MULTI-CULTURAL DESIGN IN AUSTRALIA
Design Has No Boundaries Conference
Queensland University of Technology
26-29 September 1995
With its change
in immigration regulations and precedent-setting legal decisions on aboriginal
land, Australia has moved into the forefront of multi-cultural existence.
In a cafe in Brisbane today, you can see and hear the interweavings of a
dozen different cultural traditions from all parts of the world.
How do we go about design in this wonderful new time?
Peter Rich, in his talk on his work with the Ndebele tribe in South Africa, showed a tribe which has tried on all the strange and crazy "modern" things that have flooded their country, and how they have chosen what fits into their culture and their lives - however incongruous it may appear at first - while ultimately rejecting what doesn't fit. That is what we all have to do.
Exposure to new people, new cultures, new ways of seeing and being, give us new mirrors in which to see our own lives - to compare, to question, and to choose the best from any and all sources to create new designs for our lives. It is a time of new vigor and new possibilities. It is also, however, a time which needs to find what fits the uniqueness of the land, the place, and the people - what will take root and flourish with a new, strengthened and enduring sense of rightness.
There is a power and rightness in the ecological communities that have evolved differently in every place - tested and retested over thousands of generations to select patterns and relationships which are sustainable, stable, and have resiliency to the stresses that are part of the life of that place. Living there over time, we change too, and become different and an integral part of that place and community. A people of the mountains are different from a people of the desert, or the tropics, or snow country.
When we move as individuals or as a culture into new places, we unavoidably bring with us a turtle shell of ways of living from our old world. You can find places and living patterns even today in Australia or India which are more English than England. You can follow a trail of settlers across the United States and see their European architecture settling stiffly and uncomfortably in cold New England, hot and humid southern states, the Great Plains, and the Western deserts.
And over time you can see those patterns shift. In New England, the walls thicken, the windows shrink; the roofs steepen and turn to shed snow away from the entry doors, and the chimneys and fireplaces move to the inside. The ceilings rise, the windows open and grow larger, and living spaces rise higher above the ground and move into the shade of large trees in the South. Wood is replaced by brick and clay, and buildings nestle out of the wind in the treeless Plains. And dwellings nestle into the ground itself or build with thick earth walls that temper the vast daily temperature swings of the desert.
We also see the temporary promulgation of living patterns totally alien to the distinctive regional possibilities and needs, fueled by immense consumption of irreplaceable fossil fuels. But this will soon cease.
The importance of this process of acclimatization, becoming at home, or becoming a 'native' was brought home to me powerfully in the Winter Cities project initiated by the Canadian architect Arnie Fullerton a number of years ago. He had gone through all of the tourism brochures of Canada, and found only one picture of winter. He thought this rather odd in a country of winter, and that it displayed a deep discomfort and misfit between their lives and the world in which they lived!
So he pulled together a conference of people from winter cities all around the world - from Hokkaido in Japan, from Alaska, Scandinavia, and Russia. They discovered that few as they might be individually, together they constituted a large enough group to create a "winter" market. They created a Winter Car that would really start in the winter, Winter Clothing which was both warm and stylish, Winter Architecture and Winter Site Planning which kept sun on the sidewalks and streets to melt snow, located buildings to keep snowdrifts and circulation separate, and to keep people warm and happy. On this technical level they accomplished wonderful things.
But their real breakthrough was on the psychological and emotional level. They asked, "How can we get comfortable with winter? What is there to celebrate and enjoy, so we're not so at-odds with where we live?" Someone from, I believe Ottawa, said, "You know, we have a whole web of canals here that extend everywhere in the city. If we would just plow those in the winter, and set up some warming sheds, we would have a wonderful ice skating network." And they did. Another city started a winter ice festival. Others began to hold snowmobile races, dog sled races, hockey leagues - all kinds of winter sports and celebrations.
We talked about winter houses, and how to open them with new high-performance skylights to the incredible stars and the aurora borealis of the long winter nights. We thought of keeping at least one small window single glazed, so the cold every night would create a wonderful frost painting which would sparkle in the next morning's sunlight.
We talked about winter gardens. In snow country, they used to shut down their gardens for the winter in early fall - covering and bracing plants to stand the cold until spring. We talked about making snow sculpture gardens - placing fences to channel the winds to make snowdrift sculptures. We talked about using fog generators to deposit a glazing of ice on branches in the night, so they would glisten in the daylight.
The result is an entire biome, in its special pockets all around the world, becoming at home with its special world. It is a whole world of winter people developing love for their place, successful living patterns, and cultural expressions celebrating that rich world.
How do we do the same for Australia?
* * *
Amidst the climatic diversity of any large land mass, Australia is largely a hot dry place.
So the first thing to do, perhaps, is to look
at the special ways people in hot, dry climates in every different nook
and cranny of the world have developed to live happily in such worlds. No need to reinvent the wheel - just put together the
best that fits, and make a better tire that works here.
Look at Persia - creating cities in the desert for centuries supported by underground canals bringing icy water from the mountains. With little pasturage, a nomadic tradition. Isfahan, the wonderful 14th century capital of Shah Abbas, was a city of gardens and tents, not buildings! They did create incredibly sophisticated catenary vaulted mud brick structures, but that was not their real vision of paradise. Is there any real purpose for buildings in such a climate? Fabric or mud walls for wind protection and privacy, then an oasis of cool water, shade, and fragrant flowers!
One of the most sophisticated examples of channeling natural energies in a desert climate to create comfortable living places is the royal Hasht Behest garden pavilion in Isfahan. In the garden, the chenar trees provided shade, irrigated by water channels supplied from aerated chutes which put anions into the air and cooled the water through evaporation. The garden air was cooled both by transpiration and shade from the trees and evaporation of the water. The pavilion itself consisted of a high central mud brick dome with a glazed cupola, surrounded by open porches and enclosed rooms.
In the summer, the hot sun on the outside of the vault created rising air currents. In passing the open cupola windows, those air currents sucked out the warm air inside the top of the dome, both removing that heat and pulling cool air from the garden into the pavilion below. In the winter, by merely closing the cupola windows, the warm air in the dome was retained in the building and the sun on the outside of the dome heated it, radiating that heat to the inside through the night. Queensland metal roofs would benefit from that kind of ventilation.
The Persian deserts also contain strange structures - "yak-chals". These were built for - believe it or not - making ice! Think of a more sophisticated traditional technology developed merely from observant living with the climate! The night sky is so clear that night temperatures plunge throughout the year - but not to freezing. Yet the clear sky provides such a clear absorbent face that shallow water pans, lifted off the heat-retaining earth and left exposed to the sky, actually turned to ice. The Persians, like the !Kung in the Kalahari in Africa, had incredibly sophisticated means of finding and producing water in the desert - from far underground, from using condensation out of the air onto rocks, and other amazing techniques to produce water for drinking and for agriculture.
In India, there were slight variations on these patterns. Small pavilions or turrets were built on the tops of the walls, creating raised places to catch the breezes and smell of distant places, and to see far into the distance in the clear desert air.
Paolo Soleri's work in the Arizona desert in the States gives yet another pattern. Digging down into the desert rather than building visibly above it, he has reached for the mean temperature in the ground that averages out daily and yearly temperature swings. There he has built, sheltered from the strong desert winds, a series of half-domes facing north and south. One orientation provides shade and coolness in the summer. The other provides a solar heat trap warm space in the winter.
Why even have architecture in the desert? An aboriginal might laugh at the architectural research performed on their dwelling patterns - measuring the size of their wind screens and shade structures. Is there any purpose for architecture or even buildings in the desert? Or is the simplest wind screen and overhead shade more than enough, and their size circumstantial and not important?
The Ndebele in Africa explore yet a different path. The surfaces of their mud-plastered homes, which temper the daily temperatures, have exploded with dramatic and subtle geometric design with the advent of European paints, whitewash, and other colored materials. Instead of leaving just "the desert" around their houses, they have created mud-plaster floored ceremonial "porches" defined by sitting-height walls around the houses, investing those spaces with powerful cultural meaning and function.
And then there are the Mogul yurts and nomadic living patterns, with seasonal shifts for pasturage, water, and temperature. Each desert yields its own long-evolved patterns, whose wisdom can be appropriated to mesh with both the cultural and the environmental needs of Australian people. We have the wisdom of the whole world to draw on in making a new tradition for this special place, so use it!
What are the special patterns of life in a hot-dry world? Life, in the desert, happens at night. Few creatures are desperate or foolish enough to set forth in the blazing sun. What is "welcome" in the desert? What gift can you give a person arriving at your place? Shade? Coolness? Precious water? And what of our cultural patterns?
The second major element is the culture - or the rich cultural blend which is developing with the influx of new cultural traditions. Someone once characterized Australia to me as an English soup bowl, with native people in the inner basin; more-than-Englishmen sitting around the rim, with their feet dangling over the edge, looking outward towards Europe; and the working classes dancing and banging away at the plate itself.
It's much more than that now, with whites from South Africa, blacks from all sub-Sahara Africa; Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Europeans, Russians, Polynesians, North and South Americans, and more. Each brings cultural beliefs and living traditions. Each is foreign to the others. Each is foreign to this place. Look to places such as Indonesia, where diverse cultures have overlaid and blended together to get a sense of the possible, and also a sense of the problems to be avoided. Again there is a world of wisdom and opportunity to build upon, select, and make your own into a new, distinctly Australian culture. New combinations can emerge with a flavor and attraction all their own - like the new spicy rice cracker and peanut airplane snacks.
And finally, most importantly, there is the land. Any architecture, any design, any tradition or culture, must meld into and root in the unique power and specialness of the land which is Australia. Its distance from others. What its neighbours are. The winds, the rains, the clouds, fogs, and seasons. Its stars, its southernness, the reversal between its seasons and those of the northern hemisphere. Its wonderful emptiness and silence. Its harshness to the patterns imported and imposed upon it. The age and persistence of its oldest cultures, the dynamism of its newest. The trees, plants, soils, winged, finned, and footed life which is so different from other places. What lives in its seas and its air and its soil. The color and taste of its earth. Its material and spiritual resources. Its history.
It desperately needs new patterns to honor it, acknowledge it, restore its health, and bring ourselves into oneness with it - celebrating, enjoying, honoring, and fitting with it and the ecological communities it has generated.
* * *
There is one caveat or warning. We are not talking about today's "global culture". The basic beliefs and values of the industrialized global culture invading every corner of the globe - that we are separate from nature and have jurisdiction over it; that limitless expansion of our numbers and appetites is possible and right; and the forcible taking from other people and other life to support that growth - violate the basic laws of nature, mathematics, and humanity. The energy base fueling it is reaching exhaustion. It has surpassed the limits of what can sustainably be supported; and is doomed to demise in the near future.
The life-centered culture which must replace it draws from far different root values, provides far different and greater rewards, experience, and meaning to those in it. It must be based on a sacred rather than secular center to the culture, on the simple principles of honoring others and each other, of vulnerability and openness to others, and speaking and living from the heart. It has more in common with the most ancient cultures on the planet than the more recent, so do not neglect or underrate the value of the traditions of those cultures.
This brings to mind a passage in a book about South African Archbishop Desmund TuTu which gives a sense of the differentness of that world:
"We Africans speak about a concept difficult to render in English. We speak of UBUNTU or BOTHO. You know when it is there, and it is obvious when it is absent. It has to do with what it means to be truly human. It refers to gentleness, to compassion, to hospitality, to openness to others, to vulnerability, to be available for others and to know that you are bound up with them in the bundle of life, for a person is only a person through other persons."
I see these same characteristics as distinguishing
what it is like to live as part of a sacred world in absolute contrast to
the characteristics of life in a world of greed and self-centeredness. They
are also the identical things I feel in others and myself when we are relating
in ways which seemed to empower all concerned.
Some of the outlines of this culture we need to be designing towards are becoming visible:
* We need to design cognizant of resource limits, with renewable energy base, and in sustainable patterns.
* We need to, and can, design places with souls.
* We need to acknowledge the primacy of the energy dimension of the material world which inviolably interconnects all life. The Chinese feng-shui tradition is a sophisticated one to use as a starting point for designing of places acknowledging the energy of place, the interaction of chi in places and people, and the psychological and spiritual dimensions of these relations.
* Our spirits need nurture and homes as well as our bodies. We need to design "gardens of the spirit" to connect them with the energy of the rest of nature and life.
* * *
Many design opportunities present themselves as we begin to rethink and redesign ourselves and our world so they fit together and can create a positive future that can be sustained. They express and embody new life-supporting values in place of the often destructive ones which have underlain our cultures. As you design, keep in your mind and heart:
REWARDING WORK IS WEALTH. Acknowledging the inner product of work - what happens to the worker - is as important as the outer produce - what we usually consider the only product of work. For a person to have an opportunity to use their skills, to develop them and contribute something to the community, is equally as important as the outer product, which could be made by a machine.
This curved wooden stairway was hidden behind some old temple buildings in Kyoto. If you are a carpenter, your eyes may be rolling a bit when you try to think about making compound-curvature beams and having a ridge beam floating with no supports. (It is actually mortised into the roof rafters.) The amount of skill it took to make this, and to do so in such a quietly understated way, is phenomenal.
REMEMBER SILENCE HAS POWER. In an age of media that fear silence, remember the power of silence. With a waterfall, for example, you expect to have the sound of splashing water. Sometimes you can create something in an unexpected way so it grabs onto our perceptions and makes us freshly aware of something. In this case, we have a silent waterfall. This is water falling over a cliff face where moss has grown. So when you see the waterfall, you see the rainbow sparkle of each drop of water coming down - but silence as it lands in the moss.
I found another waterfall once where the water falls a couple of hundred feet down a cliff into a reflecting pool at the bottom. This is an impossibility! You know if you run water into a pool, it isn't a reflective pool anymore. Your mind boggles - this can't be happening, this endless water supply going into the basin and no overflow. What we found out was that there had been a rock fall in this pool, and it had separated the pool into two parts - one for the waterfall, and one for the reflecting part. The rocks were just below the surface of the water - just enough so they broke every ripple of water coming to them. The water was actually seeping out underground from the pool, so this impossible situation of course was possible. But in the process it made you freshly aware of some of those patterns and relationships which we take for granted.
MAKE WHERE WE ARE PARADISE. As in the Winter Cities program in Canada, every place has special attributes that we rarely become comfortable with until we have lived long with them. In Oregon we said, "What about rain?" - and began having mud races, slug festivals, and celebration of water falling off of the roofs of our buildings. Whatever the weirdness of your weather - enjoy and celebrate it!
We also tend to look to "vacations" - visits to exotic different places - to restore our souls. Much of that nourishment could be gained in better ways if we looked to our own communities and restored the power of the native environment and adjusted our building and living patterns so they were in harmony and able to provide us nurture, passion and reward.
CONNECT OURSELVES WITH THE STARS. Our surroundings need to mirror back to us and demonstrate harmony between our vision of our universe and our place in it. Here's a very simple thing - a skylight over a bed. But a place where we can wake and slumber close to the stars, close to the raindrops beading on the glazing, close to the birds soaring overhead. We can make our buildings to follow the circling of the sun, moon, and stars, and keep us in close touch and harmony with their rhythms.
HONOUR THE SPIRIT WHICH PERMEATES AND CONNECTS ALL LIFE. The energy and forces which underlie life are primary. People and the other forms of life come after. Our buildings and our possessions are of far less import. Ask anyone who has escaped tragedy with their lives and those of their loved ones. Ask what truly gives joy and for what the future will thank us. Honor places we hold sacred, the sacredness in ourselves, others, and all that makes our world.
HELP US TOUCH INVISIBLE WORLDS. We are more and more living in and changing the once invisible electronic, microscopic and macroscopic worlds and those of our minds and dreams. Our surroundings need to acknowledge, connect with, and reflect these worlds.
EXPLORE NEW POTENTIALS. Explore other history, other traditions. One that I stumbled into about 25 years ago is feng-shui, the Chinese practice of locating buildings in accord with energy fields in the earth. In the Kiyomizu Temple on the east side of Kyoto, people went to great effort to position the temple exactly where it is. It is located over one spot on the side of the hill where there was an incredible upwelling of good energy. Every time I visited the temple I came away feeling wonderful, and other people I spoke with had the same feeling.
There are more than ninety traditional cultures which acknowledged the energy fields underlying all life and their importance for health and well-being. The sun's radiation hitting the earth's magnetic field induces energy patterns into the mantle of the earth. Concentrations of this energy become healing centres. The act of finding things in forgotten traditions that can be used today vitalizes them and the people whose heritage they are, and gives them renewed meaning and value.
REMEMBER THAT MIRRORS DISTORT. I began a number of years ago to take mirrors out of bathrooms, realizing that we get up in the morning, stagger into the bathroom, turn on the light, and the frightful, hung-over thing we see in the mirror is the worst thing we could imagine for self-esteem. Mirrors focus our attention on the outsides of things, not the important inner qualities. Abraham Lincoln was one of our best loved presidents, but was probably one of the ugliest that ever walked the earth. The spot he has in people's hearts has nothing to do with his outsides - it's about what he was on the inside. We can put mirrors on the inside of the door of a medicine cabinet or on the back of the bathroom door, where it is available when needed, but out of sight otherwise.
LET NATURE DO IT. The story of the climate control in the Hasht Behest is a lesson for us to learn to channel wisely the patterns and flows of nature rather than using vast amounts of irreplaceable fossil fuels to heat and cool our buildings.
DURABILITY IS MAGIC. The most important concept I can leave you with on building is "durability". Gothic cathedrals built in French villages in the 1200's are still in use today. The amount of work that went into their making has paid itself back over and over. A building that lasts 200 years costs only one-tenth of the building that lasts only 20 years. This durability allows the generosity in design to do thingswell, to give for the spirit as well as for the mere sheltering of our activities.
GIVE OUR SPIRITS PLACES. Our hearts need nurture as well as our bodies. They don't need buildings and roofs. Their nourishment creates our wealth, and is the glue that holds sustainability and well-being together. All we need do is to make gardens for the spirit, connecting them with the energy of life. In Stockholm, Sweden, they have found ways even to make such gardens underground, in pedestrian underpasses under streets. Here they placed round glass skylights in the bottom of a fountain so water splashing in the fountain causes a wonderful vibrating light to come down out of the skylight and into the pedestrian underpass beneath.
HONOUR THE LIVES OF THE MATERIALS THAT HAVE GONE INTO THE MAKING OF A PLACE. The stair handrail and the door handle on our house are some spruce roots that we dragged up from the beach. Touching that handle, we sense the wrinkles and scars of the battles of the life of the root, which tell a story of its life and need to be honored, as do the wrinkles of an old person.
EARTH, AIR, FIRE, AND WATER. The heart of a home has often been an expression of one of these elements - a fireplace, the diner table, the food, the sheltering roof. In this house for the rain country in Oregon, I tried to create the heart of the house with water. A bath tub was put in the middle of the house. We built a fireplace between it and the living room. We put metal doors on the bath room side for privacy so every time you built a fire in the living room you made a nice toasty place in the bathroom. Anytime you took a bath, you had fire and water together.
Overhead, in the peak of the roof, we designed a sky room with just mattresses and pillows under a 10' diameter peaked skylight with windows around it so that you can sit up there with the water above the house in the mist, and with the rain cascading down over the skylight to the ocean below.
CELEBRATE DEATH. Too much we consider death to be scary stuff. But without death we have no cycle of life, no cycles of enrichment and creation, of allowing new life to emerge. This is a mortuary chapel in Turku, Finland, built in the 1930's or 1940's. Here seats for the living are put to one side of the space. Between the seating and a glass wall opening out into the forest is left empty. Here they place the coffin or the ashes. The human ritual of taking the coffin through a ceremonial door in the chapel out into the forest where the ashes or the body are interred and taken up by the roots for the creation of new life is a vital one to honour and harbor. Honour death, honour the grief of the people who remain, and honour the gifts given by the deceased.
How do we deal with death in the things we make? In Oregon you can walk out into the forest and find where a tree has fallen over. These "nurse logs" provide a place which allows new trees to sprout more easily. Over time these sprouts send roots down over the side of the log and into the earth. A hundred years or so later, the nurse log has rotted away, and you come into the forest. What you find are huge trees standing up on tip toe on their roots in a row in the forest - an amazing sight! You can take this sense of death and rebirth and find ways to put such a garden of new life into where we live.
CONNECT US WITH THE LIFE WHICH SURROUNDS US. While we were trying to decide what to do with the outside of our house, a wonderful wildflower garden sprung up by itself. We said, "Hey, that's nice - we'll leave it.", and we got to know all sorts of small plants that we would never have thought of. Being nestled into the life that has developed a special fitness over thousands of years connects us with the sense of fit and rightness of the place. It makes it easier for us to become part of that ourselves.
HONOUR GIVING. These last pictures show one attempt I've made at multi-cultural design. It is an unsuccessful entry into a competition for design of a Korean-American museum and culture center for an urban ghetto in Los Angeles. In it, I tried to explore a new sense of design based on "giving". I decided to take the most ignored resource in the community and turn that waste into wealth. My proposal was to take the city sewer that ran down the street and pump the sewerage to the roof of the museum. (I can see the jury of "fancy" architects wrinkling up their noses - can't imagine why I didn't win the competition!)
The sewerage would then be given biological treatment and then used to support a roof-top produce garden. The nutrients would grow fresh produce for the neighbourhood which could then be sold in a green grocer in the forecourt of the building, encouraging people from the community to come in and become involved in the facility. The waste water then watered the gardens and was led out along the streets to irrigate street tree plantings of native California live oak and also to recharge the ground water.
I was trying to create a change in the values which were expressed in the neighbourhood from taking to giving. I wanted to show how we can take the things which we least value and turn them into something of value to the community.
The second level of design was to change the ecology of the building and the area around it through creation of gardens, change in the micro climate, putting negative ions into the air to counter the Santa Anna winds (the dry winds that make everybody pick up guns and shoot each other). We also paid particular attention to organizing facilities so that all the meeting rooms, the performance hall, cafe, etc., could be used by the community after hours without impairing the security of the museum galleries.
So there is a forecourt which was public, with a stage on the side for people to get up and play music. This backed onto the indoor performance hall, and stage walls could be pulled totally back to completely open the hall to the outside air for outdoor performances. Interior organization was based on traditional Korean/Chinese feng-shui building patterns. On the north end of the central axis we put a traditional garden, saying we're going to give that traditional place of power to the cultural tradition itself. What we put in the garden on the axis wasn't something big. It was insignificant size-wise, but vitally important symbolically - a small shrine to the ancestors containing soil and icons from sacred places in Korea.
The overall form of the building was chosen specifically for its symbolic value rather than architectural "dazzle". Walled courtyard enclosures are the most common building type not only in the Korean tradition, but also common n the Hispanic and African traditions of the other cultures in the neighborhood. And it held symbolic value for safekeeping of the art treasures of the museum.
These pictures give a sense of one approach to giving - trying to figure what is possible beyond the programming of a project itself which creates additional layers of value. Building code wise, the use of the roof gardens didn't count in the allowable area of the building, so we actually created something that wasn't normally allowed but could be used to give value to the community. This was an attempt at multi-cultural design based on honouring the values of each culture in the context of life-enhancing values for our culture itself. Regardless of the design, its underlying principles are ones that can be of use in our new multi-cultural world.
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