Kate Donaldson, and Robert Snelling
LOCATION: MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA
Within the Victorian Volcanic Plains, a 300km wide stretch of land west of Melbourne, lies a critically endangered ecosystem; the Western Grasslands Reserve. Following centuries of land clearing for Western agricultural production, only 1% of these native grasslands presently remain. Declared critically endangered in 2008, The Victorian Government planned to acquire 15,000 hectares of this landscape by 2020. Yet to date, limited government funding has resulted in only 10% being attained. It raises a question: how can the grasslands find both native ecological amnesty and also be transformed into a productive, layered and enduring landscape?
This proposal functions to transform the Plains into a thriving ecological state within a neoliberal framework, through initially working ‘within the system’ to expedite change from the ‘inside’. Looking to indigenous cultures for reference, we propose a system of collectives and active engagement with landscape.
At its largest scale, real estate markets are used to acquire land for both ecological and generative purposes rather than relying on failed government methods of direct acquisition. These lands (or fragments) are managed under collective ownership models such as community land trusts, which enable communities to collectively own, run and make decisions for key infrastructures that affect them. Over time, the fragments and the households within the schemes grow, accelerated by the quiet revolution of the proposed architectures.
While recognising the complexities in collective management of facilities in a contemporary context, collective ownership can be emulated through building on the ideas of Richard Sennet and Pablo Sendra in their text Designing Disorder. Collective ownership is seen as a method whereby the end-built physical outcome is not prescribed; societies can build as they need and based on what is appropriate to their climatic and social context. Singular ownership and thereby singular land uses are decoupled over time.
This proposal focuses on some of the many disused infrastructures within the grasslands, intending to hybridise the found with the future. Three key buildings shape the proposal, utilising found objects falling out of use: for-sale churches as a space for community discussion and immersive exhibition spaces; a disused silo in Westmere for seed storage and as a logistical hub; and deployable, portable architectures that are dispatched across the decaying fields for the propagation, management and harvesting of seeds.
While the silo and church are owned by the collective scheme, the deployable is not limited by property boundaries and can be positioned across the plains, helping to expedite its revival. Each of these buildings play a key role in the proposal’s replicable and scalable ambition to both revegetate the plains and recalibrate our relationship to landscape.
I: The Deployable
In advancing the transformation from overlooked fields into grasslands, the deployables act as agile and mobile architectural agents with multiple life phases. They can be flexible storage spaces or operational nodes for workers, community members and volunteers as they revegetate, harvest and care for land. They are transported to sites via self- driving vehicles to both properties opted into the collective, as well as other degrading landscapes such as roadsides.
1. The Field | Brittany Devlin, Kate Donaldson, Robert Snelling
Architecturally these deployables are designed as light, transportable units to be readily assembled. This dispatchable design expedites the grassland revegetation program and can scale rapidly. To that end, the deployable’s frame is designed as a kit of parts; timber is assembled into a core module with pieces added and removed pending its required purpose. From this base module, nets for seed collection can be hooked onto the frame, forming a roadside architecture like that of a rural hay bale. Alternatively, the modules can be converted into storage for mobile harvesting and seed collection equipment such as brush harvesters and pixel farming robots.
Towards its end of life, ‘the deployable’ becomes ‘the remnant’, a temporary event where images, indigenous stories and site information are inscribed onto curtains and layered over the landscape, providing a low-tech virtuality. These are an opportunity to find personal connections to land in contrast to the proposal’s other programs. The remnant encourages a sense of observation based on indigenous knowledge systems which can only come from being present in a place. Over time, the deployable’s physical presence decays into the ground or is salvaged for rephasing.
While the deployables are deliberately temporary architectures, at each location they visit, a single fire-proof post is also installed and remains. Equipped with cameras, sensors and microphones, these act as data collectors and markers of where human management was and continues. These posts provide ongoing data feeds to a public website. Users can observe locations of past and present remnants and notice how these architectures have evolved the landscape. This website also acts as a key bridging platform between communities within the field and beyond. It is where all parts of the scheme are outlined, mapped and updated, where inhabitants and visitors can mark their journeys, and it is where the deployable itself can be booked by landowners.
The transitory nature of the deployable seeks to make us question the pursuit of longevity within built environments. Its lifecycle, dictated by its materiality, can be likened to the grasslands at large, which are managed through the highly localised and reflexive act of cultural burning. Likewise, the deployable invokes the duality of destruction and regeneration as part of the lived history of the site.
II: The Silo
Across Victoria, there is increasing discussion of how to make use of existing silos falling out of use. One such silo is in Westmere, centrally located in the plains. The silo in this proposal acts like the headquarters or operational control of the field. It is where seeds are transported to, processed and stored; where the self-driving vehicles are re-charged; where the deployables are formed; and where offices for the scheme’s management exist. The proposal repurposes and adapts the silo into a contemporary form; whereas before it was for wheat storage, now the silo is used for native seed storage and research. Its location on an existing freight and passenger rail enables it to become a hub for the field.
2. The Silo | Brittany Devlin, Kate Donaldson, Robert Snelling
Looking to the work of Arno Brandlhuber, the proposal looks to blend between existing conditions and proposed interventions, generating an ambiguity of what is found and what is not. Here the single waffle roof provides shelter while the ground remains as the existing concrete and soil floor.
Parts of the existing infrastructure, such as angled pipes, ladders and columns intersect through the accommodating waffle grid. New angled columns that hold up the canopy further blur the distinction between new and existing infrastructure. Precise incisions are made in the existing concrete and steel silos. What is deliberately constructed and deconstructed is hybridised.
With its position on a freight and passenger railway line, the silo acts as a point of connection for someone passing through the field. As one transitions through, they can perceive these different infrastructures and how they form part of an interconnected system.
III. The Church
The final key building in the scheme, the church, acts as the discussion and gathering space for local communities and fragments. The former disused Church at Alvie is symptomatic of a diminishing value associated with such structures, but as communities join The Field, the need for buildings of congregation is brought back into closer focus.
3. The Church | Brittany Devlin, Kate Donaldson, Robert Snelling
Much like the silo, the proposal works with the existing form with considered incisions and openings to allow for new and flexible programs, as well as to reconsider the relationship between custodian and land.
As such, the southern wall is removed to extend into the landscape; community decisions are therefore made in an extended space that is half-built, half-landscaped. The traditional plan of the church is subverted with a collective forum area integrating around the encroaching grasslands and a gradient from land to structure inverts established hierarchies of interiority and exteriority. Over time, this forum area becomes an educational space for workshops on land management.
The church reuses existing materials. Bricks from the removed southern wall are installed in a gabion wall with timber seating to create the forum-like gathering area. Metal sheeting from the roof is also repurposed as operable screens for the church, providing both weather protection and a space for projections. By repurposing the building’s bricks, an ‘architectural event’ is created, a key moment that ingrains a memory within the building, not dissimilar to how our understanding of land has been developed over millennia through stories and observations of change.
Over time, the ground condition at the southern perimeter of the church changes. Initially, there is a continuous concrete base leading from outside to inside. The ground condition transitions with the concrete around the columns starting to be broken up for the grasslands to permeate into the building.
This partial dismantling of the church into a different purpose is also a critique of what we consider heritage. Preserving the church in its current form negates the heritage that was on site before, that is indigenous and landscape heritage.
While repurposing the church can be considered a destructive process, it also restores the site to an equilibrium between two hybrid states – built and landscape, overall seeking to not privilege one more than the other, but recognising both as part of the site’s history and ongoing cultural and ecological generation.
Brittany Devlin↩, Kate Donaldson, and Robert Snelling↩
Brittany Devlin↩, Kate Donaldson, and Robert Snelling↩