decolonising design in the built environment

I Heart Social Privilege

Student activism + architecture = ?

This blog post is a not-so-FAQ to the #BoycottBowerStudio student awareness campaign launched on Friday 27th February, 2015 at the Melbourne School of Design (MSD). 

What is #BoycottBowerStudio all about?

  •  an awareness action aimed at Master of Architecture students in the 24 hours prior to balloting for a Design Studio for Semester 1, 2015. Flyers were handed out to M.Arch students prior to the MSD studio presentations. The campaign team consisted of a small group of architecture students from MSD and Aboriginal students from the University of Melbourne.
  • the purpose: 1. to enliven the social conscience of students in recognising that their studio selections have a social impact in the real world 2. to empower students to utilise their ballot choices as an avenue for sending a clear message to the MSD that students do not support poor practice in design and architecture education.

What is Bower Studio (BS)?

  • a subject delivered by the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne, Australia.

  • 1 of 34 design studios offered to Masters students, the BS enables students to contribute to an intrusive intervention in a remote Aboriginal community, to disrespect local protocol and exercise social privilege.

What's wrong with MSD condoning this BS?

  • field trip practice associated with BS disregards legal responsibilities in relation to work safety, working with children, and "dry zones" (no alcohol allowed) implemented as a result of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. The "intervention" is a direct action set in place by the Commonwealth Government of Australia. Read more about the NT intervention here.
  • course content of BS perpetuates the notion that a white do-gooder designer can "fix" Aboriginal communities through design and architecture.
  • field trip practice associated with BS disregards best-practice community consultation and engagement including no cultural awareness of staff or students, and a "walk-in-and-do-whatever-the-fuck-you-want-then-leave" mentality.
  • course content and field trip practice of BS disregards prior research and guidelines regarding construction in Aboriginal communities. Read about best-practice here

What are some specific example of poor practice?

Straight from a Closing the Gap Clearinghouse report (Paul Pholeros, Peter Phibbs) the following lists "what doesn't work" when constructing in Aboriginal communities:

  • A one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t allow for particular local cultural, social and environmental circumstances.
    BS has built the same structure in multiple communities over 1500 km's apart, separated by several Aboriginal nations, with completely different cultural, social and environmental circumstances.

  • Short-term or piecemeal interventions that are not implemented for long enough to make a significant impact.
    In 2014, BS spent a total of 8 days in the selected remote community, each day arriving around 9am and leaving around 4pm. Across the years, BS has selected different remote communities to work in, across different Aboriginal nations, yet teaching and field practice remains the same - ignorant and paternalistic.
  • Fixed, short-term deadlines for any construction program.
    In 2014, BS allocated an 8 day deadline. This meant that there was not enough time to form meaningful relationships with any members of the community, jeopardising the need for genuine community consultation and engagement
  • Interventions that are adopted without collaborating with Indigenous communities to provide a real opportunity for them to let their views be known.
    As noted above, in 2014 the BS shade-structure to be constructed had been designed for a completely different community over 1500kms away. Due to poor-practice time constraints, there was no opportunity for building meaningful relationships with community members, and as a result, no real opportunity for the community to let their views be known.

Why is BS condoned, awarded, funded by the University & external stakeholders?

  • Good question! Speculation: a concoction of ignorance, arrogance, and middle-class white privilege. A dash of "reconciliation". Some mis-directed will, and some unhelpful "check-the-box" approaches to education and community engagement.
  • It's truly amazing how deceiving/rewarding an out-of-context photograph with some black people in it can be.

Have these concerns about BS teaching and practices been raised within the University or MSD?

  • Yes! The above concerns have been raised on several occasions in multiple University executive structures in 2014 and 2015 including: the Dean & Faculty Executive, the University's Indigenous Education Unit and the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Engagement).
  • As the BS has been offered again in Semester 1, 2015, it would seem that the University and MSD have not considered these concerns serious or urgent enough to take immediate and necessary action.

Was #BoycottBowerStudio successful?

  • It is too soon to tell. Initial responses from students were varied. Some students engaged with those of us handing out flyers, having a conversation and asking questions. Some students put up a wall and looked the other way.
  • It would be useful to find out statistics from the MSD ballot system to see if this year's student preferences showed any particular trends away from BS.

What next..?

An honest answer: I don't know! It's up to the University and MSD to align itself with best practice. For the supposed #1 university in Australia, which prides itself in excellent this and excellent that, they sure are not excellent in their response to Aboriginal Australia.

It would appear that MSD is more concerned/distracted by its new faculty building declaring white privilege, than the impact that its teaching and research has on communities in the real world outside of the University campus.