By Eva Lloyd

Introduction by Paul Denham

One of the great benefits of studying at UNSW Built Environment is the interdisciplinary electives and the overseas studios on offer. When they are combined you get to make contacts and friends in other courses in the faculty and overseas. In November last year, 26 Built Environment students from Interior Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Planning and Computational Design flew to Cambodia to participate in a design studio elective called “Public Space and the Informal 2015”. The purpose of this studio was to compare urban street life in Sydney and Phnom Penh and it was done in collaboration with the Royal University of Fine Arts, Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism.

Eva Lloyd, a lecturer in the UNSW Interior Architecture program runs these workshops. Lloyd graduated from the same Interior Architecture program in 2004 and has also studied Architecture and is a registered architect. She has also worked and lived in Cambodia. Below, Lloyd and some of the students agreed to write for UNSW Built Environment about their experiences participating in this design studio.

In a moment of time when the balance between the public and the private is shifting in favour of the latter, it is important that a close eye is kept on the status of the public spaces in our cities. Vital public spaces tend to emerge as products of numerous competing forces. Planning guidelines, levels of regulation and attitudes can strangle or let flourish the behaviours which enliven these key city spaces.

Above: UNSW Built Environment and the Royal University of Fine Arts students and lecturers.

It can be argued that the vitality of public spaces hinges on their ability to facilitate a diversity of often unexpected usages, movements and interactions, by a broad spectrum of people. This design studio suggests that the street, as the fundamental public space of the city, is where this activity can and should occur.

This trip was an opportunity to better understand the potentials and limitations of these diverse conditions. Students conducted a comparative analysis of urban street life in Sydney and in Phnom Penh.  The studio began with observational studies in two key city thoroughfares: George St, Sydney and St 19, Phnom Penh. Students employed a variety of methodologies to observe and graphically communicate spacio-behavioural patterns and formal/informal phenomenon, as they contribute to street vitality. Comparative cross cultural analysis presented a series of design opportunities for small scale urban ‘acupuncture’ proposals based in each location. How can precedents from Phnom Penh be intelligently translated to inform design approaches in Sydney and vice versa?

Above: A student draws a streetscape.

Classes begin and end in Sydney with two intensive weeks in Phnom Penh in between. Every few days a site visit and guest talk are held. This includes visits to organisations and sites linked to the activation of the public realm. This year included skateboarding for underprivileged children, community street art at an infilled lake, informal urban poor housing and aerobics at the Van Molyvann designed Olympic Stadium. This year students chose to travel north to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat, south to the island of Koh Rong, and east/west to Thailand and Vietnam.

The course utilises several methods for learning targeted towards the role of design in activating street life, the use of evidence based design from ‘real life’ study and research, and the development of a strong graphic language. Students observe and map the built, systematic, formal, informal, behavioural and sensory components of streets and street observations take place in George St Sydney and St 19 Phnom Penh. Then certain questions are posed to the student:

  • How and why do certain patterns emerge?
  • What does this tell you about the interplay between human behaviour and the built environment?
  • What issues surrounding vitality arise in urban street spaces in Sydney and Phnom Penh?
  • How can we develop a brief to respond to these as designers?
  • How can observations in Phnom Penh start to inform design ideas in Sydney?

Above: A view from the Frangipani Royal Villa Royal Palace in the centre of Phnom Peh.

We were hosted locally by the Royal University of Fine Arts, Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism. Located in a central city spot next to the National Museum and Royal Palace, the campus is a series of 1920’s French-built classrooms and landscaped courtyards where our lectures, studios and presentations are held. A group of approximately twenty local architecture students from the university participate in the workshop, teaming with UNSW Built Environment students for various design exercises and social outings whilst in Phnom Penh.

Above: A typical Phnom Penh street.

At the end of the Phnom Penh trip an exhibition is held. This year it was hosted by the Royal University of Fine Arts in one of their outdoor terraces. This is an opportunity for student works to be exhibited to the local community and this year about one hundred guests arrived to a spread of local food, urban sounds, and collaborative artwork, curated by the students.

In addition, student’s works will be published by several Cambodian and Australian journals and linked to by the City of Sydney ‘Your Say’ website. A small visual synopsis of the course and student work will also be distributed.

The course is convened by me with tutoring by Giacomo Butte and Richard Briggs. We are all practicing architects with teaching experience in Australia, Thailand, Cambodia and Italy. Giacomo and I have spent several years living and working in Phnom Penh where we taught and continue to practice in the fields of urban design, architecture and interior design. Richard runs a Sydney studio which focuses on architecture and public arts works.

Below, some of the students wrote about their experience during the Cambodia studio.

Above: UNSW Built Environment students outside the GPO Building in Martin Place, Sydney with their street diaries.

Click here to read about the design studio

Madeleine Lloyd

4th Year Planning

As a town planner, I jumped at the opportunity to take a step back and see how the city that I live and work in operates. What opportunities the streets and buildings provide for the residents and how people use these. This is exactly what I was able to do during Public Space and the Informal 2015 as well as the added bonus of going to Cambodia to see how a totally different city works and compare the two.

At first I was a bit shocked at how much work was involved (I was picturing more days by the pool) and the fact that I had to represent the work graphically (minimal words were allowed, not something I am used to coming from a report based course) but thanks to the supportive learning environment and the endlessly interesting coursework that was provided by Eva, Giacomo and Richard, I came out of the course with new learning and presenting skills that I never would have had otherwise. The lectures and readings were just as interesting and exciting as being out in the field collecting the data.

This course has been imperative for my learning as a planner. Understanding how public space works is integral to understanding how people do, and want to, use cities. Now I walk down the street and notice all the little things such as the different routes people take, where they stop, how they navigate obstacles and what would make the space so much better. I know that lots of people who also completed the course do as well, so thank you Eva!

Ellen Williams

Interior Architecture, 3rd year 2015

A highlight of the trip for me was visiting Stakeistan, an NGO that offers skateboarding lessons to empower the youth of Cambodia. While Skateistan has a skate park as its headquarters, it was great to see their specially designed tuk-tuk, which folds out to become a mini skate ramp. This travelling skate park allows the group to reach so many more kids and really demonstrates how small scale interventions can have large and meaningful impacts. This was so wonderful to see and is an approach to design that I wish to learn from and incorporate into my own practice.

Above: Motor head or sleepy head? A local turns his motorbike into a hammock for a siesta. Genius.

Steffanie Herdinda

2nd year Interior Architecture

I'd like to thank you for everything you've helped me with. I really did enjoy the course and felt like I have learned so much. The course ran smoothly and has provided me with insights and skills that I'm sure will be very useful in the future. It was a very successful course, and I would recommend it to anyone. It's easily one of my favourite courses I've taken, as the topic was very interesting to explore and the activities for this course were very interactive. I'm very glad I got to travel and meet new people as well as getting new perspectives and inspirations.

Phoebe Nicol

3rd Year Interior Architecture

An eye-opening experience that gave us incredible insight into another culture. Research and observation have really heightened my awareness of everyday human activity I would otherwise have taken for granted. 

It was an extremely humbling experience that reinforced the importance of being culturally sensitive. This course has been invaluable going into fourth year. I highly recommend it, not only from a design perspective but for life experience. And many laughs!

Above: Say cheese! Students take a break from their studio work.

Grady Wang

2nd Year Interior Architecture

Being able to get out of the usual working norm, into a different working environment, was a great and refreshing change of pace. Focusing on the activities that occur on a daily basis (for both Sydney and Cambodia) that we don’t really pay attention to, was a great learning experience. The cultural difference in this was very interesting. Going to a foreign country with a group of people helped hype things up. Cambodia has a lot of friendly people, great food, and you will never have to worry about transportation. My personal perspective on the experience in Cambodia came from exploration, travelling, food, and the markets.  Going to view the sunset was not regrettable, especially seeing the sunset at Kompong Khleang up at Siem Reap.