The award-winning shelter.
The award-winning shelter. Kaylene Prince.

Award-winning shelter treads path of promise

A small walkers' information shelter at Kings Canyon won two gongs at the NT Architecture Awards held in Darwin.

But the structure's tiny stature belies some big thinking and valuable lessons for planners.

The Rim Walk of Kings Canyon in the Red Centre's Watarrka National Park is one of the most spectacular experiences to be had in Australia's dry inland.

Many visitors describe the deeply-incised landscape at the end of the George Gill Range as 'prehistoric'.

And well they might, for its memorable geology dates back 440 million years.

Located between Alice Springs and Uluru-KataTjuta National Park, Kings Canyon is also a place where two systems of knowledge intersect - those of settler Australian and Aboriginal cultures.

In fact, the park is jointly managed by the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission and its Martutjarra-Luritja traditional owners, after 1052 square kilometres of land within the Park was handed back to Aboriginal people in 2012.

Zones of contact or overlap between different cultures are well-known across the globe to be fascinating places.

Less-well known is their capacity to forge productive creative spaces, especially where Western and traditional ideas are allowed to come together.

Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in the unusual form of the park's Watarrka Visitor's Information Shelter, built at a cost of $590k between February and November 2016 at the start of the Kings Canyon walking trails.

A place for tourists to gather ahead of a walk, the shelter reflects both traditional and settler forms.

Its post-and-beam construction is reminiscent of a spinifex-clad western desert wiltja-a traditional form of Aboriginal shelter-as much as it mirrors the A-framed lean-to more familiar to Western eyes.

Architect for Tangentyere Design Andrew Broffman started the design process by researching traditional forms of shelter in Central Australia.

'The more research you do, the richer a project can be,' says Broffman. 

'I drew heavily on a book called Gunyah Goondie and Wurley [UQP 2007] by Paul Memmott, who is both architect and anthropologist.'

'He details the history of built forms in Indigenous Australia, and we looked at that, as well as more conventional western styles.'

The project's syncretic form won it two gongs at the NT Architecture Awards presented in Darwin last week.

Judges for the George Goyder Award for Urban Design compared the shelter's 'spiky' structure with a 'collection of rusted knitting needles'.

Those of the Colorbond Award for Steel Architecture said it 'demonstrated the possibilities for steel in a harsh location.'

The wins mean the shelter is a contender for the National Architecture Awards in November.

As the awards judges note, the structure's 'tall rusted steel tapering spines' were from conventional steel crafted in Alice Springs from scored flat plate which was 'rolled and welded in lengths convenient for transport to its remote site.'

But the design also reflects a rich and productive sharing of ideas between designers and Traditional Owners, in a 2015 consultation brokered through the Central Land Council.

Broffman is quick to emphasise the pivotal role traditional owners played in shaping the final design.

'I've learned over the years not to present a fait accomplis, but to generate discussion,' says Broffman.

'I came up with elements to put on the table and say, "this is what has been done in the past, does any of this resonate?".'

While Broffman's approach undoubtedly contributed to the project's award-winning style, it is the consultative process itself that should be of greatest interest to policy makers and planners in the Territory.

For it is exactly the sort of hybrid thinking that should be the hallmark of Territory design, one geared toward the making of places that are uniquely 'Territorian'.

'Any decisions made round park management and social works have to go through joint management and agreement,' says Broffman.

'It worked quite well, in that Parks Commission were interested in certain functional requirements.

'Traditional owners were concerned with functionality as well-one woman was concerned that an ambulance could get through-but they were also concerned with aesthetics.

'Neither of the two parties interfered with the other.'

The shelter aims to welcome about 40-50 visitors (one busload) at a time and provide clear messages about walking safety, especially hydration in the desert and maintaining a safe distance from cliff edges.

But it was some of the ideas introduced by traditional owners that lent the design its quirky form.

"The local Aboriginal people view tourists as 'little ants' or 'minga'.

"[Tourists] come up in cars or buses and scurry around the landscape, get back in their cars, and then disappear.

"I was there one day and the tour bus had let out a school group; the hill had no gap in the line of people walking up it and the image of the ants was quite strong.

 'You often see the nests ants make, twigs and sticks, little mounds coming out of the ground: There was an implied structure.

'And Echidna's eat ants, so I looked at the Echidna quill: wide in the middle, tapered at the end."

Broffman scaled the quill up as a structural element, which he bolted to a central rib to form the frame.

At first, however, designers and traditional owners were puzzled over how to clad the shelter.

Until a TO held up a lunch plate at a meeting and said: "What if we had a series of little plates so as to provide the shade."

The result using perforated steel plates, each 'plate' in the shape of a 'little kite', is spectacular.

Heartbeat spoke to staff at the Central Land Council, who seemed excited about the project winning an award, but who were unable to provide comment by the deadline.