The following essay by Architecture Architecture director Michael Roper, was recently published in ‘Water: Curse or Blessing?’ as part of the Aedes exhibition of the same name. It explores the mythology of water in the Australian landscape and presents three Australian architectural propositions by Richard Black, Ross Brewin & Tom Morgan.
The Australian people gather at the ocean’s edge, a great arid landscape burning at their backs. Once the sanctum of an ancient people, Australia is now home to 22 million immigrants, 18 million of whom have barely ventured inland from their newfound shores. They look out towards the distant lands of their ancestors, across the oceans that delivered them. They yearn for home. Not for the homes they have left behind, but for the home they continue to build. Caught in the dream that first spooked their ancestors, they think often of the water’s cool promise – of opportunity and redemption – so they gather at the ocean’s edge, the shimmering red centre burning at their backs.
It is an irony that this vast, flat land, surrounded by many thousands of kilometres of coastline, should offer so little by way of hydration. In fact this is the driest, most arid of all continents. The Australian tastes this irony whenever he plays in the copious waves he cannot drink. It is a saltiness, deposited on the tongue of his famously dry wit.
And yet, while it never rains, (as the expression goes) it pours. For, although Australia is a land of scarcity, it is also a land of abundance, cycling irregularly between years of drought and flood. Again the ocean plays a role, its changing surface temperature invoking those mischievous South American siblings – El Niño and La Niña. He brings the cool ocean currents, a false balm to the accompanying years of drought. She brings the warm currents, and with them the rain. Together they torment the entire eastern seaboard of Australia with their uncertain temperament. Here, where soils are most fertile and the yielding crops are sown, Australian farmers are forever at the mercy of the terrible duo.
Of course, this is nothing new. From the very beginning, earth-bound life has been at the mercy of its water supply, tied to the creeks and rivers that thread the landscape fertile. While some organisms have adapted to survive long periods without – for man, life simply expires within days. No wonder the story of water bears mythical significance in so many cultures. Not least for Australia’s Aboriginal people for whom all life springs from the river’s Rainbow Serpent and the billabong Bunyip haunts the stagnant waters.
THE RESTLESS SHORE
The rivers of the Murray-Darling were once great glistening serpents lying shallow in the semi-arid basin of Australia’s south-east. For months at a time, beneath the baking sun they would shrink into the red earth, showing little more than a trickle for the plants and fish to play. In the absence of freshes, River Red Gums would hold their banks and the Black Box Tree’s their floodplains – patient for a watering. When it came, as it always did, the river would spill its banks, bringing water to the plains, but never leaving empty handed. The growing fingers of the hungry river would scour the forest floor and dip into its billabongs in search of nutrient with which to feed the serpent and its creatures. Only after months of inundation, would the river return to its banks, leaving the floodplains to digest their thirsty fill, carrying with it the season’s sustenance. No more. That was in the time before they dammed her will and leveed her natural course.
The rains that grace the Murray-Darling Basin are owed, in part, to the adjacent chain of mountains – The Great Dividing Range. Rainclouds blow in and across Australia, largely unimpeded by her immense flatness. If not for the scar of mountains stretching the entire length of her east coast, the clouds would rarely lift and the rains would barely fall. Indeed, the Murray-Darling basin would be little more than just another austral dustbowl. Instead, it supports two thirds of Australia’s irrigated land and yields almost half the nation’s agricultural produce.
Despite its fortuitous geography, the ecological health of the Murray-Darling river system has long been under threat. Decades of damming and irrigation have effectively subjugated its condition to the interests of agriculture and urban supply. Reduced to a consistent trickle, its ecology of wetlands and floodplains as well as its fish and migratory bird life no longer benefit from the natural boom and bust cycles of flood and drought on which their health depend. Fortunately this is a problem the Australian Government has identified, now aiming to reinstate healthier river flows by the beginning of 2012.
RMIT Senior Lecturer, Dr. Richard Black, is also on the case. Rather than regulating the Murray Darling with dams, weirs and levee banks, Black advocates we learn to live with the river system and its natural cycles of flood and drought. Referencing the historical precedents of mobile riverside townships, Black’s Tidal Garden embraces the uncertainty of the wild river, rethinking the ways we might inhabit the Murray-Darling floodplain. Drawing on strategies of flexibility and mobility, Tidal Garden is more than just a pragmatic response to the needs of a dying river system, it is a poetic meditation on the transience of nomadic life. Indeed, in Black’s own words, it is evocative of the ‘ways in which Aboriginal people might have inhabited the floodplain’ , he imagines, ‘taking delight in [the] shifting edge between land and water’.
Similarly, just north of Brisbane on the Nerang River, Monash University Lecturer Ross Brewin proposes occupying Australia’s largest floodplain in a manner that embraces the reality of inundation. Acknowledging housing shortages and significant market pressures to develop this inhospitable land, Brewin’s Cararra Lakes scheme proposes the construction of a string of artificial hilltop settlements that remain above the waterline even in the severest of floods. In contrast with nearby floodplain housing developments, Brewin transcends strict pragmatics to provide a model supportive of more nuanced social and environmental agendas.
More than just a response to local geo-climactic conditions, the Carrara Lakes Scheme has broader applications. With rising sea levels posing threat to Australia’s flat, coastal cities, visions such as Brewin’s may well hold the key to the development of Australia’s seaside suburbs.
BELLY OF WATER
Long before Australia was a land of several hundred aboriginal nations, and even longer before it federated its eight modern states and territories, the great antipodean pancake was divided by its twelve major catchment basins – a modest number given its vast area. Gathering run-off from many thousands of tributaries, most of these rivers observe the tradition of emptying themselves into the ocean. Others, more ephemeral, mysteriously vanish into the continent’s arid centre.
This quirk of geography inspired many of the early explorers to go in fruitless search of a Great Inland Sea. Instead of a sea, they found water courses bifurcating into threads of ever-shifting and intertwined rivulets, their precious rivers eventually evaporating from the surface of the hot, flat earth. Not an inland sea, but an endless and barren salt pan – Lake Eyre. Had they arrived at a more fortuitous moment in history, they may have found the salt pan flooded, its sudden algae lending the waters a momentary flush of iridescent pink. As it happens this is very rare, occurring only once every couple of decades.
Little did the early explorers realise, the great inland sea they sought lay just a kilometre or four beneath the soles of their salt-caked boots. Their mystery rivers weren’t merely evaporating, they were also seeping through the pores and fissures of the sandstone bedrock to feed the world’s largest subterranean aquifer – an immense belly of water the size of Libya.
The Great Artesian Basin, as it is now known, is estimated to hold enough fresh water to sustain Australia’s needs for 1500 years or more. In fact, in some parts of Australia, people have been using artesian waters to green their parks and fill their bathtubs for well over a century.
Unfortunately, the artesian ground waters are not accessible to all. As recent government-mandated water restrictions prevented people from cleaning their cars and tending to their farms, the issue of water supply became politically heated, with tensions growing between the needs of agriculture, industry, environmental groups and the great demands of Australia’s urban centres. In response, farmers began trucking-in water at great expense, while the Australian government commenced construction of environmentally questionable desalination plants and a highly controversial pipeline to redirect river water from one catchment area to another.
At times such as these, over-exploiting the artesian water supply is almost too great a temptation. Unfortunately, after a century of mismanagement there are already signs that over-plumbing is diminishing the water pressure that keeps the bore pipes active. In response, The Great Artesian Basin Coordinating Committee, established in 2004, has been working to protect the Basin for use by future generations. Indeed, if Australia wishes to retain this precious resource it should listen carefully to the rumblings of its continental belly.
FIRE BUGS & GUM NUTS
A Gum Nut is a hard one to crack. In evolutionary terms, it has been forged in the fires that have ravaged the Australian bush for millennia. Growing on the Eucalyptus tree, the Gum Nut has evolved to depend upon these drought-induced bushfires for germination – without the heat of flame, the stubborn nut simply will not bare its seed. It is a feature of the bush that the Australian Aboriginal people came to exploit, with tribes in some regions lighting fires to catalyse regrowth and regeneration. Interestingly, by doing so they perpetuated the curious symbiosis that exists between bushland, drought and fire.
In the parched summer months, the Eucalypt drop their tinder-dry leaves, bark and even branches as kindling fuel for the fires of this season or the next. On a hot day, their vapour of highly flammable Eucalyptus oil can be seen as a distant blue haze over the Australian landscape. Indeed, in years of drought, the Eucalypts prime the land for the fires they need.
These days they are just as often lit by fire bugs as by nature’s whim. Of course given enough time they can light themselves – heat builds in the dry ground litter to the point of spontaneous combustion. In the devastating Black Saturday fires of 2009, over four hundred individual fires were ignited by just as many causes: everything from clashing power lines and cigarette butts, to power tools and lightning strikes. Like a revolution, the trigger becomes meaningless – when the time is ripe, the flame alone ignites.
Black Saturday saw the deaths of 173 people along with devastation to livestock, agriculture and dozens of townships. The inferno swept Victorian state at up to 100km/hr, launching fireballs at distant targets, changing tack as swiftly as the fickle wind. No amount of gutter cleaning and back-burning could have prepared the people of Victoria for this ferocious firestorm. In the wake of so many deaths, state government policies have been amended, recommending people evacuate rather than stay to defend their properties. New building codes have also been introduced to protect houses in bushfire prone areas.
Many architects responded by providing affordable, fire-resistant housing solutions to those who had lost everything. One notable solution came from Tom Morgan of Sharkmouse Design. Morgan’s proposal provides victims of fire with a prefabricated corridor module, allowing them to begin reconstruction quickly and without pre-determining the built outcome. The seamless, curvilinear form of the modules is pyro-dynamically designed to minimise ember attack and, best of all, can be fitted with roof-mounted water tanks. During a fire, the tanks release their stores to douse the threatening embers, letting gravity do the work without relying upon fire-vulnerable pumps. Of course water is often scarce when fire strikes – accommodating dedicated water storage is a must. Morgan’s design is an intelligent response, addressing the immediate as well as the long-term needs of Australia’s fire-affected bush residents.
OF LOUTS AND RUDDY DRAINS
There is general consensus the most recent El Niño has come to its belated end, having endured almost three times its normal cycle. At the beginning of 2011 and with due ceremony, La Niña finally marked the end of thirteen hungry years of drought and bushfire, bringing her unmitigated floods to Queensland, New South Wales & Victoria. It was a bittersweet relief for Australian farmers, for whom the glass is never half anything – only ever empty and then overflowing.
Little has changed. When Europeans first settled in Australia they found a landscape that defied expectation. Coursing over dry, featureless plains, they found rivers that come and go with the inexact seasons, found waterways vanishing into thin air, discovered inland seas deep beneath the red earth and then, of course, the trees.
To this day, Australia presents many mysteries and challenges to those who squander her precious resources. Perhaps with time, all Australians will come to understand the ancient ways of their austral home. Indeed, her temperament is as old as the Aboriginal Dreamtime – as old as her arid outback, her torrential floods, relentless droughts, ravaging fires and vast infertile soils. And though these afflictions have become old friends and familiar adversaries, with climate change predicted to bring ever more extreme conditions to the region, the Australian people – their governments, their town planners, their architects – have many more challenges to face.
Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Government http://www.bom.gov.au – Climate Variability & El Nino
Murray–Darling Basin Authority 2010; Guide to the proposed Basin Plan: overview; Murray–Darling Basin Authority, Canberra.
D. Mussared; Living on Floodplains; The Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology and The Murray-Darling Basin Commission; 1997
J. Isaacs; Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History; Lansdowne Press, Sydney; 1980
R. Black & M. Hook; Mobile Landscapes; RMIT University Press, Melbourne; 2006.
R. Cox, A. Barron; Great Artesian Basin Resource Study; Great Artesian Basin Consultative Council; 1998
S. Pyne; Burning Bush. A Fire History of Australia; Allen and Unwin, Sydney; 1991.
Effects of fire on plants and animals: individual level; Fire ecology and management in northern Australia. Tropical Savannas CRC & Bushfire CRC. 2010.
Posted: October 26th, 2011 | Filed under: Architecture, Exhibitions, Journalism, Michael Roper | 1 Comment »