Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Kakadu National Park - Australia

Before I knew it I had found my way behind the steering wheel of another rental car in another foreign country. As I got used to driving on the wrong side of the road {and it is the wrong side} I hardly ever forgot to stay in the left lane and only once clipped an old lady's shopping cart. Actually the hardest part to get used to was signaling/putting the car in gear with the other hand. Thank god I didn't have a stick shift, getting used to shifting with the left hand and staying on the wrong side of the road would have gotten me barred from the highway and country in a matter of hours. My destination in this hair-brained scheme was one of the largest national parks in Australia, Kakadu National Park of the Top End. 7,700 square miles in area, it is almost half the size of Switzerland. So divide Switzerland in half, take away the lush green mountains and replace them with wild bushland and crocodiles, and you pretty much get the picture. The reasons for going to visit Kakadu were many. It is pretty far off of the beaten path {300km away from Darwin}, has only one paved road running through it, aboriginal owned and maintained, and the location of many stellar works by Glenn Murcutt and Troppo Architects.

There is only one main town in Kakadu, called Jabiru, or as I refer to it, the majestic home of the crocodile Holiday Inn. Just thinking about it now brings a croc tear to my face. That's right, one of the main establishments of this town is a hotel in the shape of a crocodile {the eyes even glow at night}. Sadly though, far being from the exception, the hotel is more of the norm as far as architecture goes in Jabiru. It's the biggest town in Kakadu, with a whopping population of 1500 people and was originally established as a closed settlement for uranium mine workers in the relatively recent year of 1982. Though located deep in the bush, where resources are scarce and limits on consumption should be the name of the game, most all buildings, like the croc hotel, turn a blind eye to the climate and culture surrounding themselves, opting for a massive amount of air conditioners plugged onto trailers to live in. A lot of it is probably to be blamed on the large influx of money from the uranium mining, but that is a tale for another day. What I wanted to establish is that instead of opting for climatically sensitive buildings, the usual solution is to tack on AC units to hermetically sealed containers and block out the environment altogether. Nothing new, nothing earth-shattering, but they provide a striking counterpoint to some of the other more sensitive buildings designed in the area. In all fairness, I should say most of my bitterness is probably left-over from having to spend one sunburned induced day and night in a storage container with a small window and interior faux wood siding.

As I mentioned before, Jabiru and the surrounding camps of Kakadu are located deep in the Australian outback, or bush. In no other country can I think of a population so unceasingly proud of its connection with the untamed outdoors. Similar to the American cowboys of lore, the bushmen of Australia are extremely prideful of their independence and resourcefulness, often spending the nights outdoors under the stars in their portable "swag." They even created a completely Australian term for it, "the bush." In no other country that I know of does this naming take place. In the States, as in other places, we have deserts, mountains, wilderness, but nowhere do we have "the bush." Australians are so connected to their untamed land they have their own terminology and have created a mythology surrounding it. As Eskimos have dozens of names for snow to show their familiarity with it, Australians living in the outback {another created word} have created an environment that is undoubtedly Australian. The husband of a sculptor I met worked a hard life doing work for the mines in the bush, but his chest swelled with pride anytime he had cause to mention how long he was usually in the outback for. "I've been out bush for a week or so, so I haven't had much time to keep up with the news...". Once a bushman, always a bushman. Out of all of the types of people in Australia, I believe this one thing separates them the most. City folk or bush people. To go bush means to be leanly self sufficient, taking as little as possible and still being able to get by. I've been reading the novel "We of the Never Never", which is the 1902 account of a lady from the city living in the rough outback among the bushmen near the area to later be called Kakadu {if you've seen the movie Australia with Nicole Kidman, its basically that plot except done well}. In the book the bushmen are always refereed to as doing the most with the little as possible, echoing the moral of the now popular aboriginal proverb "to touch the earth lightly". It is with these thoughts in mind that I approached the sought after projects in Kakadu...

Per capita, there are an overwhelming number of well done projects in Kakadu. The Bowali Visitor Center by Glenn Murcutt and Troppo, the Mary River Ranger Housing, the bathrooms at Gunlom, and the Bush Bungaloos by Troppo just to name a few. For the blog I'm going to focus on the Mary River Ranger Housing and the Bush Bungaloos b/c I was able to get a much more intimate look at those projects, but make sure to check my flickr page if you want to see more images of the Bowali Center. The ranger housing at Mary River was designed by Troppo Architects to provide living units for some of the rangers working at Kakadu National Park. Being a ranger is an exhaustive experience and usually solitary experience, so many of the rangers are single as well as only stay with the park an average of three years or so before moving on to other parks or opportunities. I was lucky enough to meet one of the rangers, Stephen, at Kakadu and he showed me to a luckily {for me} vacant house that I could explore at my leisure. It was only a matter of minutes before I had my laptop/workstation set up and was rifling through the fridge to sample the juice that the last tenant left at their hopefully recent departure. The structural plan of the house is incredibly simple but allows room for flexibility. An all steel frame is supported on concrete piers to deter termites and raised the house up one storey above the ground. Stephen remarked that he liked that it was raised up b/c it doubled the available floor space that he could use {he also appreciated that you could sit on the toilet, open the door, and have an amazing view of the park, which I would have to agree with him on}. When the torrential downpours came in the wet, he could still relax under the shelter of the house and dart in and out to do various yard work when the rain subsided. When you climb the stairs to the main level of the house, you understand it is segmented in three different zones. You enter onto a screened-in breezeway with the living space to your left and bedrooms to the right. The breezeway is left always open to the outside winds, and can be closed off from the rest of the house by sliding doors {also used for heavy storms} while the living space is cooled by a fan. The bedroom section is partitioned off in the third zone and has minimal air conditioning.

Besides being elevated to capture the prevalent breezes, the house is a thin bar building with operable louvers on both sides to encourage ventilation. Instead of wooden louvers like the old government housing in Darwin {see previous entry} the new standard is glass fins that still allow views when closed and are less expensive than the custom wood construction. For vertical air movement the houses have a double skin corrugated metal roof with an air gap in between. Hidden vents are tucked in the ceiling to draw air up and outwards through rotating circular vents placed at the roof ridge. What I took away most from the Mary River housing project was how Troppo took an existing mentality like the government housing at Darwin and updated it with new materials and technologies while still retaining a similar vocabulary.

Another project by Troppo Architects in Kakadu NP is located in the main town of Jabiru {remember croc hotel?}. Its a series of small rooms called "bush bungalows" that are scattered throughout a lush tropical landscaping a little bit off the main road. Even though the bungalows are very close to each other {I heard many conversations that I was not meant to I think} they are positioned in a way that promotes privacy. The entrances are directed away from each other and the landscaping blocks most all of the views from one room to the next. The design and fabrication of the bungalows is built on the philosophy of fewer materials to do more. A small metal box {4m x 4m} is raised a little less than a meter off of the ground and capped with two different colored canvas roofs with an air gap in between. The interior roof is made of a white plastic feeling material that lets light in and gives the interior a feeling of openness. Outside a tougher perforated black mesh material blocks most of the hot sun and air is again brought out of the structure by a rotary vent connecting the two roofs at the peak. The roof not only lets ambient light in, but shadows of the surrounding trees, bushes, and even occasional lizards exploring the strange white material. You are always made aware of the nature around the room even though you can't always directly see it, though the perforated metal panels that enclose the structure block views from the outside and allow you to see outwards from inside.

At night the reverse is true, with lights on inside the whole box glows and is partially visible to the outside. It looks pretty in a picture, but once you go outside you realize how much people can see to the interior of the bungalow. The metal frame of the room is modular to allow for mass production and very low in size {see picture above}. Besides the perforated metal, plywood panels occur on each wall besides the entry to house the utilities and electrical outlets. All power is able to come directly from below and go straight into the wall without any complicated pipe gymnastics. With an extremely small material palette and uncomplicated construction philosophy the bungalows are able to maintain a very intimate relationship with the surrounding landscape climatically and visually.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Conversation between myself and a friend in Sydney:

Me: “…well, I’m thinking of swinging through Coober Pedy after Alice Springs”
Friend: “You know how far that is right? It’s like half-way to Adelaide”
M: “Is that far?”
F: “It’s almost 700 km!!!”
M: “...So, is that far?”

You would think after driving around more of Norway than most hardened truck drivers I would have a better sense of direction and distances, but sadly the conversation above is fairly typical. Like a raccoon seeing a spoon my eye sometimes wanders too quickly to shiny objects and interesting sounding places. But it also brought to clarity a big snag I had encountered in Australia as well as many other locations. Projects that are remote tend to be, what’s the word, well… far, and Australia is fairly similar size-wise to the continental US, which means large. I was at a crossroads of options on how to get around the Northern Territory and was weighing the pros and cons of transportation. Renting a car, buying a car, hitching a ride, grabbing a bus, or maybe walking really fast were all possibilities on the table. I was almost to the point of wikipeding how to hot wire a car when in blatant desperation I pinned a flyer on the hostel bulletin board looking for a ride to various sought after locations. When I realized how confining to my self-interests that would be, as well as the potential of spending more than 30 minutes with the people that were staying at the hostel already, I took it down faster than it took me to write…

But in ruminating on my situation and perusing different for sale options, I began to become much more aware of the caravan culture in Australia and the Northern Territory in particular. Where a sleek, smooth RV or airstream is not a rarity in the States, car camping is taken to a new level in the Top End. The variety of rigs are as unique as the people that pilot them and most all rental companies advertise packages geared towards families hitting the dusty trail together behind the wheel of a big air conditioned monster with clanking pots and pans in the back. Apollo, Wicked Campers, Top End Rentals, Britz, are just a few of the many companies that offer rentals in large 4wd campers. Beyond the rentals are the pure-bloods, people that have been around the country more times they can count on one hand and have cut, trimmed, and organized their outfit into a lean mean camping machine. Doors fold out, awnings pop open, stove tops appear from thin air and before you know it a family is sitting down at a candlelit table like they were on their personal back porch back home. As additions become more complex, some go topside, having a fold out sleeping area on top of their roof rack which is reached by a ladder and provides better breezes high in the air than I was getting camping in the trenches down below. Other contraptions shoot out from the sides and leave me to gaze longingly at several suddenly materialized screened rooms while slapping flies from my neck.

I finally ended up breaking down and renting a car, a little Toyota Corolla that was probably laughed at the whole drive to Kakadu from the captain's chairs of passing off-roaders. In a strange coincedence of fate I seem to be renting the same car over and over again just in different countries. I don't know if the rental companies have a fetish for small, black hatchbacks but they apparently pawn them off like hotcakes {see photo evidence above}. My next stop on the road, Kakadu National Park, is a large aboriginal owned park right on the border of Arnhem Land about 300 km to the East of Darwin.

Before I hit the dusty trail though, I popped over to a place called Myilly point to see the last of the 1930's government pre-war housing designed by architect B.C.G. Burnett. Of the over 60 different versions that were built in the 30's, only 4 are left standing {due to termites, cyclones, fires etc...} and are all on Myilly point protected by the National Trust organization. They are important for a number of reasons, the biggest for me was that they were the initial inspiration for most all of Troppo Architect's work in the Top End, and one of the big reasons the two young architects of Troppo {Adrian Welke and Phil Harris} decided to move up to Darwin in the 1970's. The government designed houses were listed in different "types", such as B, E, K, and L with sometimes major differences in plan and section. For instance, the aptly named Burnett house is the only one open to the public and is a "Type K" plan, which in this case means an enclosed lower story, while all other types contain open air under stories, raising the building on stilts.

The types are a take on a housing type called the "Queenslander" developed obviously for Queenland, being in a similar climate zone. The houses were raised into the air to get away from reptiles and bugs, as well as take advantage of cross breezes working their way through the surrounding vegetation. To maximize air circulation, the walls are almost entirely covered with louvers and windows, all shrouded in mosquito netting {the surly denial of bugs being a huge deal to both comfort and sanity!}.

Inside the same philosophies of keeping air moving are carried forward. At the expense of acoustical privacy, there are vents next to doors that close and swinging doors that allow breezes to move above and below their partitions. Walls are left open above door height as well to further encourage air circulation. In this manner the whole house can achieve cross ventilation even though several rooms deep. There is no way to really seal the house off from all outside elements, which is probably why I was so drawn to it. Rain is kept out but you are constantly aware of the environment around you and the climate you're a part of. I was there on a hot, muggy Tuesday afternoon and can honestly say I was cool enough inside even without a G&T to "take the edge off". Sure enough though, in proper colonial fashion they had a old bottle of Bombay and two dusty glasses sitting out ready to aid in the dark and glorious days of pre-airconditioning.

Its a shame, but many of the new houses in Darwin have not taken Robert Frost's path, tacking on air conditioners to walls and windows like they will ward off evil spirits. In the years after the disastrous cyclone Tracy in '74, government officials were wary to not have a repeat down the road and overemphasized structural stability over anything as petty as access to light and air. So now lining the streets of the outer reaches of Darwin are concrete block bunkers with less windows and more air-con units. Joe of Troppo architects in Darwin confirmed my fears by outlining more of the housing code typical of the area. The "code" assumes an AC unit in every room right off of the bat, and by a hypocritical twist of fate, actually succeeds in lowering property value of a home if you opt to do with them. I was staying in a hostel that was a poster child of the government's recommended design philosophy in post-cyclone Tracy. A bleak, low slung CMU bar building with noisy dripping AC units freezing the inside of the rooms where outside was sweltering for lack of air movement. Moving back and forth from hot and humid to cold and dry many times a day made me feel light headed with a runny nose. A quote by the venerable Australian architect Glenn Murcutt summed the situation up best when he said:

"...the new regulations really required everybody to produce these concrete bunkers or buildings that were reinforced beyond belief. And the only way to exist, let me say exist, not live, exist in these damn things was to air condition them beyond extinction almost."

Next stop on the journey: Kakadu National Park. I spent about a week there "out bush" without access to internet so more info and pictures to come soon describing the trip. Adventure, Drama, Fast Cars, and Murcutt to come. Stay tuned.

Thoughts on Traveling #26 :

Aussie Golf. No Shirt. No Shoes. No problem. It's like Caddyshack without the formal dress code.