The response from the architecture community to the Black Saturday devastation of the Victorian towns of Marysville and Kinglake was swift and decisive. Immediate aid was provided in the masterplanning of villages of temporary homes; Monash architecture students built a pavilion and barbeque area in Kinglake and architects were on the ground doing what they could. Later, the Office of the Victorian Government Architect and the AIA enlisted talent from architectural practices to design a suite of homes (Architects Bushfire Homes Service) that comply with the new building code for various Bushfire Attack Levels (BAL). Architects, landscape architects, urban designers, engineers, and planners all put their hands up to donate their skills in rebuilding these small communities of battlers and tree-changers.
In both towns it became clear that despite the cumulative efforts of the professions, what was really required was a facility that was able to act as a ‘one-stop shop’ for construction, financial and social advice to the community – a Rebuilding Advisory Centre (RAC). It was hoped the building would become a beacon for reconstruction, a defiant icon representative of the belief that more than infrastructure could be rebuilt, and that the spirit of the town and its people wasn’t going anywhere.
A right place, right time scenario landed the project with Melbourne practice Bamford-Dash Architecture. As Barbara Bamford recalls, at the time the practice was documenting its first project ‘on laptops in the lounge room’. As she continues, ‘It was purely about “Natural disaster! How can I give?” It’s not something that happens a lot in Victoria, so it’s quite distinct from pro-bono work around an issue such as affordable housing. The extremity of the event gave us a level of comfort in donating our services. What can we do? This is what we can do.’
Bamford-Dash is no green startup with only a couple of renovations on the books – directors Bamford and Jane Dash cut their teeth in some of Australia’s finest architecture practices: Donaldson + Warn, Lyons, McGauran Giannini Soon Architects. Bamford was in a senior position at NH Architecture and Dash had completed an MBA from The University of Melbourne when they decided to move into practice together. Their desire was to engage with architecture on their own terms and build on a discourse that was grounded in ethical and community concerns, but had high quality architectural design as a core fundamental.
The community building has played a vital role in the construction of the Australian town. Be it the local library, post office, maternal health centre or Commonwealth Bank, community buildings have provided amenity, service and are more often than not the only piece of modernism in the high street. In Australia’s nation-building era of the mid-20th century, architects in the government’s Department of Public Works predominantly produced these projects, often around a ‘template’ model, where a core idea is modified to suit each town.
Through this project, Bamford-Dash revitalise the idea of imported public amenity. The RAC, while a template model, settles in each of the sites in Marysville and Kinglake, adjusting slightly to accommodate topography and the sun. ‘We didn’t even know what the sites were until just weeks before they started,’ says Bamford. ‘It really was an alien object arriving in the town that was spun until it fitted. That was the key idea of the triangle form, as it’s easier to get a front on it and it can be appreciated from two directions.’ The building offers a simple collection of spaces that could facilitate a range of programs. The flat edge of the triangle holds a bank of toilets, a row of small rooms for intimate meetings or counselling and a community meeting room. The remainder of the building is a big, flexible volume that can be partitioned as necessary. In its reconstruction phase there are cubicles and desks assembled for distribution of advice and services, with discrete functions in enclosed rooms, all of which can be removed. The narrow, tall end of the wedge opens into a substantial volume filled with light from clerestory windows – this space is occupied by an information desk that doubles as a servery to a small cafe?. Despite the lack of specific site information, the basic passive environmental principles of shading, cross-ventilation and insulation allow the buildings to perform well in their varied climates.
This is not highbrow architecture by any means, but it is thoughtful, economical and ‘fit for purpose’ in this difficult context. The major challenge for the practice was the need to strictly comply with BAL29 in the new code – with a donated labour force and donated materials. The detailing appears as ‘refined vernacular’ in a very particular lineage of Melbourne architecture (Edmond and Corrigan, Shane Murray, NMBW), with attention paid to the things that matter to the performance of the building, rather than its aesthetics. ‘We knew that we had a local contractor for the roofing and walling, and that he would be training local kids on it, so we kept the details as straightforward as possible. The focus then could be on getting the detail right to meet BAL29,’ says Bamford. ‘The local boys did most of the detailing themselves and there are some unusual bits, but we just had to let go.’ This is performance-based architecture, where robust ideas can deal with the occasional oddity resulting from a contractor taking matters into their own hands. The external cladding is mostly Colorbond steel in a rural palette of colours, but the local labour has been faithful to the design in that they have adhered to the graphic triangulations and changes in direction of the cladding. The centres still look like Bamford-Dash buildings. Material expression is limited to the chunky tree trunk screens that define the entrance and the substantial branding on each building, where a large laser cut sign announces the fact that the town isn’t going anywhere.
In both Marysville and Kinglake, replacing the pretty historic main street that now exists only in memory is just the beginning of the task ahead. This project identifies what is important in this context: a clean formal expression and a design idea that is not reliant on complex planning or fussy detailing. Perhaps it points towards a move away from the bespoke, back to good generic buildings that are specific to their condition. Rather than compromising the profession, this approach might result in the re-opening of an entire market for architects. A leaner fee may result in a cleaner idea and a leaner set of documents – and perhaps a shift in focus back to the core agenda of creating a piece of architecture for the community.
Martyn Hook is the Melbourne editor of Architectural Review Australia and associate professor of architecture at RMIT University.