Essay Word Count: 2,740


Sited along North Terrace, the South Australian Health and Research Institute (SAHMRI) has been designed to be strikingly unique in the hope of attracting world leading researchers. However, prior to its completion, its appearance has already been publicly compared to a cheese grater due to its complex façade and metal sunshade system. Does being resembled to a kitchen utensil damage the building’s presence? This paper will determine if the SAHMRI’s attempt at a strikingly unique facade is effective in developing a persuasive language that will attract world leading researchers. The role of semiotics is established in SAHMRI’s potential development as an architectural icon. A semiotic analysis of iconic buildings such as “the Gherkin” in London is applied to the context of the SAHMRI and acts as a pretext to embrace architectural metaphors. The paper examines the unique aesthetic and metaphoric techniques used to enhance the building’s visual experience and significance. However, it is argued that the building’s facade, whilst aesthetically unique, may not represent the scientific purpose and programming of the building. The concept of the facade as a metaphor that communicates to the public is elaborated in Ellen Lupton’s writing “Second Skin: New Design Organics.” The building’s context can be applied to Venturi and Scott-Brown’s decorated shed theorem in “Learning from Las Vegas,” offering a postmodern perspective of design as communication. The paper sets out to establish whether SAHMRI should embrace the notion of becoming Adelaide’s “Giant Cheese Grater” in the quest of becoming an iconic building that will attract new researchers.


The new South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) will be the latest addition along north terrace in Adelaide. It has already become one of the most visually interesting buildings in the city through its unique design. SAHMRI’s hope is that the new building will become a “flagship” for health and medical research in South Australia which will attract new world leading researchers.[1] However its unique design has already been met with both positive and negative reactions. It has been affectionately described it as the “pinecone of north terrace and also been compared to the blue tongue of a lizard as well as a giant metallic cheese grater. This paper sets out to analyse the design of SAHMRI’s as a communicative language and whether it’s unique aesthetics, regardless of looking like a giant cheese grater, has the potential to become an iconic building in Adelaide that will have the influence to attract new attention from researchers as well as the public.


Medical research facilities often follow the design pattern of having functional plans and forms with a modest public interface. It’s quite visible that SAHMRI’s strikingly unique appearance has not followed the conventional form of a medical research facility. Its appearance is a first in terms of design and scale in Adelaide. SAHMRI’s architects explain how the design was a result from its contextual surroundings and programmatic needs.2 Initial concept sketches show the building began as two side-by-side rectangular office blocks which were then rotated to create its current diamond form. Unlike the conventional research facility, SHAMRI has no “back” in which services of the building would be located and the facades of the building has been made to be read from all sides. SAHMRI’s hope is that the building’s strikingly unique aesthetic would attract more researchers from around the world making South Australia the leading state in health and medical research in Australia.3 This suggests that its complex façade system which wraps itself over its structure and creates its unique appearance has been designed to communicate a persuasive language. Whether the design of SAHMRI’s building has the power to influence people is debatable and yet to be determined. Initially one would think that a high paying income would be a more influential factor than a building’s design in attracting world leading researchers.


There is historical precedent for buildings such as SAHMRI to influence and attract people’s attention around the world. Architecture has a history of influencing people’s thoughts and way of life. There is an invisible language that exists between the physical architecture and people. Monumental architecture such as the pyramids of Egypt and the Coliseum in Rome has represented power and a hierarchy among people. Religious buildings such as the Parthenon in Athens and St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City have influenced and reinforced the beliefs of people through the incorporation of religious symbols and imagery within its architecture. Influential buildings such as these continue to attract people’s attention around the world. They are recognised as architectural landmarks for their historical and cultural importance as well as a symbol of human achievements. In the modern era, the advancement of new technology opened up new possibilities for architecture. The Eiffel Tower in Paris was made as a modern symbol during the 19th century, demonstrating the possibilities technology could offer to architecture and the world. SAHMRI’s uniqueness in its design achieved by the complex façade system represents the advancements in the capabilities of technology as well as a symbol of what humans can achieve.  It’s physical appearance and scale grabs public attention through visual stimulation and curiosity over its creation, especially in Adelaide where the city’s architecture consists mostly of square blocked buildings However, the attention from the public is mixed by both positive and negative reactions towards its design.

Figure 1 SAHMRI’s glass facade with its triangular metal sun shade system.

Figure 2 The South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) has been compared to various objects, one of them being a giant metallic cheese grater.


Prior to its completion, the SAHMRI has already been met with various comparisons. One of its architects affectionately describes it as the “pinecone of North Terrace” due to its triangular metal sun shading system that spreads throughout the building’s façade (Figure 1).[2] However, it could be argued that the triangular metal components have given a resemblance that is more apt towards a giant metallic cheese grater (Figure 2) or due to its reflective glass surface, which has given it a consistent blue tint, can be said to resemble a blue tongue of a lizard. Although, mostly likely to be unintentional in their design concept, a building which has been given resemblance towards an unrelated object, even as ordinary as an everyday kitchen utensil, does not damage the presence and perspective of the building. Creating an informal nickname for the SAHMRI building creates a sense of public ownership, like giving a puppy a name a connection is created between a person and the object. There are many precedents of iconic buildings that have nicknames such as London’s Gherkin, Sydney’s Coat Hanger Bridge or Beijing’s Birds Nest. An informal nickname for the SAHMRI building, whether being the cheese grater, pinecone or blue tongue, is a sign of an Adelaide icon being born.


Figure 3 “By featuring 30 St Mary Axe as support for vaulting gymnast Ben Brown, this “Back the Bid” poster suggested that London possessed the expertise and daring to risk public money on hosting the Olympic Games.” Jonathan Massey.


Charles Jencks observes that “to become iconic a building must provide a new and condensed image, be high in figural shape or gestalt, and stand out from the city.”[3] Through design complexity and distinctive features, the SAHMRI building follows Jencks’ observations of an iconic building. The SAHMRI building has contrasted itself from the neighbouring landscape and stands alone from the along the northern Adelaide skyline. This suggests that the intention to design such a unique building was driven so that it could become an icon of Adelaide that would attract global attention. However, Jencks also observes that “to become powerful it must be reminiscent in some ways of unlikely but important metaphors and be a symbol fit to be worshipped, a hard task in a secular society.”[4] In The iconic building is here to stay, 2006, Jencks list recent examples of iconic building including London’s 30 St Mary Axe, better known informally as “the Gherkin,” by Fosters and Partners.[5] The Gherkin has become an iconic symbol for London, being one of the city’s most widely recognized buildings due to its unique features. Its unusual form is a cylinder that tapers inwards at the base and top, where it peaks in a rounded dome. Its physical appearance has been compared to many different objects, including a pine cone, a bullet, a stubby cigar, a pickle, and, of course, a penis. Since its completion in 2004, it has won many local, national and international awards. The building has been recognized for its planning, design, innovation, use of steel and reinterpretation of the skyscraper. Its influence in London as a symbol has become so great it has featured in posters for the bid to host the Olympics (Figure 3). The Sydney Opera House, 1957, by Jorn Utzon is another iconic building which has been remarked for its bold design. Its organic and abstract forms have inspired future architects and artist worldwide.  Since 2007, the Sydney Opera House has become a UNESCO World heritage design. These icons demonstrate how unique designs can translate the importance of a building; they become a powerful symbolism for a city and people. Similar to the Gherkin and Sydney Opera House, the SAHMRI building can be recognized for its distinctive features and reinterpretation of a research facility. Its unique design can represent a rich source of inspiration as well as becoming a powerful iconic symbol for Adelaide.


The idea of nicknaming SAHMRI to an unrelated object based on its unique design indicates that its appearance can be read through metaphors.[6] In The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 1977, the author Charles Jencks categorizes different forms of buildings into various aspects including metaphors.[7] A metaphoric process occurs when intangible or abstract traits transform into physical or visual images. It can be a direct comparison between two or more different unrelated objects. The physical appearance of a building can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the perspective of the individual. The way people choose describe an appearance of an object as a metaphor is closely associated with iconic architecture. In the linguistic discipline authors use metaphors to enhance the images that are being conveyed, making it more creative and interesting. It helps to give a more vivid idea without having to provide a description. This can be interpreted the same when reading the SAHMRI’s design. When using metaphors the visual image of the building’s appearance is enhanced, it can be perceived to be more interesting and exciting. The phrase “Pinecone of North Terrace” suggests the SAHMRI has a natural beauty, an organic form that exists in a precinct with an urban fabric mainly made of concrete blocks. When describing its spikey façade like a giant cheese grater, an image of oversized cheese grater with a giant piece of cheese rubbing against its surface can be imagined. Whichever way people decide to see it, pinecone or cheese grater, reading the appearance of SAHMRI as a metaphor has the ability to add multiple layers of visual experience. It translates deeper in the mind and become more meaningful than a spikey surface.


Figure 4 Does the SHAMRI building need a sign or does the building function as a sign.


Critics have questioned the possible level of content to be derived from abstract forms. This observation is still relevant particularly with SAHMRI. While the building’s visual appearance is aesthetically unique with its abstract form, the level of content it communicates to the public in regards to its scientific purpose can be misleading. How the public recognize the purpose and function of a building can be described by Rudolf Arnheim observation in his writing Symbols in Architecture:

In the cityscape the various shapes of building ass up to a kind of visual language, which provides a different “word” for each kind. To some extent one can tell by simply looking, what kind of building one is facing. Partly this difference in appearance derives from different practical functions, A motel or a hospital cannot look like a fires station or a public library and should not try to. [8]

However, without prior knowledge of the SAHMRI building, it is difficult to know the purpose of the building as it does not conform to the conventional typology of a research facility, let alone any other buildings. Its design efforts to create something so strikingly unique have created an appearance which is ambiguous with the public.  However, it can be observed that conventional designs of a research facility are similar for many other building. Currently most building’s being built can be read very similar, concrete and glass box structures .The building’s most powerful component that communicates to the public is the sign. This raises the question whether SAHMRI will need a sign after its completion to communicate properly to purpose of the building. In Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi emphasizes the importance of buildings which communicates and engages with the public.[9] He observes how signs can be given more importance over the building. In the case of SAHMRI, the need to build a giant sign in order communicates its purpose and ideals suggest that the effort to create such a unique design was pointless (Figure 4). Venturi also observes that sometimes the building can be made into the sign and thus an architectural symbol.[10] The Long Island Duckling is a duck store in the shape of a duck, an example of a building as a sculptural symbol and architectural shelter (Figure 5). However, it is hard to find the obvious connection between SAHMRI’s abstract appearance and its scientific research.

Figure 5 The Big Duck was constructed in the 1930s to help its owner’s duck farming business.

Criticism can be made whether SAHMRI’s hope to attract new researchers can be achieved through the uniqueness of the SAHMRI building’s design. Designing the building with a strikingly unique aesthetic comes with a degree of risk that is greater compared to a conventional building typologies. The SAHMRI building is unusual in form, construction and appearance and by not conforming to the standard building characteristics it draws greater public attention and thus opens itself to more criticism. There is a huge public investment of 200 million dollars to make SAHMRI the centre of scientific research. The complexity of the façade has already pushed back the building’s completion date and required the incorporation of innovative design and construction methods. This questions whether the efforts towards a unique design for the SAHMRI building are worth the risk and investment. Famous buildings has always leveraged of risk in order to become an icon.[11] In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing held a competition to design a new stadium. The stadium designed by Herzog de Meuron was chosen and is widely known as “the Birds Nest.” The erratic and striking design of the Birds Nest proposed numerous challenges in design, management and construction. The attention the design of the stadium received made it one of the focal points of the Beijing Olympic Games. Upon its completion the Birds Nest became a symbolic icon for Beijing, demonstrating that the city’s innovation and determination to host the Olympic Games. Similarly, the SAHMRI building’s design, so complex and bold, is demonstrating that Adelaide possesses the capability and daring risk to spend public money to become a world leader in health and medical research. The building’s design can be read as a symbolic flagship for medical and health researchers.


Klotz Heinrich asserts the need to promote architecture that is aimed towards representation and conveys meaning, emphasizing on the incorporation of historical symbols and ornamentation.[12] However, symbols and ornamentation in contemporary architecture are not prevalent as it was before Modernism.  Unusual abstract forms have become a popular design trend, particularly in contemporary icons.  This is evident in current iconic buildings which often have an oddity in their physical appearance that suggests something organic, an object from nature. Using the environment as a source of inspiration in design has become a growing trend in architecture as it can be universally appreciated. With no historical symbols architecture there is no hidden meanings; there is no history that ties the building to its context. In Architecture after Modernism, Diane Ghirardo documents how the Portland Building, by Michael Graves, was met with criticism over its use of symbols, ornaments, and colours within its context.[13]  Symbols in architecture can be understood through semiotics concerns the relations between the three terms: the sign, the signified and the signifier. In Semiotics, Richard Howells explains that “Briefly, the signifier is something that stands for something else; the ‘signified’ is the idea of the thing it stands for; and the ‘sign’ is the union of the two.”[14] Like words in languages, symbols have been given meaning to things because there’s an agreement that they do. The SAHMRI’s design is free from historical symbols and ornaments; its physical appearance can be read as a neutral object. Its unusual form resembles a body in nature and thus can be universally appreciated and recognised.


In this current epoch, people continue to distinguish architecture through the innovation of new unique designs. The SHAMRI building’s stand out from the rest of the city, its physical appearance visually grabs public attention and creates curiosity. Its form breaks away from conventional building typology and should be recognised for its reinterpretation of a research facility. The building has the potential to become an iconic due to its strikingly unique aesthetics and distinct features that make it look like a various objects. Nicknames such as the pinecone, the blue tongue and the giant cheese grater should be embraced as it represents a good sign of an Adelaide icon being born. Whether its distinctive design possesses the persuasive language to attract new world leading researchers can only be properly determined after its completion. However, the design can still be read as a symbolic flagship, proving Adelaide’s capability to become the head in health and medical research.





List of citations in essay (bibliogrpahy)



·         Arnheim, Rudolf. “Symbols in Architecture.” In The Dynamics of Architectural Form, 69-75. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

  • Broadbent, G, and R and Jencks, C Bunt. Signs, Symbols and Architecture. New York: Wiley, 1980.
  • Byleveld, John. “Why the fuss about SAHMRI’s pinecone.” InDaily, 2013. (accessed November 7, 2013).

  • Comstock, Paul. “An Interview With Architect Charles Jencks.” California Literary Review, 2007. (accessed November 7, 2013).

  • Ghirardo, Diane. “Introduction” in Architecture after Modernism, 28-40. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1996.
  • Heinrich, Klotz. “Architecture as Fiction.” In The History of Postmodern Architecture, 128-142. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988.
  • Howells, Richard. “Semiotics.” In Visual Culture, 94-114. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.
  • Jencks, Charles. “The iconic building is here to stay.” City 10, no. 1 (2006): 3-20.
  • Jencks, Charles. The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, 1984.
  • Mannix, Liam. “SAHMRI’s glass facade a spiky wonder.” InDaily, August 2013. (accessed August 26, 2013)





[1]  (SAHMRI 2013)

[2]  (Mannix 2013)

[3]  (Comstock 2007)

[4]  (Comstock 2007)

[5]  (Jencks, The iconic building is here to stay 2006)

[6]  (Upton 2006)

[7]  (Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture 1984)

[8]  (Arnheim 1977)

[9]  (Venturi 1972)

[10]  (Venturi 1972)

[11]  (Massey 2013)

[12]  (Heinrich 1988)

[13]  (Ghirardo 1988)

[14]  (Howells 2003)

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