In a remarkable coincidence, Cooktown in far north Queensland has recently acquired two new public buildings with substantial and sophisticated input from two prominent Brisbane architects. For a town of 1,600 people, this seems surprising. Yet it is also symptomatic of the rise in cultural tourism in the nation’s remote (and not so remote) towns and landscapes. Buildings of distinctive, arguably signature, architectural design, are given two tasks: firstly to house their exhibits and show them well, and secondly, by virtue of their design, to market themselves as potential icons of their place.
As a place, Cooktown is indeed unique. Looking out from Grassy Hill, one stands where Captain James Cook surveyed the landscape as he waited for his converted collier, the barque HMS Endeavour, to be repaired. Today, Cooktown lies immediately below, born from a 19th century grid with strange gaps where the locals demolished buildings in the “clean-up” for Queen Elizabeth’s 1970 visit. Beyond, the Endeavour River meanders serpentine-fashion to the ocean. Looking across the river, one sees a landscape mostly unchanged since Cook and his crew took refuge there after striking the Great Barrier Reef and crashing a great hole in their vessel on the evening of 11 June 1770. Cook’s unexpected arrival in this extraordinary landscape lies behind the creation of the James Cook Museum in the town centre and the Art Gallery and Interpretive Centre in the Cooktown Botanic Gardens.
Funded by a $2.3 million federation grant, the National Trust of Queensland has refurbished and expanded the James Cook Museum. Initially co-ordinated by Trust conservation architect Jinx Miles, the project was managed to completion by Nicola Stairmand, Tracey Avery and their team. It was a challenging task. Not only did they oversee the refurbishment of St Mary’s Convent, but they also catalogued, sorted and culled a vast and chaotic collection of 15,000 artefacts. This also involved negotiating the territorial pride that had built up as the community amassed collections that include artefacts of indigenous, maritime, pastoral, Palmer goldfields, Sisters of Mercy, Chinese community, and local social history. The prize of the museum, however, has always been the anchor and one of the six cannons jettisoned as Cook and his crew struggled to free the Endeavour from the reef.
St Mary’s Convent, built in 1889 by the Catholic Church for the Sisters of Mercy, was a major centre for the education of women until World War II. An imposing Gothic Revival brick structure, it was one of a number of ambitious Cooktown buildings designed by Scotsman F. D. G. Stanley for a town that boomed after gold was discovered in 1873.
World War II saw the evacuation of the Sisters and, while the building was returned to them, it was never used again for its original purpose. By 1960, the building, much deteriorated, was to be demolished “as a public safety measure”. After lobbying by Raphael Cilento and others, the Church donated the building to the National Trust in 1969 and since 1970 it has operated as a museum.
The current project restored the building and replaced its roof. Geoff Morton undertook the building conservation work while Stairmand, Avery and their team reconfigured the collection’s curatorial direction, making sense of its complex cultural diversity. In one upstairs gallery, for example, there is a suspended indigenous timber canoe, a mock-up of original fragments of a Chinese joss-house, and, in the corner, a beautifully curved timber lattice screen to the spiral stair leading to the girls’ attic dormitory. At the rear of the building, a large corrugated iron army hut and ramshackle verandah have been replaced by the Endeavour Gallery, a new space designed to display the anchor and the cannon, and to outline the story of Cook and his crew’s seven week stay. The architect for the additions was Rex Addison, selected for his extensive design experience in Papua New Guinea. The result is a fine building that is low maintenance, ecologically sustainable, and eminently suited to Cooktown’s sub-tropical climate.
Addison admired the Stanley building’s predictable Victorian character, its generous dimensions, and the fact that even in a hot climate the old building, elevated above the town, was relatively pleasant to be in. His design strategy was twofold: firstly, that there should be a “reasonable conversation” between old and new; and secondly, that he would enter into the spirit of the Endeavour story, that his building in plan, form, siting, and detail would resonate with imagery of the barque, and thus complement Bill Haycock’s exhibition design. Addison also reinstated his own slatted version of the rear timber verandah. A band of timber flooring with a skylight strip above was inserted between “old” and “new”, and the gallery designed to occupy the footprint of the old tin shed. The height of the addition, with its arched roof, was determined by the need to screen an unattractive church behind the museum. The base of Addison’s corrugated iron-clad building employs the same heritage-listed stone that lines Cooktown’s kerbs.
His additions, modest and carefully scaled, are subtle, not doctrinaire, in their difference.
Inside, Addison’s tactics are more forthright. His interior is lively, tactile, and, in his words, “bristling with signs of occupancy”. Inspired by the Endeavour, Addison teased out the naval metaphor. He began by looking at F. H. Chapman’s Architectura Navalis Mercatoria (1768), a book of 18th century drawings of ships, masts, sails and rigging.
Nautical references abound and, thankfully, these are not cloying but impart richness and meaning. The most striking aspect of Addison’s interior is his “mast” columns, wrapped in rope at their bases and supporting an intricate series of bracing, props, and mechanised punkahs which swing to and fro – even sounding an obligatory creak to evoke the sound of a ship at sea. Aware of the famous punkahs at Brisbane’s Tattersalls Club, Addison’s punkahs – his first – also form part of a strategy of passive environmental control. The masts’ third function is to hold the building down in a cyclone. For me, seats around each mast were the only things missing from these beautifully designed supports. The gallery walls are lined with marine ply, angled to give an echo of the list of a ship under sail. Above the line of this boat-like interior, the brilliant blue walls and ceiling echo the vault of the sky. The outdoor balcony, opening off this space and shaped like a ship’s prow, points to the river as do the boards of the (ship’s) decking. These boards make their way inside the dehumidified glass-enclosed room that contains the Endeavour’s anchor and cannon – the only artificially controlled environment in the building. Elsewhere, the floor is concrete, coloured with red pigment to signify the earth, and broken only by a series of black circles. These circles indicate the fires lit by the Guugu Yimithirr people to warn those upstream which, by chance, also assisted in guiding the Endeavour up Wahalumbaal birri, as the river was then known.
The Endeavour Gallery thus tells two stories, that of the hosts and that of the visitors. All was enriched by consultation with the local Indigenous people and by the accounts of local Senior Elder Eric Deeral, whose hand prints also became part of the exhibition.
Addison’s building is a small yet masterful addition. He practises with the lyrical and expressive touch of a Ralph Erskine, and with the sureness of someone intimate with a place’s climate and materials.
In 1770 Cook’s stranded party had included botanist Joseph Banks, naturalist Daniel Solander, and botanical artist Sydney Parkinson. During this brief interlude they recorded many botanical and fauna specimens, including the “kangaru”. In 1972, inspired by their work, English-born botanical collector, artist and farmer Vera Scarth-Johnson (1912- 1999) began to draw many of the same plants and bequeathed her drawings to the town. Government funding was found for a building to house a permanent exhibition of her drawings as well as an important collection of snakes and reptiles commemorating herpetologist Charles Tanner (1911-1996). Described as “nature’s powerhouse”, Cooktown’s new Art Gallery and Interpretive Centre, designed by Bud Brannigan, is a simple yet robust shed. Clad in corrugated iron and with a thrusting canopy propped off two massive spotted gum posts, the building’s great virtue is its discreet siting between two granite outcrops in the Cooktown Botanical Gardens.Wallabies and bush turkeys wander innocently through the undergrowth and across the two entry approaches from the car park or the gardens and track to Finch Bay. A modest budget determined the simple arrangement of spaces within: two gallery spaces (one temperature controlled), store and workspace, lobby, cafe, and outdoor terrace. Minimal window openings, metal sun baffles, broad eaves, Zincalume-finished Custom Orb ceilings and vinyl floors constitute the elemental palette which in its detail suggests compromise in construction.
While Scarth-Johnson had briefed Brannigan for something “slick”, the building’s austerity is not enough for any special effect. But over time, with the context of the gardens and an emerging sense of curatorial management, the recessive nature of this building will work in its favour.
Given the 2001 RAIA national awards, where similar buildings in Broken Hill and the Pilbara received high commendation, it is clear that the success of architecture resulting from this recent phenomena of cultural tourism and interpretative projects depends in part on local circumstance and the presence of inventive briefs and innovative curatorial practices. Of the two buildings, James Cook Museum has the more challenging curatorial agenda. Addison’s self-described “loose-limbed” additions also sport most poetically with the place, its buildings, its landscape, and its collections, and above all its inimitable climate where the wind is alternately blessed and cursed. In one museum exhibit, a nun dressed in black woollen habit from top to toe, hoping for some brief respite from the unbearable heat, moaned in her diary, “Lord, send a breeze.” In typically laconic fashion, Addison recounts a slogan competition held by local residents to attract visitors to the town which perhaps best summed up this magical place and its seasonal monsoonal blasts: “Come to Cooktown – it’ll blow you away.”
Curator Nicola Stairmand and Tracey Avery
Exhibition designer Bill Haycock
Fire engineer Bassett Consulting Engineers
Funding Commonwealth Government Federation and Cultural Heritage Projects program
Hydraulic engineer Neil Blair and Associates
Mechanical and electrical engineers Bassett Consulting Engineers
Structural engineer Salmon McKeague Partnership
- Site details
Category Commercial / public buildings
- Project Details
National Trust of Queensland
- Bud Brannigan Architects
Auchenflower, Brisbane, Qld, Australia
- Project Team
- Bug Brannigan, Stephen Chandler
Terry Martin, Cairns
Gallery Consultant Cairns Regional Art Gallery
Interpretive designer Bill Carter
Landscape architect Siteplan, Cairns
Project executives Ian McCrae, Cook Shire Council, John McIntyre, Wet Tropics Management Authority
Services engineer Bassett Consulting Engineers
Structural engineer Tod Group Consulting Engineers
- Site details
Category Commercial / public buildings
- Project Details
Published online: 1 Jan 2002
Words: Philip Goad
Architecture Australia, January 2002