Keep Your Cool

A tour of Darwin's Burnett House

If you were a Mongolian-born, Chinese-raised architect son of Scottish missionaries, what sort of houses do you think you’d design?

For Beni Burnett the answer was simple.

He arrived in Darwin 1937, after travelling through Japan, North America and Europe, and before that working in China and Singapore. His first task: designing housing for high ranking military personnel and public servants.

Burnett brought his knowledge of south-east Asian architecture to bear, creating a suite of houses ideally suited to living in the tropics.

A precinct of houses at Myilly Point, selected for access to ocean breezes. They survived the war, and Cyclone Tracy (one was lost) before being threatened with demolition in the mid-1980s, when a major development was proposed for the site.

Saved by the community and the National Trust, four houses remain today, of which the Burnett House is the most wonderful.

Burnett House is a two-storey residence set in a relaxed and shady tropical garden paradise.

The garden beds are edged with local stone, and contain a big fruit salad of orchids and ferns and bougainvillea and crotons and more.

Whilst waiting for plants to establish in the rocky, escarpment top location, kerosene tins gardens were planted close the house.

Inside the house, the lower level contains a large living room, with original concrete floor and inlaid compass rose.

The walls all open up, with either big casement windows, French doors, or adjustable asbestos cement louvres.

The ceiling is way above, drawing hot air up and away from the living zone.

The upper floor overhangs, creating shade and protection for the windows, and generous verandahs between the living room and garden.


Upstairs are the private rooms, all leading off a central corridor, with the bathroom at the back.

Bedrooms are reinterpreted as sleep-outs, rather than internal, closed rooms. The beds all had mosquito nets, and could be moved around to follow the breeze.

Beside each bedroom in the centre of the house is a small private dressing room.

Louvred saloon doors connect the sleepouts to a central private sitting room overlooking the water.

The combinations of windows and louvres are also used on the upstairs walls, with Burnett even devising a simple locking system that allowed the louvres to be fixed open or closed in a variety of configurations.

Views to the garden are ever-present, assisting with the perception of coolness.

But it’s a lot more than perception. When the Burnett House was built there was no power, so there were no ceiling fans, let along air-conditioning. On the day we visited it was in the mid-30s outside and yet inside the Burnett House it was cool, shady, breezy and very, very pleasant.

It was too early for G&Ts but an Earl Grey tea would have gone down very well indeed.

The super-helpful National Trust lady who showed us around was busy baking cakes for the popular Sunday afternoon high tea at the Burnett House, so if you find yourself in Darwin, make sure you treat yourself to a visit.