It was standing room only last Saturday at the Gold Coast City Gallery at the Arts Centre. The small gallery was packed with locals who were there to listen to a panel of speakers in conversation about a part of our history that has been viewed as relatively unimportant until now. It was the opening of the Fibro Coast exhibition depicting photographs, paintings, stories, images and nostalgia of the fibro dwellings that made up a large part of the southern Gold Coast from the 1920s to the 1970s. Virginia Rigney, one of the curators, commented that back in the day, we would all have been at the beach on a sunny Saturday afternoon. How we’ve changed.
I had expected that mid 20th century nostalgia of the brightly coloured buildings and associated kitsch would have given me a warm, comforting sense of a more innocent time. Instead I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of sadness at the rapidly diminishing numbers of the buildings that were responsible for the development of southern Gold Coast as a family holiday destination.
The fibro in question was asbestos sheeting, a cheap building material that Queensland began manufacturing in the 1920s. The exhibition now aptly describes it as the silent killer but at the time its affordability and availability meant that families from Brisbane could build simple homes at the beach, and make the three hour drive on summer Fridays to spend the weekend, or indeed the entire summer holiday at the southern beaches now called the Gold Coast, or the northern beaches, now called the Sunshine Coast.
Sitting in on the conversation at the gallery was Malcolm Cummings, an architect who lives in Currumbin. He fondly remembers his family building garages on the family land at Currumbin post war, which they filled with bunk beds and basic amenities. They did, however, have the luxury of a gas fridge which took an entire day to get working every time they visited their beach shack. In that post war period, most families would have to buy ice to keep their food cool. The simplicity of the design of the fibro houses came about because the families building them simply couldn’t afford anything more salubrious.
Sunshine Coast writer, Jane Hyde who wrote The Place at the Coast recalled spending her childhood summers at Kershaw House, her family’s fibro beach house built in 1948 at Dickey Beach on the Sunshine Coast. She also spoke of the simple architecture coming about due to affordability. The skillion roof, or single slanting roof now used frequently in Australian beach architecture, was often used on fibro homes because it was cheaper to build. Jane described those times as a gentle era in the way we thought about the beach, coast, and architecture. However, she was cautious about over sentimentalising the period. Boredom, for example, was a huge part of beach holidays for children last century in the days before theme parks, XBox and mansions at the Sovereign Islands. Jane recounted a story of passing the time by going up to the road with friends and placing sharp rocks on the bitumen when they heard cars coming. She said they were able to successfully while away many hours bursting car tires.
Fortunately, Kershaw house is still standing. Jane’s family unsuccessfully attempted to have Kershaw House heritage listed in the 1980s. It may seem absurd to preserve buildings fabricated out of a material responsible for the asbestosis, death and misery of employees of James Hardie Industries, the main manufacturer of asbestos sheeting in Australia. However, these buildings are a major part of the history of the Gold Coast and beach house design in Australia. As Jane pointed out, there is a need to recognise the value of fibro because these houses will soon be gone.
Recently a Facebook campaign was started to save the Miami Ice building on Gold Coast Highway. However, the building was demolished in November last year after the all too familiar real estate agents’ Prime Development Opportunity sign had appeared at the site as it has done at the front of many fibro buildings before their demolition. The pale yellow Miami Ice building with its cheery Party Ice sign has been preserved in a painting by artist Dean Cogle (pictured), and is featured in the exhibition. Dean’s other featured painting, the Point Danger Lodge which still stands on the border of Queensland and NSW, evokes a sense of urgency. I felt a need to drive to Coolangatta to take in as many of the bright blue, green and yellow buildings while they are still there.
Anna Carey is an artist who has provided images of fibro houses for the exhibition recreated from her memories of growing up in Palm Beach. From afar her art appears to be photos of houses. As you get closer, you realise the images are vibrant reconstructions from her childhood memory.
Fibro Coast has many more images capturing relatively recent memories: photographs, real estate advertisements, signs, a panoramic image of the inside of a beach house, bunkbeds crammed into a small room, a kitchen with lino floors and cupboards painted and repainted until it becomes almost impossible to open them, kitsch souvenir mugs, Sandman panel vans, house blueprints, and black and white pictures of children on the verandah. Memories I also have. But as the curators said, we don’t realise we are part of history when we are in it.
Jane’s book The Place at the Coast ends with the beach house falling into the sea: a prophetic reminder that we need to experience and value the history around us right now before it’s all gone.
Bleach* Festival officially opens on 7th March, and there will be a special Fibro Coast exhibition at Kirra Hill Community Centre from then. This year Bleach* is also co-hosting the Fibro Coast exhibition as part of Bleach* Extension in various venues around the southern Gold Coast. Tugun, Bilinga and Coolangatta are some of the last remaining pockets of the Gold Coast where the fibro beach shack still exists. There will be various installations of the Fibro Coast exhibition at the following fibro buildings:
La Costa Motel, 127 Golden Four Drive, Bilinga.
Bardon by the Sea, 192 Pacific Pde, Bilinga.
Coolangatta Ocean View Motel, Cnr Clark St & Marine Pde, Coolangatta.
Sunhouse, 39-41 McLean St, Coolangatta.
Check the Bleach* website for times and dates.
The Fibro Coast exhibition is presented in partnership with the University of Sunshine Coast Gallery, and will be moving to the Sunshine Coast on June 12th.