The (W)right house

March 27, 2009

Wright Architects’ director Charles Wright designs his own family retreat in far north Queensland, producing a bold home that challenges the typical form of the tropical residence.

The Queensland chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects classifies Port Douglas as Far North Queensland in their regional category of the annual architectural awards program. ‘Far’ is the operative word. Port Douglas is a long way from Brisbane and even further from Melbourne, where I live. It also seems far away because it is an area that attracts tourists not only from the colder climates of southern Australia, but from all over the world. In the minds of those who visit it is seen as an exotic, tropical retreat, and this conception of Far North Queensland influences the style of architecture that is being built in Port Douglas.

Port Douglas is a place where there are resort hotels, complexes of holiday units and restaurants that look like they are intended for the ultimate relaxing holiday: open decks, big opening windows, overhanging roofs, plenty of timber and an abundance of tropical plants. It is this vision of people living and relaxing in the subtropics that seems to dominate conversations about the design of architecture, not just in the far north, but throughout coastal Queensland. One might say that the Queensland House is an idea that has influenced the resolution of an architectural style in northern Australia. It is an idea based upon the accepted view (or myth?) that there is a traditional Queensland house, built in an organic style where the house sits on stilts high above the terrain, has screened verandas, large tin roofs and decorative timber latticework. In reality, there is no uniform style, but rather a collection of interpretations that have as their basis the idea of buildings responding to the weather. In general, the orthodoxy is to make a lightweight house that can easily respond to changes in the weather and capture the cooling effects of any breeze.

“I recall a schoolboy coming home
Through fields of cane
To a house of tin and timber”
The Go-Betweens, Cattle and Cane

The scene that this memorable lyric describes, of timber houses floating above a sea of sugar cane, can still be witnessed firsthand on the drive through the hinterland around Port Douglas. The difference between this memory and Port Douglas as a contemporary resort town is the idea of the Queensland house as an organic response to living in Queensland. The industry of cane growing and the timber house seem inextricably linked in responding to the particularities of the climate and the benefits it makes possible to harvest. The imagery is hauntingly romantic but not exotic. It seems to be about the vicissitudes of living and working in the tropics.

The (W)right house is not in this tradition. It’s about the house as a temporary retreat to enjoy the benefits of a warm climate. The house is located in a gated subdivision of Port Douglas’s Mirage Resort, a place of privilege for those who can come intermittently to relax in the warmth. It was built primarily for a Melbourne family as a holiday and retirement house. This aside, because the house is about resorts, pleasure and recreation, the design of the house is able to question and readdress the stereotype of the tropical Queensland house unencumbered. This it does with alacrity.

As the architect describes in his statement, “The intention was to create a strange attractor, an enigmatic signifier – an extraordinary landmark that doesn’t look like anything identifiable.” One cannot miss this house amongst the others in the compound (and most of the town). It is big, or, more precisely, it has a big roof. The ‘Helicoidal twist’ the architect describes as the generator of the roof form, makes the roof soar to an uncommon height at each end and stretch down over the sides of the house. It’s like a solidified tent, and is vaguely reminiscent of a Papua long house, seeming to want to be native to its place.

The design of the roof is vital to the house for keeping the occupants cool when the weather is hot and humid. The roof acts as shade cloth, while also operating as a thermal chimney to create air movement through the house. This is crucial for evaporative cooling in hot humid weather. The use of an insulated air gap and vent openings in the roof together with its height conspire to make it look massive and somewhat ponderous. The delicacy of its function to generate cooling breezes is probably overshadowed by its visual bulk.

Under the big roof the house is essentially a platform on which the occupants recline in comfort. The architect describes this as “the idea of an outdoor room.” All the rooms open out to the surroundings and the living room and kitchen area has continuous bi-folding doors that are intended to be open when the house is occupied. In keeping with the traditions of the tropical house, the floor is elevated on piers to allow air movement underneath, in this instance, however, the floor is not lightweight but a structural slab, which acts as a heat sink to create coolth. The internal walls are glazed, solid, face brickwork and the joinery and ceilings are clear finished plywood. The honest rawness of the internal materials reminds me more of celebrated modernist Melbourne architecture than of contemporary visions of Queensland architecture. This may reflect the architect’s origins in Melbourne. The outside of the building has quirky timber sun-shading screens that shade semi-private, outdoor spaces and there are shallow pools to aid with evaporative cooling. While the living spaces open out to a luscious tropical garden and a pool, the front of the house is very formal, giving the street address a suburban quality.

Overall the house is unnerving in its cumbersome featurism. While discussing with the architect the problems of building in Far North Queensland the need to cyclone proof new buildings was raised. Local building regulations requiring substantial structural resistance to the forces of the seasonal, tropical cyclones have changed the traditionally delicate embellishments, such as opening lattice screens, into muscular attachments with beefy supports. Many of the more traditional houses in the area have literally disappeared when they could not resist the forces of a cyclone. The architect’s desire for this house to “setup a framework for investigation into progressive tropical architecture in a contemporary context” may not just be an aspiration, but consequent of the forces of commercial, social and climate change forcing a transformation in the architecture of paradise in Far North Queensland.

  • Henry Ward March 1st, 2015 12:51 pm

    Great article, beautiful house in an even more beautiful part of the world!

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