Meet campsite architect Rachel Neeson

The Larapinta Camps canopies offer great shade under the outback skies | Brett Boardman
The Larapinta Camps canopies offer great shade under the outback skies | Brett Boardman

Meet architect Rachel Neeson

We sat down with Rachel Neeson from Neeson Murcutt Architects to ask her about the influences behind her design process for our Larapinta semi-permament eco-friendly campsites.

You designed our semi permanent campsites on the Larapinta Trail in the West MacDonnell Ranges outside of Alice Springs. How was the project very different from most of your other work?

This is the first time we had worked in a desert climate, the first time we had had to really think about the idea of ‘trekker experience’ and the operations that support such an experience, and the first time we had worked with large tensile fabric structures. It was also our first experience designing a project that needed to be largely pre-fabricated so that it could be erected quickly and with limited skilled labour.

What are the major architectural features that you were hoping to achieve with the design?

A sympathetic partnership between the landscape and the campsites is critical to maintain respect for country and a total environment experience of the Larapinta trek. The campsites were thereby developed as a series of minimal impact structures, each with a shaded communal platform, an ablutions tent, and two separate shower tents. Sleeping is in swags, either out in the open or sheltered within smaller off-the-shelf safari tents. The ‘Y’ shaped communal tent is designed to embrace the campfire – the quintessential element of any campsite. One arm houses the communal dining, the other a lounge, with a food preparation and serving area at the tail. Unoccupied throughout the hot summer, the camp is ‘packed down’ and remains as a series of enigmatic relics in the landscape, designed to withstand the toughest of desert conditions.

How important was trekking the Larapinta to the design process?

Architecture provides a platform for human activity, so as an architect, you have to really understand that activity. Whilst Nick and I had walked in other parts of Australia, trekking the Larapinta, in this particular landscape, in this particular climate, was essential. We helped finesse campsite locations, could see firsthand what the guides needed to do to support the operation, and felt what it was to be part of a trekking group with other guests. One of the successes of the project is that it offers a degree of comfort without losing its ‘authenticity’ – you are still camping! 

What were the major influences on the design?

We drew upon our experience with our earlier David Gulpilil House and Table Bed Tent projects, and indigenous humpies of Australia’s north-east. The project simply had to have a basis that linked traditional ownership in a meaningful way. The communal tent is designed with two components – a raised platform to escape the dust and canopy roof for shelter. The platform is decked in hardwood – durable, comfortable and easy to clean. The canopy is large and low, stretching over relatively simple post supports, not unlike the Bedouin structures of the Arabian Desert. The Bedouin tent served as a useful model for how another culture dealt with occupation in similar climate. The stretch fabric, posts and guys are coloured orange like the dusty ground. The canopy provides protection from sun and protection from rain, and is adaptable to specific weather conditions. Its edges are generally low, allowing warmth to be retained from gas heaters on the coldest of nights, and can be lowered further on one side or another to protect against a prevailing wind. Pre-fabrication was critical to building at a hot time of year in a remote location. The decking was brought in as panels, the furniture assembled from cut form-ply, with pre-fitted cushions and stainless steel benches.

Your practice has had a long association with World Expeditions – how did the relationship begin?

Through friendship. My late husband and co-director of Neeson Murcutt Architects Pty Ltd, Nicholas Murcutt, shared an office space with World Expeditions in Sydney. He, and later I, became close friends with the Kostos family through the projects that we did together.

What’s happening for you and the practice in 2014? 

We are moving into an intensive building phase in the second half of this year with a couple of residential projects, a community centre in Woolloomooloo and surf club at Crescent Head all on site. We are always on the lookout for aspirational clients, as that really is the key to a good project. The Larapinta Classic Trek In Comfort (6 day) and Larapinta Experience In Comfort (3 day) stay at our permanent campsites with departures April to September.
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