Ayers Rock Resort desert dreaming: Uluru, architecture and Sails in the Desert

Thirty years on, Ute Junker revisits the project that changed outback tourism.

Australia in the 1980s was a very different country. Still unsure of our place in the world, we indulged in a series of bright, bold national infatuations – Ken Done T-shirts, Alan Bond, Down Under by Men At Work – few of which have stood the test of time. 

Out in the country's sandy centre, however, one 1980s artefact has fared much better than most. Decades before oil-rich Dubai started conjuring cityscapes out of the desert, the federal government's decision to create a trio of new hotels at Uluru, and an entire new township to support them, was a surprisingly ambitious project for a small nation. It was also very difficult.  

"There was absolutely nothing there," remembers Philip Cox, of Cox Richardson Architects, which won the commission to design the township of Yulara. "It was an incredible challenge, trying to construct a township thousands of kilometres away from the nearest centre. There were no materials on site – everything had to be transported."

The $130 million development, outside the boundaries of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, was designed to replace existing accommodation at the base of the rock. It included three hotels, shops and restaurants, staff quarters, and the infrastructure required to make it happen. At a time when the Gold Coast's soaring skyscrapers were considered a blueprint for successful tourism, Cox's remarkable design combined a low-key silhouette with a strong sense of place. 

Rather than dominating its surroundings, these buildings were designed to meld with the landscape, to tell a story about life in the outback, rather than impose a new vision upon it. 

"The scale of it was dictated by the scale of dunes," Cox said. "I didn't want anything higher - I wanted people coming in by road to be surprised, to turn the corner and have this township revealed, nestling amid the dunes."

Equally forward-thinking were the sustainability principles which underpinned the project. Working in an environment where temperatures routinely swing across 30 degrees in a single day, Cox nonetheless managed to embed sustainability into every aspect of the design. 

"All the buildings were designed to cope with the temperature swings," Cox remembers. "We installed thousands of solar collectors. At night-time we made ice, which we used during the day for airconditioning." 

The resort's inward-facing design, centred around a lush central garden space, recalls traditional Arabic dwellings, but in other ways, its pared-back lines are a tribute to Australia's outback pioneers. 

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 "They only had what they could carry, so they used to transport house frames and corrugated iron across the desert," Cox says. "We drew on those principles."

The first stage of the Ayers Rock Resort opened in 1984 and won the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) Sir Zelman Cowen Award. The most eye-catching aspect of the design was the fabric sails that shelter the resort. Most dramatically at the five-star property, then a Sheraton, now Sails in the Desert, the soaring white sails allow light to filter through while still offering protection from the harsh sun. 

"Because the light is so harsh, you can't be out in that environment without shades of some sort," Cox says. "We couldn't use trees, as we didn't have the water for landscaping, so we had to use percolated light."

Despite the many changes at the resort over the past three decades – there are now five accommodation options, rather than three, all under the same ownership – Cox's design "has stood the test of time", Andrew Williams says. 

As the chief executive of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, the indigenous-owned corporation which now runs the resort, Williams oversaw the major refurbishment program that Voyages launched when they took over two years ago. Interior design specialists CHADA delivered the first stage, a revamp of the interiors of Sails in the Desert, with the other accommodations to follow.

Sails in the Desert's interiors feature recycled blackwood, neutral tones and splashes of desert colours, reminiscent of the palette used in Cox's original design. Back in the 1980s, Cox's choice of lilacs and rusts was considered controversial. 

"The Northern Territory government in those days was very, very conservative," Cox recalls. "I showed them the colours, which were those amazing desert colours, dusty inks and ochres, and they said, 'They're really poofy colours'."

One of the key aims of the refurbishment was to showcase indigenous elements in the design.

"Reflecting the return to indigenous ownership, we wanted to give guests a sense of the cultural significance of the place they're in," Williams says. "We didn't want it to feel like a museum – we wanted to weave it into the design itself."

Local artists such as Elizabeth Douglas, Pamela Taylor, Nelly Patterson and Sandy Willie were commissioned to create artworks, elements of which feature in the pillowcases, carpets and other furnishings. Indigenous inspiration can be found everywhere. Although the feature chandeliers recall the favela chic of Brazil's Campana brothers, they are actually inspired by the baskets of the local Anungu people. 

"All out artwork, where possible, is Anungu," Williams says. "We removed a lot of artwork that wasn't Anungu, and went out and found local artists to commission."

Indigenous influences are not limited to the interiors. The resort contains a number of indigenous art galleries, where guests can meet the artists in residence. Indigenous activities have also become an important part of the Uluru experience. 

"When the resort was first developed, people came to Ayers Rock, as it was then known, to look at this big rock. Now there is a level of cultural appreciation," Williams says. The resort offers a huge selection of cultural activities, many of them free. They include performances by local dancers, bush tucker yarns and weaponry talks, as well as activities such as dot-painting classes. The range of activities has changed the length of time visitors are staying in the Red Centre.

"People are starting to see this as a resort destination. They are staying longer, and enjoying the remoteness," says Williams says.

Increasingly, visitors also enjoy the opportunity to interact with indigenous staff. "When we took over, a common complaint from guests was that they didn't see a single Aboriginal face among the staff," Williams says. 

Voyages has worked hard to change that. They established a national training academy, where participants combine on-the-job training with a hospitality certificate. "Over 30 per cent of our workforce is now indigenous, and we're moving to the next level of management training," Williams says.

"All our profits go straight back into the development of the resort or into indigenous training and employment initiatives.

"It's great for guests, and it's great to see indigenous people developing their careers."

Explore Ayers Rock Resort in the gallery above.

Five more classic outback buildings

Outback architecture goes way beyond corrugated tin, as these inspirational designs demonstrate.

Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, Winton – The jagged shapes of this rust-red museum appear to rise out of the rocky Queensland landscape.

Longitude 131°, Uluru - This low-slung luxury tented camp overlooking Uluru was also designed by Cox Richardson Architects.

Wanangkura Stadium, Port Hedland – The colourful cubes of this remote West Australian sports centre create a dappled effect amid the flat landscape.

Shear Outback, Hay – Designed for shade and ventilation, this NSW museum also features quirky details such as giant shears set into the gates.

Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, Kakadu – Seen from above, this hotel resembles the Northern Territory's most notorious inhabitant, the crocodile.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

ayersrockresort.com.au

GETTING THERE

Jetstar flies daily to Uluru (Ayers Rock) from Sydney, and four times a week from Melbourne. See jetstar.com.

STAYING THERE

The five-star Sails in the Desert is Ayers Rock Resort's premium accommodation option. Rates start from $368 a night room only, with a two-night minimum. A three-night package including breakfast available for $322 a night. Phone 1300 134 044.

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