Centre for Architecture Theory Criticism History
School of Architecture

Triumph in the Tropics? Discourses on Climate and Architecture

July 18: AERC Meeting Room: Zelman Cowan Building Level 5, Room 517, 9am-3pm.


9am: loading of presentations

9.15: Vandana Baweja: Situating Florida Tropical Modernism within Global Modernisms  

9.45: Cathy Keys: Do we need new environmental histories of the elevated Tropical Queensland House? Storm surge, surveillance, and the cultural weathering of ‘under the house’.

10.15: Elizabeth Musgrave: Semantics, science and the Queensland idiom: John Dalton’s Kelvin Grove Halls of Residence.

10.45: Dr Andrew Wilson: Cities in the Sun: The Fundamentals of Australian Tropical Architecture.

11.15: Deborah van der Plaat:  Triumph in the Tropics (1959) and notions of climate in Queensland architecture.

12-1.00 PM: LUNCH

1.00-2.45: General discussion



Situating Florida Tropical Modernism within Global Modernisms  

Dr. Vandana Baweja, University of Florida

From the 1930s to the 1960s, three modernist strains of climate-responsive design developed as—Bio-climatic Architecture at Princeton University; Tropical Architecture in colonial cultures in South Asia, South-East Asia, Australia, and Africa; and Tropical Architecture in Florida. These strains of modernisms developed as homologous discourses on regionalism and climate-responsive design. The Hungarian émigré twin brothers—Victor Olgyay (1910–1970) and Aladar Olgyay (1910–1963)—pioneered Bio-climatic Architecture with the publication of their manifesto Design With Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism (1963). Otto Koenigsberger (1908–99), Jane Drew (1911–1996), Maxwell Fry (1899–1987), Fello Atkinson (1919–1982), and George Atkinson (1915–) in London spearheaded Tropical Architecture at the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture and were the key players in the dissemination and development of Tropical Architecture along the networks of the British Empire. Publications on Tropical Architecture and Bio-climatic Architecture in the such as—Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry’s Tropical architecture in the humid zone (1956), Givoni Baruch’s Man, climate and architecture (1969), and Otto Koenigsberger’s Manual of Tropical Housing & Building (1975)—established the AA group as the avant-garde players in the field of Tropical Architecture. While the idea and discourse of Tropical Architecture has been very well studied in colonial tropics, there is hardly any scholarship on Florida’s Tropical Modernism. Further, the existing scholarship examines Florida Tropical Modernism in the context of Florida histories and American architectural cultures. This paper examines the work of three Florida Modernist architects—Igor Polevitzky (1911–1978), Alfred Browning Parker (1916–2011), and Rufus Nims (1913–2005)—to unearth how they appropriated and transformed the prevalent global colonial discourses of tropicality and tropical architecture as exercises in place-making in the context of Florida. Through this paper, I locate the Florida Modernist architecture of Polevitzky, Parker, and Nims within the larger global histories of Tropical Architecture.

Do we need new environmental histories of the elevated Tropical Queensland House? Storm surge, surveillance, and the cultural weathering of under the house.

Cathy Keys

We understand the elevated Queensland house to be a uniquely Australian expression of tropicalarchitecture. Earliest Settler examples of the elevated  house appeared in coastal riverine landscapes seasonally impacted by tropical cyclones, storm surges, and flooding. Technical drivers associated with a narrative of climatic responsiveness have led architectural theories surrounding the practice of lifting simple timberframed houses up to three metres (9 feet) on hardwood timber piles or stumps.i The elevated house dominated the Queensland housing market from the 1870s through to the end of WW2 with a range of uses linked to the open under house spaces created by elevation. These ageing dwellings continue to make up a significant volume of the current housing stock in contemporary urban

settlements, but urban density pressures have seen the widespread practice of enclosing and occupying interstitial spaces such as verandahs and under the house. Post-war architectural theorists drawing on newly released findings from the Australian Commonwealth Experimental Building Station(CEBS) were quick to point out the climatic limitations of increasingly enclosed elevated Queensland housing and highlighted the benefits of a modernist tropical architecture aesthetic that largely rejected elevation.ii

However, after the widespread and devastating Queensland floods of Summer 2010/11, elevation has once again become a matter of priority. Amended town planning legislation in the state's capital, Brisbane, permits the hyper-elevation of housing up to nine metres (27 feet) above the ground. The offensive stance these hyper-elevated houses take in existing neighbourhoods has highlighted a lack of scholarship around issues of surveillance and the changing meaning and use, or cultural weatheringiii, of under the house. In seeking to look through the lens of culture at the Queensland house, this paper explores an alternative environmental history of tropical architecture by examining elevation in the context of Indigenous and frontier architectures and an alternative reading of the findings of the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station.


Semantics, science and the Queensland idiom: John Dalton’s Kelvin Grove Halls of Residence

Elizabeth Musgrave

This paper will consider questions raised by the regionalist response of (sub)-tropical (post)modern Queensland architecture through analysis of the Kelvin Grove Halls of Residence (1974) in Brisbane, Queensland by John Dalton Architect and Associates, a practice identified with climate responsive design in historical accounts of mid-century modern Queensland architecture.

A post-war critical shortage of technicians (tradesman) and technologists (professional) in the state of Queensland lead to the restructuring and expansion of the education sector in that state. The Kelvin Grove Halls of Residence was a residential college for trade based apprenticeship release programs to house mainly young apprentices, many of whom were travelling to the city from remote farming communities for the very first time.  It mediated between the expanding Kelvin Grove Teachers College, then comprised of a 1940s neo-classical brick building and off-form concrete and blockwork buildings in a modern idiom, and the adjacent suburbs of Kelvin Grove and Normanby, at that time a patchwork of fragile timber bungalows, Queensland’s version of the colonial bungalow. Dalton’s adoption of the archetypal picturesque English village or the Italian hill-town model to create settings conducive to making youngsters feel ‘at home,’ had precedents in project work locally and internationally. In negotiating notions of hill-town with the specific circumstances of Brisbane’s topography and climate, Dalton resorted to the scientifically tested and validated climate responsive language and planning strategies that characterise his oeuvre and have their origins in the pre-existing Queensland bungalow form.

This paper will compare the Kelvin Grove Halls of Residence with similar contemporaneous projects, both modern and postmodern solutions that engage with ideas about the pre-existing Queensland bungalow. It will explore abstraction of form as distinct from its appropriation through symbolism or semiotics in order to understand the consequences of both for climate responsive design solutions for increasingly dense urban situations.

Cities in the Sun: The Fundamentals of Australian Tropical Architecture

Andrew Wilson

Cities in the Sun (1964), was a report compiled on tropical cities and architecture from around the world, produced by Queensland architect Stephen Trotter, winner of the Australian Sisalkraft Research Scholarship in Architecture in 1963, sponsored by the RAIA and industry partner ACI. Key to the scope of this report was a prevailing anxiety that Australian culture had “no suitable national traditions”. It represented an attempt to establish fundamental principles for comfortable tropical cities, and architecture’s climatic suitability, from other cultural traditions, translatable to Australia.

Trotter’s report was an ambitious illustrated travelogue that organised cities and resultant architecture into two categories, Hot Dry Areas, and Hot Wet Areas, after extensive travels by air through India, Persia, Oceania, Asia, South America, North America, and Europe. This division reflected an agenda to uncover lessons for future cities suitable for conditions in Australia’s “under-populated” north, and desert regions. It presented vernacular, colonial, and modern buildings side-by-side, with sketches, photographs, and diagrams, and a textual appraisal of each city. Significantly, the cities of Brazil were presented first, with notes that established Australian locations of similar latitude.  The buildings of Sao Paulo were singled for praise, for their individuality and excellence, and claimed to provide a model for a civilised nation.

The breadth of the report’s ambitions is noteworthy, ranging across cities, climatic concerns, an optimistic embracing of cultural diversity, and in the equivalent weight given to Traditional, Colonial, and Modern building exemplars, materials, and architectural elements.

The impact of the report’s findings will be assessed against projects designed by Trotter immediately in its wake, International House, University of Queensland (1964), and the Mathers House, Kenmore (1964).

Triumph of the Tropics (1959) and notions of climate in Queensland architecture.

Deborah van der Plaat

In 1925, the Australian doctor and public health official Raphael Cilento (1893-1985) published White Man in the Tropics. Seeking to debunk the ‘myth’ that white communities could not acclimatise to tropical climates, Cilento adapted and modified an international discourse on western civilisation and the tropics to the specifics and peculiarities of Queensland Australia. The interest of Cilento’s writings (and that of his colleagues) is the continuity and extension into the twentieth century of colonial discourses on climate, race and settlement that predate physiological studies of environments (industrial fatigue) and the later global networks of the Department of Tropical Architecture (Architecture Academy) established in 1955 first under Maxwell Fry and followed by Otto Koenigsberger. The aim of this paper is to consider the influence of Cilento and his colleagues on the Architectural Sciences and climatic design of Post- War Queensland. Two examples will be considered. The writings and designs of the Austrian born and trained architecture Karl Langer (who arrived in Brisbane in 1940) and Indian born Balwant Saini (1930-): author of Architecture in Tropical Australia (1970) and Building Environment: An illustrated Analysis of Problems in Hot Dry Lands (1973).