Sky Barrels: Lake Daylesford, Neighbourhood Character, and Imagistic Architecture

In Daylesford there has been a recent planning application for ‘Sky Barrels’ on Cornish Hill (Fig. 1).[1] These are five one-bedroom holiday cottages in the shape of compressed (elliptical) barrels on metal stands. The ends of the barrels are windowed, and there is a sitting room on one level and a bedroom on the other. Cornish Hill is an old gold mining area, formerly the Argus mine. (It is better known to local children as ‘the Argie’).

Fig. 1. ‘Sky Barre;ls’. From the plannig application.

The Cornish Hill area ends on a ridge overlooking Lake Daylesford, a short distance above the Ballan road at Lake House (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Lake Daylesford, looking East. Cornish hiss the ridge in the centre distance.

There are various houses on the slope above the road and on a dead-end road parallel to the Ballan road, many of which function as holiday accommodation. At the junction with this road there is a house offering spiritual readings, and at this point the uphill road degenerates into a track that goes across Cornish Hill. Here there is a large allotment which is the site of the planned structures (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Aerial view of Lake Daylesford, with Cornish Hill at lower right. (Google Maps.)

This area forms a prong jutting into the Cornish Hill reserve, so that the allotment in question is enfolded by the reserve on the north side, with a long frontage against the reserve (Fig. 4). Immediately below the allotment to the right in the direction of the lake is a grove of trees that obscures the view to the lake from ground level. The high point of the ridge is a little above the allotment, which is thus part of the slope down to the lake rather than being visually part of the moonscape of Cornish Hill.

Fig. 4. Sky Barrels allotment in red.

Neighbourhood Character Overlays

The Victorian planning system has provision for what are called Neighbourhood Character Overlays, which apply to much of the Daylesford township. (There is also a Heritage Overlay, which is slightly different.) This was introduced some years ago and I remember at the time attending a public meeting that sought input. ‘Neighbourhood character’ works best when there is a relatively intact townscape that has an architectural coherence, usually because all the buildings were erected at about the same time (for example, the nice part of Parkville). Neighbourhood character in such cases can be fairly strictly defined in architectural terms, and can effectively control infil, redevelopment and additions to ensure that they are ‘in keeping’ with what already exists.

Unfortunately, the Neighbourhood Character planning framework in Daylesford does not work.

Daylesford’s housing, like that of other country towns, has traditionally been poor, shabby, ncoherent, and of all periods. I remember when I first came here being told that people’s cars were worth more than their houses (!) The planning system was weak to nonexistent, and unauthorised building was common. Houses were on large (quarter acre/1000 sq. metre) allotments, often double ones, with numerous empty allotments. There was often quite a lot of vegetation, randomly planted with exotic species. On Wombat Hill there were a lot of walnut trees, a great many of which have been cut down over the years. Many properties still had the hawthorn hedges planted in the nineteenth century, which were either trimmed ferociously low or not trimmed at all. Almost all are now gone. There were also some high cypress hedges on some of the more middle-class housing, and hedges of other species like pittosporum. There were also many chook sheds. And pigeons: pigeon racing was a popular local hobby.

A disinterested description of the town’s ‘neighbourhood character’ at the time the rules were formulated would have stressed the shabby housing, the open spacious country town feel and the exotic vegetation moving to scrubby native vegetation towards the periphery. I remember pointing out to the planners at the abovementioned public meeting how important to the town’s neighbourhood character were the large allotments. I was told that this could not be accommodated in the overlay because State Government policy was to maximise density in order to maximise the usefulness of infrastructure and to contain urban sprawl.

At that meeting it was suggested that fence heights, according to the overlay, would be restricted to 1.2 metres. I am not sure if that made it into the final version. This is based on a principal of planning theory that is on one level admirable: that low fences encourage social communication and a friendly environment, and that high fences and walls prevent this. This was out of touch with what the town was and is. When I asked ‘what about high hedges, will they be permitted?’ I was met with a blank stare. It had simply not occurred to anyone. So I took that as a ‘yes’. In fact the height of fences has always been beside the point; most homeowners either opted for privacy or not, and the former mostly used vegetation on a spacious allotment to achieve this. 

In desperation the planners turned to materials, in an attempt to find something definable, but these prescriptions are feebly formulated (typically, ‘if possible’).  In practice if you look about the town there is absolutely no consistency in materials in any building in any precinct that I have seen that have gone up in the last twenty years. The overlay may advise light coloured weatherboards but bright red bricks are used anyway. One can even say that there is an inverse relationship between conformity to the neighbourhood character overlays and a real contribution to the character of a precinct. The term ‘character’ is in fact employed to avoid any requirement that a building should look good.

Indeed, I recall at the abovementioned meeting an architect speaking against the proposed overlays, on the grounds that it would restrict good architect-designed architecture. At the time I felt conflicted by this point of view: on the one had I saw the Neighbourhood Character overlay as a way of containing unsuitable development; on the other I thought that a building designed by an architect was likely to be better looking than one not. The outcome, of course, was that the Neighbourhood Character overlay has done nothing to prevent the construction of nasty buildings, nor has it inhibited architects doing their thing (which includes designing nasty buildings). 

The core of the problem is that there is nothing in the overlays that actually guides creation. While the prescriptiveness of private developments like Seaside in Florida or Dinner Plain in the Victorian Alps may be inappropriate for a pluralistic country town, some vision of what the town might look like ought to be in the loop somewhere. But in that the Neighbourhood Character overlay has failed.

Inagistic Architecture and Lake Daylesford: The ‘Monet Bridge’

But where the shores of Lake Daylesford is concerned, a ‘neighbourhood character’, unrecognised by the planning scheme, already exists.  The criss-cross parapets around the lake are often admired by visitors and feature prominently in tourism publicity, no doubt because they can be read as being a somewhat festive detail appropriate to a holiday town (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Holiday accomodation beside Lake Daylesford (Lake House).

This feature was begun by one party and imitated by others, a process that spontaneously created a distinctive neighbourhood character for the lakeside area (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Criss-cross parapet on holiday accommodation on Lake Daylesford.

By accident, the criss-cross theme is reflected in the 1980s bridge on the north-west side of the lake (Fig. 7). This is one of several such features created in the heritage-friendly 1980s, and so was painted in ‘heritage’ colours: Indian red, Brunswick green, and cream, unlike the parapets, which are all in whitish colours. This bridge is sometimes referred to by locals, in a fit of wishful thinking, as ‘the Monet Bridge’.

Fig. 7. The ‘Monet Bridge’ seen from the Boat House.

This is a classic example of spontaneous imagistic thinking. It is also an example of how imagistic thinking with regard to architecture goes unrecognised. This bridge was recently repainted, for the first time, in its original colours, which was a lost opportunity. The multiplicity of colours means that from across the lake the bridge is hard to read: the cream crosses detatch themselves fom the darker colours of the posts and railings (Fig. 6).

Fig. 8. The ‘Monet Bridge’ on the north-west side of Lake Daylesford.

It would have been better to have painted it a uniform blue-green, which would have made it truly a ‘Monet bridge’. This is the power of colour in architecture: even though the structure is nothing like Monet’s bridge at Giverny, and there are no waterlilies, a similarity of colour would be sufficient to cement the association. (Incidentally there is an explicit representation of a ‘Monet Bridge’ at the gardens of Tieve Tara in Mt Macedon, complete with waterlilies.) 

If the Lake Daylesford bridge were to be painted vermilion, it would become a Chinese bridge. This could be glossed as an allusion to the Chinese gold miners and the Joss House that stood on a site now covered by the lake. Indeed, the barbecue pavilion on the other side of the lake, designed by architect Clinton Krause, also in the 1980s, is in Chinese style in order to make exactly this allusion (Fig. 9). Its colouring, however, is not very Chinese, being muted reddish-brown and pale turquoise. While the bridge was painted in ‘heritage’ colours,  the barbecue pavilion was painted in ‘designer’ colours, alluding to Chinese colouring but denying it at the same time, so as to look ‘contemporary’ rather than ‘exotic’.

Fig. 9. ‘Chinese’ barbecue shelter. architect: Clinton Krause.

Alternatively, if the bridge were painted white, it would become a ‘Palladian’ bridge, but the allusion would be lost on most. A number of bridges in European landscape gardens directly inspired by Palladio with criss-cross parapets painted white are commonly identified as Chinese, a rare instance where form (their curvature and criss-cross motif) prevails over colour in generating meaning, though context also plays a part (Chinese bridges are expected in such gardens, while Palladio is not associated with ornamental bridges in the popular imagination).

The Transience of the lakeside ‘Neighbourhood character’

I am arguing, then, that the criss-cross verandah parapets around the lake help to create ‘neighbourhood character’. To this we could add gables and pitched roofs (Fig. 10). But this neighbourhood character, like all neighbourhod character prescriptions, has an historical dimension: it already seems to belong to the 1980s and 1990s. More recent buildings, especially those with architectural pretensions, emphatically avoid these features. This is because cutting-edge contemporary architecture is inherently anti-contextual. It considers local building traditions to be design constraints, rather than design stimuli. And it speaks, not to place, but to the architectural profession. Its meaning, architecturally, is to advance the reputation of the architect and, by reflection, assert the status of the owner. This meaning exists in the world of architectural prizes, trade magazines, and Country Style magazine.

Fig. 10. View of Lake House across Lake Daylesford. Much criss-crossing.

Sky Barrels

Apart from the brief flowering of Postmodernism, contemporary architectural theory has generally been hostile to imagery, while valorising function and materials. Presumably for this reason neighbourhood character overlays never mention imagery, even though this is what most people think of when they hear the term. Imagery is highly context sensitive and a very powerful generater of cultural meaning, as the bridge example shows.

The design of the Sky Barrels project is explcitly imagistic, as is expressed in the name (Fig. 1). These structures are not buildings, or houses: they are barrels. As barrels they must be wine barrels, as winemaking is the only context where barrels are met with today. Such an association would inescapable for anyone seeing these structures were they to be erected.

Wine Barrels as functional design

It could be argued that the developer and architect did not intend this project to say ‘wine barrels’, and that it is just good, functional design that happens to adopt a form corresponding to squashed wine barrels. There is undoubtedly a functional component to all this, and that is to get the windows high enough to have a view over the trees to the lake. If one were to built a house this high one would exceed height restrictions without having a way of justifying doing so. But one can exploit the strangeness of barrels on stilts by arguing that it is something other than a set of houses, or dwellings. And this is what the planning application does. It argues that the proposed structures are neither ‘dwellings’ nor ‘residential buildings’, but ‘group accommodation’, and height requirements do not apply:

…the maximum building height requirements do not apply to the proposed Group Accommodation units (as Group Accommodation is not considered a ‘dwelling’ or ‘residential building’ pursuant to Clause 73.03 of the Hepburn Planning Scheme) …

Legal precedent at VCAT is cited:

This view is supported by the findings of Maclean v Yarra CC [2021] VCAT 614, in which consideration of a proposed group accommodation use in the NRZ was adjudicated on. As per paragraphs 18 and 58 of the written reasons, Deputy President Bisucci agreed with Council and the permit applicant (respondent in this case) that the maximum height requirement did not apply to the application for planning permit because the proposed use of the subject land was neither a dwelling nor a residential building.

Yet the applicaton states that ‘the proposal has been designed to adhere to the height controls’. Which makes one ask, why is this paragraph needed? All very confusing,

Justification in terms of mining imagery

One argument in the application is that the structures recall mining headframes.

‘The built form … whilst clearly identifiable as a later addition to the Heritage precinct, … draws from the existing heritage fabric within the area in its emulation of the old gold mining headframes’. … ‘Galvanised steel frames proposed in a manner that emulates the old gold mining headframes in interpretation and to reference the Cornish Hill Mining precinct.’

This is supposed to have us believe that these Sky Barrels conform to Heritage and Neighbourhood character overlays for Cornish Hill, a former mining site where the Argus mine which had such a headframe, although almost certainly not galvanised.

The resemblance of the Sky Barrel frames to such towers is spurious; they don’t look remotely like them (Fig. 11). A few exposed steel girders does not a similarity make. It is regular planning casuistry to extract some abstract structural feature and claim that it an allusion or sympathetic response.

Fig. 11. Historic photo of the first Cornish Battery, 1885.

In any case, what is the point of this observation? Is it being argued that, by accident, the developer is creating a mining site theme park? The long gone mining structures of Cornish hill were not on this ridge. And why should we want to recreate them? Mining was and is a destructive activity, as the historic photo shows. While we might want to preserve the remnants of this activity for historical reasons and because what remains has been mellowed by time, why would anyone want a new pseudo-mining rig disfiguring the ridge?

Tourism as heritage history

In fact the Cornish Hill ridge facing west and everything below it has a heritage history that has little to do with mining, and everything to do with a quite different industry: tourism. The Lake Daylesford area was once a mined wasteland like Cornish Hill, When the mining was finished the stream was dammed to make Lake Daylesford (the appearance of the lake area before this can be seen in a drawing by Eugene von Guérard made in 1864 (Fig. 12)). After a few decades it became a tourist destination, which it it has never ceased to be. (Never say never: it is now being transformed into an outer suburb of Melbourne.) The Cornish Hill ridge seen from the west is the culminating feature of a tourism-created townscape that has long ago obscured the mining-created one, and, as described above, much of that character is created by criss-cross holidayesque verandahs and gables.

Figure 12. Eugene von Guérard, View of future Lake Daylesford area on May 1, 1864. Sydney, State Library of New South Wales, Dixson Galleries DG*G 17 vol. 1 f. 10.

Modernism, duration and imagistic architecture

Imagistic architecture has a heightened temporal dimension. Modernist architectural theory was concerned to establish architecture as something outside of time. This was because it was created in opposition to nineteenth-century architectural historicism, which was wholly about reference to the styles of past architecture. The most repeated refrain of modernist architectural theory is that one should be creating the architecture of this century, not of past centuries. It is interesting that this trope deals in centuries. It was first enunciated in the nineteenth century as ‘we need an architecture of the nineteenth century’. By the time this idea gained traction, it had become ‘we need an architecture of the twentieth century’. It is still being enunciated today, for example by Kevin McCloud in Grand Designs, who praises a building for being ‘of the twenty-first century’. It is, in essence, a call for a period style to add to those of past periods.

Imagistic architecture escapes from the need to be of ‘this century’, because it connects directly to the time and place of whatever it is an image of. The planning application for the Sky Barrels predictably states that ‘the built form is unashamedly contemporary’. This appears in the in the paragraph dealing with the heritage context cited above, and is a reflex modernist response to the implication that reference to historic precedent is necessarily bad. But this centuries-old opposition between contemporary (or ‘this-century’) and historicist architecture is here beside the point. The potential historicism of some metal girders pales beside the in-your-face assault of wine barrel imagery. Nineteenth-century historicism conceived of architectural imagery in period-style terms: Ancient Greek or Roman classicism, Gothic and so on. Wine barrel imagery does not take us down that path, but the path of association with what wine barrels are associated with, namely, the winemaking industry. It becomes a kind of trade logo, an advertisement for a winery or vineyard theme park.

At Passing Clouds vineyard at Musk you are greeted by carved wine glasses on the fence posts, and the entrance area is barrel-themed with galvanised steel hoops.  But these are contained within the vineyard itself, and signal the purpose of the business. They are meaningful ornament, playfully reminding you of why you are there. But there are not many vineyards near Daylesford, and it is not what the town is known for. And if the town collectively wanted to brand itself in this way, it should be the decision of the town, not the random whim of a developer. If this were the advertising hoarding of a wine company or vineyard, it would be rejected by the planners from the beginning.

And the imagistic associations don’t stop there. The barrels are squashed laterally, which sets up other association; such as with cartoon drawings of wagon wheels at speed. Once a building suggests an image, any change to its form that departs from that image has exceptional expressive force. Mannerist architects in the sixteenth century understood this.

This kind of imagistic architecture implies a temporality of a different kind. Period-style historicism made connections with a past that aspired to timelessness. But the Sky Barrels project has a temporality corresponding to advertising and social media. It is inherently transitory. This project is presumably intended to appeal to Instagrammers, who can post a picture of themselves in front the structures, with the caption ‘I spent a night in a wine barrel!’ The excitement of this activity is good for about 5 minutes. Ars longa, vita brevis. Novelty is not a virtue in urbanism; what is good for an Instagram moment becmes tedious if you have to see it day after day, year after year.

‘Yes, it looks horrible, but don’t worry, you won’t actually be able to see it.’

Planning applications, like this one, are preoccupied with establishing that the proposed structure does not cause offence. The term ‘impact’ is frequently employed, as in ‘the impact of the comet was not so bad, even if it did wipe out the dinosaurs’.

This planning application is typical in this respect:

‘The low site coverage (7%), compact building design, central positioning in the site, and cuts into the land when viewed from the more sensitive eastern boundary results in a proposed that provides new built form that is subservient to the natural surrounds against the backdrop of the Cornish Hill to the west [sic].

 ‘These design aspects result in only limited (and clearly acceptable) visibility from the public realm (Houston Street), and it is considered that the design provides a negligible (and acceptable) visual impact to the streetscape and the wider precinct.’

 ‘The proposal provides dark and muted colours to assist with the subservient presentation of the built forms within the natural landscaped setting (especially as the Cornish Hill rises to the west [sic] of the site).’

‘Noting the high sensitivity of this setting, we are advised that the proposal’s exposure is acceptable with the impact limited to the immediate western valley.’

Such applications never assert that the building’s visibility can be a public benefit: that it will look good.

The public benefit of a proposal is, as here, normally framed in economic terms: the building will boost the local economy:

‘The proposal will make a positive contribution to tourism accommodation options in Daylesford and the wider Hepburn area, without causing unreasonable amenity impacts for adjoining properties or unreasonably impacting on the valued heritage and landscape qualities of the area.’

Viewing to and viewing from

The appearance of the building is assumed to be a negative, and it is assumed that the public economic benefit comes at the expense of public visual amenity. This is why the application keeps insisting that yes, the sight of the building is a negative, but really, you won’t be able to see it. This is not believable. The whole point of the sky barrel concept design is to give the occupants a view of the lake, and if you can see the lake from them, they can be seen from the lake. The ‘viewshed’ diagrams (which map all the parts of the town from which the Sky Barrels will be seen) show that they will be able to be seen from most of the town.

Inherent in this is the problem of views. Views are selfish things. In your new ugly building you get a beautiful view; but if someone is in this view they get a view back to your ugly building. A prime instance of this is the new tourist developments on the side of Mt Franklin. These are designed to appropriate to themselves the view painted by Eugene von Guérard from the upper slopes of Mt Franklin towards Maldon (Fig. 13).

Fig. 13. Eugène von Guérard, View North-west from Mt. Franklin. Sydney, art Gallery of NSW, Dixson Galleries.

But these buildings destroy the view back to the once beautiful hillside running up the side of Mt Franklin.  At night it is like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind: lights hover eerily over the road, like an alien spaceship. In any country but Australia such a landscape would have heritage value and be preserved. But Australia is the paradise of selfish people: all the matters is the view from, never the view to.(Fig. 14).

Fig. 13. Eugène von Guérard, View North-west from Mt. Franklin. Private Collection.

[1] https://thewombatpost.com.au/2021/12/16/controversial-skybarrells-proposed-for-cornish-hill/. Hepburn Shire Council website, PA-3333-Advertised-Plans-1-of-2-Camp-Street-DAYLESFORD-Property-200369_Redacted.pdf

This entry was posted in All Posts, Architectural paintings, Architecture, Comment, Daylesford, Design, Fabriques, Town and Village, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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