arch-peace editorials

22 March 2011

The dilemmas of choice

I continue to be astonished by the amount of choice we are exposed to in our modern world.

A trip down the supermarket aisle highlights dozens of types of biscuits (some even purport to make you thin) while the pet food aisle stretches into the distance. New television channels come online regularly with shows (and advertisements) demonstrating new lifestyles and consumer goods. They suggest a rosy new life is just around the corner.

Choice, however, is a funny thing. Some people complain when they have no capacity to make any choices (and so they should – no capacity for choice is very disempowering). Others find the process very confronting – too much choice leaves them confused and insecure. This often leads to poor decisions being made and possibly feelings of regret. This is not such a big deal when supermarket shopping (we can easily cope if we choose a dud packet of biscuits) but in other contexts can have wider consequences.

So if people can agonise about what to wear, what car to buy or what to make for dinner when they are bombarded by the messages from a manipulative mass media, how do they make informed decisions about something as important as their housing?

As architects we work with people grappling with this as they plan a new home or a renovation of their existing one. We find that each client comes 'loaded' with predetermined ideas and preconceived notions about what they want. Our job is to unravel this knot of ideas, straighten it out and make it legible for the team of engineers, builders and authorities who can realise the client’s brief.

But sometimes the most difficult part seems to be straightening it out for the client!! Clients are likely to have lived in various houses, visited friends in their houses, seen hundreds of hours of television footage with actors occupying houses and the more engaged clients would have scoped design magazines or visited display houses.

This design process energises some clients while others are filled with insecurity and anxiety. Choice proves to be empowering for some and problematic for others.

Our team of three (David, Allison and Grant) ponder these questions as we sit on a Jetstar flight from our homes in Melbourne en route to Perth and then on to a 20-house community of indigenous people living in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia. Our brief is to consult with this community about designs for the shared community space (funded as a early childhood centre) as well as investigate possibilities for new housing in the community. This is not our first experience working with indigenous groups. The team has done this work before in the Northern Territory and Queensland.

However as we reflect on previous projects we realise that this question of choice, and the empowerment or disempowerment that goes with it, will become a significant issue over the next few days. How will this community respond to the choices we offer? The reality of the restrictions we have to work within, strict budgets, timelines and more means we will not be able to open up a smorgasbord of options. These restrictions and the need to tightly control the project are clearly evident to us but perhaps not as evident to the client. We have to work to strict budgets and timelines and we have a reputation to protect.

We have previously encountered indigenous clients who are exceptionally happy to be provided some level of choice about their environment. However this choice has tended to invoke a degree of anxiety. When options for personal empowerment and control are eroded (and unfortunately there are many examples of this happening to indigenous people in the Northern Territory and in Western Australia) it is easy to make the claim that the decision making process is fraught with difficulty. How can the consultation process be tailored to operate effectively? And how can the whole process work to achieve worthwhile outcomes?

Our projects have always had tight budget and other constraints. The workforce (mainly postgraduate architecture students from the University of Melbourne who are prepared to pay their own way) has very limited time on-site. We cannot achieve a comprehensive result, and compromises must be understood and made at the initial design phase. So the idea of client empowerment and choice must be mediated against the pragmatics of the project. We will make sure that we will not be misleading in saying 'whatever you guys want we will do' but neither do we want to go to the other extreme and say 'this is what you guys are getting because we know best'. So the idea of client empowerment and choice must be mediated against the pragmatics of the project and there will be some negotiation between these extremes.

I hear you saying 'so what’s new - all clients have to understand the difference between dreams and realities'.

But what concerns us is that the dreams of disempowered people, of marginalised people, are not the same as the dreams of people like you and I. Their choice has always been unfairly limited. We want the residents of this remote community to have the housing they deserve. Something special that links them with their land and with each other. Too often we see indigenous people in the worst housing we have ever seen and we dream of something better for them.

So we want to challenge the status quo. To break the poor patterns of development that has blighted indigenous housing in the past. To do this our team needs to open up choices for the client and radicalise the options. We will need to educate the client. And at the same time we want and need the client to educate us. But in a delicate balancing act we will also need to play the 'bad cop' role and be vigilant about the need to make the project achievable. We must be able to deliver on our promises if we are to avoid becoming another example of the 'kick in the guts'.

The prologue.....

We are now on the Qantas flight back to Melbourne after two (hot) days standing in the sun discussing options and needs. Firstly we are reminded how great it is to be in the community – how great the people are and how rewarding it is to work with them. Secondly we are reminded how complicated the negotiation processes are – how political the processes become. Because like all facts of our life there are community groups that bond easily and others whose history together is more complex. Hence the many meetings with different smaller groups followed by efforts to pull it all together.

We have managed to grind out a resolution, but it is not the one we had expected. The design details of the building itself were widely appreciated by the community. They have approved the basic strategy and planning and we can move ahead with confidence. In many ways the community has chosen to trust us to get this part of the project right.

But in others respects we were quite misguided in our initial plans. We had intended to remove some existing buildings as they were totally dilapidated in our eyes. The toilet block, built about twenty years ago, was not functional at all having been vandalised beyond repair. As a cost saving measure we planned to bulldoze it and build right beside it to reuse the concrete slab on which it stood.

Most of the community members were fine with this. We planned to include new toilets and for this reason alone they were excited with the ideas. Then late on the first day of our discussions we hit a snag. One person, claiming the support of others in the community, was adamant that this toilet block must not be destroyed. 'We can fix it up' he said. We tried to rationalise with him. 'Who is going to pay as it's not part of our project outline?' we countered, 'They are absolutely stuffed and we'll build better ones' we said. We thought we were being quite sensible. 'No' he said. 'I won't support them being knocked down'.

It seemed for a while that we had hit a brick wall. To be perfectly honest late at the end of a hot and tiring day we didn't want to hear this at all. But we were here to listen and learn after all. So we got down to the business of unfolding the emotion that surrounding his strong feelings. This was not easy but our team is becoming quite good at working our way through these types of situations! 'These toilets are a part of our history' he explained. 'They are the first permanent structures on our land and we want them maintained as a monument'. Fair enough, there is precious little history of early buildings on aboriginal land. Then came the crunch point. There are paint handprints on the walls of the toilets placed there by community kids that have since passed away. They are the type made by kindergarten kids all over the world where their teacher helps them paint their hands and make prints. But these kids were not with us anymore.

End of story. The toilet block stands and we will find another site.

We had approached the design in a rational manner. However the truth is that buildings are ultimately not rational things (not even Le Corbusier’s were). And we were being put in our place by community members for not recognising that this toilet block (that we had viewed as dysfunctional) was far more than a toilet block – it was a link to the past and a 'monument' within the community's history.

The community, or parts of it, had chosen to remind us that our rational ways of working are only valid to a certain point and that there is a complex story of empowerment (the community's new modern toilets built some twenty years ago) and loss (the handprints of deceased children) to be considered in our visions for community improvement. If we wish to work with them we needed to understand and accept this. Outsider knowledge coupled with insider knowledge came together for the best outcomes.

But again I hear you say 'What's new? That's what architects are supposed to do'.

And you would be right to say this. But what we claim as a win is that an indigenous group, who have traditionally not found it particularly easy to make themselves heard when it comes to their placemaking, have chosen to stand up and make their voice heard. They have taken the trouble to educate us in the importance of their recent history. And I also believe we are now going to create a much more worthwhile project together.

We will be forever grateful that they chose to take the time to do this.

David O’Brien (with Hamish Hill, Grant Divall and Allison Stout)
Bower 2011 Team
Check out the 2010 project in Darwin at:

David O'Brien
Architects for Peace, March 2011


Beatriz said...

An interesting, local and down to earth editorial David. A bit of reality check on aspects that fall outside the often narrow perception of what constitute architects’ concerns. I wonder what other choices are there (apart from those that have history) for the indigenous people living in the area. This is one of those topics that open a lot of interesting questions.... Is this part of the faculty's extension program--is there such thing?

Post a Comment