Interview: Robert McGauran

Oct 29, 2013
  • Article by Online Editor

Robert McGauran is a partner at McGauran Giannini Soon Architects (MGS), based in Melbourne, Australia. The practice advocates a sensitive design approach that caters to the needs of the context with extensive work in social and affordable housing. It was recently awarded the Best Overend Award in the 2013 Victorian Architecture Awards for its McIntyre Drive Social Housing project.

Jacqui Alexander: Can you tell us about the McIntyre Drive Social Housing project?

Robert McGauran: The project fits into a cluster of work over a long period, which looks at the particular needs of people for whom secure long-term housing hasn’t been an attribute of their lives. We can, as architects, contribute to their sense of home identity, safety and security, as well as to the development of a place in which they can engage with others, because typically, they’re by themselves.

Colour is one of the elements that we use quite a lot – to move away from building as object – towards a sense of individual expression and identity. In the case of Altona [McIntyre Drive] we took this idea of using typological references of home, rearranging them on the site and weaving them together to create a village clustered around a central collective space, nuanced by individual spaces. We programmed the collective space with veggie gardens, as places for collaboration for the community, giving them reasons to come together.

JA: Did you experience any problems convincing the council or clients that this was the correct response?

RM: We take the view – whether it’s for the private sector or the public sector – that we want to do the best housing in the street, but to talk to the street and make it a better place. In this instance, we’re doing a big building but by orienting the shared space towards the street you’re both animating the street [and] you’re creating more eyes to the street in terms of safety and security. We try to repair streetscapes with our projects, so holes get repaired with something that talks about that street. Each of the [projects] are a bit forensic.

JA: I read an article by a long-term rooming house resident, who argued that architects have a tendency to associate communal space with community housing – but in reality these spaces can be quite scary and what you value most as a resident is your privacy…

RM: I think the observation that particular resident made is about choice. You need to have a secure home. For many people though, social isolation is a big issue. So how do you provide a safe environment in which people can start to re-engage with others?

People on lower incomes don’t have the same flexibility of sitting in the local cafe that you or I might; there needs to be choices in the development so that if there is somebody a bit difficult within one space you don’t have to lock yourself away in your apartment. With Chapel Street, we designed units with much more generous balconies than you would typically get, so residents can have a pet, a little herb garden … Again, they are more likely to spend more time in their apartment. As a home it has to do more for them.

The jury commented that there were lessons to be learned from social housing for the private sector. In the private sector more and more applications [are] coming in for less and less amenity, at a time where more people are going to be, in the medium- and longer-term, living in apartment accommodation.

You hope that as the market and planning matures – with an E-Gate or a Fisherman’s Bend – that we’re smarter about what sort of places we create and people can develop their life in that location, so they don’t have to move out as soon as there are two of them, or their kids go to school, or their household needs an extra room.

JA: How much of that inflexibility and homogeneity is as a result of Australia’s private sector domination? Would it be remedied with a more hybrid system of housing?

RM: We need to have alternative ways of funding housing. The reliance on the private sector has failed and public housing institutions are ostensibly broke. Negative gearing has not delivered affordable housing.

The new National Rental Affordability Scheme has a sunset clause: after 10 years it doesn’t have to be affordable anymore. So we’re reducing the amount of housing supply long-term with our current models, at a time where we know more people are going to be in rental accommodation.

JA: What sort of agency do architects have in this situation?

RM: I got told very early in my architectural career, ‘Don’t complain. Do. Seek to subvert. Seek to make a difference … to advocate.’ Architects are voters – get involved with your local councils and local communities. There are very few councils making surplus land or air rights available for affordable housing, but if you can build housing above a public car park in a wealthy area, you can deliver a house for $160,000-a-unit. On any measure, it’s affordable because you haven’t had to pay for the land.

Partnering with other industries and with the Master Builders is another alternative. It’s bizarre how super funds have to invest in some other country’s housing to have an investment in housing communities at lower incomes. They invest in office buildings, in shopping centres. Why not housing? There’s clearly an opportunity there that’s being missed.

Mr Abbott’s not talking about [housing], Ms Gillard didn’t talk about it. Let’s hope [Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd talks about it. More and more people are homeless, people who we would regard as our peers; people just starting in the workforce are struggling to stay near their work. We need a more hybrid system that doesn’t rely on the private model or the broken public model but has lots of other variants.

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