Edward de Bono, the renowned thinker, died this month, aged 88. Creator of the idea of ‘Lateral Thinking’ in 1966, whilst a medical researcher, de Bono went on to publish more than 70 books, including Six Thinking Hats and Water Logic, and a number of mind games. And he monetised those ideas through talks and consultancies to become very wealthy.
Recent obituaries, in the Malta Times, The Irish Times and The Financial Times, outline his phenomenal success as a proselytizer, and not without a large dollop of self-belief and hubris, which is well covered in the one in The Telegraph UK. Less well-known is that Edward De Bono, born on the island of Malta, deployed his wealth in buying islands, in The Bahamas, off the coast of Ireland, in Venice, and off Mackay in Queensland.
Which is how I came to design a writing retreat / meeting place on Little Green Island in the Whitsundays. To be a designer for the greatest design thinker of our age. It parallels my friend Stuart Whitelaw's story earlier this month as an ‘Architect for two Architects’. Certainly, the most famous person that I will ever work with, wildly challenging, rewarding and enjoyable.
His other islands had houses or buildings which he could adapt for his use as living, teaching and seminar spaces, but LGI was uninhabited without buildings. Through his Australian PA (oh to have a personal assistant on every continent) he met a young and dynamic building firm, Planet Build, that helped organise a small competition with some architects they knew.
We had a detailed brief, aerial photos, an indicative site, a budget and timing, but we could not visit the island. We prepared some sketches, sort of glamping tents meets Queenslander, but given his reputation (in 1996 he was at the height of his powers) and my enormous regard for his work, I had huge doubts the night before presenting, only partly assuaged by my then assistant, Siobhan Twohill, remarking that rather than writing 50 books he had written the same book 50 times.
So, we went all out. The first thing we challenged was the site. Having studied the aerial photography in detail, we disagreed with EdB’s choice of position on the island; I suggested somewhere completely different, based on the logic of wind patterns, aspect and prospect, not to mention the topography and possible landing areas in those shallow waters with six metre tides. But we presented the new location as a ‘lateral thought’, and not for the first time I blurred the thinking process.
Whatever EdB thought of our messy process, we won the commission. Upon visiting the island, we discovered that his chosen location was too steep and unapproachable, but on our preferred site there had been a small Catholic retreat, now destroyed and grown over. Clearly the right site; we had his confidence, and proceeded to design the building in detail.
The brief was for a writer’s space, which could be an expanded bedroom, as well as accommodating up to 20 people in an open room for seminars. The plan had two large rooms, a small separate kitchen (Edward loved food but not cooking), a public and private bathroom, and a large storage area to be able to swap from one use to another. Pulled together in a rectangle with verandas on both sides. This was the simple bit.
The issue of changing sites, using an architect’s deductive site analysis, but presenting it as a sideways ‘leap of idea’ taught us an important lesson: the best way to explain our logical approach to ideas was by way of analogy, since these appeared to the ‘ultimate analogist’ as lateral thoughts. And the best analogies were biophilic.
The first was the need for a ‘skeleton’ to the building: interconnected pieces of steel joined together continuously to carry the loads down into the ground. Described as a ‘woven basket’ seen in this axonometric. Carried on columns to lift it into the breezes like the traditional Queenslander.
The footings of a building in a very high cyclone area need to be buried into the ground and spread out to prevent uplift. Tree roots was EdB’s immediate response.
At the top, the roof ridge is split apart with permanent ventilation. I described the Whitsundays’ Sou-Easterly’s, and the Bernoulli effect to provide cooling in a humid environment without AC. EdB identified the idea of ‘aircraft lift’, not surprising given that he was travelling 400,000 kms every year by plane, once saying that he spent more time in the air than on the ground.
I wanted to carry the section to the end (north) elevation – to have the outdoor veranda as an extension of the house form. This is a lesson from a key NZ building, Te Whare Runanga, dipping my lid to the Kiwi heritage of both architect and builder, Chris Pomirski. A veranda to admit more light and sun, not shade.
By contrast, the western veranda is a sloping ‘hat pulled down’ to keep out the strong western sun, particularly as it is reflected off the waters of the beach view.
The house is open to the breezes. Completely open, like a tent that had been the original inspiration.
The glass doors and flyscreens (and windows) are flexible: fully open to the sea breezes, fully closed for a few months of relative cool, or just flyscreens (lots of insects). Created by sliding Japanese-like Shoji screens, with aluminium sliding and roller shutters to minimize damage in cyclones. Modern meets old.
Even when the building is locked up, the permanent ventilation allows for the equalization of pressure in a cyclones, often causing houses to explode. Analogous to the wind running through grasses that bend, rather than trees which withstand wind to a certain point and then blow over.
Being on an island, the building was prefabricated as a kit of parts, like a Meccano set. The wall panels are Hoop Pine or Araucaria Cunninghamii, a plantation grown tree in SE Queensland.
The kitchen was made from Hoop Pine and recycled local Mackay Cedar; the irony being the view from the kitchen has a Hoop Pine right outside the window. We eschewed artificial materials in favor of the natural and original state.
The house also had to be fully autonomous, using an early use of Photo Voltaics and batteries on a rotating frame that we agreed worked just like a sunflower chasing the sun.
The bathrooms had back-to-back composting toilets, short drop ‘dunnies’ that operate into rotating bins, an exceeding clever solution to managing your own sewage works.
Edward was charming, super intelligent, witty and full of stories. One I remember was his claim that 10 percent of all photographs developed in the United States had been taken in an adventure park. How would one know? Completely uncheckable like so many of his facts. But it had the ring of truth and made you think.
He used the house for 15 years before selling it, along with other islands, reputedly to pay his divorce bill. The building has had several owners since and has been converted into a more traditional house, without my involvement.
The biggest accolade for the project came, not from Peter Skinner’s lovely review in AA, but in the AFR when the Island was up for sale, when they described it as “The island idyll was zoned for thinking and a "think tank" facility, reminiscent of a galvanised Papua New Guinean long house, was built on the island for jetsetting ruminators.” Can’t ask for more than that.
I was blessed to meet him, enjoy his ideas, company and stories, but moreover he was one of the very few clients who reveled in the process, even more so than the product. “If you never change your mind, why have one” - Edward de Bono.
All photos by Tim Wheeler / Wheeler Studios. Ta Bro. Drawings by environa studio.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]