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Corringie Aboriginal Settlement

Dome Drama in the Desert Lizard drawing
The Bulletin, November 15, 1995 Yebble portrait

Innovative and colourful options for housing Aborigines in remote communities aren't without controversy.
Victoria Laurie reports:

Victor Isaacs Victor Isaacs is an unlikely champion of architectural innovation. He saw active service in the Korean War, joined a travelling boxing troupe to become Victor "The Butcher" Isaacs and spent many years odd-jobbing around Western Australia's wheat belt. But in the past two years he has waged a quiet campaign to change ideas about remote Aboriginal housing, partnered by Perth-based architect Phillip Gibbs. The result is a radiantly hued space dome erected amid the stony undulations north of Leonora in W.A's desert.

The canvas dome is covered with exuberant dots and curves depicting a water snake. An aerial view of the dome reveals five squatting figures and on the side is Isaac's totem, the eagle. It recently won a commendation in the National Dulux Colour Awards. The company provided weather-resistant paint to render the dome's cotton calico covering. "It's guaranteed to last 10 years," says Gibbs. "And if someone puts a foot through the canvas, you patch it by simply painting over the tear, which then sticks together. It's rather like the old wheatbags and whitewash."

Yebble portrait Gibbs, who is also an unconventional designer and author of a book on the traditional Malay house ( Phillip Gibbs.,"Building a Malay House" Oxford University Press 1987), developed an active interest in Aboriginal housing problems after visiting fringe camps around Perth. Born in the NSW Riverina, he grew up on a farm whose perimeter included the town tip. " One day I discovered there were Aboriginal people living there. Fifty years later, coming to Western Australia I found things hadn't changed much."
Isaacs has a different connection with Aboriginal housing - with his wife, Joan, he ran one of Perth's first hostels for Aboriginal people visiting the city. In the mid-1980s the couple moved back to Isaacs' birthplace at Wilson's Patch, a bleak and stony terrain 80km north of the remote mining town of Leonora.


The couple wanted to set up an alcohol-free settlement in which their nine children, their families and others could live isolated from the destructive influences of city life. They took with them a few elderly relatives. Then they salvaged building materials from abandoned mining sites and rubbish dumps and built huts. Running water and telephone were connected in 1990 and last year the WA housing authority, Homeswest, provided two portable dwellings.

Cyril Bodney
Cyril Bodney

Over the years Isaacs has accepted requests to house a small number of juvenile offenders, parolees, petrol sniffers and a few Aboriginal patients from Perth's psychiatric hospital. In 1990 the couple obtained a 50-year lease and, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission assistance, drew up a five-year plan to run a hostel on the land.

Isaacs has met some opposition, not least from a local Aboriginal group which objects to his use of tribal land and which publicly protested when Joan Isaacs, a non-local Aborigine, was buried at Wilson's Patch after her death in 1990. Adverse publicity of another kind followed last year when the Burdekin inquiry into the rights of people with mental illness criticised the primitive conditions for the psychiatric patients. Urgent improvements were needed, yet the community had few resources and only modest government subsidies for its care of welfare cases.

When Isaacs met Gibbs, they explored the idea of Buckminster Fuller-designed geodesic domes, which Isaacs had seen in Korea. Gibbs designed a 10 metre- diameter dome, standing six metres high at the apex, that proved comparatively cheap to erect. Gibbs found a Perth manufacturer to make the 165 struts and 65 special joints, and the dome was erected by four men in a day. "When the last pentagon was slotted in, the whole structure suddenly locked rigid," said Gibbs.

Summer Wilja The Traditional Wilja of the area is a domed structure made by intertwining sticks and covered with spinifex grass.

Wilja Frame drawing
Unbleached canvas was sized by painting lengths of cloth on the dusty ground before they were stretched over each pentagonal plane. The dome was dubbed a "wilga", a local Aboriginal name for a beehive-shaped canopy traditionally made of natural materials It cost about $6000 for the frame, $4000 for the canvas and another few thousand dollars for paving and brickwork. The eye-catching water snake motif, painted by Isaac's son-in-law, Billy Dean Moody, is fitting: the dome covers the ablutions block.
Painted Dome
Wilson's patch is now an incongruous group of serviceable but ugly shanties huddled around the rainbow-coloured structure. Isaacs' plan is to build several dome clusters, big and small, to provide families with sleeping areas and a community kitchen. "The idea is that this structure will be repeated many times around the community, just like the traditional wilga canopy shape," says Gibbs. European-Australian culture, he says, "focuses unashamedly on the isolation of the single family unit, [but this] may have little relevance to an Aboriginal family living in a remote settlement with complex inter-family relationships".

The airy, open dome structure contrasts with the grim failure of many purpose-built Aboriginal housing projects. Gibbs and Isaacs point to flat-topped tin sheds or shacks with small louvred windows, made of indestructible panels that, says Gibbs, "are the pride of housing authorities because you can't put your boot through them". It's 50 degrees in the shade in places like this. Try to live in one of these boxes with a flat roof and by six in the morning they are unbearable."

Isaacs is convinced the dome structure is the solution: "I have spent two years of time and effort working with professional people to come up with a building that the community wants".

Wilja with neon
WA's building industry training body, the PPISTC Skills Centre, calls it "a brilliant... practical and low-cost" building solution for semi-skilled communities.

But money is the major obstacle. While $163,000 has been allocated for construction at Wilson's Patch, Homeswest Aboriginal Housing Board spokesman Bob Browning says further funds cannot be released until problems of "long-term durability and design" are addressed. Gibbs and Isaacs have been told the wilga dome does not meet health regulations - for example, food preparation under a dome would not meet sanitation by-laws.

Gibbs says Homeswest "appears to have a policy that Aboriginal housing must be visually indistinguishable from mainstream housing, [meaning] Aboriginal people end up living in a garden shed."

Isaacs is equally disillusioned. "Homeswest may feel that it will lose some of its control," say Isaacs. "Our experience is that it enjoys having control over our lives."
Lizzard drawing

The Bulletin, November 15, 1994

Corringie Panorama
During the past three years Yebble has persisted with his plans. Two more Wiljas have been built and another is fabricated ready on site to be put up.
Postscript from Yebble

Model in the Australian Museum Billy Dean Moody's designs for the decoration of the dome were exhibited at the Australian Heritage Commission, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Art Award 1994/95. The work was acquired by the Aboriginal Studies Unit and forms part of the Australian National Museum collection Canberra, ACT.

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