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Bower/Sala: Re-imagining the outdoor room

Part 1 Project 2009
Fiona Lew
University of Melbourne Melbourne Australia
Bowers (Aboriginal) or Salas (Thai) are outdoor rooms. This project proposes a more informal, culturally attune way forward for indigenous housing than the conventional ‘whitefella’ housing approach provided by the Government.

Collaborating with an indigenous community in the Northern Territory called Palmerston Indigenous Village, our studio developed a brief focusing on accommodating single men, which would have the broadest positive effect on the community. Culturally, after around the age of 16, unmarried men are to move away from the family home to live as a collective.

My project addresses three primary stakeholders – the Elders, relevant government departments and the people involved in the construction (the single men). The approach taken was not simply to suggest the best housing design, but to use the project to address larger issues in the community. Unemployment is a core issue, leading to boredom and low self esteem and consequently to vandalism and the abuse of alcohol/drugs. By offering the single men the opportunity to build their own homes, in the process they could learn valuable skills that could lead to job opportunities, become empowered and have an increased sense of ownership of their accommodation.

The housing has been designed as basic shelter homes which respond to the tropical environment, in contrast to the vandal-proof, concrete block houses provided by the government. As smaller connectable modules able to form a greater whole, it is the nature of the project that while a site plan has been suggested, the community has the ability to adapt the arrangement as desired. In that respect, these units can be arranged to adapt for other sites and communities.

The houses are a framework for the community to personalise and as such become grounded in their surroundings. Simple technology means radically reduced costs involved in supply and lifecycle maintenance. While a conventional house provided costs approximately $300,000 for one family, this project shows that a community for twenty men could potentially cost $270,000. Most importantly, this design suggests a different typology and approach to housing that could provide these single men with future prospects unavailable to them previously.

Fiona Lew

Fiona Lew’s design addresses real world problems with pragmatic reasoning and buildable outcomes and at the same time pushes boundaries of acceptability and liberal ideology by challenging Australian Government indigenous housing policy.

Her design strategy and process for constructing new accommodation for indigenous Australian young men living in Australia’s tropical far north is based on the uncomfortable notion that their housing should not simply follow the housing typology argued for by several prominent activists engaged in aboriginal affairs.

Fiona, instead, claims that the housing for this marginalized and maligned demographic should address their core needs rather than the superficial ‘surface’ ideology, function and aesthetic of mainstreamed indigenous housing. These core needs, as identified by Fiona, are more about putting in place an environment and ‘place’ for growing the positive esteem and identity required for productive relationships between themselves, their broader indigenous community and the ‘whitefella’ world.

Fiona’s housing is more akin to the informal, transient ‘shelter’ model of pre ‘whitefella’ contact – and with good reason as it suits the challenging tropical climate, the complex and deep-seated cultural norms and the need for robustness. Her scheme has, however, been reconfigured with contemporary construction technologies and has become ‘commodified’ as the prefabricated pieces are trucked to site and assembled with local labour. Her scheme has fully resolved all construction issues as well as providing costings.

The real advantage of Fiona’s design is that this prefabricated ‘core’ is then linked with the site (anchored to the place) via a series of user initiated informal add-on structures that resident’s employ to claim and personalize their space. These add-ons are more ephemeral, more local and ‘owned’ by the residents in the ways of their ancestors.

Fiona’s scheme has challenged the status quo and won respect from her peers, indigenous elders and high-ranking government agents. The format of the submission has included sections tailored to each of these disparate groups. It has contributed to debates about indigenous identity, welfare, as well as rights and responsibilities. But most of all, her project’s underlying ideologies and purpose are respectful to the indigenous people but remain admirably firm in their intent and purpose.


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