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Using architecture to address essential needs in Alice Springs’ Aboriginal communities

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In July of this year, a group of 14 talented architecture students from the University of Newcastle travelled to Alice Springs to spend two weeks developing solutions to key infrastructure needs of local Aboriginal communities. They worked closely with local Aboriginal-owned architectural practice Tangentyere Design and its parent organisation Tangentyere Council crafting creative, practical proposals to help old buildings once again become active community spaces in Alice Springs Town Camps.

On their return, we chatted to Thomas Studholme, a 5th year completing his Master of Architecture at the University of Newcastle to find out how this experience has changed his perspective of places, people and all things architecture.

1. How did you become part of the Alice Springs trip and what motivated you to do it?

A few friends who were going on the trip gave me a call and encouraged me to sign up and I jumped at the chance. I had written a thesis on remote Indigenous communities in 2015 and was extremely interested in learning and spending time in Indigenous communities. My current and final masters project has a large Indigenous component to it also.

2. With this project you focused on solving the basics like accessibility issues with architecture, why is that important?

Just by solving these basic human needs like clean water, sunlight, accessibility, functionality and good structural design you can increase people’s quality of life substantially. That includes the housing and community buildings within the Town Camps. By helping design for those basic human needs we can hopefully provide an environment that the community can be proud of.

3. You spent a lot of time talking to members of the local Indigenous community and developing solutions with them, what was the most valuable thing you learned?

Mainly the importance of communication to the communities. Architects and architecture students tend to get stuck into our own lingo sometimes. Just trying to refine our ideas down so that everyone, from the elderly community members to the young children, could understand what we wanted to do and how some of these changes could benefit the community.

4. What was the best moment of the trip for you?

It was during the second week of the trip and it was NAIDOC week. My group went to a dry river near the community we were working with to present our proposal to them, and it wasn’t a presentation as such, but a kangaroo tail cook-up. We placed boards with our designs on them in the grainy sand of the river bed, while the kids’ eyes lit up when they saw the models we had made and proceeded to draw all over them. Such an informal way of talking to the community was great, and the kangaroo tail was pretty awesome too!

5. Did it change your perspective on architecture?

It just made me look at what is really necessary when designing buildings, whether it is housing or larger community buildings. But it also made me realise architecture doesn’t always need to be so flashy and can just be practical. But I guess that is where us as architects need to find the balance between beauty and practicality.

6. What’s the outcome of your work in Alice Springs?

We developed a set of packages that Tangentyere Council can use to apply for development funding within the communities. We developed proposals to certain budgets that show what could be possible with that amount of money.

7. What would you say to students thinking about studying architecture at UON?

The architecture school and studio at UON is an amazing experience. The architecture community out at the Callaghan campus is fantastic. All different years engage and work in a single studio environment while getting your own space to work. Getting on board with extra curricular programs like the Alice Springs trip is also a must do if you choose to study at UON.

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