November 17, 2002
Reporter :Catherine Hunter, narrated by Max
Producer : Catherine Hunter
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
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
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."
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."
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.
Further reading: Troppo by Philip Goad, Pesaro
Architecture Monographs, 1999.