2014’s Emerging Architecture Highly Commended: Two monumental sheds in the Australian bush attempt to encapsulate architectureʼs elusive sense of immortality
The temporal nature of architecture is inextricably linked to tectonics. From tensile to deadweight masonry, the question of how something is put together presumes a lifespan. This often brings a third element into play, particularly in countries that were once colonial outposts: occupation. Anchoring a building to the ground by slender steel beams establishes a different attitude to the land than grounding it with stone pillars. In Australia such considerations form an inevitable backdrop to a review of Lune de Sang − two agricultural sheds whose material fabrication speaks more of the timeless aspirations of the museum than the agro-industrial expediency of cheap enclosed volumes.
Before examining these exceptional structures it is necessary to linger on the matter of history, at a time when tectonic construction was not an academic or aesthetic consideration but a necessity. Australia’s early years as a new colony were governed by an extreme paucity of building materials. In the hotter northern parts, necessity morphed into choice, as a lightweight house of timber raised on stumps with a large verandah turned out to be manifestly suited to its subtropical climate. So the Queenslander was born, perhaps Australia’s most original home-grown architectural innovation.
In recognition of this fact a genre of architecture followed its lead, harbouring a deeply national sentiment and freighted with a romantic narrative of shacks, sheds and frugal construction. The bush rhetoric of noble simplicity and rural pragmatism finds it most celebrated expression in the work of Glenn Murcutt, whose ambition to ‘touch the earth lightly’ inspired a generation. Its underlying assumption was that architecture should be recessive in the face of Australia’s magisterial landscape. It married climate responsive design and economical construction with a lyrical reinterpretation of the landscape in built form and disposition of elements.
There is significant craft and eloquence to this architecture, albeit built on an equally crafted construction of Australia’s primordial landscape. For while the outback is fragile and revered for its ancient spirit, much of the work in question is not sited there. It is on the eastern seaboard, which after centuries of settlement has been subject to the terraforming of farming, mining, roads and rail, as well as weed species of flora and fauna that have devastated their indigenous counterparts. Touching the earth lightly may be a poetic idea but is somewhat predicated on the romantic’s chimera of a virgin earth.
The owners of the land on which Lung de Sang is built were under no such illusions. Their part of a hillside within the NSW Northern Rivers region had been farmed for generations, and its native gum trees had all but disappeared, replaced by camphor laurel: a declared noxious weed.
Circumstances took an interesting turn at this point. The clients visited a local noted furniture designer, Tony Kenway, to commission a piece of furniture. But it became clear that the kind of indigenous hardwood they were after was in short supply. While Kenway had previously sourced much of his hardwoods locally, these varieties were drying up, as plantations focus on fast-growing common species. What if they could transform their block into a plantation that grew the timber they wanted? Perhaps this could be a great new business … except for one problem. Most indigenous hardwoods take between 30 and 300 years to mature.
The clients were unfazed and committed to what has become an intergenerational project, hiring Kenway as general manager and planting 200 hardwood trees, most of which are indigenous and perilously rare. When it came to commissioning the first in a suite of new buildings − two sheds − the clients asked for CHROFI to design equally for the long term. Here was a brief to design buildings that should last for centuries and be part of an endeavour that will only hit operational capacity in the next generation. It represented a thrilling and courageous ‘blind commitment’ to the future.
Somewhat inevitably, concrete formed the heart of the design. As with the other materials, it will endure and age gracefully. Combined with glass, timber and stone, the elemental off-form structures of Shed 1 and Shed 2 reveal their source in ancient ruins and natural forms, mediated by a Modernist commitment to composition and spatial order. Here, however, the Modernist dream of technology as the key to a better world is conditioned by a respect for natural systems.
For the viewer experiencing this project through images, it is of the utmost importance to understand the site plan. Photographs tend to objectify architecture as bold shapes against a landscape, which these are. But they are also much more. In considering the wider plan and elevations it is clear that the buildings are also a means to organise the land and to catalyse an experience of it. They project their occupation physically and conceptually, establishing two distinct territories − a landscape of emerging forest before and a landscape of domesticated habitation behind.
Shed 1 needs to provide habitable spaces, being the farm team’s eating quarters as well as workshop. To the extent that either shed has an interior (both replace the traditional prerequisite of four walls with super-scaled moving screens), Shed 1’s is fitted out with polished concrete work surfaces, timber joinery and a monumental stone wall. Its primary structure is composed of a colonnade of slender concrete pillars that meet a series of massive horizontal beams, which tie the structure back to the land. The ensemble appears to hug the land and hold the contained space in its concrete fingers.
CHROFI were fortunate to work with quality builders, whose formwork was immaculately tailored for the job. They found a door consultant who took an existing bi-fold system then pushed it to its limits. Thus an elegantly discreet system allows the shed to be closed at either end when cooling is needed, or wide open for the rest of the year. The stonemason created a long wall that leans back into the land like an ancient Richard Serra, forming the berm that gives the shed its site. The project director John Choi admits that the building became what it now is as the capacities of each party became evident.
Shed 2 has no habitable functions so remains a large open volume for storage. Continuing the serial geometry of Shed 1’s colonnade, Shed 2 features a sequence of 20m long concrete roof beams, each anchored with uncompromising directness into the land, then stretch out over a central longitudinal beam before tapering to a 11m cantilever. A simple steel fence separates this space from the rear retaining walls and berm, while the shed ‘closes’ with two massive timber side screens and a series of front screens that lift on a single pivot to provide maximum unobstructed working space. This moving screen of Australian ironbark hardwood will slowly turn grey and as the name suggests, will likely still be there when the Lune de Sang harvests its first crops.
These sheds take an approach to occupation that moves confidently beyond the myth-making of untouched lands and the now clichéd territory of lightweight shed-chic. There is no going back to a time before the invasion of camphor laurel and cane toads. Rather, what has been initiated is a process of land recovery unapologetically hands-on and transformative. Perhaps most poignantly, however, this is a commitment framed by a lifespan longer than our own.