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Victoria, Australia: Five Years After the Fire

Beyond pop-up cathedrals and emergency homes, architects must realise that their contribution post-disaster is a long-term slog reliant on the support of governments and communities

There are few parts of the world where natural disasters are as routine or as catastrophic as in Australia. One day it’s a biblical downpour flooding an area the size of France in Queensland, the next day Victoria burns in another season of intense dry heat. But even by Australian standards the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 were shocking. 173 lives were lost, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed and damage was calculated at around $4.5 billion. But it was not statistics that drove home the human tragedy, it was the pictures. The charred carcass of a car by the side of a country road. Villages turned to rubble. Mountains smothered in ash. Australia and the world rallied to help with the provision of helicopters, firefighters and a thousand rattled coin boxes.

Architects too rallied to the cause with competitions and design initiatives hastily convened to generate fresh ideas for fire-resistant homes, pre-fabricated homes and template homes. For a moment it seemed like the post-war days, when architects helped countries get back on their feet. Sadly that hope proved illusory. Five years on there is almost nothing to show for that brief yet energetic attempt to make a difference.

Perhaps it is brevity that is at fault. For what seems clear here in Australia as in other post-disaster clean-ups from Louisiana to the Philippines, is that architects have a limited contribution to make in the immediate aftermath. It’s in the long-term task of rebuilding communities, infrastructure and cities, that architecture’s real contribution lies.

For all the generosity and sincerity of spirit, innovative ways to prefabricate off-site, convert shipping containers or do funky things with cardboard tubes do little, other than reaffirm the profession’s object fetish. It’s as if the problem were simply one of how to design the perfect affordable, efficient and inspired structure … If only life were that simple.

That life is more complex is vividly played out in the case of the rural working-class town of Kinglake, one of the epicentres of a fire that at its peak covered a staggering 4,500 square kilometres of Victoria. Kinglake lost over 500 houses and dozens of lives. As with many other fires, it was the result of sparks from faulty power lines, which after years in the legal doldrums finally resulted in an out-of-court settlement worth $500 million AUD; the largest class action settlement in Australian legal history.

Amazingly architect Juliet Moore’s house survived. In the aftermath she and her partner at Edwards Moore Architects were among the first to try to help. Having earlier explored concrete prefabrication, Ben Edwards used his experience to create a ‘regrowth pod’, persuading a local concrete contractor to waive fees.

Pod

A precast concrete reGrowth pod, only one of which was ever used

Designed to be craned into place in one piece, the pod contained the minimum facilities of a dwelling: a kitchen, shower and a single enclosed room. Over time a house could grow around it, remaking a family home bit by bit. Miraculously, the first pod was on site within a few months, delivered to Moore’s neighbours who had lost everything. A competition was launched to demonstrate ways to design homes with the pod at their heart, with award-winning architects keenly responding. Yet the first regrowth pod proved to be the last.

What nobody had predicted was the byzantine maze of state and federal government departments and agencies that rushed in to review, reregulate and roll out the red tape. A monstrous line of acronyms lined up, from VBRRA and FaHCSIA to DoHA, DEEWR and DITRDLG, sucking the life out of any such innovation from the architectural community.

Conspicuously, design had no place in the government’s formal response. It is telling that in an extensive ‘legacy report’ of the lead agency, the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, including chapters such as ‘Redevelopment planning and urban design strategies’ and ‘Reconstruction project delivery and coordination’, the words architecture or even building design do not appear once.

Consequently a new building standard for bushfire prone areas was established called the Bushfire Attack Level (BAL), which assiduously regulated soffit detailing, material selection and glazing protocols, resulting in the proliferation of dull residential vaults. Clearly one place for architectural input in disaster recovery work is right here, consulting on the long-term outcomes of building regulation that determines how and what gets built in the future. But that would require an AIA that government listens to.

Another place where architecture can make a real long-term difference lies in engaging the social processes that help rebuild communities. Here a new police station for fire-ravaged Marysville designed by Kerstin Thompson Architects is notable. Having designed a number of rural police stations, Thompson has become a master in transforming a pedestrian design brief into a sensitively designed and modest piece of civic infrastructure.

Policestation

Marysville Police Station, by Kerstin Thompson Architects, began with consultations with the community and grew into a building they love

Yet here the community was highly antagonistic. A police station next to a new community park seemed poorly colocated, and it followed hot on the heels of a new community hall that many believe was designed for another site altogether, that had been plonked in Marysville as a matter of expedience. So Thompson’s first task was to build trust with the community through a series of community consultation sessions.

As an act of generosity, the client gave part of its land to the park, while Thompson softened the station’s address to the park with a diffused facade of lightweight timber screens, in place of the more usual brick bunker. In plan the station was stretched and aligned to define the street edge on one side and the boundary of the park on another. In place of Brad Pitt’s jaunty objects dropped onto discrete plots on New Orleans’ Lower Ninth, here architecture is embraced as a tool for helping to enable communities and rebuild a local identity. The community now love it.

Importantly, this project proceeded not because of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, but rather despite it. Only once the dithering VBRRA was disbanded two years later could the client fully champion the project and pushed ahead with Thompson’s design.

Here as elsewhere, it is not immediate responses to disaster that make the greatest difference. It’s the long slog, and the understanding that houses alone won’t aid recovery. Communities need to be engaged and governments need to care. Without that, Kerstin Thompson’s new building will remain a lonely exemplar in a sea of default over-regulated and atomised homes.

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