The timing was perfect. Cyclone Tracy was a tropical cyclone that devastated the city of Darwin on Christmas Day 1974, destroying 80% of the city’s houses. Soon after, in 1978, young Adelaide architects Phil Harris and Adrian Welke collaborated on the publication of "Influences in Regional Architecture", Australia's first history of architecture outside the urban arena.
In 1980 Troppo Architects started up, using a Northern Territory Government history grant to research the History of Tropical Housing in Australia’s Top End. Soon the practice established offices in Darwin, Townsville, Adelaide, Perth and Byron Bay, and has completed projects overseas as well. In every case, the focus was on landscape, climate and natural resources, especially outside urban areas.
The practice became famous due to a Low Cost House Competition organised by the City of Darwin. Their prototype had to be economical to build, climatically comfortable to live in, easy to extend and limited in its use of energy. Similar criteria have been applied ever since, in remote projects like the Kimberleys, Esperance, far-north South Australia, Alice Springs and far north Queensland.
Green Can house, Darwin
dining room (above) and veranda (below)
Troppo significantly shaped the way citizens in the Northern Territory lived by creating housing that integrated indoor living with the outdoors. Troppo looked back to the houses of the 1920s and 1930s which were a] often elevated, b] designed around the concept of a veranda and c] used lightweight materials. Their first house, Green Can 1983, was a roofed outdoor room! First built as part of a low-cost housing competition, the house used lightweight material like corrugated iron and was elevated to maximise cross-ventilation, making air-conditioning unnecessary. This was a radical departure from the standard Northern Territory architecture which relied on concrete structures to protect against cyclonic weather, and air-conditioning to make the heat bearable.
Troppo Architects wanted to promote a sense of place in each project via an architecture that responded to the tropical climate and a belief in sustainability. Their design projects eg Darwin Entertainment Centre, completed in 1986, showed a simplicity and constraint found in iconic early Australian wool sheds and beach houses.
Troppo houses were built on the idea of the vegetation forming the outside wall of the house. This cooled the house and stopped the full force of the wind. Troppo houses were surrounded by fantastic tropical gardens. The houses incorporated many environmentally sensitive strategies and tropical treatments for passive cooling and ventilation, and there was an on-site sewerage treatment system using worms as composting agent.
Not surprisingly these architects were selected by the Gagudju Community, administrators of the Kakadu National Park, to design park facilities in 1987. Partner Glenn Murcutt won the 2002 Pritziker Prize, seen as the Nobel Prize for architects!
Bluescope gave complete descriptions of Rozak House 2002, a striking house built in steel and glass, perched on a steep ridge in rugged bushland 80 km south of Darwin. The inside out theme of Rozak House showed how to produce comfortable architecture in a hot climate AND how to create a strong affinity with the northern Australian landscape. Linked by decked walkways, two bedroom pavilions leaned to, and made the most of its southern outlook. Twisted corrugated-steel roof planes projected into their surroundings, evoking stretched fabric canopies.
There were no glass windows. Instead they used plywood walls, tallow-wood shutters, and corrugated iron roofing to keep the house open to fresh air, but insulated from intense heat and protected from strong cyclone winds. Wide eaves sheltered the house from the sun, and tubes along the roof expelled hot air and vertical fins directed cooling breezes into the living spaces. Because the house rests on stilts, air circulated underneath and cooled the floor. The owners did not mind a rough look, as long as the residence worked well.
Rozak House, Darwin. 2002
In 2011 four of these professionals were driving to a site, preparing for a competition for a new sustainable tropical city on the mangrove forest edge of Darwin harbour. The two Darwin architects-directors of Troppo, Greg McNamara and Lena Yali, and urban landscape architect Kevin Taylor of Taylor Cullity Lethlean were killed by a huge emergency vehicle, flashing lights and sirens blaring, that was going through a red traffic light. Only Phil Harris survived the crash. What an unbelievable tragedy :(