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.


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