“The land grows all of us up… everything that’s been and gone and had life in the flesh has died, but the land is still here” (Randall 2006).
One of the most complex issues facing architectural sustainability is the embodied energy of construction materials. This was the core focus for the design of a public building for Indigenous leaders in the heart of Australia’s Northern Territory. Isolation produces especially limiting constraints on construction. As a site moves further away from the manufacture of materials and transport terminals, the embodied energy of the building becomes increasingly dominated by transport costs. In the central Australian desert, the nearest sea-ports, steel mills, cement plants, and brick factories are 1800 km south or 1400 km north. Any construction based on city techniques would consume half of the project funds on transport.
The site for this project is in Central Australia, just outside the UNESCO World Heritage listed Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, a short drive from the small community at Yulara, the resort town that looks south towards the broad sunlit face Uluru, and not far from Mutitjulu, the Indigenous town that looks towards Uluru’s shaded southern face, where fresh water was always available, at least until careless tourism spoiled that waterhole. Uluru’s southern face provides a rare shelter from sun and wind in the flat landscape, providing sanctuary for a tiny, dense ecosystem of flora and fauna. Otherwise, there are very few trees, spaced far apart, and the landscape is covered everywhere with a low dry spinifex grass that grows in round mounds that eventually hollow out, making rings and crescents of green and grey contrasting with the red sand.
Through the year, temperatures move from near 50 °C during a summer day to near 0 °C on a winter’s night. Most days the sky is a full cloudless blue, the humidity low and the air pure. The hot clear sun touches everything without interruption. After only a few hours of bare sunlight, metals become dangerously hot to touch. By midday metals feel like electrified radiant heaters. By the afternoon, concrete and bricks too feel like radiant heaters, and people casually show you the burns they received from touching their cars earlier in the day.
Even canvas sheets suspended 10 m off the ground radiate so much heat that their shade is intolerable. The best shelters from the sun are found in the school’s playground. Woven through a suspended sheet of light weight cyclone mesh, like chicken-wire, were hundreds of long thin strands of spinifex. Termites eat parts of the spinifex overnight, so it requires regular repair which is adeptly maintained by the school’s students. All timber products in this environment quickly lose their strength to termites. Timber could be infused with barrier toxins to terminally discourage these termites, but it is a principle of construction here that we should not introduce pollutants onto the site.
This project was prompted in 2009 by Bob Randall, an elder of the Yankunytjatjara people, who lived in Mutitjulu. He said, “my people see land ownership as being totally different to the English way of ownership. Ours used to be, the lands owns us, and it still is that to us.” “When we tried to go to court for land rights, and we came from ‘the land owns us’, the British system couldn’t take that in, they had no way of understanding what we were saying… To come from ‘the land owns us’, because it’s the ancient one, not us. We’re the children who come and go. Take what we need for that short time of our lives, and then we pass on to our children who come for another short period. So the human’s experience of living is for lots of short periods, but the land stays the same, forever. I think that’s where ‘the land owns us’ is coming from, but when we tried to use that in the first case up Yirrkalla for land rights, we lost, so we had to get used to saying we were the land owners, or traditional owners“(Randall 2006).
Bob Randall’s description of the relationship to the land and the short periodic view that each individual human possesses tilts the valuation to the long term. The introductory step of the design challenge here is to select a construction process that produces minimum waste and minimises transport costs. When considering the design problems with Uncle Bob outside his Mutitjulu home, it was discussed that rather than build in light framed steel, wrapped in synthetic insulation, as was common in that area, it would be more comfortable and sustainable to instead produce a purely stone building, cut from the landscape around us; he immediately and easily agreed. The proposal was for a purely public building, a vast covered outdoor space, in some ways a hybrid of the Pantheon and a piazza. The size and shape of a large sand dune, it would provide shelter from the sun, large enough for lighting fires in the rain, the roof collecting rain water stored along the northern wall, offering more shade and protection from the seasonal northern storms.
Materially the principle is for an ultra long life building. The sandy environment hosts regular, highly abrasive dust storms, which grind away the object, so the design does not aim for the lean structural efficiency of a building expected to survive decades, but for a thicker, ornamented shell, visibly in excess of the normal expectations. The initial sketch (Fig. 4), small and without detail, drawn onto a site photograph was accepted but the challenge was the means and details. The means consists of importing no construction material, but rearranging the landscape, as Fallacara wrote, inevitably “reinforce the genius of the place” (Fallacara 2009: 554). Pairs of mobile robotic arms will quarry a nearby ridge for billets of dimension stone, hold and cut each piece, and assemble the vault. Diamond wire was chosen based on the estimate that it is lighter to carry to site. The advantages of the construction system includes that broken stone and sand is the only local waste. Also the design and computation can be done remotely, sending cutting information after the size of raw quarried billets are determined.
This stage in the project development is an exploration into the formal languages of design available within the constraints of wire cutting with robotic arms. This problem of architectural language arises here because of symbolic and signification problems. There is no existing local architectural language, and all existing formal languages, Classical, Romanesque, Gothic, Modern, carry cultural associations alien to this environment, and too easily associated with inhospitable forces. Hence the Exquisite Corpse was selected to generate multiple formal systems as potential options for the formal language.
A key criteria for the visual language was complexity, so that the building would appear not as an object in a landscape, but take on a more ambiguous status, with ambitions similar to Mark Foster Gage’s Guggenheim Helsinki Design Proposal (Gage 2015: 102–3). The contributions which resulted in the Exquisite Corpse prototype, unifying juxtaposed elements into an autonomous object, and Gage’s proposal, respond to the call made by Jason Payne in Log for the “reinvigoration of object study as a disciplinary activity for architecture,” especially “the meanings and values of objects” (Payne 2014: 168). Subsequently, it is also exemplary of current trajectories in the ontological discourse; expressly, object-oriented philosophy. One of the major proponents of this discourse, Graham Harman, argues that “objects are sleeping giants holding their forces in reserve” (Harman 2016: 7); it is for this reason that the Exquisite Corpse vault cannot be adequately described by what it is made from nor by what it does. Whilst it is a composite structure, it cannot be readily reduced to its components, and similarly, nor, as an object in perpetual stasis, can it be reduced simply to its actions.