arch-peace editorials

21 March 2009

Shifting Focus: perceptions of place in a climate of change

Notwithstanding the occasional mockery from the far left field of the scientific community, we no longer have to endure questions over the reality of human-driven changes to the global climate. The scientific proof is irrefutable and debate among the natural scientists primarily concerns the temporal and physical scale of the impending environmental impacts. What are less certain, however, are the social changes that will occur in response to these impacts. The relationship between global warming and social change is an issue raised by the sociologist Elizabeth Shove from Lancaster University . The question is how and to what extent our habits, or our ritualised and generally unquestioned actions, can be challenged. For Elizabeth Shove these habits are described as a product of our physical environment, and thus the limits imposed by our built infrastructure in turn limit the potential to alter certain habitual practices. One obvious example is the problem that the proliferation of suburban sprawl presents to the habitual practice of private motorised transport.

Of course our physical environment is similarly a product of our cultural habits and collective ideals and thus the potential for altered habits exists not only by reimagining practices within these physical boundaries, but by reimagining the boundaries themselves, and it is here that the architectural imagination takes flight.

As Beatriz Maturana argued in last month’s editorial, the devastating circumstances of the recent bushfires in Victoria present one such ‘sombre opportunity’ to reimagine the morphology of communities on the suburban fringe. The quarter acre block with detached dwelling, double garage and hills hoist represents the quintessential ‘Australian dream’. However, this is a product of the 1950s and more recently it might be argued that the bush block, replete with facilities for a more autonomous existence, is equally if not more desirable. The perpetuation of scattered dwellings amongst a relatively visually untrammelled bush must now be called into question as a consequence of the recent bushfires. There are other, potentially more sustainable international models that we can look to as Beatriz describes in her editorial. These may well support more sustainable habits such as concentrated collective rather than individualised efforts to protect property and lives should a similar bushfire threat present itself. The question is, however, whether current habitualised practices and cultural expectations will permit the reimagination of the urban fringe along radically different lines.

In my own research, I have been looking at the possibility of reimagining the design of infrastructure in natural settings in a very different context. I have been exploring the relationship between architecture and perceptions of place in ecotourism destinations. In particular I aim to challenge the prevalent ‘minimal impact’ approach to building in pristine nature settings. This is driven by the dominant perception of sustainability where nature is viewed as a privileged ‘other’ untouched by humans, or at least by industrialised society. Regenerative design offers an alternative perspective by shifting the frame of reference from minimal to positive impact and questioning the separation of ‘humans’ and ‘nature’. I have written about regenerative design in a previous editorial; however here I would like to briefly discuss a recent research project that explored this issue in relation to the design and construction of built infrastructure on the Overland Track in Tasmania.

The Overland Track is Tasmania’s most iconic and popular walking track, attracting approximately 8,800 walkers annually. The length and popularity of the walk has seen the construction of a large quantity of infrastructure to support the tourist experience and to limit damage to the natural environment. Most significant built interventions are established at five key overnight nodes where huts, tent platforms and toilet facilities are provided for visitors. In addition, all waste, including toilet waste, is flown out by helicopter. Other forms of infrastructure along the Overland Track include various forms of track construction such as timber and stone steps, walkways in local and imported timber, treated pine boardwalks, hardened track junctions, raised earth causeways and a variety of bridges from simple bush timber logs to steel suspension bridges. Limited signage and track markers are also located along the route. Much of the track infrastructure has been implemented in a haphazard fashion and is deemed ‘unsympathetic’ to the environmental context.

The research investigated visitors and rangers’ perceptions of these built interventions by inviting a small sample group to document their perceptions using a disposable camera and journal. They were advised that built interventions could include examples of any type or scale that they liked or disliked or that they thought promoted either a connection or a disconnection with the environment.

The track represents perhaps the most direct relationship with built infrastructure on the walk, engaging the visual as well as acoustic and tactile senses. The varied and uneven surfaces draw the focus of attention from the ‘world out there’ to a more immediate and extremely localised frame of reference. This intimate ‘scale’ of experience provoked a range of comments from participants, from recognising the love, care and ‘artistic’ personality that has been put into the design and construction of the track, to an awareness of water flows, weather patterns, the impact of human occupation, the power and omnipotence of nature and the relationship between body and space. Primarily these experiences were positive, promoting a stronger connection with the environment. However, there were also instances of disconnection, for example the connotation of highways through the use of bitumen-coated planks and the raised boardwalks that construct a direct physical separation from the landscape. These features prompted a mixed response from walkers, representing a conflict between a desire for safety and convenience versus a desire for adventure, as well as a desire for minimum intervention and a simultaneous recognition of the need for intervention to maintain the bushwalkers code of minimal impact.

A similar ambivalence featured in discussions surrounding the toilets, which are one of the more iconic and recognisable built features on the track. These are raised composting toilet structures, similar to those found in many National Parks in Australia. As a low-tech and familiar sustainable technology, these are seen as being appropriate in remote environments. However, the plastic ‘sputnik’ containers, which are used to remove the liquid waste by helicopter, are more confronting, presenting a tangible image of the otherwise generally invisible consequences of human occupation in this sensitive environment (figure 1).

Nevertheless, one of the key findings of the research was that it was the more assertive human interventions, such as the ‘sputniks’ and the track ‘highways’, that prompted the most reflexive engagement with place. These images do not necessarily provoke a negative response, but reveal complexities and ambiguities over the extent to which intervention is seen as necessary and desirable and the value of social versus environmental priorities. Furthermore, ‘alien technologies’ such as the ranger’s ‘escape pod’ have the potential to reinforce the notion of the ‘wilderness experience’ by drawing attention to the reality of the remoteness and reinforcing images of isolation and unfamiliar worlds ‘out there’ (figure 2).

This research reveals the power of the built environment in the construction of meaning of place and identity. I believe it supports the development of an architectural response to the design of infrastructure in wilderness locations that is more assertive and moves beyond the notion of minimal impact. More broadly, I think the research demonstrates how the design of built infrastructure that does not necessarily ‘fit’ with preconceived notions of place facilitates a more reflexive dialogue and opens up the possibility for imagining other cultural habits. While the research context is a long way both physically and conceptually, from the circumstances of the Victorian communities affected by the recent bushfires, it is here that I think certain tentative relationships can be drawn. The image of timber-sheathed dwellings nestling amongst the gum trees in relative visual isolation is a powerful one and one that will not easily be transformed. However, ultimately I hope that the kind of macro-scale changes that Beatriz outlined in last month’s editorial will be seen as a positive, regenerative response to place rather than as a compromise to existing, unsustainable cultural habits.

Ceridwen Owen
Architects for Peace, March 2009


beatriz said...

Lots of food for thought here. Thanks also for extending on some of the ideas posed by my last editorial. Instead of the immediate response in the form of reconstruction, I like your suggestion of shifting from a "minimal" to a "positive" response. Taking into consideration the diverse and at the same time almost polarised social groups that live in those areas and given the different need of these groups. For example, from those who have choices and see the bush as an opportunity to withdraw from the busy urban environment, to those who live there because it is the only place they have ever experienced and that they can afford—all with different needs and expectations. How would the `regenerative' and positive approaches look like to those different populations? I am interested in your account of people's reactions to the plastic sputniks and other contrasting objects in a natural space and the notion of a "reflexive dialogue and opens up the possibility for imagining other cultural habits." Would some of these social groups be more open than others to consider interventions that contract with the reality of the surroundings?

Anonymous said...

What a load of bullshit!!!!!

arch-peace said...

We appreciate different opinions Sterling, but do you think you could articulate your reasons?

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