Burnett House: Still cool in Darwin after 80 years

Art+ Architecture


As the tropical city of Darwin faces a very hot future, local artist Koulla Roussos reflects on the lost architectural heritage of her home town.

The atmosphere of dread in Darwin is obvious. Solitary figures move along empty streets with heavy inertia. Population growth has stalled. Except during lunch hour, the city is empty of people, while a mutated form of urban decay peels away the city’s veneer. Some businesses persevere, others have called it quits. ‘For Lease’ or ‘For Sale’ signs accentuate the gloom.

Darwin city skyline, view from Frances Bay Marina. Photo: Koulla Roussos.

The history, architecture and public planning of Darwin have become subject matter worthy of scrutiny and critique. With exhibitions such D.evolution and Origin of A City, 2015, my ongoing TaNTrum intervention, COnCREte, 2016, and more recently an Instagram virtual exhibition of empty buildings in Darwin, I have turned my gaze on my surroundings to understand the swirling forces making their impact on my home town.

Darwin is a young city. Although the port was named after Charles Darwin in 1839, it was not until 1869 that George Goyder, the Surveyor General of South Australia, established a small settlement of 135 men and women at Port Darwin in the Township of Palmerston. It is on ‘Goyder’s Grid’ that Darwin city continues to be demarcated from suburbia.

Now, almost 150 years after settlement, it is near impossible to meaningfully connect to the city through its buildings.

The few historical sandstone buildings that survived the Japanese bombings in WWII are not sufficient to provide an architectural vernacular. Instead, a mismatched patchwork of ugly residential towers has defaced the city skyline. Compounding this dystopian malaise is a growing pool of decrepit empty buildings rotting away.

Koulla Roussos, Empty Shed, McMinn St, Feb 2018, iPhone 7 photo.

On the periphery of the CBD, one can get a glimpse of what Darwin looked like in the 1930s. In the period 1936-1942, just before Darwin was evacuated, over 100 homes were built which were designed by Beni Carr Glynn Burnett (1889-1955). Now they are the last of their kind and are prime examples of pre-World War II Darwin architecture from a time when there was leadership, vision and expertise. Screened behind a thick curtain of tropical green, four majestic old houses make up the Myilly Point heritage precinct. One of these is Burnett House, designed by BCG Burnett in 1938 and built by local builder George Kafcaloudes. According to architect and historian David Bridgman, whose extensive academic research has informed my own reflections, Burnett House, an example of the architect’s ‘type K,’ is one of the best Anglo-Asian inspired bungalows.

On the 80th anniversary of Burnett House, I took the opportunity to reflect on history. I do this to connect to a city where memories quickly disappear, to connect to a place defaced by the globalised forces vandalising identities across the world.

Burnett House, Darwin, designed by BCG Burnett in 1938 and built by local builder George Kafcaloudes. Photographed in 2018 by Koulla Roussos.

The priority of the Commonwealth Government in the 1930s was to accommodate the burgeoning military and civilian administration personnel. The city struggled to surpass its far flung colonial outpost status, and the shortage of appropriate housing was a constant theme. The sleepy colonial town of Darwin also became the first port of call for all overseas passengers arriving by air. A tropical cyclone struck the town on 10 March 1937. The Commonwealth embarked on a large building effort, and sought to further Australia’s international ambitions, by presenting Darwin to overseas visitors in the best possible light.

To understand the introduction of the Anglo-Australian bungalow in Darwin, we must comprehend the utopian vision of Canberra-politicians at the time. These post 1937 buildings represented a successful attempt to create a domestic sphere that reflected the imperial ambitions of the Commonwealth Government to develop Darwin as an ideal tropical city.

Type K residence, working drawings. Northern Territory Archives Service, Department of Transport & Works, NTRS 73, Building Plans c.1936-1977, plan 406. Image reprinted with permission from the Northern Territory Archive Service.

My journey through Darwin’s architectural history is not a eulogy for a bygone era. Darwin in the 1930s was a town with strict class and racial stratification. Arguably, it still is. These houses were constructed for elite Commonwealth senior public servants. The Chinese population was largely confined to Cavanagh Street. The working class lived wherever they could afford, while the poor inhabited the outskirts of the city. The local Aboriginal population, administered under the policy of forced removal, was locked inside the Kahlin Compound at night, or at Parap Camp further from town. By 1938, the compound was demolished, its residents moved to Bagot Reserve.

The architectural ambition however, as seen in Burnett House, was of the highest order, developed out of a respect for regional considerations suited to the tropical weather of Darwin.

Burnett was one of the principal architects employed by the Commonwealth to achieve this mission. The son of English and Welsh missionaries he was born in China and educated at the China Inland Mission School in Chefoo. He began work with the architectural firm Smedly and Denham in Shanghai, followed by work experience in Singapore, China and Japan. He arrived in Australia in 1934 and by 1937 was stationed in Darwin. The influence of the tropical colonial bungalow architecture of Malaysia and Singapore is evident in his designs, demonstrating an appropriate regional response to the problem of residential architecture in the tropics.

Koulla Roussos, Empty Two Dollar Shop, Smith St Mall, July 2017, iPhone 7 photo.

Burnett House is a timber framed construction with fibro sheeting cladding and pre-formed louvers. It is an elegant building with exemplary use of Vitruvian order principles: eurhythmy, symmetry, use of quality materials, constructed to approved standards and codes. It is a two-story structure with the living areas downstairs and bedrooms upstairs. Standout features include large window walls and a simple gable broken into three sections matching the internal arrangement of the rooms. It employs well-developed principles of cross-ventilation. Unlike the earlier Queenslander homestead models which were surrounded by verandas, Burnett’s Anglo-Asian bungalow designs featured completely enclosed verandas with fibro cement louvers and casement windows for light.

These sleeping verandas took full advantage of cooling breezes during hot tropical nights.

Professor Lawrence Nield, current Northern Territory Government architect, describes Burnett as a highly trained architect, in a team of ordinary departmental architects, who designed around certain rules and requirements mindful of unity of design. Nield regards Burnett’s robust and liveable buildings most suitable to Darwin’s climate. “His architecture not only responds to history and location but to the magic of the materials,” Nield says, “He created buildings with texture inviting a tactile whole-body response. It is the coming together of many tactilities that make great architecture.” Burnett, who was evacuated to Alice Springs during the war, remained there contributing to the architectural landscape of that town.

After the war, many Burnett type houses quickly disappeared. Some were demolished and others moved to rural properties.

Many other post-war tropical houses were destroyed by cyclone Tracy in 1974. This natural disaster ushered in a new era of conservatism as architects and engineers grappled with designing cyclone-proof homes. Houses were being built with masonry or precast concrete. Windows were small. In contrast to the earlier buildings they were poorly ventilated and air-conditioning became a necessity.

“Burnett’s buildings were built when the Commonwealth had a vision for the city,” says David Bridgman. “Today the Northern Territory government does not appear to have a strong unifying vision. Combine this with a weak planning instrument and the result is a cityscape which betrays architectural first principles.” According to Bridgman, our leaders should concede that our city is a mess and aspire to do better.

Has the horse bolted for Darwin? On the 80th anniversary of Burnett House, is there anything we can salvage from its legacy?

If the proposed Barneson Boulevard is any indication (a four lane bitumen road tearing through green space, felling trees and creating a ‘river of fire’ in the heart of the CBD) the future looks grim. Clearly the social costs of suffocating a city already exposed to climatic extremes with more asphalt and concrete have not been factored in by decision makers used to a transient culture of unaccountability.

Koulla Roussos, Empty Supermarket, Corner of Mitchell St and Lambell Tce, April 2017, iPhone 6 photo.

As for the unremarkable ‘cookie cutter’ buildings defacing cities around the globe, these second-order developer structures have become the defining feature of the Darwin skyline. The economic costs alone of these energy guzzlers in a world confronted with climate change is astronomical.

In reflecting upon Burnett’s legacy, I have become mindful of the tragedy of unprincipled architecture and town planning driven by indifference and neglect; it is endured by the public in perpetuity. When buildings lack the Vitruvian qualities of commodity, firmness and delight, they quickly become dilapidated ruins in a dead city.

Koulla Roussos