(Image: James Nguyen)

Walking around photographing the suburbs of Belmont North in the outer suburbs of Newcastle, my artistic collaborator Ciaran Begley and I were stopped by a middle-aged woman angrily telling us we couldn’t take photos of private property*.

She demanded we immediately delete the photos we had taken. Being passively-aggressive but reasonable, we showed her our camera and told her that, in fact, we hadn’t bothered taking photos of her house. There were more interesting examples of other Nissen huts in the neighbourhood.

(Image: James Nguyen)

Her level of discomfort at having her home gawked at by strangers on the street was understandable. This is the suburb with the highest surviving number of these half-cylinder shaped homes. It’s not surprising that most residents just want to be left alone.

Ever since their invention and production by the British military in 1916, Nissen huts have become a fixture of military and civilian infrastructure throughout the Commonwealth, Africa, North America and Asia Pacific. During the 1950s these pre-fab corrugated huts were hastily built in Australian suburbs. Many have survived around Belmont North due to Newcastle’s significant steelworks industry.

The hut that really caught our eye was further up the road. It was in the process of being completely built over. The characteristically curved shell was still visible as it was being engulfed by timber scaffolding and plaster board. We took as many photographs as we could and, unlike the previous neighbour, we were promptly introduced to Kelly, an enthusiastic and proud owner of this new renovation.

Kelly’s family wanted to take an unconventional approach to incorporating an old architectural structure that was becoming uninhabitable. Unlike many neighbours who opted to completely demolish and rebuild, or internally gut and refit to preserve the exterior, the family worked with an architect to keep the Nissen hut — but build a whole new architectural envelope over it. The young family had become accustomed to living inside this uniquely curved space; it provided the family with temporary accommodation as their dream house was literally being built around them.

(Image: James Nguyen)

This journey of home-ownership and renovation had taken a lot of work, and they were excited. This was, after all, the Australian dream. It made me thinkof the many promises and heartaches of resettlement and building a home for other Australians — including my own family.

My dad was in a refugee camp full of these Nissen huts in Galang, Indonesia, before he was temporarily housed in a migrant hostel in the Sydney suburb of East Hills. It was inside these Nissen huts where he had his few English classes and meals with other refugees and migrants (including earlier waves of post-war Europeans) before he began his own Australian dream. Ciaran later told me that his step-mum had also trained and worked as a doctor in the Nissen huts of field hospitals and clinics.

The convenience of these flat-pack structures has seen them pop up in darker moments of Australian history too. From the 20th century colonisation and systemic disruption of First Nations communities on the reserves and missions, to the imprisonment of civilian Australians with Italian, German and Japanese background and the captured prisoners of war from Africa and Asia exported to Australian internment camps during WWII. Today these buildings house new waves of refugees in off-shore detention centres like Manus Island.

The huts left standing in our suburban fringes embody the personal histories, tragedies, and hopes of those who lived or were forcibly housed in them. They represent the contradictory psyche of our inheritance as Australians. Walking down the street, outsiders are just as likely to encounter anxious suspicion, as they are exuberance and generosity as we share all our histories and dreams.

*There is no restriction on taking photographs of people on private property from public property if what is captured in the photograph can be seen from the street.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey