A controversial site once home to a massive woodchip operation has been transformed into a peaceful place designed for people. By Naomi Stead.
Spring Bay Mill
Back in 2011, when environmentalists Graeme Wood and Jan Cameron bought the Gunns Triabunna woodchip mill – a key asset in Tasmanian native forest logging and a crucial battlefield in the state’s forest wars – then premier Lara Giddings memorably described it as the vegetarians having bought the abattoir. But what’s a vegetarian to do with the slaughterhouse when its killing days are over?
There was no firm plan. The co-investors had never even met, and Wood – who was bushwalking in Western Australia at the time – describes buying it virtually sight unseen, over the phone. Also, the question is not an easy one. What should be done with a 43-hectare site in a superb location at the mouth of the Triabunna harbour, only an hour from Hobart; a site with great natural beauty but a seriously degraded landscape, a vast amount of complex, dangerous and expensive-to-manage machinery, and a heavy weight of politics, history and social responsibility, all under the white-hot glare of national media attention?
The initial point of the exercise was of course not what the mill would be in future but what it wouldn’t. Regularly described as having been the largest woodchip mill in the world, it’s estimated to have processed 50,000 truckloads of trees a year – whole tranches of forest carted in and ground into bits to be shipped off and turned into paper. John van Tiggelen wrote about the mill’s purchase and decommissioning back in July 2014 in an astonishing article in The Monthly. He quoted conservationist Sean Cadman – “taking out Triabunna was the strategic triumph of the environment movement of the last five years” – and Alec Marr, environmental campaigner and central figure in the struggle: “It was a bullseye: we totally fucked them.”
In conversation, Wood and partner Anna Cerneaz are more polite but equally direct. “We bought the chip mill to stop native forest logging in Southern Tasmania,” Wood says. “And that’s what we did.” He might be freer now to make such statements – having seen out the hanging threat of compulsory acquisition by the Tasmanian government and endured a highly politicised parliamentary inquiry. Along the way a falling-out between Wood and Cameron led to his buying out her share. Finally, in June 2022, the rebadged Spring Bay Mill was officially opened by the Tasmanian governor. There is time, at last, to draw breath. But how did we get here?
Over the past decade, suggestions – even formal announcements – about what the site would become have been both multiple and eclectic. Among them were a botanic garden, culinary school, a marine research centre, a wood-technology innovation hub and a marina associated with the adjacent, strategically important deepwater port. But none of these quite stuck.
An early proposal for a large hotel was prepared by architects Gilby + Brewin but not realised. Later, other designers were involved. For a while the whole project went quiet. Then the owners came back to Gilby + Brewin with a brief for a low-touch response, staying close to the existing buildings, with minimal intervention, working around and within what was already there. Ross Brewin saw a “ready-made, amazing architecture” in the remnant mill buildings, which were “not glamorous in any way … they were built only for their purpose, without attention to proportion or rhythm or anything like that – just utilitarian.” This sat well with the practice’s longstanding interest in the poetics of everyday construction. And that approach, a celebration of the direct and unassuming, characterises the new architectural work.
Despite constant comparisons over the years, this is no MONA. Nor is it quite – at least not yet – what the media once touted: a “world-class cultural hub” or the “missing link on Tasmania’s east coast tourism trail”. Indeed it’s not really a tourist site at all – it’s a “sustainable events venue”. Visits are only by appointment – mainly school groups, weddings and corporate retreats, often staying in the onsite accommodation.
So here I am on a sunny, spring day, standing before a rusty industrial edifice, a battered temple to the mechanical butchery of wood. Massive trunks passed over this platform, were wrangled down the chute to my left and fed into the chipper. They didn’t go easily – deep scores and dents in thick plate steel testify to what would have been a hellishly noisy, violent working environment. Today, it’s almost eerily quiet. On the cracked bitumen expanse of the main log yard, a loading tractor stands idle, its mandibles lowered.
The site is powerful. Its industrial heritage may be un-pretty – too young to be romantic, too raw to be picturesque – but it has the awe-inspiring presence of a ruin. It still needs care and repair: the landscape rehabilitation, under the direction of landscape architect Marcus Ragus, has required tens of thousands of plants. It has a way to go, but it’s getting there – Ragus tells me the wallabies are back in numbers, the echidnas as well, and a cultural burn has been conducted for the first time in at least 60 years.
Architects Gilby + Brewin have made a range of incremental design moves, at varying scales, spread across the site. Their smaller works include reimagining and stripping back the old weighbridge shed into a vine-covered entry folly. There are platforms for a field of glamping tents, with a new communal cooking and eating space and open-air showers facing the paddock, where guests can enjoy their ablutions “naked to the sheep”, as Brewin quips.
At a medium scale is a light-touch renovation to the Tin Shed. One of the original mill sheds, it’s blessed with a height and volume perfectly suited to musical performance and is now refitted with a new timber floor and operable, translucent wall enclosing what had been an open fourth side. Even before any remedial work, this shed had been used for special musical performances. The architects saw their role as doing as little as possible to make it safe, accessible and legal, and add basic amenities. Personally I found the shed just a touch too cleaned-up. But it’s a grand room, accessed via a new ramp meant to recall the language of conveyor belts. It’s a dramatic arrival sequence – entering on the oblique, the visitor winds around remnant machinery to emerge on a new covered deck outside the performance space.
A bigger architectural move is the new Banksia Room, in collaboration with interior designer Claire Ferri, which reuses the bones of the former Gunns administration block, reclad and rearranged into a sleek new multipurpose function, dining and reception space with commercial kitchen.
But to my eye the best bits, architecturally speaking, are down the hill. The Ridge Quarters shared accommodation is the most recently completed and I think the most accomplished – a sweeping line of partially prefabricated sleeping cabins, hanging off an elegantly curved spine, the whole bolted together with the economy of a remote-area encampment. This rather spartan, constructivist exterior contrasts with the inside, where there’s a surprisingly luxurious feel, produced using the modest means of spatial compression, dark rough-sawn timber and black rubber floors. The shared kitchen and lounge is beautifully scaled and sited, faced on three sides with a strip window offering views to surrounding bush and down to the sea.
Further downhill, on the site of what was the woodchip stockpile, is the biggest gesture of all. The stockpile had been enormous – at times 50 metres high with a base of more than a hectare. Historic photographs show it as a steep, dun-coloured hill, towering over the headland. At the centre was a massive gantry crane – an imposing structure that swivelled to spit chips on a wide circular arc, visible from afar, and a potent symbol of the mill and its work. It was pulled down during the decommissioning, sadly. But what we have instead is a testament to the ingenuity of the architects, who have tucked an outdoor auditorium inside the curved concrete “slew wall” the crane had tracked around. Fitted with timber seating and protected from the sharp headland winds, this clever reuse makes a performance space in the round. Audiences can also scatter across the gently sloping hill that is the only remnant of the chip stockpile. At the very centre of this stage, indeed the centre of the whole development, is the project’s sole symbolic gesture: a giant sundial, fashioned from the steel upright of the crane’s pivot point, mutely marking time.
In the weeks since my visit I’ve harboured a certain uneasiness. It’s about all those executive retreats and school camps – and how they sit with the industrialised savagery that was witnessed by this place, every day, for 40 years. In online forums, much discussion about Spring Bay Mill centres on its desirability as a site for destination weddings. Its “grit” and “authenticity” are flattened into a backdrop for novel bridal photos. Is this the way the forest wars end? Not with a bang but a wedding?
But I don’t know, maybe it is the right way, the best thing. Like all old battlegrounds, the mill today has a sense of quiescence, of the calm after the storm. If we think of low-impact uses for a long-traumatised site, why shouldn’t it be used for the everyday pleasures of celebration and being together? Palawa people have been meeting on this site for millennia. This has been a peaceful place, a meeting of waters, a bountiful site for gathering. Down on the headland the soil is full of white fragments – a midden layer of bleached shells of limpet and whelk, the traces of occupation for 2000 generations before any settler, sealer or industrialist ever showed their white face. Today the swallows twitter around the sheds, the wind sighs through the she-oaks. A sea eagle floats overhead, and time edges slowly around the great sundial.
CULTURE OzAsia Festival
Adelaide Festival Centre, Kaurna Country, until November 5
MULTIMEDIA Julie Gough’s Disclosure
The Lock-Up, Muloobinba/Newcastle, until December 3
EXHIBITION The Egyptian Galleries
Chau Chak Wing Museum, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until November 25
VISUAL ART Living Patterns
Queensland Art Gallery, Meanjin/Brisbane, until February 11
MUSIC The Eighty-Six
Venues throughout Naarm/Melbourne, October 23-28
VISUAL ART 46th Fremantle Arts Centre Print Award
Fremantle Arts Centre, Whadjuk Country, until October 22
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "Out of the woodwork".
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