Touching the earth lightly: Creativity inspired by nature

Written by Leanne Esposito

Thirty years on and the original design still honours its island home

To introduce this month’s theme of creativity the team at Alive cast a wide net in search of some creative inspiration. What we discovered is that there are some mighty fine artists and artisans sharing their talents. We certainly found an abundance of creative individuals and majestic masterpieces from which to choose.

A highlight is the Maryborough Mural trail launched in 2015. It is art at its collaborative best. The 37 large scale murals and installations which adorn the city’s central business district are certainly impressive and are a showcase of multiple artists’ talents.

hen it’s just a step across to the Walk with Anzacs Gallipoli to Armistice memorial in Queen’s Park which is an inspirational installation with its soaring 8m steel representation of the cliffs at Gallipoli. It honours the men and women who served in and were affected by World War I and has been highly praised.

Not quite satisfied that we’d found the one, and as if spurred on to a higher realm by some unknown force, we continued to look for a creative piece of work that is truly inspired in its representation of our region; an imaginative piece which would exemplify the beauty of our natural surroundings.

At last we found it in the iconic Kingfisher Bay Resort. The resort is a grand scale award-winning project which has stood the test of time. It won Queensland’s top architectural award from the chapter of the Royal Institute of Architects – the prestigious F.D.G. Stanley Award, the state’s top architectural design prize for Queensland’s finest non-residential building. Since the resort’s opening in 1992 it has welcomed millions of visitors, and won numerous tourism awards. The low impact design and structure continues to honour its heritage listed home as the resort melds effortlessly with the environment.

It appears as if the original architectural design of the $60 million project has drawn its inspiration from the island itself. The building of a 152 room hotel, 25 residential villas, eleven bungalows, conference facilities, day guest facilities and a shopping village, is impressive, yet unobtrusive, and seems to fold itself naturally to the landscape. The rolling, curved shape of the roofs mimics and reflects the rolling hills and sand dunes of the island.

K’gari the name given to the island by its traditional owners, translates from ancient mythology as paradise. The legend is that the beautiful spirit K’gari was so enchanted with her surroundings that she pleaded with the great God’s messenger Yendingie to allow her to stay. He relented and transformed her from a spirit into the island which now splays ever so gracefully along the coast where we now live.

A casual observer of the original site would find it difficult to envisage what it would take to build such a large structure in this paradise, especially without destroying the spirit and beauty of the legend.

However talented individuals like Austrian visual artist and architect Friedrich Stowasser, who worked in the field of environmental protection, know all too well how to harness the beauty of nature. He is quoted as saying that paradises can be made with our own hands, with our own creativity in harmony with the free creativity of nature.

This is the point of disclosure for the team. Now that we’ve given you the what, when, where and why we’ve chosen Kingfisher as our focus, let’s fill you in on the who and how it was created.

And while we might introduce the story and our protagonists in fairy tale language, (to emulate what I believe is process directed by the hand of God or many Gods depending on your religious belief) – make no mistake, there was no magic wand but many creative and talented individuals, working long hours, and at times in rough and testing conditions to ensure that the natural habitat was left as undisturbed as possible. The result was a creation that had never been seen before in Australia.

So here we go. The creation story on who and how the Kingfisher Bay Resort and Village was built.
Once upon a time in the eighties an entrepreneur and businessman named Michael Hackett had a dream. And not one of those unconscious and fanciful dreams of unlimited possibilities of castles in the sky. It was a lucid dream about a parcel of freehold land he had acquired on the island.

His dream was to build an island resort with an emphasis on Australia. He would reject the hedonistic hype so prominent in eighties style resorts with their polished marble floors and prancing appaloosa statues. In order to realise his dream of turning a western facing plot of land into an environmentally sensitive resort which could honour the beauty of the natural habitat of the island’s surroundings, he needed the help of a creative genius or two.

Michael Hackett knew of such an architect right here in Queensland who could preserve this pristine paradise. In a case of absolute serendipity and the alignment of the stars Tim Guymer, Brisbane Architect and Yachtsman, on his return from the Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race in 1989, anchored in the waters at the very site where the resort would be built.

Two days later Michael made Tim a proposal which would change the trajectory of his career and that of good friend Ralph Bailey, an expert in Australian Native vegetation, landscape architect and talented architect.

“I’d just finished Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race and we were going down sandy straits there and anchored overnight. Mike Hackett rang me up a couple of days later and said ‘I want you to have a look at a block of land with me.’ So we got in a helicopter and we flew to the site and landed on the beach. We walked around and he told me that he wanted to do a very big resort,” Tim said.

A creative collaboration of big bang magnitude was necessary to pull off such a feat of epic proportions and Tim and Ralph were the men to do it.

Gary Smith a former founding director of the resort said the architects were commissioned to initially work on conceptual designs and the reason they were chosen was because they had an ecological bent both in design and focus.

“The design centered around the integration of architecture and landscape design, environmentally appropriate design, sustainable design, interior and furniture design and that as a result the resort became recognized as their (Guymer Bailey) statement of design philosophy,” Mr Smith said.

Both Tim and Ralph were to continue as supervising architects throughout the entirety of the project. They would design and commission everything from the gardens to the garages and all that was seen and unseen. There was not beam or a bolt which was not a considered option.

“Everything was themed around Fraser Island and its maritime history, like the Maheno Bar. I am a yachtsman which it is fairly evident in the design of rigging and sail structures.

“Originally you could look at the shape of the roof of the main building and see that it was a mirror image of the saddle of the mountain behind it. The building sits under the saddle. We worked with the sand dune shapes on the island.

“There wasn’t even any concrete used. The three-story buildings are held up on treated pine posts and bolted to timber cross beams which are backfilled with sand. Concrete is a very carbon dense industry and is the seventh most polluting industry on the planet.

“Internal timber handrails curve both ways. We used spotted gum from around the Maryborough area. We even designed the light fittings, carpets and menus. It was a total experience. An immersion into Australiana,” Tim said.

In the first instance the land needed protection before they could build anything. Ralph’s expertise was paramount. Tim reflects how they both camped on the island in the early days as there was a lack of suitable accommodation.

“It gave us an opportunity to study the site carefully and develop an understanding of the flora and fauna. It was a clear decision to work with the flora gene pool. We had no imports.

“We had a program of site propagation collection, transplanting and mulching felled trees. We put it all back as closely as we could and endeavoured to slow down and absorb site water rather than focus and accelerate,” Tim said.

These ecologically minded architects acknowledged the need to create an environmentally sensitive design, and a low impact design of the land was essential in order to preserve the pristine paradise.

“How many times have we all contemplated a peaceful scene in a rainforest beside a stream and thought wouldn’t this be a great place to live – sure, what would we do, using the usual approach we would destroy the very environment that attracted us there in the first place. Think again, this time from first principles. How would we preserve this beautiful spot? We would be very gentle, we would touch the site as lightly as possible,” Tim said.

Australia’s renowned Architect, Glen Murcutt said that the phrase to ‘touch the Earth lightly’ originates from Australian indigenous wisdom and is practised by ecologically aware architects. Tim said that in following this practice he and Ralph consulted with K’gari’s traditional owners during the build.

“The team fed of each other. Ralph and I were lecturing at the time and we gathered a talented team of students and newly qualified architects. Creative people. We surrounded ourselves with the pick of the crop, of like-minded people.

“The development team called us the nuts and berries people. We were working with nature,” Tim said.

After nearly 30 years Tim reflects on the Kingfisher he and Ralph designed and built with the help of the award winning Hutchinson’s Builders. He said that the term eco resort hadn’t even been coined.

“Looking back we knew that if we were going to take people along this trip we had to appreciate what it was.

“Mike Hackett was supportive. He could see that it was different. At one stage they did a market survey with the tourism industry to see what the public impression was. It went out to a test market and 100% were for what we were proposing.

“I feel that the project was ahead of its time. Everyone is now looking for peace and tranquility,” Tim said.

And finally, I find proof that a creative genius’ view of the world is different from ours, in Tim’s own words, as he echoes that of Friedrich Stowasser. He explains to me that the site or land on which you build, for instance a suburban square plot versus a rainforest, creates all the difference in design.

“Sometimes you don’t get inspiration from people. What do you do with a square block of land? If you have a colourful client, you might be able to reflect their personality. However, the site is more powerful. Nature is the greatest source of inspiration,” Tim said.

So next time you disembark the barge at Kingfisher take in the scenery, and perchance you glimpse a sliver of structure behind a glistening leaf, remember all that you see or don’t see is thoughtfully and sensitively designed to co-exist in harmony with the island named paradise – K’gari.