The Bower Studios are a sequence of Master of Architecture design projects at The University of Melbourne’s School of Design. They enable select groups of post-graduate students to design and build community infrastructure alongside Indigenous groups, most recently in remote communities in Australia and Papua New Guinea. The Bower Studio learning environment is not limited to creating opportunities for university students alone. Enhancing the learning outcomes for our Indigenous partners is also a priority and we work to improve and facilitate opportunities for Indigenous pathways to sustainable employment.
The Bower Studio’s innovative approach uses the process of construction to build relationships with the community and to seek community involvement into defining their own future needs.
Marginalized communities are not well used to making decisions about their environments and their shelter (traditionally they have had little or no choice). The process of building, talking, and then designing together opens up many opportunities for a more useful dialogue which then enriches the ideas, processes and outcomes for the next project, and so on.
Rigorous project design and preparation leads to the ten-day ‘build’ when the teams work on-site together to complete the infrastructure. Only once the teams have consulted and completed the construction process do they go on to prepare designs of their own. This makes the Bower Studio structure unique in its pedagogical approach. While there are several studios around the world that take students on-site to build something they have designed this is the only studio that inverts the process so that the design is informed by on-site activity. The construction teams are building designs initiated by their peers in years before. Once the most appropriate design has been chosen, via a participatory process, the designers’ act as mentors for the next student construction team. And the process continues...
Each Bower Studio in the sequence has incorporated lessons learned in its predecessors, such that a cumulative body of knowledge is developing in the process, facilitating both student learning and further successful interactions with Indigenous communities and their supporters. The Bower Studios have stringent oversight and high levels of management skill. The team is proud to have always kept to budget and time schedules.
Bower Studios strive to maximize community involvement through continual community consultation, continual involvement of the community leaders, the incorporation of skills training and employment programs which produces outcomes beyond the infrastructure benefits, community artwork, and the formal and informal involvement of the local children. Bower Studios value intellectual traditions and respect indigenous cultures within their design and construction projects.
The studio has developed an innovative format to ensure quality while embracing a range of capabilities and skill levels. This makes the Bower Studio relevant, robust and able to be translated to a range of environments and locations. It also builds a strong team of students – many of which return for the following project to mentor other students.
Many architecture students seek to be involved in significant ‘real world’ problems to serve marginalized communities. The Bower Studio facilitates these desires and is enabling a new generation of architects to contribute to improved outcomes for Indigenous peoples. Industry partners are keen to contribute too and see the Bower Studio team’s oblique problem solving skills and powerful community participation as an attractive asset.
Our students have proven their capacity to transform the ways the architecture profession views Indigenous infrastructure projects – two students have won prestigious international architecture awards with their Bower Studio work. The Bower Studio projects are reshaping Indigenous development projects as they complete projects that prioritize the Indigenous voice, Indigenous values, Indigenous control and Indigenous agency.