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Built for the bush

A new travelling exhibition explores the role of materials – iron, timber, earth – in vernacular architecture and how these elements contribute to sustainable housing types.

There is a lot to be learnt about sustainable design from vernacular architecture in Australia. As sustainability consultant Chris Reardon says, “Sustainable design is not a recent concept – it is a recently lost one.” Built for the Bush: Green Architecture of Rural Australia is a travelling exhibition developed by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales (HHT). It examines traditional rural architecture in detail and makes suggestions as to how such water-management and energy-efficient strategies can be appropriate for contemporary design. Starting at Shear Outback in Hay, New South Wales, the exhibition will tour regional Australia over the next five years, continually being refreshed and amended during its journey.

The exhibition is organized into five themes: iron, timber, earth, water, and light and air. Each theme is explored through its history, tectonics and contemporary application. Equally as important in the presentation of each theme is how particular materials or design techniques might evoke a genius loci or “spirit of place.” This element of design is inextricably linked to local environmental factors such as climate and water availability; thus sustainability becomes a serious consideration.

The diegetic panels that introduce the iron theme emphasize the way in which material can heighten the experience of place: “The clamour of rain on the iron roof is no longer a deafening din, but one of the valued characteristic sounds of Australia.” Corrugated iron has a long history in the Australian bush and, in contemporary terms, was made famous by the work of Glenn Murcutt. Although it has a high embodied energy due to the large amount of carbon required in its production, iron offers real efficiency over its full life cycle. The panels in the exhibition express the recyclability and adaptability of this material, simultaneously demonstrating the significance of this material to Australian bush culture.

Kalkite House, Snowy Mountains, 2008, by James Stockwell.

Kalkite House, Snowy Mountains, 2008, by James Stockwell.

Image: Patrick Bingham-Hall

Internationally, clichés of Australian architecture are abundant – mainly concerning beautiful objects photographed in serene Australian bush landscapes. However, this exhibition is careful not to succumb to such indulgences. Rather, the images are used to show examples of particular materials or design techniques, with plenty of information concerning the art and science of designing in the bush.

Along with the panels, a twenty-minute video installed as part of the exhibition includes interviews with famous Australian architects such as Glenn Murcutt, Richard Leplastrier, Peter Stutchbury and James Stockwell, who have all designed buildings for rural settings. Notably, the video also includes interviews with do-it-yourself builders and other building designers, which reminds us that this approach is not only used by high-end designers.

The type of sustainability profiled in this exhibition is low-tech when compared to the high-tech version of sustainability often seen in the city. In the contemporary examples shown, age-old principles such as thermal mass, cross-ventilation, shade and solar access are combined with high design to produce elegant houses that are passively heated and cooled. The exhibition suggests that the “responsibility of high-end architecture is to make sustainable design aspirational. High architecture sets the trends that will be adopted by the high-volume sector.” The exhibition catalogue concludes with a convincing call for change, contrasting suburban developments with the designs explored in the exhibition.

Camp, Darwin, date unknown. Iron was used and adapted by Indigenous communities.

Camp, Darwin, date unknown. Iron was used and adapted by Indigenous communities.

Image: Courtesy of the Northern Territory Library, Marie and Lindsay Perry Collection.

Although the themes explored in Built for the Bush: Green Architecture of Rural Australia will be familiar to architects and designers, the exhibition is a thorough exploration of some critical architectural concepts. The simplicity of the rural architecture is appealing, as noted by Philip Cox (from Rude Timber Building of Australia, 1969) on one of the panels regarding timber: “[Rural buildings] were built with an eye solely to their utilitarian purpose … because of this, they frequently succeeded in being outstandingly beautiful.”

It will be interesting to discover how this exhibition grows and changes over its five-year journey around rural NSW. Exhibitions of this type are important initiatives of the Historic Houses Trust, as they take ideas of architectural sustainability out into the public realm and allow further education on the critical issues of today.

Exhibition Built for the Bush: Green Architecture of Rural Australia, a Historic Houses Trust Travelling Exhibition, hht.net.au



Published online: 1 Apr 2010
Words: Katelin Butler
Images: Anthony Browell, Courtesy of the Historic Houses Trust., Courtesy of the Northern Territory Library, Marie and Lindsay Perry Collection., Gail Douglas, Patrick Bingham-Hall, Shannon McGrath


Houses, April 2010

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