IN THE BEGINNING
Troppo founders Phil Harris & Adrian Welke’s story...
As architecture students from Australia’s temperate south, where cities have been shaped by British tradition, we were led to believe that the Australian history of architecture turned on the evolution of early Victorian to middle to late Victorian and then to Edwardian styles, always with Georgian and Neoclassical hanging around. And, of course, long live the International Style!
...A history told from a perspective fixed in a temperate and urban experience.
The notion of Australian architectures that responded to diverse Australian environments, resources, and our own Aboriginal heritage, did not find its way into the curriculum back then.
But we did learn about building science – to calculate sun angles, and to understand the properties of materials.
In a break from study, in 1977, together with James Hayter and Justin Hill, we decided to investigate beyond the urban realm, beyond Australia’s recorded architectural history. We were encouraged by Max Freeland’s 1968 words:
“A country’s architecture is a near perfect record of its history. Every building captures in physical form the climate and resources of a country’s geography, and the conditions of its society... Every building explains the time and place in which it was built.”
So we set off in a VW Kombi on a clockwise course around Oz. And, indeed, found a great diversity of approach to shelter-making, a diversity that spoke of Place – of climate, natural resources – and of the settlers’ own creative response to their environment.
They were not driven by ‘style’.
And nowhere did this response produce more abstract, weird and wonderful buildings than in the tropical North. You could live in, around and even under the object known as a house. And the vaguer the division of space within, the more it fitted the needs of climate and the fluctuating numbers of people drifting through. Not only was there little division within, but there was also little division to the outside world.
On a ‘shelter number line’, buildings up North, seemed to fit down at the end where shelter is afforded by a tree.
We wrote about these things in the first history of Australia’s own architecture, “Influences in Regional Architecture”.
After completing studying, in ’79 Phil & Adrian headed back North, to Darwin, population 50,000, on the edge of the Arafura Sea, next stop Indonesia. It’s over 3,000km to another Australian city.
Its whitefella architectural history runs like this...
At first, the town was built from what was locally available – split woven bamboo, local cypress – and also from the lightest materials that could be brought by ship or on camel back – fabric and corrugated iron.
In 1911, the Territory moved from South Australian to Commonwealth control, and senior public servants were granted one of these, the 1st of a series of proudly North Australian houses – houses that ‘breathe’ in the close, tropical air...
In time, timber slat screens gave way to flywire and louvres, and more industrialised wall systems.
World War 2 brought devastation from Japanese bombing raids. But the city regrouped, the tropical house reborn – albeit with a more austere aesthetic – carrying over the basics of simple planning, elevated construction, easily transported lightweight materials, fully open-able walls.
Then on Christmas Eve 1974, Cyclone Tracy flattened the place. The rebirth wasn’t so breathe-easy pretty. Lessons from the past seemed lost...
That’s where we stepped in.
Armed with a Government grant to study the history of tropical housing, 2 bikes and 2 deck chairs, we took the opportunity to also set up practice.
We started with a manifesto, “Punkahs & Pith Helmets: Good Principles of Tropical House Design”. It included an ABCD of how to passively design to achieve comfort in the tropics...
Working at unbelievably cheap rates, for unbelievably brave clients, in a young city on the edge of ancient yet surviving Aboriginal Lands, we created a swag of simple but fun, new-but-old houses.
Our practice began on the back of historical architectural research projects. It has subsequently become steeped in the careful practice of Conservation Architecture across regional Australia – and even the Antarctic!
Today, in all of work, whether formally conserrvation architecture projects or not, we still seek to Learn from the Past.
It’s all about working contextually, deeply
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