Review Peter Skinner
Photography Jon Linkins
… So we must fly a rebel flag, as others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song and join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting o’ those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours if blood should stain the wattle!
“Freedom on the Wallaby”, Henry Lawson, 1891.
In the shoe-wearing states there is not always sufficient respect for Queensland’s role as the cradle of radical politics in Australia.1 Rum rebellions, the Eureka Stockade and women’s suffrage may have begun elsewhere, but it was the Queensland shearers’ strike that led to the establishment here of the world’s first Labor Party in 1891, the first elected Labor parliamentarian in 1892 and the world’s first Labor government in 1899.2 In 1891, Barcaldine was the western terminus of the rail to Rockhampton and the commercial hub of a vast inland pastoral industry. Despite rising wool prices, pastoralists conspired to drive down shearers’ pay rates, triggering strike action in rapidly unionized work camps. At its peak, more than 9,000 shearers were on strike and the government mobilized troops to break the strike and protect non-union shearers. In Barcaldine (current population 1,700) 538 troops plus “special constables” confronted the largest camp of 1,500 unionists. Both sides were armed, and there were brutal confrontations after barns and shearing sheds were burnt down. Nearly 200 strikers were arrested (including six for possessing jumbuck in their tuckerbags) and fourteen union organizers copped three years of hard labour for sedition and conspiracy. Editor William Lane chronicled the strike in the Brisbane Worker and published Lawson’s revolutionary anthem, “Freedom on the Wallaby”, a fortnight after Barcaldine’s first May Day March. The squatters eventually won the 1891 battle through hunger and attrition, but as the 2007 “WorkChoices” election attests, the labour movement has never conceded the industrial war.
The lasting historical marker of the shearers’ strike was the Tree of Knowledge, a huge ghost gum that stood beside the Barcaldine railway station. The railhead was the arrival point for troops and blacklegs, and the tree’s shade was a natural gathering place for strikers. Legend claims that the Australian Labor Party was conceived beneath this tree, though its constitution was clearly signed elsewhere. The Tree of Knowledge’s legend persisted, however, and when the ageing eucalypt was fatally poisoned in 2006 it attained political martyrdom.
Barcaldine Shire initially approached central Queensland architect Brian Hooper to design a small memorial for the preserved remains of the tree. Aware of the national heritage significance of the site, Brian formed a creative association with Brisbane’s m3architecture. Michael Lavery of m3 describes an excited Saturday morning phone call from Brian as the conceptual design ideas came tumbling together. The design team worked at local, state and federal levels to build momentum and enthusiasm for a much more ambitious design landmark.
The landscape around Barcaldine is Euclidean – the earth is a disc, the sky is a bowl and parallel lines converge into acute triangles whose vertices fizzle in heat haze. On this vast plain it is easy to see why monuments tend to geometric solids – pyramids, cubes or hemispherical domes – indivisible forms with a vertical axis that pins the place to our map of the world. And if the monument can decelerate a through-traveller into an overnight occupancy, that’s even better.
When driving to the union town of Barcaldine, home of the Australian Workers Heritage Centre, from the squatters’ town of Longreach (Stockman’s Hall of Fame, Qantas Founders Museum), a tiny black square starts to nudge across the vanishing point of Route 66. Closer, the pixel grows to a cube, a curious Ka’bah-like form crossing the highway. Closer again, a hollowness becomes apparent, the dark mass held above the horizon on eight legs, a burnt-black elevation allowing a few vertical slivers of animating light to appear and disappear in a veiling moiré effect. At eighteen-metres-cubed, the massive monument is wrapped by screens of charred timbers enclosing an array of sixty by sixty vertical timbers, recycled hardwood five-by-fives, suspended in a hanging grid. Orthogonal view lines open avenues to the horizon, with diagonals aligning to a secret second geometry. As in infinitely reflecting mirror cabinets, whether we look up, left or right, we find ourselves pinned at the intersection of insistently receding axes.
The ghost of the giant ghost gum is the central pole, the axis mundi. Its wrinkled, hollowed and patched trunk supports a few forlornly writhing final branches. It was a venerable old life form, near to the end of its days before the poisoning. The preserved remains have been returned to their exact origin. The timber cube shelters and venerates this sacred relic, but also aspires to invoke the living tree as it was in 1891. The architects have triangulated from historical photographs to plot the former branch spread as a negative spatial cast within the cube. Volumes of long-gone boughs are mapped in the billowing domical grids formed by 3,600 hanging timbers, each wooden tip chamfered obliquely into pentagonal leaf forms. The historic tree is rendered as a geometrically precise ghost, hollowed from the vast segmented mass of recycled timber, reanimated by passing breezes and enlivened by the slow movement of the sun.
At night, artificial lighting cranks up the metaphoric reading. The red-ochre pavement has inscribed bearings to the towns from which the strikers came. Uplights at each address illuminate the whitened end chamfers and solidify each canopy dome. The ancient root ball glows in an earth-red underground chamber, preserved for inspection below glass like an embalmed statesman in a mausoleum. Slightly-too-green top lighting through the hanging timbers brings a miraculously reborn tinge to the long-dead timbers, though it is only from down the street that the emerald lighting cloud coheres as a faint but persuasive outline of the phantom tree-in-a-box.
The sensory experience of being within the monument is gently enveloping and strangely calming, despite the phalanx of sharpened timbers overhead. The big sticks swing lazily in the breeze, casting flitting rays and shadows within the reassuringly solid steel frame. The analogy to leaves fluttering in the wind is eerily persuasive. Pendulum movements draw the eye to the high translucent roof from which rods and posts radiate down like sunbeams. Encircling the space is a murmur of deep xylophone tones, the clonk of age-hardened wood on wood. The swaying and softly mumbling wooden crowd draws you into its volume. The fickle play of light, shadow, sound and silence commands quiet reflection and reverie, unexpected sensations within this big, blunt, bush-built, boys’ own monument.
The gnarls on the ghost gum are a true imprint of the harshness of history. Its companion monument of charred and hardened hardwood has a ringing toughness, uncompromised scale and dead-direct detailing exactly appropriate to its duty. The tight rank-and-file array of thousands of man-sized members united to shelter, protect and honour the once-sheltering tree is a powerful visual parable. But it’s the tiny moments, the pretty and fleeting vitality conjured when the timbers rub together, that infuse the whole endeavour with humanity and delight and will bring me back one day.
Peter Skinner is Associate Professor and Director of the Master of Architecture at the University of Queensland.
1. Fairfax columnist Mark Dapin’s tough but fair assessment of podiatric inhibition at high latitudes.
2. Historical notes are drawn from Stuart Svensen, The Shearers’ War: The story of the 1891 Shearers’ Strike. (Carlisle, WA: Hesperian Press, 2008) second edition.
TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, BARCALDINE
Brian Hooper Architect and m3architecture architects in association— project manager Michael Lavery; project architect Brian Hooper, Ben Vielle; graduate designer Helder Pereira, Emma Healy; student designer Angela Winkle.
Barcaldine Regional Council—Rob Chandler.
John Angel, Allen Dwyer.
Bligh Tanner— Paul Callum.
Hawkins Jenkins Ross—Virendra Khatri.
Thomson Kane Hydraulic—Mark Kane.
Gamble McKinnon Green—Ross Gamble.
Philip Chun & Associate — Michael Moran.
Town planning consultant
John Gaskell Planning—John Gaskell.
Gordon Grimwade & Associates— Martin Rowney.
Viney Traffic Engineering—Neil Viney.