The Outback

Last week, the Australian outback briefly captured the internet’s imagination by the seeming impossibility of finding a 6mm x 8 mm dia. piece of highly radioactive material missing along a 1,400 km (870 mile) stretch of road. Even though caesium-137 basically screams “HERE I AM! I’M OVER HERE!” for 120 years or so, many people including myself were disappointed when the capsule was found suspiciously quickly by the mining company Rio Tinto responsible for losing the capsule in the first place. The outback didn’t seem so immense and profound after all.

In Australia, the word outback brings up many associations and many of these have to do with national myths of exploration and pioneering. The Outback is a place defined by not being another place – the place where all the people are. Here’s two population density maps of Australia. The units don’t matter.

There’s not many people out back and those who are, are there because their ancestors lived on that land for millennia, or they’re there to export minerals extracted from often that same land. [Search Rio TInto along with terms destruction, 46,000 years aboriginal cave] For parts of the outback where minerals have yet to be discovered, there’s still a lot of space and, if you have a surfeit, then you can use it to do things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

This next s a render of a concentrated single-tower solar thermal power plant proposed for Port Augusta in South Australia. Mirrors concentrate the sun’s rays on a tower that heats water to drive turbines … The principle is simple but power plants such as this require large areas of land not being used for much else. There are examples in Nevada, Chile, and

The same applies to solar chimneys. They’re also known as solar updraft towers. There’s no need to explain how they work but, like PV arrays and solar thermal towers, they work best in places with few cloudy days.

Economies and efficiencies of scale mean that solar updr`aft towers need to be about 1,000 metres tall but, unlike Burj Khalifa, they can’t (or don’t) twist or taper and the resulting wind load means that mass concrete construction is the best option. Or at least the cheapest option until someone invents a dampened diagrid or cross-braced steel tower that sways in the wind.

A structure as preposterously simple as an upright cylinder with a huge skirt can only be built where there’s land to spare. In 2002 there was a plan to build one near the Australian town of Mildura. It was to have had a planned height of one kilometer (.62 mile) and a diameter of 170 metres. The updraft would have a speed of 54 kilometres per hour that would produce an estimated 200 megawatts of electricity – sufficient to satisfy the yearly energy needs of 200,000 households. It doesn’t seem to have been built. The inhibiting factor is securing finance, not land. Since then, China has built a test one in Inner Mongolia. Let’s wait and see.

Remote deserts with clear skies also make good astronomical observatories because of the lack of light and radio pollution from nearby settlements. The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) is a radio telescope with dish antennas spread over an area of several thousand square kilometers. The AKSAP website says “The site is ideal for radio astronomy as it exhibits excellent sky coverage, superb radio quietness, ionospheric stability and benign tropospheric conditions. The extremely low levels of radio-frequency interference will allow highly sensitive instruments such as ASKAP to conduct ground-breaking astronomy research.” This radio-silent zone is remote but at only 315 km north-east from the town of Geraldton, not as remote as you’d think.

By Ant Schinckel, CSIRO. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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The idea of an outback immense and neglected but proudly empty could be seen in Australian suburbs well into the 1960s. Often, these backyards had their rear third or half fenced off and unused. In older houses, the outside toilet would be on the fenceline with grass on one side and weeds on the other. You don’t see these anymore but, country towns still have houses with large backyards waiting to be exploited for their space alone.

Times passes, property values increase. This is more pronounced in more densely populated places and a first response was to build larger houses that could be sold for more. This was suburban sprawl turned inwards on itself. Pedestrians walking along the footpath in upmarket areas can’t see people’s backyards but, going by the numbers of children’s trampolines in front gardens and basketball hoops on driveways, they’re not large.

Other parts of town have flagpole plots subdivided so the house and garden at the front remain intact while the rear portion is sold off as a separate plot accessed by a parallel driveway from the same street. What you get is a long driveway to a piece of land that may be conveniently located but has no outward view apart from down the driveway. In this next photo, the house with the white metal roof is a classic flagpole but the rear gardens of the adjacent plots have also been built on.

This next example in the Perth suburb of Leederville has access from both and rear because the alleyway that would have been first used for carting “night soil” and then for garage access, has been upgraded to a primary access road with streetlights and new house numbers rather than the 33A, 33B, etc. of flagpole plots.

Even alleyways off of those those former alleyways have been made into primary access roads newly fronted by houses on the rear portions of the original plots.

Here’s an example where the existing house retains a connection to the new house, suggesting either a semi-independent family member or, more likely, a short-term rental.

On the other side of the street is this unexploited rear garden, still with garage access from what was the alley and still with an external toilet, probably no longer used but still visible through the gap by the back gate.

This finally brings us to the backyard as the new frontyard, something that happens in the city rather than the suburbs rather than the country and certainly not the outback. We saw it happen with developments such as this next one where what happens behind the street level facade is what we see – at least from a distance.

It was in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture where Venturi made us marvel at some tower in Bruges – Cloth Hall, I think – having an urban scale from a distance but a more human scale closer up. In retrospect and sixty years on, you can say the same thing about the building above, or SOM’s Lever House – or pretty much any tall building anywhere.

In Contempt for History – the post before last – I noted how the unused space at the rear of buildings was taking over the space of the buildings at the front that, if they were lucky, might have their facades retained. What we’re seeing is the space out back becoming more valuable than the space out front and, unsurprisingly, it’s even more valuable when it’s as large as possible. This was painfully obvious with the former Glyde Chambers adjacent to The Royal Hotel along Wellington Street, and the former Commercial Buildings adjacent along William Street.

I say former because the new development occupies all their space except for that their street facades stand on. This can be shockingly clearly seen in the photograph on the right below. The photograph on the left shows us that, apart from some out buildings the other side of the service yard, The Royal Hotel wasn’t much more than a five-metre deep facade with a five-metre high mansard to begin with.

Nevertheless, The Royal Hotel was luckier than its adjacent buildings. What remains of it is more than skin deep, but only by about five metres. The appearance of preservation is maintained by the street facades and roofscape and by the continuing presence of a pub on the corner.

Whether the retained facades are shallow or deep, at least their door and window openings still function as door and window openings. This next example shows a new level of contempt for history.

The above example is in Perth’s port town of Fremantle but the first time I saw this planning approval strategy (!??) was about 2006/7 in London’s Spitalfields. It’s student accommodation which, in a time when farming foreign students was a big money earner, is not surprising. Lilian Knowles House it’s called. I don’t know who Lilian Knowles was but her name is associated with something extremely grubby.

This approach makes this next redevelopment (just across the road) look sensitive by comparison and, apart from the blue feature, is not horrible. At least the facade belongs to a building that’s still being used. Compared with the above, this is not faint praise.

There’s more than one way a suddenly valuable outback can coexist with what’s out front. Some of the ways I’ve described above are more successful than others. Those that attempt to redefine architectural value solely in terms of the visual value of decorative masonry are least successful. This probably has to do with the base motives for doing so being so transparent. Here’s two examples that show a better way.

This first is a development on the block opposite The Royal Hotel across William Street. It’s an outback development that doesn’t try to be part of the streetscape. True, part of that streetscape was demolished to make this entrance but, from the aerial photograph on the left below, all we can tell is that there were two buildings there and neither were very tall.

It was a tricky call, but the entrance to this development has a refreshing clarity. I only hope that the major and clear intervention we see doesn’t function to divert our attention from a dozen minor muddy ones. The compromise is obvious and clear, and was possible because there was sufficient space out back. The only problem was how to give it a presence and access it and the solution was to open up laneways from various directions. Project Name: One40 William Street; Architects: HASSELL

My second example is equally clear and also similar in there being sufficient space out back and the only problem being how to access it.

The entrance to the new hotel is still the entrance to the group of former state government buildings known as the Lands, Titles and Treasury buildings. They’ve been converted into a 5-star hotel called COMO – The Treasury while the space outback has become the new state government offices. The entire development is known as State Buildings.

Building a new and larger building on land still occupied by an old building can’t be done without altering the boundary between outback and outfront, or by making us believe that the facade of an old building is the only part worth keeping (and that we should be thankful!). Where there’s space outback, these last two strategies seem as good as it gets. If I were to make a recommendation, I’d recommend development potential be measured in terms of available space outback rather than attempting to do the impossible.

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