Go­ing troppo

Smith Journal - - Opinion - Writer Oliver Gor­don



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.”

This page

The ‘open ve­ran­dah’ res­tau­rant floor at

Pee Wee’s at the P oint,

East Point, Dar­win.

Photo: Patrick Bing­ham-Hall

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