Kim Scott, Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956 (#BookReview)

Book CoverDo you have a favourite house that you lived in? I do. It’s the lovely old Queenslander my family lived in for most of my primary school years. It was in Sandgate, Brisbane, and I still have vivid memories of those days, and that house and garden. Kim Scott, the author of Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956, also has such a house, the one her family moved into in Katherine when she was three years old. It was a 1956-built Type D1 N.T.A. (Northern Territory Administration) house and she loved it so much that many years later, she bought herself a similar house, a Type L “New Series” house.

The thing about these houses – like my Queenslander – is that they were built for the tropical climate. For a start, they were elevated, and had louvres, both of which facilitate the management of airflow so essential to cooling. The effect of this is that they are comfortable to live in – and are energy efficient – but what Scott most loves is “the feeling of the outside coming in” that comes with this design. It’s none too soon, I’d say, to produce a book about building environmentally-suited houses, particularly when, even in Katherine apparently, the ubiquitous brick house has been taking over. Scott is very aware of this as she writes in her introduction:

My hope is that the historical significance of these first, high quality, permanent houses, which are a key part of Katherine’s housing career will be recognised. Additionally, I hope they might spark some interest in the construction of houses that are more suitable for living in the tropics and for the remote living conditions of outlying communities. Houses that use easily available, sustainable materials and are designed with a smaller footprint, specifically to make the most of the environment, as an alternative to the brick and concrete housing built today.

Now, a book like this risks being very dry but, while a lot of information is imparted in this just-over-100-page book, Scott’s personal engagement with the subject enables her to inject the book with some local flavour, with a sense of who lived in (including her own family) and built these houses. The book is logically structured, and liberally illustrated as you really want in a book like this. There are copies of original plans, old and contemporary photographs, and artist’s illustrations by Scott herself. The book starts with a brief history of tropical architecture in Australia, including the work of Beni Burnett in Darwin in the 1930s. (We loved seeing his houses there, in Myilly Point.) She then writes about land ownership in Katherine and the Commonwealth government’s housing program for Katherine, before getting onto more practical matters:

  • the house designs and plans;
  • the building contractors;
  • the building materials; and
  • the provision of essential services (like water, electricity, sewerage and rubbish collection).

In her final chapter, “Living in Commonwealth houses”, she shares her family’s experience of living in these houses, using both her own memories and documentary and verbal evidence from her family.

Scott also refers, at times, to the “local Aboriginal people”, noting, for example, some ongoing hurts “from Aboriginal families who owned titled property in Katherine but could not produce the title after the war, so lost their land”. Early in the book she notes that there is no heritage protection for the government tropical houses still remaining in Katherine. Maybe this book will provide an argument for rectifying this oversight!

It’s clear that this book was a real labour of love, one that Scott worked on for a long time. One of the things I greatly enjoyed about reading it was her sharing of her research process, not only because it was interesting but because it also assures the reader that the work is as authoritative as she could make it. There were many reasons why the book took a long time to write, one of which was being told, falsely as it turned out, that the original houseplans for these government designed and built houses had been lost during Cyclone Tracy. She engaged family members in the on-the-ground information gathering process in Katherine; she scoured archives and libraries in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth, as well as Darwin; and she read books on the subject, such as David Bridgman’s on Beni Burnett (BCG Burnett, architect). I loved her comment, after describing yet another serendipitous discovery, that she “was beginning to feel the whole process was dependent on the serendipity phenomenon”. I suspect that research is often like this, particularly in the early stages of projects that don’t have obvious (or easily available) paths to follow.

In her Conclusion, Scott returns to the points I quoted from her Introduction, but this time with a more personal spin. She writes:

If we had continued to build tropical housing that was specifically designed for Katherine’s climate, we would today have a town with a unique architectural style. One that perhaps may have drawn more people to our town and projected a more open, inclusive image of Katherine. I have seen the town develop from elevated, open homes with little privacy and security, with windows and doors flung open, to solid brick houses with their thick walls and windows tightly shut and barred. I know what image I would rather see.

Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956 is a self-published book, but Scott has done the sensible thing and used a graphic designer and an editor. The result is a book that is nicely produced and that makes an excellent contribution to both the history of Northern Territory architecture and the local history of Katherine. Scott’s labour of love has, I’d say, borne worthwhile fruit of which she can be proud.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeKim Scott
Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956
Katherine: Kim Scott, 2019
ISBN: 9781642045420

22 thoughts on “Kim Scott, Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956 (#BookReview)

  1. A home can really be beloved.

    I do not know much about architecture. But it seems like such an interesting subject. This post makes me want to know more about Tropical Housing and related subjects.

  2. Good to see a review of a self-published non-fiction work such as this. And I hanker after a Queenslander – so beautifully adapted to the climate. Thanks for referencing this contribution to the architectural and social history of the Northern Territory, and Australia as a whole.

    • Thanks Ros … lovely to have an historian ( a historian!) approve. We need more well researched, well presented local histories don’t we, particularly those that can have wider relevance/value as well.

  3. What an interesting book, and review! I’m pleased the author was prepared to go through the sometimes-onerous process of self-publishing to get this authentic information out there.
    This of housing type has been so ubiquitous in regional areas – police house, teahcer’s house, etc – people don’t even notice them, but they are worthy of respect. I’ve lived in Queensland’s version – the E-type – in Burketown and Yarrabah, both in the tropics. Elevated, with a verandah, and louvres to the floor – we loved both houses. People want more now – more bedroooms, and particularly more bathrooms; but like you, I don’t see why the newer houses have to be on the ground, and particularly why they have to be brick. So boring!
    I liked visiting a heritage listed Commonwealth house in Darwin, with the living area downstairs and polished concrete floors – cool and easy to maintain.

    • Thanks Rose. What a lovely response. Of course in cold places, like where I live now, brick offers insulation and warmth. It’s the building for the environment… Aspect, airflow needs, materials, window styles, etc that seems to be not considered enough these days.

    • The author is a friend of a friend. I haven’t met her, but my friend knows of my interest in the Northern Territory and of course knows that I have this blog, so she wondered if I’d like to read it. I’m a bit hesitant about self-published books, as you know, but when I saw it, I realised that it was probably up my alley!

      I’m really sorry I didn’t know about these houses when we visited Katherine a few years ago, but we did see the Burnett house in Myilly Point in Darwin, and we also saw a Sidney Williams Hut (which I don’t mention in my blog but they are mentioned in the book) in Adelaide River just north of Katherine.

      • I think the issue of the future is going to be designing houses to withstand higher temperatures. I used to love the way our house would cool down so rapidly at night, no matter how hot it was during the day. But now, it doesn’t cool down overnight, sometimes staying between 20-30 degrees, and even though we get the cooler air from the bay, most people in Melbourne don’t, and for them, there isn’t a cool breeze to be had. So maybe the designs of the past won’t work as well as they used to in our new climate.

        • That’s a ggood point Lisa. I’m not an expert about air movement to know, but if you don’t get cooling breezes at night then you’re probably right.

          We still get some cooling breezes, though most summers we have a run of a few very hot days when those breezes don’t come and the house stays hot. Our current problem is that we have been getting cool breezes most nights, but it’s so smokey outside that we can’t take advantage of them, unless we want the house to be filled with smoke smell which of course we don’t.

        • Well, that’s it, isn’t it? Everything we used to know doesn’t work any more. None of us are architects, but we used to know enough to have renovation conversations about sustainability with our architects or designers. Now we don’t know anything any more, except that we need to be able to seal our houses up more tightly than ever. (Which is very depressing, and bad for community long term.)
          I wonder what they are teaching in architecture schools about designing houses and retrofitting renovations for the new normal? This is a program idea for the ABC: instead of Grand Ideas Oz reproducing the posh houses of the UK version, we want one about making our homes liveable under climate change…

        • Oh yes, Lisa. That would be a great program. Must say I rarely watch that program … just catch the last few minutes before the news.

          I’m sure some architects already working in the field will be looking at this, but how many? It’s the builders and developers who need to get more on board too I’d say.

  4. WG, thank you for your review which I enjoyed reading. I like how you opened by linking it to your own recollections of your favourite childhood home in tropical Brisbane!

    Your review draws out so many other good points too – the current relevance of writing about environmentally suited houses; Kim Scott’s good use of a variety of illustrations ranging from historical plans to photos and to her own artist drawings; your overview of the book’s structure; the author’s serendipitous, extensive and persistent research and the book’s long preparation period making it a true labour of love; that these houses have no heritage protection; the author’s observation that more recently constructed buildings in Katherine are less well suited to the environment; the so very sad story of local Aboriginal people’s loss of their titled property in Katherine because they couldn’t produce the titles after the war; and that the author made good use of a graphic designer and an editor in the preparation of this work.

    Meanwhile, I feel this book is polished in its presentation, and a fresh and delightful approach to such a technical subject as a particular type of housing built for government employees! Kim Scott frames her exhaustive research results within the context of local history and of childhood memories and stories of local life. Also, consciously or unconsciously her book demonstrates how she values and appreciates her experience of growing up and living in tropical and remote Katherine.

    • Thanks Treble Clef … good point too about these being housing for government employees, which I didn’t really mention in the review.

      I like your point about her valuing her growing up and living in Katherine. That’s very much how I feel about my years in Sandgate (my favourite house) and in Mt Isa (such wonderful, unforgettable experiences.) Special houses are memorable, and the thing is they don’t have to be fancy or posh!!

  5. Now there are two writers named Kim Scott and this one is actually a woman. Any male Miles Franklin spotted somewhere? 🙂

    This sounds quite interesting, both on the emotional side because we do get attached to houses that are our beloved homes and on the architectural side. Building eco-friendly houses is a challenge for the future.

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