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Pholeros the fearless architect's low-key, empowering, incremental model spurned in the Intervention

We don’t usually think of architects as heroes – mainly because those deified by the profession are still generally modelled on Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark​. They are design demigods, artistic Thomas Mores conditioned to value "design integrity" above the other sort.

Paul Pholeros​ AM, who died suddenly this week, was different. He was a true architect hero and the fact that you haven’t heard of him proves it.

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari 

The death of PP, as he was widely known, triggered a vast flood of grief. It was partly about who he was – a giant of a man, physically, intellectually, morally. But it was also what he represented; a lifelong eschewal of the wealth and fame he could have had for something he valued more, namely, other people’s health.

Few architects are equipped to deliver both high-end design and authentic altruism. Fewer still can do both but seek fame for neither. That was PP.

Peers say Paul Pholeros has left an inspirational legacy.
Peers say Paul Pholeros has left an inspirational legacy. Photo: Steven Siewert

It came down to his own personal definition of what architecture is – and what it’s not. For him, fine designer that he was, architecture wasn’t about building. Architecture was a relationship, between the human and the world.

I twigged this a few years back, visiting Pholeros​ at the house he’d built himself: two stunningly simple but staunchly unpretentious timber pavilions perched on the craggy bush scarp over Pittwater.

I was there to interview him on the indigenous housing work for which he was renowned, and was prepared to be seriously impressed by its intelligence and altruism. But I was unprepared for the extraordinary sophistication of Pholeros’ design mind. High and low. Like I said, few can do both.

I was still less prepared for his modesty. Pholeros​ allowed me to photograph his house – even this, I now know, was a major concession – but he had no interest in discussing it. What he wanted to discuss – a subject of which he seemed never to tire – was using houses to prevent disease.

Much of the disease and morbidity in remote Australia, he explained, is caused by infectious diseases that, contracted by children under five, compromise sight, hearing, lung and kidney function for life. These infections, from innocent-seeming scabies to trachoma, are easily preventable with running water, working power-points and toilets that flush. That sounds simple. It’s not.

In 1974, as students, Pholeros​ and four friends took a year out to live the dream. Buying an old, double-decker Sydney bus, they re-welded seats into bunks, added a fibreglass shower-toilet, threw in a cooker, a few beanbags and (naturally) a darkroom. Then they set off to circumnavigate the continent.

Tenterfied​, Townsville, Mt Isa, Tennants Creek, Broome, Perth, Esperance, Port Augusta: it reads like some Priscilla​ prequel. The bus was called – naturally – the Australian Communications Capsule. Inspired by Ivan Illich’s 1971 classic, Deschooling​ Society, they trucked themselves from school to school, “communicating” about “the environment”.

“The environment”, though, meant everything from pollution and planning to sex and gender. Picture it. In Coonabrabran​, one Saturday night, they inflated their 30m long spotlit​ orange tube in the main street and invited locals to debate such questions as: “Your favourite partner in bed would be – (a) opposite sex, (b) same sex, (c) neither sex, (d) either sex” – until they were moved along by police.

Eight months, 20,000km and more than 100 schools later they chronicled their experience – the dust and flies, the humour and stoicism, the apathy. Country students, they noted wistfully, had little interest in “pollution, overpopulation or even careers, current affairs etc. Many high school girls saw no escape from … an early marriage to a town boy and … career as a housewife.”

But PP had seen something important. “Obviously, architecture is no longer buildings … finally we are looking at people’s use of their surroundings.”

In 1985 he was invited by Yami​ Lester, director of the Nganampa​ Health Council in Alice, to work with medic Dr Paul Torzillo​ and local anthropologist Stephen Rainow​ on why disease treatment was improving but indigenous health was not. Yami​ wanted a plan to stop people getting sick.

“Eighty percent of what walked in the door was infectious disease, third world disease, caused by a poor living environment.” They formulated nine simple health goals; washing, clothes, wastewater, nutrition, crowding, animals, dust, temperature, injury which Pholeros​ translated into a series of enchanting drawings to overcome client illiteracy. And they formed their practice, Healthabitat​.

For the next 30 years they surveyed, tested and fixed 7800 houses around Australia –home to 50,000 Aboriginal people. Of those houses, 65 per cent had no working shower, 90 per cent were electrically unsafe, 42 per cent had no working toilet.

In one community in the late 1990s, recalled Pholeros​, 95 per cent of school-age children had active trachoma. With plumbing it quickly dropped to 40 per cent. Third- world disease was wrecking lives and prevention was as easy – and as difficult – as plumbing and wiring.

Pholeros​ developed a suitcase-size testing kit and a protocol that involved training locals on day one, both to do the work and to train others. The cost? An average of $7500 per house.

With a weary patience, Pholeros​ insisted on dispelling three myths. One, that the problem is too large, too hard; situation hopeless. Two, “you’ve heard it all your lives”, that aboriginal people trash houses. Three, that “aboriginal people won’t work”.

“Of course it’s solvable,” he said. 91 per cent of the damage to houses is through faulty construction or lack of maintenance. As to laziness? “Nonsense”. By 2011, Healthabitat​ had 831 local indigenous people employed as builders, planners, project managers, tradies​ and database operators.

But when the Intervention hit, Pholeros’ low-key, empowering, incremental model – cost-effective as it was – did not fit the Rudd-Macklin unionised-corporatised delivery model. Pholeros​ ended up working in Asia and Nepal, reducing lung and gut disease by turning human waste into clean-burning biofuel​ and fertiliser.

Now he’s gone. But we who are left should make PP’s big-heart small-ego heroism the stuff of legend. We should teach our kids his sustaining insight, that architecture is our dance with nature. And, surely to God, we should get the bloody pipes fixed.

Twitter @emfarrelly

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