AS DARWIN REBUILT ITSELF IN THE WAKE OF DISASTER, ONE ARCHITECTURE FIRM HELPED THE CITY REPAIR ITS DAMAGED RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE.
IN 1974, TWO DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, THE BUREAU OF METEOROLOGY NOTICED SOMETHING INTERESTING IN THE ARAFURA SEA, AROUND 700 KILOMETRES NORTH OF THE AUSTRALIAN MAINLAND.
A cyclone had formed, and was moving slowly in a south-westerly direction. Though it was being monitored closely by authorities, was thought to be of little threat to homes or lives. The Bureau named it ‘Tracy’.
As Tracy neared Bathurst Island, a small community 80 kilometres off the coast of the continent’s top end, it gathered speed and ferocity, and made a 90-degree turn. In doing so it set itself on a full-frontal collision course with the only city even vaguely in its vicinity. Darwin has never been the same since.
Australian writer Xavier Herbert once said that in Darwin “nature looms larger than man”. And never did it loom larger than on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1974. Footage captured after Tracy finally left Australia’s smallest capital city shows bent metal power lines, overturned cars in the driveways of houses that have been reduced to stilts, and a barren and unrecognisable wasteland. As well as ending the lives of 71 people, the storm destroyed
70 per cent of the homes in Darwin.
Three years after Tracy, a group of four young architecture students from Adelaide piled into a Kombi and hit the road. The trip turned out to be more fateful than they could have known. It took them up north, to some of the most remote parts of the continent, and introduced two members of the travelling party, Phil Harris and Adrian Welke, to the place where they would spend the next significant chunk of their lives: Darwin.
Harris, one half of Troppo Architects, remembers Darwin at the time as a city still reeling. “Not all the power cables were up, so you were driving over steel conduits to protect them on the roads”, Harris says. Lush tropical villages once lined with eucalypts, aralias and mango trees were gone, replaced with an empty sort of chaos recognisable only to those who have witnessed the aftermath of a catastrophe so far-reaching. “People lived under floorboards and in makeshift shelters. Evidence of Tracy was all around.”
Such was the destruction of the city after Tracy that there were arguments as to whether or not it should be rebuilt at all. Once these discussions were quelled, the Darwin Reconstruction Commission was set up to plan, coordinate and undertake the task of rebuilding a city from the ground up over the next five years.
The commission excelled in the setting out of new regulatory frameworks that would protect future Territorians from extraordinary weather events, but failed miserably at protecting the rich history of tropical architecture in the region. Houses that were once breezy, louvred, stilted shelters were rebuilt as concrete air-conditioned fortresses: protective barriers against all that could go wrong, and had.
And who could blame the Commission? When an entire city is blown away, doing everything to ensure it never happens again makes sense. But when a project is motivated primarily by fear, things like beauty and quality of life tend to fall by the wayside. It was this void that a young, ambitious and unemployed Harris saw as his duty to fill. “Suddenly the suburbs the people of Darwin were living in were bland heat sinks,” he remembers. “We figured we had to fight a good fight to stop the place going that way.” On the encouragement of his close friend and soon-to-be business partner Adrian Welke, Harris left a recession-hit Adelaide and returned to the Top End. Within a year, the two had left their jobs, hired a small shopfront, and opened Troppo Architects.
Anyone who has spent any time in northern Australia will be familiar with the concept of ‘going troppo’. The saying refers to a change in behaviour that occurs in the build-up to the annual wet season. Scorching temperatures and an oppressive humidity induce a sort of sweaty lunacy in which tempers are short, and energy levels are low.
In choosing this name, Harris and Welke embedded Troppo within a quintessentially Australian style of self-deprecating humour, while also hinting at something much deeper. “It positioned us as being subservient to the climate, and facing it and dealing with it,” says Harris. “It’s a bit hard to explain down south, but your average Territorian would understand the double-edged sword of the meaning. I think philosophically it puts you in a good place to interact with the world.”
Subservience to nature is at the core of how Troppo works. Its willingness to let go of the control that concrete slabs enable differentiated the firm from much of what was being offered in a post-Tracy Darwin. But this approach, delivered by two southerners who weren’t even there for the event itself, took a while to catch on with the locals, in whom the memory of that infamous Christmas Day was still fresh.
Clockwise from top le ft
Gutjangan Outstation School,
East Arnhem Land. Photo: Sue H arper
Phil Harris in Troppo’s
Darwin off ice. Photo: H elen Orr
The Green Can, Karama,
Darwin. Photo: Troppo Architects
As the pair went about establishing their business, they undertook a comprehensive study of Top End housing, and got to work writing, publishing and distributing their practice manifesto, Punkahs and Pith Helmets: Good Principles of Tropical House Design. The document was an aspirational and practical exploration of how to build houses in northern Australia. It begins with a homage to the advanced use of shade and orientation in early examples of Indigenous architecture in the region, and goes on to set out a clear environmental, social and political intent. “At the time we all went to the Workers Club for drinks and music,” Harris remembers. “I’m not a communist by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s something beautiful about the union movement and communism, where people step back and say, ‘Okay, what are our values, what do we stand up for?’ The idea of writing a manifesto was inspired by that side of life – the public good, the social realm, and looking after the environment in which we live.”
As well as setting out the firm’s intention to engage in environmentally and socially responsible practice, it laid down four fundamental architectural principles that would inform the next 37 years of Troppo’s design practice. The principles illustrated that a cyclone-resistant dwelling could still harness cool breezes, remain open to the outside world, be aesthetically appealing, and not cost an arm and a leg.
As Territorians slowly befriended the pair, they began to commission them to design their homes. By 1983 the suburb of Coconut Grove was nicknamed Troppoville by locals, a reference to the five Troppo houses built in short succession in the area. Though many of Troppo’s earlier houses referenced the tropical architecture of the 1930s and 1940s, most were not shackled by notions of tradition. “I hate the idea of room names and things like that,” Harris says. “You can fall asleep anywhere. You can have a bedroom, but it’s quite nice falling asleep on the verandah, under the house, in a hammock. Come on, let’s look back to the 65,000 years of history here and learn from it.”
Harris’s understanding of his insignificant place in the grander scheme of things is one of his defining features. Since the early days in post-Tracy Darwin, Troppo has become a household name in Australian architectural circles. After the Darwin office found its feet, Harris got to work establishing offices all over Australia (he currently spends most of his time in his hometown of Adelaide).
In the years since, Troppo has designed countless iconic buildings, overseen the reconstruction of Mawson’s Hut in Antarctica, and has become one of the most awarded firms in the country, having recently taken out three Australian Institute of Architects awards in one year.
Nearly four decades after founding Troppo in a small shopfront in a cyclone-ravaged Darwin, Harris finds himself back in the firm’s birth city working on a new public museum, the Museum of the Northern Territory. The project – a significant one by any architecture firm’s standard – is just one more notch in a long belt of successes.
But mention anything about Troppo’s lasting impact or unique place in Australian architectural history to Harris and you’ll be laughed at. “Our thoughts have all come from thinking about the history of tropical housing in the Territory,” he says. “We’ve just been a part of that continuum. Historically, getting something to be as good as it can be is what architects have done. That’s my only ambition, to do that well.”
The ‘open verandah’ restaurant floor at
Pee Wee’s at the P oint,
East Point, Darwin.
Photo: Patrick Bingham-Hall