Most people think of architecture as objects. But practitioners know it as a process. A gulf of understanding, which I want to illustrate with two words, normally seen as nouns, but if you flip them as verbs, they tell us a lot about how we should think of designing dwellings.
The late Col James, as senior lecturer at Sydney University, was chair and coordinator of the I.B. Fell Housing Research Unit, critically looking at housing policy. The message on his answer phone ended with the exhortation to “make housing a verb”. Then, as now, our architecture media is full of ‘objects’, increasingly overblown houses for the uber rich. But Col, and the research unit, demurred.
Col James taught several generations of students the value of social issues in design, chief among them addressing housing stress, particularly for the indigenous community. Quite prescient for our current times, as politics is so obsessed with housing affordability, by which they mean ‘buying a house’. So, the one third of Australians who don’t, and most likely can’t, own a home are invisible.
Ministers for housing (to the extent we have some) seemingly have little understanding of the means to deliver social housing. It was to that design conundrum that his teaching and research was directed: to elucidate the means, the process, the policies to provide housing. A doing word, active, a verb.
One student paying close attention was the recently passed Paul Pholeros, whose understanding of the failures of housing for indigenous led to the establishment of Health Habitat. The centrepiece of this work was stripping back the house as object, to the essential services of water, sewer and electricity. The fundamentals at the heart of the failure were revealed when the layers of building were removed.
Now Paul also had a career making houses and ‘alts and adds’, which were always simple in form and elegant in execution. Their simplicity was inspired by our country love of a good shed. This is the cheapest way to make enclosure: we have companies in country towns who can supply a concrete slab, steel structure, cladding and doors, all engineered to the geo-technical and wind codes, for a low price.
And Paul would say that shed worked well as a verb: the best design approach was to remove unnecessary baggage, to build only the essential. The shed was an exemplar of design in both noun and verb.
That process of shedding could foretell an approach to future social dwellings: a means of housing society’s forgotten. Not literal sheds, although that may be one way of delivering sheer volume, but to look to what is at the heart of a home: shelter at its most essential. In an era of obsessive and conspicuous consumption we might drive in the other direction to maximise quantity with quality.
These two words, mostly used as nouns, would be far better as verbs: to shed what is unnecessary in order that we may proceed to housing all of our population safely, securely and affordably.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]