that no other site could have. And the two weddings I’ve attended in the Gardens and what beautiful events they were. It’s one of those situations where its great for the event attendees, but can it spoil the experience of other gardens visitors? Having them inside this new SHDA, I think probably much less so, which makes it A Good Thing.

What the Gardens are hoping for is that every tourist visiting Sydney will want to see this all singing and dancing new pay-for-entry SHDA. As the free-entry RBG is already one of Sydney’s (and Australia’s) top tourist attractions, that’s a perfect way to bring much-needed dollars into the RBG’s budget. Although maybe it could do a MONA, and have free entry for local Sydneysiders?

And if we could have the proposed new hotel and public roof garden over that horrible Domain carpark, then the RBG could really get in some serious dollars for science and horticulture.

[Note – The RBG has extensively documented the old Tropical Centre before its demolition for NSW Environment and Heritage]

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