Tropfix was a cross-cultural conference on tropical architecture hosted by the Northern Territory Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects and held over 7 and 8 November 2014. The speakers and work represented various parts Indonesia, Australia, other parts of Southeast Asia and beyond. Presentations were peppered with inspiration and material richness on tropical built environments from tropical Jakarta to subtropical Brisbane. For anyone who wanted to attend, who did attend or who are simply curious, this article reports on two days of dynamic presentations and discussions from the event.
The Australian Institute of Architect’s National President David Karotkin asked early in the conference, ‘How do we and should we respond to climate?’ Whether stated explicitly or not, building fabric and air conditioning were very hot topics on both days. In this conference more than most others, it was easier to be corporeally aware of the ever-present air-conditioning, simultaneously providing relief and disconnecting delegates from the local setting.
Tropfix: Palimpsest – layers of inhabitation
The history of international relations in northern Australia is linked to sea cucumbers. The peoples of the lands now a part of Indonesia and Australia had active international relations well before European settlement. The relations between the Indigenous Australians in the Darwin area (Larrakia and others) and the Makassar people of Sulawesi date back to the 1700s – or even as far back as the 1600s or 1400s some historians argue. The Makkasans came to the Top End to harvest sea cucumber, sometimes with the help of the Larrakia and other indigenous people and there is abundant evidence of this contact.
Each of the speakers in this first segment acknowledged the physical, cultural and historic links between the two modern nations. In addition to retelling the story of the region’s shared past, each speaker also shared their personal experiences. Larrakia elder Bilawara Lee, one of two Indigenous Australian speakers at this architecture conference, spoke of Indigenous Australian paradigms and languages, noting that many Makassan words have been embedded into the region’s Indigenous Australian languages. Bilawara Lee also described her childhood home which had gaps between the floors and walls for cooling – both with airflow and when washed down with water.
Professor Baharuddin Hamzah sampled an ambitiously wide range of topics, from the Bugis-Makassar exchange with the Top End, to the thermal comfort of Indonesian vernacular architecture, to daylighting research. One highlight included a study of Indonesian Toraja buildings evolving over time and the thermal comfort impacts of replacing traditional bamboo roofs with modern day zinc-tin roofs.
Mahditia Paramita, Lawrence Nield and Steve Thorne
A few hundred years after the early exchange, we now have two tropical regions with very similar climates, some similarities in culture and a very different population density. In the segment on tropical urbanisation, NT Government Architect Lawrence Nield suggested that good streets or ‘complete streets’ provide the music of a city; to separate people from the street is to create a ‘toxic’ place. Streets in tropical cities suffer from expanses of asphalt leading to a heat island effect over an already warm, humid city. Encouraging canopy cover over the street and reflective materials for street paving were cited as ways of improving thermal conditions.
Mahditia Paramita presented work by the Housing Resource Centre Indonesia on affordable urban housing projects, including creative ways of managing seasonal flooding and dwelling organisation in these often low-lying or hillside communities.
Steve Thorne of Design Urban in Melbourne presented urban design research from the UK on how people move through cities. He described how the newer street typologies (ie collector roads and freeways which replaced high streets and regional roads respectively) separate people from streets, which then become devoid of street life. From here, he shared a proposed master plan for Darwin and also began to explore what urban design means in the tropics.
Eko Prawoto, Patrick Coulombel, Andrea Nield and Ninotschka Titchkosky
In the segment Tropfix Fabric, Jo Best of Troppo Architects questioned the use of materials like concrete block in tropical climate. She also observed that of our buildings codes appear to be biased toward the ‘air-conditioned Esky’ rather than breathing buildings with fans.
The work of Adi Purnomo of Mamostudio seemed to approach architecture as strategic interventions with an urban-scale impact. Starting with an examination of what’s missing in an urban site context, the Bogor based studio’s work introduces smart moves like rainwater collection pools, green roofs, walls and grass berms into cities that have very limited green space and use vast amounts of electricity for cooling. It is not every day one gets to observe such creative ways of addressing energy use reduction, urban ecology and rainwater harvesting.
Ninotchka Titschkosky of BVN presented a number of large, institutional buildings around Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, many of which explored the brise soleil (or sun shade) as a ‘dissolved’ wall of an outdoor room. Most notable was an auditorium that opened out into a large terrace space, where it appeared that the stage floor doubles as a part of a larger function space.
Adrian Welke and Phil Harris presenting the 2014 Gold Medal AS Hook Address
2014 Gold Medal AS Hook Address
Air conditioning was ever present both in the discussions on buildings and physically in the convention centre venue. The charmingly rebellious exception to the otherwise mechanically cooled conference was Christ Church Cathedral, the venue of the 2014 AS Hook Address entitled ‘From Me to You’ by the 2014 Gold Medalists Adrian Welke and Phil Harris. (The church has very large, well-appreciated ceiling fans.) It was refreshing to hear of AS Hook’s advocacy work in a naturally ventilated, daylit environment. A remarkably inspiring, intelligent and humorous talk.
Eko Prawoto, Carol Marra, Steve Huntingford, Yogi Ferdinand and Yohana Raharjo
Eko Prawato presented his own work, which appears to have found a remarkable balance between architecture and craft. The buildings of Yogyakarta based Eko Prawato Architecture Workshop reflected a deep understanding of the virtues of local craftsmen, local materials and reused materials.
In presenting the work of Sydney based Marrah + Yeh, Carol Marra showed how their buildings reinterpret, rather than simply reproduce, vernacular methods passive cooling, such as by detailing ventilation slots into floors.
Yogi Ferdinand of Jakarta based SHAU architecture + urbanism presented a particularly interesting example of (unbuilt) tropical urban density in a project called Muara Angke Social Housing. This multi-unit housing project consolidates a Jakarta fishing village into mid-rise ‘vertical villages’ with shared courtyards, shared open spaces and roof gardens; these shared open spaces relate to the community’s specific activities and livelihood.
Richard Leplastrier, Tom E Lewis, Tania Dennis, Wendy Djuhara and Clare Martin
Wendy Djuhara opened her talk by sharing that she is part of a minority group – Indonesian female architects. The small projects of djuhara+djuhara included a kindergarten and an elevated house, both of which packed quite a punch. Innovative uses of standard materials and features – ceramic block and an existing parti wall – demonstrated her work’s sensibility and ingenuity toward craft and construction.
In many architectural presentations, the speaker directs the audience’s attention to a place and time other than the present setting. This was not the case when listening to Tania Dennis of Townsville based Insideout Architects and her client Tom E Lewis describe the process of client education and designing the Djakanimba Pavilions. The pavilions in Wugularr (or Beswick) are elevated and designed work in both the tropical dry and wet seasons, where site access can be by car or boat respectively.
Richard Leplastrier closed the this segment of the conference with a beautiful description of the regional wind currents and sail boats that helped the Makassan voyages between the Indonesian archipelago and the Australian northeast coasts.
Eko Prawoto, Patrick Coulombel, Andrea Nield and Ninotschka Titchkosky
Tropfix: Resilient – responding to disaster
Conference creative director Andrea Nield opened this segment by highlighting the tendency of the Torrid Zone (or tropical zone between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn) to experience monsoons, cyclones, flooding and in some cases, earthquakes and tsunamis. Each architect discussed how they have responded to disaster via community engagement.
Co-founder of Architectes de l’Urgence (or Emergency Architects) Patrick Coulombel shared the organisation’s work assessing the post-disaster safety of buildings, the process of reconstruction and where they work around the world.
Eko Prawoto shared his reconstruction efforts from various communities and disasters around Indonesia. He wrapped up his story of awaking the morning after an earthquake to find that his own town of had been flattened. Reconstruction efforts that included himself and around 50 people rebuilt over 100 physical structures in the town in 90 days. He shared many lessons learned from the process of rebuilding in general and for a community of which he is a part.
Ninotschka Titchkosky shared the story the Narbethong Community Hall, Victoria. The process of planning and building the hall was critical to the community’s social and physical recovery from the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, which for the Shire of Murrindindi, took numerous lives and destroyed nearly half of the area, including many dwellings and community facilities.
Out there – social media and architectural discourse to a wider public
Imelda Akmal, editor-in-chief of Archinesia presented research on the different ways that Indonesians architects (and politicians) use social media to connect people across an archipelago of 17,000 islands, over long distances of water and difficult terrain. One architect mentioned – Gede Kresna – managed to attract an international following despite living very remotely. Cameron Bruhn, editorial director of Architecture Media relayed how the less formal channels of social media can be a rich source for leads in traditional forms of media, such as magazine like Architecture Australia.
What could one take away from the the AusIndoArch conference and events?
- There are so many ways of practising architecture. Designing built environments is one way; others include various types of advocacy, teaching, making and researching.
- Interesting architectural projects are not determined by size alone. Small projects can embody interesting and meaningful responses to the urban, environmental and cultural context, depending on the design approach and contributions to place. Large projects are not necessarily more interesting or meaningful or useful simply due to their size.
- Problems not understood holistically cannot be addressed holistically. Thermal comfort in the tropics is not only an engineering or even only an intellectual problem. First and foremost, it is a corporeal issue.
- Inspiration can come from anywhere – our new methods of social media can connect people across distance and time; the important thing is to keep looking, learning and reflecting.
Despite this vast expanse of geography, scale, culture and modes of practice, it seems that it was the balanced use of the hand, head and heart in design which has produced incredibly engaging work – as well as an unbelievably rich conference. This abundance was also reflected in the impeccable organisation of the diverse streams by the very capable conference organisers and events team alike. I look forward to seeing where the conversations take off from here.