With blue skies that stretch for thousands of kilometers across a red dirt horizon, Australia’s Gibson Desert is one of the harshest, most remote places on earth.
Its low population, scarce resources, and searing sun — temperatures often reach 50 degrees Celsius — make it one of the last places in the world you’d expect to find award-winning architecture.
Yet in the tiny indigenous Australian community of Wanarn in the middle of this desert, one architect has shown how deep consultation with a local population can turn a simple health clinic into a live-saving work of art.
A clinical challenge
For three months, Australian architect David Kaunitz lived in Wanarn.
This small, isolated community lies 900 kilometres away from the nearest large town of Alice Springs and has a population of just 180 mostly Aboriginal Australians. A further 2,000 indigenous people live in the larger surrounding Ngaanyatjarra region, most of whom maintain the nomadic mindset of their ancestors.
The clinic Kaunitz had been asked by the government to design there would serve the wider region.
These communities are generally poor and face significant health issues, including high rates of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
With the closest hospital in Alice Springs, easy access to good healthcare is vital.
No easy job
Kaunitz faced a wide range of consultation, construction and location problems.
“Nomadic people are not talkative, I think it’s fair to say, and the indigenous community in Australia is incredibly jaded,” he tells CNN.
His initial attempts to build trust among the locals were met with indifference.
The desert conditions also meant Kaunitz had to build a utilitarian structure that could resist dust and extreme heat and remain cool without using expensive resources.
The area’s isolation only added to the complexity of the project — most of the materials and tradespeople had to be trucked in from Alice Springs, or Perth, the West Australian capital, more than 1,500 kilometers away.
Kaunitz eventually won the trust of the local elders, and worked with them to develop his plans.
He derived important functional elements of the design — such as the outdoor waiting areas and the need for a compact clinic that wasn’t too big or complicated — from the feedback from the community.
“Things like that tree’s important, someone telling you that it’s good to see the shop opening from the waiting room or it might be simple things about orientation,” Kaunitz says. “They are specifics that were only able to be gleaned from living among the people.”
Other ideas came from Kaunitz’s desire to “design a more arid building than had been done before”, and move away from the European-style of “verandared” architecture typical of this sort of project in Australia.
Dreaming of the Seven Sisters
Kaunitz says the most critical things to come out of the consultations were cultural considerations.
The earth-coloured cladding and simplicity of the building were requested by the locals to ensure the building blended in with the land.
The aluminium art screens were designed by two local female artists and are a visual telling of an Aboriginal Dreaming story, the Dreaming of the Seven Sisters, an integral part of that region’s Aboriginal spirituality.
But Kaunitz says the most important cultural aspect of the structure — the stone walls that grace the outside of the building — showed how, as an architect, “serendipity can lead you to a much better place.”
Kaunitz originally intended the walls to provide outdoor seating, and protect against low-travelling dust. However, he says that the group of local workers he employed to build the structure selected very specific stones from very specific sites for the wall, and ended up building culture into functionality.
“The real outcome was that the earth, which is culture, is part of the building and the building became respected because the earth was included into it,” he says.
An award-winning life saver
The clinic was completed at the beginning of 2015, and the end result is an environmentally sustainable structure that’s beautiful, functional and culturally sensitive.
Gutters, awnings and eaves — things Kaunitz says are redundant in this type of environment — were replaced with extra insulation to keep the building cool.
This saved thousands of dollars, bringing the project in well under budget and enabling him to include a dialysis room and two dialysis chairs.
And although the clinic won the 2015 European LEAF Award for Best Sustainable Development of the Year, Kaunitz says it was including the extra equipment that has given him the most satisfaction.
“Two dialysis chairs will allow all these elders, probably half a dozen of them, to stay on-country,” he said.
“The effect for them is huge, because country is everything for them, but also the effect that has on the younger people in the community to have those mentors around and to have those role models and to have that continuity of culture.
“You can’t understate that.”