Outback attractions better by design

Award-winning architecture is providing an unlikely boost for regional communities.

Striking contemporary architecture is not the first thing that springs to mind when contemplating a trip to Australia's dry and dusty interior. 

Yet a series of tourist attractions in outback Queensland has become an unlikely architectural trail that's making a difference to the economic prosperity of the remote towns of Barcaldine, Longreach and Winton.

From a tiny museum that seems to rise from the earth to a whimsical, pink interior that nods to the Sydney Opera House, each of these projects is worth a visit for the architecture alone.

Architect Michael Lavery is a director of m3architecture, a Brisbane-based practice that has built a strong relationship with Barcaldine. 

Working in collaboration with Brian Hooper Architect, m3architecture was first commissioned to work on Barcaldine's Tree of Knowledge Memorial, the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party. 

At the same time, the Barcaldine Regional Council had purchased the Globe Hotel, a decrepit outback pub that was slated for demolition.

''Whilst working on the Tree of Knowledge, we saw the potential to encourage passing tourists to spend more time in town," said Mr Lavery.

The architects convinced the council to invest in a master plan and retain the Globe, recognising that visitors would walk the main street between the attractions and spend money along the way. 

The Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldline.

Tree of Knowledge Memorial, Barcaldine.

The council's leap of faith was rewarded. 

Seven years on, the re-imagined Globe Hotel represented Australia at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, saved from the wrecker's ball and reinterpreted as a contemporary Visitors' Centre.

It has also become a well-loved function venue.

Barcaldine council estimated there was at least a 300% increase in visitors stopping to spend money in the town since the Tree of Knowledge and The Globe were completed – a welcome boost for the drought-ravaged community.

The Barcaldine Master Plan, the Tree of Knowledge and the Globe Hotel have received a string of local and national awards for urban design, architecture and heritage.

A lookout designed by m3architecture and Brian Hooper Architect is under construction alongside the Globe, offering a connection to surrounding landscape and birdlife, and the master plan includes a future performing arts centre and gallery. 

"The investment upfront to develop a master plan can divide opinions because it takes time to pay dividends," Mr Lavery said.

“However Barcaldine is a great example of how strategic design can deliver long-term economic benefits."

The repurposed Globe Hotel in Barcaldine.

The Globe Hotel, Barcaldine.

Tourism Queensland's Matt Bron agreed. 

Responsible for the outback region, he reiterated the value of design to the economic resilience of regional towns. 

"The Government wants shovel-ready projects that it can invest in as soon as funds become available," said Mr Bron.

"Every town has a story and councils that have costed plans at the ready can seize opportunity when it arrives."

Mr Lavery said funding was easier to secure when teams had a track record.

"Funding bodies want certainty around project delivery,” he said.

“On the back of Barcaldine's success, we assisted in securing funding for a project in Longreach, an hour further along the highway."

The Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre in Longreach was affectionately dubbed the “Opera House of the Outback” when it opened in 1988, a reference to its distinctive curved form by Feiko Bouman Architect. 

An exterior view of the Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach.

The Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, Longreach.

The museum, which pays homage to Australia’s bush pioneers, had been in slow decline.

Exhibits and amenity no longer met contemporary standards and with no master plan, thirty-plus years of disjointed works had gradually made the entire operation dysfunctional.

m3architecture and Brian Hooper Architect delivered a transformative redesign that reinstated the museum as a top-ranking tourist destination. 

Respecting the building's original architecture, the design team rethought the museum from the inside out. 

Information, ticketing, retail, food and entry to the attractions were united in a light-filled entry hub and connected to new external landscaping. 

The new spatial arrangement increased efficiency, reducing staff numbers while allowing visitors to see what's on offer, linger longer, and importantly, open their wallets. 

The benefit to the museum was immediate.

Projected income for April 2021 was exceeded by 300%.

New roof at Qantas museum

Qantas Founders Museum Air Park, Longreach.

Cheeky references to the Opera House and new, technology-rich exhibits have captivated audiences and the museum can now look ahead to a self-funded future.

It has received a commendation for exhibition design (for designers Art Processors), a landscape architecture award (for practice O2LA) and is in the running for a 2021 Good Design Award. 

Another Longreach design drawcard is the Qantas Founders Museum Airpark Roof. 

Adjacent to the existing Qantas Museum and 1922 heritage hangar, Airpark Roof by Noel Robinson Architects is a dramatic, 8000sq.m floating structure that houses several historic aircraft, including a Boeing 747.

Visitors can explore the aircraft up close from viewing platforms. 

The aircraft and soaring roof provide the canvas for “Luminescent Longreach”, a state-of-the-art light show designed by Buchan that explores aviation history. 

The immersive light and sound experience extends museum visitation into the evening and encourages visitors to stay in Longreach overnight, providing further economic benefits to the town.
An hour’s drive from Longreach is Winton, a speck on the map of Australia's vast interior.

The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum near Winton.

Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, Winton.

Within its boundaries sit two awarded architectural works by national practice COX, which together have helped stabilise the town's fragile economy.

COX's relationship with Winton started in 2012 with the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, a tiny jewel located 24km south-east of the town and completed pro-bono over several years. 

Sitting atop a remote mesa, the museum provides visitors with an insight into one of the world’s most significant and cohesive dinosaur fossil collections, which local farmer-turned-palaeontologist John Elliot stumbled upon in 1999. 

Receiving the state's top award for public architecture in 2013, it is now one of Winton’s largest employers during the winter months.

Visitation has increased by an average of 18% since opening and with new stages of the Dinosaur Museum under construction, the benefits to the local economy will continue to grow.

Back in town, COX was engaged to re-design the Waltzing Matilda Centre, which burnt to the ground in 2015. 

The only museum in the world dedicated to a song, it houses an extensive collection of historical artefacts, memorabilia and collateral related to Banjo Paterson's iconic 1895 ballad. 

Multiple national awards for architecture and interiors are testament to the museum’s design merit. 

The rebuilt Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton.

Waltzing Matilda Centre, Winton.

There is one other regional treasure for the intrepid design tourist to explore.

A side trip to Muttaburra – officially Queensland's geographic centre – reveals Brian Hooper's Muttaburrasaurus Interpretation Centre, a sculptural insertion into the landscape that tells the story of a dinosaur fossil found near Muttaburra in 1963. 

For Queensland's outback, investment in quality design has delivered on the adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

With strategically planned and beautifully executed design across four connected towns, the reward for visitors and locals alike is exponential. 

Tourists on the long journey west are treated to a series of rich, engaging experiences that amplify history and culture and leave a lasting impression – Matt Bron said 50% of visitors to the outback return.

For the townships, increased amenity attracts not just more people but also new events that support local employment and businesses and create opportunities for further investment. 

Mr Lavery cited the Barcaldine example.

"Prior to the master plan strategies and the Tree of Knowledge project being completed, no pubs hired external cooks or chefs for meals,” he said.

“No pub had an international backpacker as a bartender and none of the businesses in town had done work on their commercial facades for some years. These changes are now all evident."

Visit RACQ Travel or call 1300 888 449 to plan your outback adventure