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Grace Hung & Sasha Hadjimouratis

Carolyn Wong & Renato Liucci

Melissa Thong & Vanessa Gugliotti

Dillon Lim & Ricky Lau


Event! Melanie Dodd RMIT Architecture Upper Pool Design Studio Semester 01, 2008 Tutor: Melanie Dodd Exhibited Students: Carolyn Wong & Renato Liucci Dillon Lim & Ricky Lau Grace Hung & Sasha Hadjimouratis Melissa Thong & Vanessa Gugliotti The Event studio at RMIT is one of a consecutive series of studios in the architecture program which has an explicit social agenda, as well as real context and client frameworks: utilising ‘live’ projects, in other words. The studio worked as a collective to curate a public event in May 2008 that involved the design and construction of small interactive installations on a social housing estate in outer Melbourne. The West Park estate was designated a Neighbourhood Renewal area in 2007, a state government social policy initiative which attempts to tackle persistent social and economic disadvantage through a wholeof-government response ranging from education, employment, housing, environment and community capacity building. The event was scheduled as a community engagement exercise to contribute to a strategic design framework for improvements to public space on the estate. We sought to engage with the temporal qualities of social space and event, considering temporary and interactive insertions for a community as a way of articulating and revealing the relationships between the lived and the built, as a device for building relationships with local residents, and as provocative propositional devices in their own right. Engaging in real lives (social infrastructures) involves uncovering the invisible aspects of a site - a sort of non-physical site survey and bringing this often marginalised and ordinary realm to bear on proposal, however absurd, frivolous or transitory the outcomes might be. It is about noticing the minutiae of social situations, and valuing equally slight adjustments to that situation. It is about engaging in the everyday structures of habit and routine, and understanding them as profound stabilities for social life, both ordinary and extra-ordinary in equal measure. Our studio method stands in contrast to methodologies of other urban strategists, who move from the general to the particular. We tend to develop from the particular to the generic and back to the particular: an interrogation of the up close and personal in social space. In an attempt to do this creatively we utilise methodologies of contemporary socially engaged art practice, which is characterised by the desire to record minutely what is while remaining unworried by what should be. The ambition of the studio constructions was to avoid a pathological focus upon problems and solutions within community contexts, but rather to reveal latent meanings within social and cultural landscapes, and expose them provocatively for public airing and argument. Public space can be seen as the place where ‘public life’ is enacted. In broad terms, the studio questioned how and why the quality and design of public space has a correlation with the quality and processes of active citizenship. Because of the strong relationship between public space and public life, architects, urban designers and also government planning and social policy agencies believe that improvements to the built environment may reap wider social rewards. These ambitions by government link closely with wider cultural trends observed by social commentators1, which reveal what can be seen as a dissolution of ‘community’ in the capitalist West. They are also integrally linked to the current understandings of ‘sustainable communities’ and the need to have resilient and robust social networks capable of responding positively to change and growth.2 Recent social policy in the UK and Australia focuses on social

capital building and community strengthening initiatives which have a ‘place-based’ spatial policy utilising ‘place-management’ principles. But conventional design methods often focus on generic assumptions about the use of public space. Urban design theory and methodology, at least the type adopted by government departments and large-scale planning practitioners maintains a critical distance from the ‘ground’ conditions of everyday life and occupation. This distance – a gap - represents an inability on the part of political institutions to descend to the level of reality and absorb, understand or even speculate on what relevance this social and cultural specificity might have for larger scale strategic planning. Equally there is little interest in how we, as designers, can involve the user in the design process, beyond undertaking the most basic and un-ambitious type of consultation process (forums and focus groups). Yet, in terms of the future for sustainable communities, there is an ever greater acknowledgement of the need for, and benefits of ‘personal action’ in society; for decentralised systems of production and consumption; and for an emphasis on the ‘local’, albeit a networked local. A blinkered focus on problem-solving, the valorisation of expertise and the distancing of expertise from community means we can lose sight of how to embed expertise within communities in order to explore and define the communities own requirements and priorities. A useful theoretical reference to this dilemma or gap is also defined by Michel de Certeau, In ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’. His thesis of tactics and strategies postulates that strategies are the tools of the dominant elite, in contrast to which, tactics work in the shadow of strategies and are ‘an art of the weak’3, which form mute but powerful processes utilized by individuals to create space for themselves in environments. With this social, political and cultural context as our background, the studio asked : how can architectural practice include, support and surface the user? How can we (as architects) support active citizenship, social action and micro-democracy through the process of design? During the semester we investigated tactical design devices which explored ways of engaging people; experimented with the idea of the playful, the temporary, the ephemeral in architecture; exposed the invisible and underlying uses of space; and developed participatory community engagement methods that utilised interactive techniques. This included making a website - a Digital Map - entitled What do you do and where do you do it? which presented geo-placed digital stories that were made by local school children. Final installations were constructed in the RMIT Workshops and transported to site for the one day event, which attracted a wide range of local children whom the students had built relationships with over the course of their research. Outcomes included a visual report of the day, including consultation and community responses, which contributed to an urban design brief for the estate. How did we answer our own research questions? Defining the value of undertaking live projects in design studio, means understanding the complex reciprocity of ‘give and take’ that characterises this mode of teaching practice. The slippery conditions of operating in a real community confound any conventional definitions of expertise in terms of the professional (architect) versus the amateur (citizen). Is the expert the architectural student, the lecturer, the local council, or the child aged five, who has lived in a place all their lives? Roles metamorphosize precisely because of the rich diversity and lack of conventional hierarchy that is enabled by this model of design action. Who values most from the project; the student, the community, the council, the child aged five? All of these players take their turn as expert-citizens/citizen-experts, alternately giving and receiving skills and knowledge. The student’s studio work argues in favour of this messy ambiguity as a key to innovatory practice in community engaged design, well suited to addressing contemporary dilemmas in the making of the public realm. The undertaking of public space projects through the live project model of design studio teaching, questions and subverts conventional hierarchies of control and placation inherent in public consultation and design process. Levels of expertise are relative, or in free-fall. Here, architectural students become creative enablers. The facilitation of this dialogical model - an expansion of the role of the architect - can be directly attributable to the live project model and its ambiguous structures of so-called ‘expertise’. 1. For example Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man 1974, and The Culture of New Capitalism (2006), Robert Puttnam in Bowling Alone (2000) 2. Refer to the RMIT Global Cities Research Institute Key Research Theme: Community Sustainability and Social Infrastructure ‘What is the impact of social change on communities? Our research works from the ground up and is motivated by the pressing need to understand how local communities are cur rently negotiating the challenges and opportunities of globalization.’ 3. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

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