Throw a rock anywhere this month and you’ll probably hit a pop-up “festival hub”. Despite Adelaide being flush with temporary venues, it’s no mystery why locals still whisper the names “Barrio” and “Lola’s” so excitedly: Adelaide Festival knows you need that extra ingredient for a really smashing festival club.

Enter The Riverbank Palais, the festival’s ambitious new venue for 2017, and one which draws inspiration from an almost-forgotten chapter in Adelaide’s history. Between 1924 and 1929 the Palais de Danse lit up the Torrens − a floating spectacle of pre-Great Depression glamour. That is, until it sank in mysterious circumstances.

But rather than create a nostalgic call back to a bygone era, it’s the innovative spirit of this “Floating Palais” that designer Robert Cousins hopes to channel.

“In some ways it is a homage to the original, [but] it will have its own presence as well, its own identity,” Cousins says. “It needs to be forward-looking as well as looking back.”

Descriptions of the Palais from the time discuss a “sense of the light” – it had electric lighting, which wasn’t all that common – and how “ribbons of coloured light reflected in the water from the Palais itself.”

“This fascination with light is key,” Cousins says. The new building is conceived as a kind of floating lantern. There’s a frame that goes up, with a lightweight fabric skin that’s designed to be lit both from within and without.

With an east-facing stage that makes use of the naturally dazzling backdrop of sunsets over the river, this relationship with light will evolve continuously, night and day.

The Palais is the setting for more than 60 free and ticketed events across the 18 days and nights of Adelaide Festival. The two-storey floating venue will hark back to its origins with a swinging concert by Melbourne big band Andrew Nolte and his Orchestra on opening night. A contemporary music line-up plants the Palais firmly in 2017. It includes international headliners Kurt Vile, Toro Y Moi and Mexican seven-piece Mexrrissey (which does what it says on the tin by putting an upbeat Latin spin on Morrissey hits).

The venue will also house a series of long lunches curated by Gill Minervini of Dark MOFO’s Winter Feast fame, and Duncan Welgemoed (Africola, Lola’s Pergola). Chefs Cheong Liew, Cath Kerry, Christine Manfield, Mark Best, Michael Ryan and Karl Firla will pay tribute to Adelaide’s culinary landscape with a themed menu every weekend of the festival.

Cousins is an Adelaide-born member of the local theatre community whose past collaborators include Belvoir St Theatre and new Adelaide Festival co-director Neil Armfield (Cousins was production designer on Armfield’s film Candy). For him, creating a building from scratch isn’t too far removed from set design. “Having said that,” he says, “We are building something that’s floating on the water, has a capacity of around 800 people and involves a lot more engineering than your average theatre set.”

“I grew up here through festivals by [former festival director] Barrie Kosky, and they created a real throbbing hub there in the middle of Adelaide that followed right through to venues like Barrio and Lola’s Pergola,” says Cousins. It is these venues that really give the festival that strong geographical focus that distils it into the centre of the city, or on the water.

The Riverbank Palais will run from March 2−19.

adelaidefestival.com.au/

This piece first appeared in Broadsheet Adelaide's Autumn print issue.