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Going Troppo

November 17, 2002
Reporter :Catherine Hunter, narrated by Max Cullen
Producer : Catherine Hunter

A home known as the Green Can designed by Troppo Architects"Going Troppo" is a story about two architects who have changed the whole nature of housing in the Top End of Australia.

Adrian Welke and Phil Harris arrived in Darwin in the late 1970s and discovered a city still reeling from the effects of Cyclone Tracy in 1974 when Darwin had all but been wiped out. What they found in the rebuilding of Darwin was an overreaction in the form of concrete bunkers, the so-called "Tracy Trauma" housing.

Calling themselves "Troppo Architects" — a reference to the WWII term of "going troppo" which meant to be "heat-affected" and going crazy — they set about creating an architecture relevant to the tropics. This meant dispensing with the post-cyclone style of housing that relied totally on air-conditioners to make them bearable. Award-winning Australian architect, Glen Murcutt, explains, "... the new regulations really required everybody to produce these concrete bunkers or buildings that were reinforced beyond belief. And the only way to exist, let me say exist, not live, exist in these damn things was to air condition them beyond extinction almost."

A house designed by Troppo ArchitectsInstead, they looked back to the houses of the 1920s and 1930s which were often elevated, and designed around the concept of a veranda and using lightweight materials like corrugated iron. Their first house was built as part of a low-cost housing competition in 1982. Nicknamed the "Green Can" after a popular Victorian beer, VB, it was built at a cost of $34,000 and was essentially a roofed outdoor room which maximised cross-ventilation. Architect Paul Pholeros comments on how controversial they were: "They were accused of building chook sheds, monstrosities, replicas of beer cans. I think they have been accused of everything you can think of, but perhaps that's part of any movement and any change, that it's going to upset some people, but I think the dust settled pretty quickly."

The Green Can was the prototype for a number of Troppo houses that followed. They were mostly built in the suburb of Coconut Grove which soon became known as "Troppoville" (or "Shantytown" by the critics) and tourists came through on bus tours to see the houses. In those days, the suburb was devoid of vegetation but Troppo houses were built on the idea of the vegetation forming the outside wall of the house. This both cools the house and stops the full force of the wind and, these days, the Troppo houses are surrounded by fantastic tropical gardens.

As Troppo architect Adrian Welke explains: "It's a hedonist approach to living in the Top End. It's about making maximum use of a good climate. That's why we live here. We love the place, we love the climate. The place we live in should be a celebration of that."

The Bowali Visitors Centre at Kakadu National Park designed by Troppo Architects  and Glenn MurcuttTroppo Architects first came to public notice in 1992 when they were given a special national architecture award for contributions to architecture in Northern Australia. In 1993 they won their first Robin Boyd award for residential architecture, this for an army barracks, and then in 1994 they won the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for best public building for the Bowali Visitors Centre at Kakadu National Park (this was designed in association with Glenn Murcutt). Paul Pholeros says of the centre: "It sits in that piece of country very well, and it uses the climate of the place very well. It uses very little energy, and it sits there and copes with the many people who come into that place ... it makes them comfortable, and yet it also keeps their eyes looking outward and not just at the cleverness of the building."

And this year, they again scooped the national architecture awards. Troppo's Rozak house — built some 80km outside Darwin for a reclusive computer programmer from America — won both the sustainable architecture award and was a finalist in the Robin Boyd award. One of the judges, Wendy Lewin, described the Rozak house as, "like an umbrella on the one hand and an envelope on the other hand. It's somehow poised between being a beautiful ephemeral structure and someone's permanent digs. It's tantalising. It defies the normal way of describing a house."

Troppo architect Adrian WelkeIn the end, it was beaten by another Troppo design (in collaboration with Bligh Voller Nield) for an army barracks in Townsville. So after more than two decades in the Top End, Troppo has become well and truly recognised for developing a regional architectural practice in Northern Australia.

  • Troppo's website: www.troppo.com.au

  • Further reading: Troppo by Philip Goad, Pesaro Architecture Monographs, 1999.
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