Learning from Elders

by Mark

Just over a week ago, more than 40 people gathered in our Wollongong studio to share in a discussion about the benefits of creating spaces where a diversity of generations can interact. Our theme through recent workshops has been an approach to design that engages with the end user from the outset of a project. Popularly called Co-design, this process of creating urban and built environments focuses on not just designing for people, but with people.

Our Danish collaborators, Rasmus Frisk and Thomas Aarup Due from arki_lab, shared their experiences working with people to design urban spaces that encourage interaction across all ‘life phases’. Thomas’ beautiful story about a conversation with an elderly lady at a bus stop touched many of us as we were reminded of our own prejudices. He was seeing a frail, older lady while she was missing her days as a ballerina.

Aboriginal elder, Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, brought a quiet stillness to the room. His thoughtful storytelling gave everyone a firsthand experience of what it was like to sit at the feet of a wise elder. Uncle Max spoke of the three principles of learning; watching, listening and seeing. He recalled lessons from his youth where his elders taught him the value of patience and respect.

Steven observed the “fascinating comparison between the intergenerational relationships of Danish society, portrayed by arki_lab, and the ‘ancient knowledge’ of Aboriginal culture, passed down through the generations … where experience is gained through patience and observation living in intergenerational families. This, in turn, reinforced a strong understanding and relationship with their land and all that it provides.”

To genuinely engage Co-design, “you need to believe that they know something that you don’t know” according to Chilean Architect, Alejandro Aravena, awarded for his groundbreaking work in social housing. As Margie noted after Uncle Max’s talk, “Being authentic is one of the most critical aspects in a Co-design project.

Mark with Uncle Max and Rasmus making a point.

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