Bower Studio retrospective: 2008 - 2019

By Sophie Hill

The award-winning Bower Studio links community groups with postgraduate architecture students and staff from the University of Melbourne. For twelve years it has focused on Indigenous and remote communities to codevelop and construct a range of community buildings across Australia, Papua New Guinea and Thailand.

Working closely alongside communities has allowed the studio to address specific needs and concerns that may otherwise have been overlooked in a more conventional program. Dr David O’Brien, Senior Lecturer in Architecture and Bower Studio program creator, explains how the initiative has evolved over the last 12 years.

How did Bower Studio originate?

When I began teaching postgraduate studios I realised that there was a great deal of potential for addressing some really interesting and difficult design problems. I had just finished my PhD looking at community development in Thailand and had some ideas about how we could link our students with community groups, as well as Thai universities, and how we could examine the use of new construction materials alongside traditional ways of building to meet the new aspirations emerging from marginalised communities.

Together we completed a project which might have been a one-off, but the students and staff really enjoyed it and the community did too. We all learned a lot from undertaking a ‘live project’. The university recognised the value of the project which encouraged us to think more broadly about other possibilities. I was initially wary about testing the format in remote Australia but some really terrific Indigenous partners encouraged us forward. From this we have also worked with some fantastic communities in Papua New Guinea.

How has the program evolved over the 12 years that it has been running?

Initially, our design responses were very pragmatic. We were focused on addressing the functional needs as described by the client and from our own observations. We would respond by thinking about site, climate, shade, views and the logistics of building in remote locations which we could discuss very clearly with the client.

More recently we've built deeper understandings with some of our clients and can tackle problems in a more sophisticated way. We've dedicated more time to these clients, listening and learning, and we've been able to accommodate a lot of their stories into the designs. In many ways we are building upon our pragmatic approach to incorporate design ideas that include some of the complex narratives and symbolism shared with our team. We have gained a deeper knowledge of the histories and aspirations of the community and how this can be translated into built form.

Participating in Bower Studio has been really fascinating, and it has taught us a lot. It has given us the confidence to ask more interesting questions and provided the communities with opportunities to feel comfortable sharing more complex answers in return. The stories behind many of the buildings are richer and the architecture more complex. The evolution of Bower Studio is very much tied to the relationships built with the communities.

What is a recent example of that type of symbolic element in a project?

The Wave Hill Walk-Off pavilions commemorate the path taken by Vincent Lingiari and 200 Indigenous stockmen and their families when they walked off the Wave Hill Cattle Station protesting against the work and pay conditions in 1966.

We enjoy working with the Gurindji people as their projects allow us a deeper level of understanding to work with. We still have to keep in mind all the pragmatic considerations, but it's a more complicated design process that we're working with now. That makes it much more challenging and enjoyable.

The Wave Hill Walk-Off pavilions commemorate the path taken by Vincent Lingiari and 200 Indigenous stockmen and their families when they walked off the Wave Hill Cattle Station protesting against the work and pay conditions in 1966.

The ‘Bower Studio Retrospective: 2008 – 2019’ exhibition held in the Dulux Gallery in September, which featured a full-scale reconstruction of a compostable toilet built by Bower Studio in PNG. Photography by James Rafferty.
Images: The ‘Bower Studio Retrospective: 2008 – 2019’ exhibition held in the Dulux Gallery in September, which featured a full-scale reconstruction of a compostable toilet built by Bower Studio in PNG. Photography by James Rafferty.

Many of the students that participate in Bower Studio stay involved for years to come. Why do you think that the studio has such a profound effect on students?

Students really appreciate the opportunity to build something full-scale; it's not make-believe anymore, it's actually real. And it’s very difficult with a steep learning curve. Students also really enjoy the opportunity to build relationships with Indigenous people. Melbourne can feel quite isolated from the rest of the country, and in particular from Indigenous communities.

And, of course, students love the opportunity to deal with some really challenging design problems.

Bower Studio has provided the framework for all of these things to happen and has given students and staff an opportunity to fulfil these aspirations.

Many students definitely want to stay in touch. Bower Studio wouldn't exist without the support of some really talented students who have participated, and then come back and taken on mentorship or staff roles.

Some of the ex-students have really key roles in practices, but they will still move their calendar around in order to participate in the program. It's terrific that people are really dedicated.

Bower Studio has a lot of industry partners. How has this support come about?

There are a lot of people and companies that are really keen to be involved in worthwhile projects, but they don't know how to do it. There aren’t really obvious opportunities for them to do so. So, when I contact them (I don't think there's been a single industry partner where we haven't begun the relationship without straight out cold calling) I get a lot of support.

The industry partners have been incredibly supportive. Each project has a budget attached to it from the community partner which is generally a modest amount compared to their ambitions. The projects tend to cost a lot more than they are able to provide. The support that we get from industry – this is usually in the form of donated materials including steel, water tanks, wood or tools - means that that initial amount goes so much further. I can't thank them enough, really.

The kids from the local school were in the process of painting murals on the outside of the shipping containers we'd used as part of the building’s structure. The murals were fantastic, the kids were really engaged, the teachers were really enthusiastic.

The ‘Bower Studio Retrospective: 2008 – 2019’ exhibition held in the Dulux Gallery in September, which featured a full-scale reconstruction of a compostable toilet built by Bower Studio in PNG. Photography by James Rafferty.

What has been a memorable experience for Bower Studio that really stands out over the last twelve years?

It's great to be able to go back and revisit earlier projects. This year we went back to the early childhood center that we built in remote Wakathuni in 2011. The building is in great condition, the funding agency still supports the education programs and it gets used all the time. The early learning program was set up by the Melbourne University Faculty of Education and they've clearly done a really good job with it.

The kids from the local school were in the process of painting murals on the outside of the shipping containers we'd used as part of the building’s structure. The murals were fantastic, the kids were really engaged, the teachers were really enthusiastic. It was just really nice to go back and see it all going as we'd envisaged it to be.

It was also great to have the Wave Hill project recognized, winning the Yali-McNamara Award from the Australian Institute of Architects, and to be involved in the Venice Biennale (2018). Having completed many functional buildings, it’s rewarding that people appreciate it when we design and build something with strong architectural qualities.

To partner with Bower Studio or to get involved, please contact Dr David O’Brien. More information can be found at bowerstudio.msd.unimelb.edu.au