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Shelter, space and a community place

Volume 6 Number 8 August 9 - September 12 2010

The finished media box at night Photo by Jingyi Tan
The finished media box at night Photo by Jingyi Tan

A group of Master of Architecture students recently spent 10 days in the Northern Territory outfitting two new Indigenous community centres constructed out of recycled shipping containers writes David Scott.

Too often, the perception exists that architecture and design students spend many of their study hours poring over AutoCad machines. It’s not the case, says Dr David O’Brien, an architectural design and technology lecturer from the Faculty of Architecture, Building & Planning.

“Architecture has so many different components, from designing to theory and history, but it’s about making things as well. Projects like this one in the Northern Territory give students a chance to actually build their ideas and see how they can share their expertise in community development projects.”

The project he refers to is the ‘Media Box’, a multi-purpose Indigenous community centre made out of refurbished shipping containers, outfitted with books, computers and the internet. The aim is to provide not just a focal point for skills training in the community, but also a place where residents can forge links with people outside their immediate community through workshops and internet use. Two media boxes have been finished – both in town camps near Darwin.

The idea was the brainchild of Silas Gibson, a final year Masters of Architecture student, who was keen to help solve the lack of access to technology and services that are commonplace elsewhere. “I envisaged them as being secure places where community members could use computers to access services, check banking, check email, and search for jobs etc. and for children to do their homework. I especially felt that such a facility would help people in the community to improve social networks with people outside the community, both via the internet and in the facility itself.

“I felt that the containers would provide a cheap, strong and suitable base for the media centres. In the interests of simplicity and keeping costs down I chose a pre-fabricated gable carport roof structure to sit over the container to provide shade.”

As part of the Melbourne School of Design’s ‘Bower 2010’ studio, 17 students worked in two groups across the Gudorrka Community and Knuckeys Lagoon to outfit the shipping containers, construct the carport-style roof and do all the landscaping. The work was completed in conjunction with local labour through Darwin Regional Indigenous Advancement, CDEP Inc., Aboriginal Development Foundation, Yilli Rreung Housing Aboriginal Solutions and Ironbark Employment. It follows up on a similar project in the Bower 2009 studio last year, where Masters students renovated one of the so-called ‘chicken coop houses’ in Gudorrka.

“Local guys participate in skills training exercises – a 13-week program with a certificate at the end,” says Dr O’Brien. “The benefit for them, and also the local elders, is that they are then in a position to provide something back to their community.

“Local kids love it because it’s something exciting that also involves them. For the local artists it gives them a chance to showcase their skills.

“The building is also a chance for students to negotiate with communities, giving them a taste of community life but also the bureaucracy that goes with it, what works and what doesn’t and how to work with other organisations.”

Unique to this particular studio is that the design work is completed only after the students help build another student’s design. Indeed, Gibson’s Media Box was inspired after the work he completed as a fourth year student in Gudorrka in 2009. Other students have come back to build it. Dr O’Brien says this workflow makes strategic sense.

“Every time we work up there with the communities and our partners we all learn how to understand each other better. We talk and learn what might be possible and what could possibly fail. What we’ve said to the students and partner organisations is – let’s work out some prototypes and actually build them. And then let’s come up with some more. It’s not just talk.”

Another final year Masters of Architecture student, Stephanie Westbrook, agrees. “The ‘design after build’ idea wouldn’t work in every design studio, but for this one it definitely works perfectly because you’re responding to something real and experienced.

“You can do pre-design before if you want, but it’s the experience actually on the ground that really informs how you go ahead and how you approach the project. This makes perfect sense really, and it’s similar to real-world practice: if you have been commissioned to design something you need to know what things work or don’t work and how people engage.

“You’ve got to understand the community.”

Dr O’Brien concurs. “Many projects up north happen as a one off and don’t build in any capacity for continuity. That’s not what this is about. I believe we need to take our time and build sustainable relationships – and it’s great seeing the final building and the well informed ideas that students come up with.” This coming December will see him running another studio in Papua New Guinea to test ideas about sustainability and development through the building of pavilions in two villages.

For Gibson, the process of following his design through from first hand experience, to pitching and then finally to construction has been invaluable. “It has been a fantastic opportunity to see one of my own designs realised at such an early stage in my career. The project has given me an insight into how funding for these types of projects works and the amount of bureaucracy involved in actually getting anything built, especially when there are several funding sources involved and so many stakeholders.

“And the project has obviously provided me with a great deal of technical knowledge as well as giving me the added confidence that comes from having had this experience.”