As Victoria enters another particularly high-risk bushfire season, more than half of the state is on high alert. Australia’s warmest winter on record was also one of the driest, leaving our sunburnt country ripe with flammable materials and climate change deniers confronted with irrefutable evidence. Within that half of the state is the town of Narbethong, deep in the Yarra Valley. Narbethong knows the threat bushfire season poses more than most – it was partially destroyed during the 1939 Ash Wednesday Fires and again on Black Saturday, the worst bushfire disaster Australia has ever experienced, in 2009.

The hall overlooking the rolling hills of the Upper Yarra Valley.

“It’s just the most wonderful space for the community. It’s the right size, not too big, not too small, you’ve got the intimate corners and… it’s just absolutely bloody stunning!”

An ecstatic Narbethong resident

With the 50-year old Narbethong Community Hall destroyed in the 2009 fires, the community struggled to find a space to reconcile, regroup and rebuild. It’s a painfully recurring theme in the wake of natural disasters. “You take it for granted a bit when you have a public space, and when you don’t have one, in the face of a disaster, when people need to be brought together, you really feel the lack of it”, Jennifer Wood, committee member for the Narbethong Community Hall, told BVN, the architects who would go on to rebuild it.

Wood was first put in touch with BVN through Emergency Architects Australia, a not-for-profit that arranges pro-bono architecture projects for communities devastated by natural disaster. Formed to respond to the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami that devastated Indonesia, the foundation has worked with diverse communities across Australasia in the years since.

The original Narbethong Community Hall following the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires.
Intimate spaces compliment large public meeting areas within the hall.

For BVN, the first step was getting to know the needs of the community, to ensure that the hall could be rebuilt for the future in a way the respected the past.

“When BVN designed [the hall] they had such a good process for really working with the local people about what it was they wanted out of their hall”, a local resident said at its opening celebration.

Incorporating a series of intimate spaces alongside larger indoor and outdoor gathering spaces, the building is highly flexible and capable of functioning as an information centre, a performance hall, a gallery space and an emergency shelter. And to reflect Narbethong’s long history as a timber town, the hall would be constructed of wood panelling that mirror the tall gums of the Black Spur Forest.

Vertical wooden slats are an homage to Narbethong's history as a timber town.

While an overwhelmingly wooden structure poses a significant challenge to any architect building in a bushfire prone area, the hall’s history made this a particularly loaded task. Just metres from dense bushland, the hall needed to meet a high Bush Fire Attack level to endure for the community in the event of future fires.

BVN’s response balanced elegance with practicality; the hall’s wooden interior is shrouded in double-glazing and fire resistant bronze mesh and water storage for fighting fires is located on site. From the section of the Maroondah Highway that dissects Narbethong, the Community Hall is a visible memorial for the people of the Upper Yarra Valley, sitting low before a skyline that falls away to rolling hills. But its real beauty is experienced from within, by Narbethong’s proud residents.

“It’s just the most wonderful space for the community. It’s the right size, not too big, not too small, you’ve got the intimate corners and… it’s just absolutely bloody stunning!”

Details

Location
Narbethong, Australia

Designer
BVN

Year
2011

Author

Samuel Davison is Editor at Right Angle Studio. He has written extensively on cities for a range of international publications. He also publishes This is the Same Ocean, an annual journal of photography. His photographic work has been shown around the world and he was the 2016 winner of the Independent Photography Festival’s Grand Jury Prize.

Photography by John Gollings, courtesy of BVN.