Sky Hulk

Cunningham's Gap

If you were to drive up the Cunningham Highway from Brisbane through to Warwick, you cross the Main Range part of the Great Dividing Range at Cunningham’s Gap.* It’s a winding ascent, the kind where you really don’t want to get stuck behind a truck. As you go up, the land slopes away to the east and the road is exposed to the elements. Dry eucalypt forest is all around, with plenty of exposed rock, robust shrubs and grasses and the sound of crickets.

Eventually you’ll make a left turn, taking you into the Gap itself between Mt Cordeaux and Mt Mitchell. All of a sudden the tree canopy closes over and the temperature drops a few degrees; figs, vines, ferns and epiphytes crown in towards the road and the familiar sound of eastern whipbirds fills the air.

It’s the abrupt change I find most striking. It’s caused (in part) by topography, or aspect** and sunpath: the dry eucalypt slopes are exposed to the sun all morning, whereas the rainforested Gap is sheltered by mountains to the north and south.

The different kinds of forest march and spread where they can, and as the canopy cover opens up or closes over the other plants take their opportunities, like an unending process of experimentation interrupted by events. Maybe a fire or a new road going through. Over time, those forest types dig their heels in and settle in where they can fit better than any other.

The result – the abrupt change we notice when driving through – is powerful because it demonstrates the effects of both time and aspect, effects which can likewise be applied to the urban environments where most of us live.

The aspect part of it is self-evident: in places where I have lived in Australia, a large window facing west can make things pretty unpleasant in summer. If you were to build a house in Australia today you have to run the design through a computer program to test for these things, and it might tell you to make the window smaller, give it some shade or use a better window product.

That’s all good. What it’s doing is wielding numbers to make people design and build things better. It’s hard to argue with numbers. The numbers have the power to compel, whereas other aspects of climate-appropriate design can too easily be claimed without base, can’t be regulated, and in reality are superseded by other priorities like aesthetics or cost. There’s almost no motivation to include something if you can’t quantify it and claim credit for it. Today, if it can’t be quantified it barely exists. That’s unsurprising: any paradigm necessarily creates blind spots.

Back to Cunningham’s Gap. Our inarguable example of the power of time and aspect shows that, over time and left to itself, the landscape will play to its strengths. That’s why if you go out the south-facing back door of my block of flats to the rear of the property, a narrow rectangle of land bounded by bricks, concrete, wooden palings and sky, there is moss growing everywhere in the cool and dark. Why if the unfinished Sky Hulk was left to its own devices, a different climbing-weed competition would play out on each of its sides.

Why then exclude ourselves from the influence of time and aspect? We would seek out spaces when they bring pleasant experiences like winter sunshine and retreat elsewhere when they exhaust our senses.*** Over time, we would construct our days and years around this relationship to both indoor and outdoor space. A season in the rainforest and the next in the dry eucalypt forest. Pets are always doing this.

Today, however, we can use machines that simply change the space with cooling and heating. Those numbers that the computer program spat out were directly related to the amount of cooling and heating that might be desired. That’s the world we’ve constructed and it means we can avoid having to respond ourselves.

It’s true that before the computer programs and numbers (but, importantly, after the invention of heating and cooling machines) our buildings were terrible and needed bigger machines to be habitable. It’s also also true that the machines stop the elderly from dying during heatwaves and let babies and their carers get a night of sleep. But it’s important to see that, at the same time, there’s a positive feedback loop playing out here that began with the machines, and begets more machines.

Choosing a paradigm always solves some problems but puts other solutions out of reach. The argument I make is not to regress back to some naïve view of the pre-industrial past, but to find a way to keep technology in its place and cultivate other ways of being that, like the forests in Cunningham’s Gap, settle in over time.

* I wish I could find the Aboriginal names for these places. I’m haven’t found evidence that anyone knows them anymore.

** As in its positioning in a particular direction.

*** The term for this is alliesthesia, the dependent state between the internal state of an organism and the perceived pleasure or displeasure of stimuli.