PS 10 0.1 FiFo Architecture

The first Perth Samplings event in AGES was on this week, in the Brass Monkey (quite a neat little space upstairs). It was great to see the event back on and see that the WA Government Architect hasn’t completely abandoned us. (Although since it was the first one since Steve Woodland took over it would have been nice to have a little introduction from him about what his plans are etc…) The subject was FiFo architecture and presented four different views on working up North, including Port Hedland, Karratha, Broome, Kununurra etc. The presenters were Patrick de Villiers, Kieran Wong from CODA, Fiona Hogg from Paradigm and a guy (sorry was too angry to remember his name) from Ashton Raggatt McDougall. Unfortunately, only one proposal, Paradigm’s, actually had any appreciation of the cultural, social and physical context of working in these communities. There were quite a few comments from the presenters which are the kind of things that I think gives architects a bad name. The idea that the sites up there are empty, so the building doesn’t have to have any relationship with the landscape, is really disturbing. No site is ’empty’ and its just lazy not to contemplate the context. I’m pretty sure the idea of an ’empty landscape’ is what got the interloping British into trouble when they arrived in Australia in the first place. It was scary that such little respect was shown to these communities which are real struggling with some big issues of increased population and an uncommitted community which is struggling to engage with the town. Also, the disparaging comments about the locals that all they do is drink and swear just further pushes the barrow that these ‘experts’ have come in from Perth to guide the uncivilised towns-folk. Disappointing…

Patrick de Villliers showed a bit of his research into urban planning issues and how things are not really working in Port Hedland at the moment, particularly South Hedland. He had a fair bit to say and a lot of it made sense – as always there are roadblocks through urban planning decisions and politics. South Hedland was created as a little bit of an experiment with many roundabouts and roads that curl in on themselves, and it quite frankly doesn’t work. So the idea here I suppose is how to rectify some of these issues while still retaining an identify of South Hedland, and not just laying city-style frameworks over the infrastructure that is already there…will be an interesting challenge.

CODA presented two Karratha projects – the Baynton and Bulgarra Community Centres. They made some good points about increasing shade and community access and the ability to use outdoor areas for events. As much as people from ‘down here’ say its too hot and you spend all your time in air-conditioning, there are in fact some great old traditional outdoor events, like the FeNaClING Festival which need better community spaces, so I was happy to see this catered for. Interesting that they didn’t touch on increasing the importance of community and sporting events in these far-North towns. Most of these towns that are suffering through the increase in FiFo workers who don’t financially or socially support the community, need to have spaces where they can encourage social gathering as much as possible (besides the pub!)

Paradigm‘s Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre was inspired and beautiful. The presentation was fantastic too – Fiona explained the process of consultation with the aboriginal client group to achieve a beautifully detailed, environmentally sensitive development to protect and enhance the retention of aboriginal language in the Pilbara. It was great to see her show the sensitivity to the user group and the particular cultural and physical context at the entry to South Hedland. This to me is great architecture – it fits with the place and is about the cultural situation being so full rather than empty.

And so we come to ARM. Now, I’m not really a fan of their recent work, but I’m always willing to hear what people are up to, so I did try to give them a go. But their proposal of the Port Hedland Multi-purpose Recreation Centre was ludicrous. They actually proposed a building to ‘land’ on the empty landscape like a NASA spaceship. It is clad in metal with limited projecting shaded area, that has an applied pattern on its surface that seemingly doesn’t relate to the site, but just ‘looks cool’. The shape and planning doesn’t relate to anything because apparently the site was ’empty’ – there’s no such thing as an empty site! And actually, that site has the government high school right next door, existing sports facilities, a new resort (donger-style) to be built next door – it actually has a fair bit of context. Ad the whole development is bound by a ring road – basically ARM have made a(nother) roundabout, and put all the facilities in the middle of it. Firstly, people in South Hedland hate roundabouts, so why you’d want to build another one I don’t know. Secondly you are mixing kids and cars for the entire perimeter of the building and associated sports oval, including a lovely little children’s playground within metres of the road. Lastly, although the ARM rep insisted that everyone up there drives – what about the kids! Bike riding is actually quite big up there, and since the school is so close by, it would be great to see a development with less emphasis on the car and more on the community advantage that this type of development could have to the local residents. I don’t know how this kind of development gets approval – don’t get me wrong, the building is impressive and has some good concepts internally – I just don’t think its suited to this climatic, visual, social or cultural community. And to me, what is the point of architecture that doesn’t relate to its site?

Oh and finally, what’s with people during question time not actually asking a question but just talking about themselves? I hate that!

Again, this is all just my opinion – feel free to disagree!

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7 thoughts on “PS 10 0.1 FiFo Architecture

  1. I haven’t seen the plan but its great to hear someone prepared to make a statement that the built environment needs to relate to people – especially kids, so many developments completely forget the need for safety and play spaces. Especially in the city where higher density living means there is now less space to play at home.

  2. I thought the ARM project had a very interesting grounding in the visual experience of the place, blurring and mirages and so on. There was also a lot of discussion of site context. Why does “of the site” have to mean “red-brown shed”?

    • Who mentioned a “red-brown shed”? Sheds are not the only way to relate to a country environment – we can definitely do better than that! To me, “of the site” means recognising the culture of the users, understanding their needs, and creating a place that appreciates the physical environment, especially when it is a community centre. I didn’t think it was grounded in the visual experience of the place, as it really looked like it could have been located anywhere – in fact this seemed to be ARM’s purpose – that the building NOT relate to its site, as if it just landed from outer space. Which is fine for them and its obviously working well, its just not my kind of architecture.

  3. Appreciate your blog – it is great to have a discussion on this topic!

    Certainly, one could make criticisms of ARM’s proposal but I think theirs was a genuine attempt at a unique architecture for such a setting. I recall the comment about the site being “empty” and the slide that was displayed at the time, and well, I have to agree that it was! The site seemed spatially vacuous and I understood ARM’s description to be referring to the spatial qualities of the site only.

    Nevertheless, I don’t think that they wanted the building to NOT relate to the site – they clearly made efforts to do the exact opposite. And in any case, there still might be good cause for a “spaceship” type of architecture- we should probably be asking what building in the Pilbara is not a spaceship?

    The graphic of the spaceship landing on mars was, I thought, a case of ARM being intellectually honest about being involved in such a project- remote, untested and with few architectural precedents to work from. And it helps raise questions like that above.

    As for defining interesting spatial environments or “visual experiences” of Hedland/the Pilbara, I thought that ARM made some interesting observations that they obviously worked hard to include in their scheme: Giant salt piles, rock crags, mirages etc, which seemed appropriate in the context of the project and established a powerful architectural language.

    Lastly, I have to agree with your support for Paradigm on their Wangka Maya project which is a real achievement in light of the difficult circumstances within Hedland and the fact that they worked with a private client.

    • Thanks for your input reditor. I appreciate a lot of people really liked the ARM project, and what it stands for. I guess I have a few issues actually knowing the site and the town, and I didn’t really appreciate the “city people come in and fix the uncivilised country people’s town” sort of attitude – but maybe that is just a chip on my shoulder! The slide that he showed for “empty” was not the site, or if it was he used a very selective view of it, if he turned 180 degrees you would see how close other buildings and facilities are. (Check out the site on Google Earth.) I understand they used metaphoric references, for example the mirage, which is certainly very prevalent up there. I just found it disappointing that they didn’t choose to use social/cultural and physical (climatic) references to shape the design as well.

      I would like to add how fantastic is was to actually have the forum for this discussion! I really really hope the GA runs these events more often (I think it used to be every two months?) as it is great to have the ability to hear about these projects and get more insight into our profession.

  4. hi – just a note about our work – CODA is engaged in several communities in the North West – we see this as an important aspect of our practice. I have spent a lot of time in the west and east Kimberley working with local communities including indigenous groups (both TO’s and others) to develop better housing and community facilities for clients such as local shires. Landcorp and aboriginal corporations.

    I think it unfair to label the lack of discussion about the role of sporting in communities in my talk – the very reason we wanted and won this project is our demonstrated commitment to local community facility growth, and the understanding that night sports in these communities is a key ‘glue’ binding the locals together. The projects themselves and the Shire’s aspirations are to “increase the importance of community and sporting events in these far-North towns”

    CODA are presently working on a sporting master-plan for the Shire of Wyndham and East Kimberley to strategically plan for better sporting and recreational facilities. The title of the talk was FiFo Architecture, and our work is really about how the local Shire is attempting to cement the place of Karratha as a town in which to settle, have a family and make a place for oneself in the community.

    I like your blog – having been emailed the link today by one of our staff – I applaud the conversation, and I’ll be checking in regularly. I am curious though that you don’t give us your identity – conversations in Perth have always been a little stifled by concerns over the small town syndrome. This can happen in big cities too – take the current AA coverage of Barangaroo….hmmm, perhaps a chance at a mature conversation is still a ways off….

    Cheers
    Kieran Wong
    Director, CODA

    • Thanks Kieran, some good points there. Firstly, let me say I am a huge CODA fan, not just in terms of architecture but also what appears to be your philosophies of creating a better environment (like the pro-bono work involved in the Horse Barn) and I respect the work you are doing up north. I appreciate many of the elements of working in these communities is difficult, and I think you had a good appreciation of important concerns for the local social context. I actually took quite a few days to cool off before writing something, so may have been a bit biased. And I was also struggling with the concept of FiFo architecture too, especially as the FiFo culture has done such damage to many communities. Thanks for your comments and I am glad you’ve found my little blog of interest.

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