Red-dirt Voodoo: Rebuilding Australia’s Northwest

Simon Sellars Architecture & urbanism, Travel

reddirt road

Originally published in Architectural Review Asia-Pacific magazine #128: New Civic Realms. All photography by Simon Sellars unless stated otherwise.

In my time as AR editor, I never imagined the job would take me to Australia’s remote northwest and the Pilbara and Kimberley regions. How could architects design in places where there is no built environment to speak of? That guiding question underpinned the trip and my mission to review ARM’s Wanangkura Stadium in Port Hedland, a town devoted almost exclusively to the iron ore mining that makes the Pilbara among Australia’s richest resource regions. I also wanted to visit two other remote projects with significant architectural involvement, both in the Kimberley: the Broome North housing development, with planning and research by CODA, and Iredale Pedersen Hook’s West Kimberley Regional Prison.

Near Derby, 220km north of Broome, the West Kimberley Regional Prison is touted as a world first in penal architecture. Its design was developed according to local Indigenous philosophies on living, including the ‘Five Guiding Principles’: custodial proximity to land and family; cultural responsibilities; spiritual relationship to land, sea and waterways; kinship and family responsibilities; community responsibilities. The prison will incarcerate 120 males and 30 females in 20 self-care units. For males, there are seven different housing designs, four for women. The units are grouped according to family ties, language and security ratings.

reddirt roos

I’ve seen work-in-progress photos and it doesn’t look like a prison. It looks humane. It’s a different way of incarceration and I can’t help but compare it with what I was told by Broome locals about their jail, that guards would turn a blind eye to prisoners leaping the low-security walls to visit their families a few streets down because, with a sense of duty, they would always return at night. With the West Kimberley Regional Prison’s emphasis on trust, responsibility and family ties, it seems a formalised version of that chaotic model. I wanted to talk to the architects about it but they were evasive. Before I left Melbourne, I set up a meeting with them in Derby for a viewing of the site but they cancelled at the very last minute. (Later, strangely, they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, even discuss it via email, saying they weren’t authorised due to ‘client issues’, even though the original meeting was arranged for me to discuss, and write about, the prison). I’d already paid for accommodation, though, so after a day in Broome I had no choice – I was off to Derby.

The drive was worth it. The desert highway between Broome and Derby is pinkish black, stained with red pindan dirt, and by the end I, too, had red dust all over my clothes, my hair and the car. I was coming down with ‘red-dirt voodoo’, a bizarre affliction identified by journalist Chris Johnston in Australian popular culture, principally the Mad Max films and the early songs of Hunters and Collectors, which are located in the Australian outback. According to Johnston, these cultural artefacts describe “the same kind of red-dirt voodoo concerned with a post-apocalyptic survival instinct, totems and pagan demons, industrial waste, nuclear fallout, feral children, big engines, no petrol and bad, bad animals… picking from the bones of mankind, taking shelter in primitiveness after the fall… The desert is expanding, the nothingness grows”.

Appropriately, the scale of the lonely highway was punctuated by the power and speed of the trucks that plied it. I drove a new, sturdy 4WD, but even so, the road trains thundering past threatened to blow me off the bitumen. Overtaking them is a test of nerve. You must build up a head of steam for a few kilometres before flooring the accelerator in the hope of passing the behemoth, which is so long it seems to go on forever, and avoiding meeting another truck head-first on the opposite side of the road. People roll their cars out here, travelling too fast down the endless, straight highway and their bodies aren’t found until a long time later. There were no police about and I admit I was tempted to take the vehicle to the limit, just to see what it felt like, to see how fast I could go. I was addicted to the road, to the voodoo, recalling the narration from Mad Max 2, when Max appears in the opening sequence, described as a “man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again”.

reddirt aliens

Before Derby, I stopped at the Mowanjum Art and Cultural Centre. It’s part of the community of Mowanjum, home to three Aboriginal tribes – the Worora, the Ngarinyin and the Wunumbul – who paint exclusively, obsessively, the Wandjina spirit beings that, they say, came from the Milky Way to create the Earth, and that still visit them today. Looking at their paintings, I felt a strange sensation as I noted the Wandjina’s uncanny resemblance to the infamous ‘grey’ aliens of Western UFO lore. Architect Steve Irvine, who works closely with tribal communities in the Kimberley, designed the centre and its roof is covered with a giant painting of the Wandjina, like some kind of tribal space pad. This is architecture that speaks to the heavens.

Derby itself was dusty and quiet – nothing was happening there at all except its massive tides, among the world’s highest. I drove out to the pier, where the water was out as far as the eye could see. An old fishing boat was stuck in the vast mud flats, forlorn and abandoned, and what seemed like hundreds of evil black spiders hung on the underside of the pier, swaying back and forth in the wind in their web-built cocoons. Two old women caught crabs in the mud and a powerful sense of melancholy overwhelmed me. The prison remained elusive.

reddirt boat

Returning to Broome the next day, I detoured to Eco Beach, an ‘eco resort’ built by developer Karl Plunkett alongside an idyllic stretch of coastline. Plunkett, according to his website, is a self-styled ‘visionary’ and his image even adorns an illustrated timeline of the area’s exploration in the past century, on the side of the resort’s admin building. Plunkett originally built Eco Beach in 1996 only to lose the lot to a cyclone. He then rebuilt it, making it stronger and fully self-sufficient with $300,000 worth of solar batteries working overtime in a complex, computerised operation. He told me this is Australia’s biggest standalone hybrid system. “Basically I’m a town,” he said. He meant the resort but the personal pronoun was telling. When I asked him what role architects can play in such developments, he just laughed and said that in his projects his construction company always handles design inhouse. “Architects are too expensive,” he scoffed.

Back in Broome I was introduced to Bill Reed, co-founder of Linneys, Broome’s famous pearl and jewellery store (the town’s pearling history is one of its most enduring tourist draws). He took me on a tour of Broome’s old architecture, pointing out details in the vernacular design like the Short Street Gallery, probably the last structure in Broome with ‘wind tunnels’ on the roof to funnel air down through the building, once essential in this hot environment in the days before air conditioning. He told me about Lord Alistair McAlpine, the quixotic father of Broome tourism, who washed up in Broome from England in the 1980s, when the town was pretty much derelict. McAlpine built the sumptuous Cable Beach resort, where scores of travellers today continue to drink cocktails right on the edge of the beach, watching camel trains cross the sand as Broome’s remarkable, venerated sunset falls from the sky. According to Reed, McAlpine also restored many of Broome’s crumbling old homes and buildings, teaching the locals that there was much to appreciate in the vernacular architecture.

reddirt gallery

Reed is appreciative of Broome North, effectively a new suburb of Broome that offers affordable house and land packages; it officially opened while I was there. In its planning stage, it featured significant involvement from CODA, in a wonderful example of architects collaborating on meaningful urban design with developers (Landcorp, the Western Australian government’s developer, in this case). CODA undertook a wide-ranging cultural, historical and environmental analysis of Broome, forming meticulous design guidelines that influenced Broome North’s development, structure and subdivision. I was set to meet with CODA in Broome, but, frustratingly, they too cancelled just before I left. It was down to Reed to give me some of the picture. He told me that the ambition with Broome North is to grow Broome as a town, to instigate “proactive planning rather than reactive”, the opposite to the Pilbara where there is an ongoing attempt to reverse the damage done to communities by mining. This is an important consideration, given Woodside’s planned gas processing hub at James Price Point, north of Broome.

reddirt court

Many locals hold grave fears that the hub will turn Broome into a coastal version of Port Hedland, overrun by fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers, its soul sucked dry by a transient working population only interested in money. Everyone’s heard the stories, often exaggerated, of FIFO miners barely existing on a diet of pills and prostitutes, working until they drop, fighting in Port Hedland pubs and streets, decked out in ‘gang colours’ – the high-visibility vests and work uniforms of Fortescue Metals, BHP and the rest. Yet Reed, eternal optimist, said the hub will be a good opportunity for unemployed locals, especially young Indigenous people. He’s not worried about FIFO either, telling me that they won’t be allowed to wear their colours into town. And when they do come in, they’ll be escorted. The hub is a very divisive issue, though, and you need to be careful who you talk to about it. Roughly, the older generation are all for it; the younger generation want nothing to do with it. I was invited to a party in Broome where I made the mistake of asking a couple of people their thoughts; I got the evil eye and the cold shoulder. Later, I learnt that Woodside’s security firm, called, unbelievably, ‘Hostile Environment Services’, had been patrolling the town, intimidating people with miniature cameras worn around their necks and on the undersides of their cars, recording angry faces and insurgent locals.

Finally, I flew to Port Hedland, monumental in my mind after hearing so many horror stories about it. I was squashed into the edge of my seat, the only person of average build on an aircraft packed with muscled-up miners. For the two days and two nights I spent there, my ears were assaulted by the constant clatter of heavy machinery, road trains, non-stop swearing, all day and night planes and 100-wagon-long freight trains. Never mind the so-called two-speed economy, Port Hedland is the economic autobahn – no speed limit. Everything is hyper-accelerated, hyper-functional. Mining companies buy up all available accommodation, paying thousands of dollars over normal rental rates to eliminate all competition for beds. When that overspills, mini cities are set up containing hundreds of caravans and fibro huts – ‘dongas’ – for miners to crash in, although to me they seemed more like refuelling stations for cyborgs to reboot than places to sleep. Fly in, fly out; plug in, plug out. What else is there to do on a tour of duty except go a bit nuts? Out here, miners suffer mental stress, and drug and drink problems, even poor dental hygiene, so limited are the health services for the FIFO army.

reddirt hotel

There aren’t any hotels in town except the Pier Hotel and I wasn’t keen to stay there, for reasons that will become clear, so I found accommodation in one of the miners’ mini cities near the airport, sleeping in a donga as cramped as a cell. I was met by a security guard from the compound and when I asked him how to get into town in the evening, he said, slowly and deliberately: “Don’t stay out after dark, mate. You really don’t want to be in town after dark.” Undeterred, ARM’s Sophie Cleland insisted on buying me a drink at the Pier. In the 70s an English journalist wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that it was the ‘world’s toughest pub’ and the label stuck. According to one desert legend, it holds the world record for the most stabbings in a pub in a single night: 86, including six barmaids. That seems completely apocryphal, yet Cleland showed me a wall plastered with the mug shots of banned patrons, mostly, a notice said, exiled for knife fights. Cleland asked if she could photograph the wall, and the ‘skimpy’ – the lingerie-clad barmaid – said yes. A miner next to us sneered, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” but nothing happened. He just went back to his beer and we went back to ours. It was like he was playing a role. There was a lot of that. During dinner back at the compound, a miner sat next to me. As he shovelled stringy, tendony steak into his mouth, he regaled me, uninvited, with a blow-by-blow description, including sound effects, of the arm-severing and tendon-snipping scene in the film 127 Hours. Then he talked me through his unwritten film script about a robot miner who can pull his camera-eye out to surveil people by stealth, and who can also shred your skin with a laser cheese grater. My cyborg metaphor had come to life. Hostile Environment Services could learn a lot from this guy.

Port Hedland is a funny old place and it may even have the last laugh on Broome, which fears becoming Port Hedland, by stealing a share of something Broome holds dear: tourism. Recently, cruise ships visiting the northwest have begun to skip well-established, tranquil stop offs in the Kimberley for Port Hedland, where passengers instead don high-visibility vests and helmets to tour refineries and mines. After all, it is a visually remarkable place. With giant mining machinery and iron ore ships stained with red dirt (all the streets and buildings, too) and huge mounds of ‘red gold’ – iron ore – glinting in the sun, Port Hedland is like a mining city on Mars.

On my last day, Cleland took me on a tour of her oasis in the desert: ARM’s Wanangkura Stadium. Bubbling over with excitement and energy, she was like a proud parent displaying her newborn baby. Describing the building’s steel panelling, she said, “it is of its context. This is the iron ore city – out of the ground comes iron ore, and it’s turned into steel. This is an area of extreme climates and extreme weather patterns, and those ideas are ingrained into the building. We’ve taken the local context and put it back together in another way”. As she said it, at last the riddle hanging over this remarkable trip – that guiding question – was resolved, tying together all the architecture I’d seen and heard about in Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.

In the end, it was simple: tourists will come and go but the landscape will remain. Respect the landscape first and foremost – and the community’s relationship to it, no matter how harsh the context – and the rest will fall into place.

Tourism Western Australia and Australia’s Northwest Tourism kindly sponsored AR’s trip to Australia’s northwest.