Inside the Collection

Fibro coast

'Seaside Cottages' brochure
‘Seaside Cottages’, Wunderlich Limited, 1937. Powerhouse Museum collection.

The Gold Coast City Gallery has been displaying the exhibition Fibro Coast; it will soon be at the University of the Sunshine Coast Gallery. Fibro Coast is about the holiday architecture that is still a feature of the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast.

When I was writing the Fibro frontier during the 90s I went on a research trip to  Brisbane, the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast. I hadn’t been to any of these places since I was a child so it was a revelatory sort of trip, especially the amount of fibro on view which I eagerly recorded on film. So I was pleased to be asked by the Gold Coast gallery to write for the exhibition catalogue and give a gallery talk.

Our image of the Gold Coast is of a high-rise city and that is certainly true of Surfers Paradise, Broadbeach and Coolangatta. But most of this 30 kilometre stretch of coastline is decidedly suburban in character and old (by Gold Coast standards) housing is still common. This is even more so on the comparatively low-rise Sunshine Coast, as is made clear by the photos amassed by Roger Todd and other local heritage activists.

There’s no doubt that a lot of the architectural and cultural appeal of fibro springs from its association with the shack, in Australia a term synonymous with holiday housing. There is a continuum of house typologies that runs from the shack to the home. Strictly speaking a shack is informal, cheap and simple. A home is the opposite – a statement of permanence, prosperity and respectability.

Fibro is quintessentially a shack material but it could also be appropriate to the respectable home if that was built in the bush or near a beach. The distance between affluence, respectability and fibro shrank when it came to weekenders and holiday homes. This was certainly true on the Gold Coast where many of the first generation of fibro shacks were built for graziers, lawyers and Brisbane’s wealthy. After the war they were joined by affluent holidaymakers from the southern states, who were crucial in financing the post-war Gold Coast tourist boom.

Even basic weekenders attempted to make the most of outlook and climate in a way usually ignored in the suburbs. Without always realising it, many builders blended spaces in the same way as contemporary architects. Of course architects have long designed holiday shacks for themselves and others, most famously Le Corbusier’s minimalist Cabanon on the French Riviera. In Australia Corb’s elevated pavilions proved more influential along the coast than in the suburbs, expressed in numerous vernacular copies (at a few removes) of the Villa Savoye. These proto-Modernist houses of the 60s and 70s are particularly appealing, combining vernacular and high-end professional architecture. The combination has since been recycled by the ‘Sunshine Coast school’ of architects with a new generation of retro fibro.

Photograph of fibro holiday flats 1997
Photo by Charles Pickett, 1997.

My own Gold Coast favourites are the fibro holiday flats. These were built elsewhere on the east coast but they are a Gold Coast speciality both in numbers and style, an apparent mismatch of building genre and material usually featuring external stairs and eccentric fibro detailing. Offering more privacy than pre-war guest houses the flats were classless in their appeal, creating Surfers’ future as Australia’s most apartment-friendly city and most democratic holiday address.

Photograph of fibro coast house 1997
Photo by Charles Pickett, 1997.

I mentioned earlier the shack/house continuum: Fibro Coast is testimony to the cultural potency of the shack ideal, a romancing of austerity living in close relationship with nature. The limitation of this ideal is that few of us want to live this way on a permanent basis.

In 1977 the Queensland government abolished death duties, creating a tax haven on the Gold Coast and elsewhere. During the 1980s the focus of the construction on the Gold Coast began to shift from holiday accommodation to permanent residences for the flood of retirees moving north to live. Building shifted towards apartments rather than hotels, homes rather than shacks. The latter became something of a threatened species.

In 2000 the NSW Government introduced SEPP 71, which restricts the height of buildings in coastal developments. However the effect of this well-meaning policy has been to encourage low-rise surburban development along the coast. Combined with sea-changing baby boomers and others, SEPP 71 is McMansionising seaside towns up and down the NSW coast.

Although residential towers are widely seen as enemies of heritage and environment I suspect that many weekenders would have been spared if a more tolerant attitude was taken to high-rise. The result in many coastal locales is the spread of generic suburbia rather than beach-specific architecture, a poor result from every point of view. Long live the shack.

Photograph of fibro coast house 1996
Photo by Charles Pickett, 1996.

Charles Pickett, curator

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