St Mary’s Star of the Sea Cathedral designed by Ian Ferrier of Donoghue Cusick and Edwards in 1957 and completed in 1962
It’s nearly 2am and I am standing bleary-eyed and conspicuously overdressed, dropped by my taxi outside a pub with an Irish name and Australian veranda occupied by a motley, merry crew. I have instructions to retrieve my Airbnb key from a locker in a nearby youth hostel but can’t get in. I tailgate a young woman, unsteady on her feet, through a back gate and past couples in the shadows around the pool. Surveying the scene, I ponder my ten-day holiday ahead. What eventuates is a five-month adventure in one of Australia’s most remote capitals.
I quickly discover that there is more to Darwin than Mitchell Street’s bars and hostels. The next day a meeting takes me to the northern suburbs, home to those working in health, education, social services and the military. I pass the beautiful botanic gardens with an impressive new visitor centre designed by Hully Liveris and a café in a converted 1890s prefabricated church relocated from town. The vegetated foreshore is dotted with the Darwin High School, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, the old gaol, as well as various beachside ‘clubs’ that offer drinks, food and plastic furniture overlooking the sea. I arrive at my destination abuzz from the journey and welcoming my iced coffee.
I grew up in Sydney, which together with Melbourne accounts for 40 per cent of Australia’s 25.7 million residents. These are the main centres of power, home to business and financial headquarters and cultural institutions, breeding a confident self-image (some would say arrogance) typical of large cities. Darwin, in the ‘Top End’, the northern part of the Northern Territory, is the country’s most sparsely populated capital and its 150,000 residents account for less than 0.6 per cent of the population. A four-hour flight from Sydney, and closer to Jakarta than any Australian city, Darwin sits on the edge of the national psyche and beats to its own drum. Its inhabitants are an eclectic mix of proud locals and transients, all with a story of what brought them to this far-off town with its refreshing array of global and indigenous languages audible on the streets. It is the unceded land of the Larrakia people, who lived for 60,000 years, inter-connected with land, seas, sky and ancestral beings. From the 1600s, Macassan sailors came for trepang (sea slugs), trading with the Larrakia and establishing seasonal coastal villages. The English settlers’ first attempts to colonise ‘the north’ were defeated by distance and climate. Palmerston – later Darwin – was finally established in 1869 and Europeans came with the discovery of gold and the Chinese for labour. Under colonial policy many Larrakia people were put into settlements, and later children of mixed race separated from families in an attempt at assimilation – the fate of First Nations people across the country.
With a latitude of 12°27’, the tropical climate shapes daily life and the built environment. The dry season (April to September) brings the magical Deckchair Cinema under the stars, the month-long Darwin Festival, and beach-side night markets that fill the air with delicious spices and smells. The ‘build-up’, when humidity rises, storms brew and the atmosphere gets thick with anticipation and anxiety, sees locals retreat to their homes, socialising around pools. The wet season (December to March) brings a new rhythm with intense downpours, thunderstorms and cyclones. The sunsets over the sea are spectacular and a source of daily joy. Large tides extend the shoreline from the mangrove edges, exposing a hidden ecosystem. Wildlife creeps into homes – geckos running up walls; mosquitos hungry for flesh; and in the more open houses, frogs in toilets. In the wet season, mould permeates every wall, corner, shelf and drawer. Nature’s power is ever present. On Christmas Eve 1974 Cyclone Tracey took its indiscriminate path through the city, flattening one side of a street while leaving the other unscathed. Darwin required considerable rebuilding for the second time – the first after Japanese bombing during WWII.
This is a city of layers and contradictions. Its proximity to Australia’s remote natural resources draws highly paid workers for the construction of gas pipelines and onshore facilities, or as FIFOs (fly in fly out workers) in mines across the north. Darwin has four military bases, and windows shake as jets take off from the airport within the city’s limits. Social workers, teachers and medics come to work with indigenous communities across the Territory. Tourists come for Kakadu National Park, fishing adventures or for an authentic Australian experience.
The city is well laid out, however most of the recent built fabric is unnoteworthy. Every year a street art festival adds new work to the side of buildings and back alleys giving character to the city. There are some beautiful buildings, my favourites include St Mary’s Cathedral, designed by Ian Ferrier, with parabolic arches running its 57-metre length and Beni Burnett’s 1930s and 40s houses built for civil servants from the south, in which I lived for a period. In 1980 the city captivated two young architects from Adelaide who set up Troppo Architects, designing buildings utilising corrugated iron and louvres to maximise airflow and give protection from the sun and rain. With optimistic eyes, and encouraged by local progressive architects, I imagine a city of possibility: streets filled with trees that shade and cool; sustainable, tropical architecture across scales and typologies; local material innovation; reimagining of existing buildings; indigenous knowledges and local talent rather than knowhow from the south.
I felt I was living on the edge – of land and sea, Australia and Asia, wilderness and development, prosperity and destruction, global forces and local integrity, indigenous peoples and colonial settlers. Like vegemite, people love it or hate it. It grabbed me by the belly and pulled me in.
Kate Goodwin is Professor of Practice in Architecture at the University of Sydney and former Head of Architecture and Heinz Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.