|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
[ID:4322] Irish Travellers: Architect as Listener and Spacemaker
Design studio projects usually begin with a site and a brief. The architect is activated by a client and their site. This kind of beginning, however, is perhaps not where the architectural problem solving should begin. The architect has long been regarded as a figure of public and civic importance: public buildings have an impact on all and shelter is not only a personal concern but a political one.
Beginning architectural work only when a client ,who is capable of affording it, appears, is contradictory to architecture’s civic spirit. We must ask, who has the ability to engage in architecture and who does not? Who sets the brief? Who is being spoken for and by whom? Who will be capable of accessing the building, physically, economically and socially? Who is architecture for? Who is not present in architecture: in both the design process and the buildings we create?
Irish Travellers are landless people. They are nomadic and traditionally have moved for familial, monetary, and seasonal reasons. They are not tied to one particular place and do not seek to be. Where a settled person might find comfort in investing in central heating or planning an extension Travellers might find fear - a fear of one place being the eternal resting place.
Ireland, however, is a land-proud country. A post-colonial nation, Ireland has enclosed each individual and their land following centuries of tenancy and eviction. Many settled people feel a strong sense of ownership over their land and even neighbouring public space. Viewed from above, the Irish rural landscape is revealed as being carefully divided. The grassy patchwork has been stitched together by trees, bushes, and stone walls. Every piece of land seems accounted for. Yet, Travellers, before the mid-20th century, once found places to rest: among, on, or between these borders. In fact, most Travellers lived in the countryside and co-habited successfully with settled people, often selling their crafts and skills to the local communities.
Though Travellers tend not to attach themselves to one place, that is not to say that they do not have homes. In his book of Traveller tales, Irish Traveller Oein DeBhairduin says:
“What most do not see is the beauty that burns and beats in the heart of the community, a bonfire of remembrance and connection that blazes high on the hilltops of our collective spaces and strong in the hearths of every home.”
On his podcast, which travels to each interviewee in a campervan, Irish Traveller Martin Beanz Warde describes the joy of nomadic living and the beauty of living close to nature in a caravan:
“I was born in a trailer and we would’ve travelled in the trailer. One of the things I remember from my childhood was the freedom and not just the freedom but everyday was a new day. You wouldn’t travel everyday, you wouldn’t even travel every week, it mightn’t even be every month. But when you did travel, it was almost like you were going on an adventure. One of the things I’ll always remember - even to this day it helps me sleep- it’s the sound of rain off a tin roof or off an aluminum roof”.
Traveller collective spaces and homes are not respected by many Irish people and the Irish state. Their collective spaces are often separate from those of settled people. They are regularly turned away from bars and restaurants; and followed by security in shops. Irish Traveller Dr. Sindy Joyce conducted her MA research on how safe young Traveller people feel in Galway City. She found they did not feel safe in that busy urban environment and felt most safe in their homes, often on the periphery of the city. She notes how: “...stereotypical ideas have resulted in young people’s spatial mobility being severely restricted”. Travellers, people who have mobility as a core value, are rendered almost completely immobile by the society and structures they live in, in Ireland, today. This is most certainly an architectural issue, yet it is not sufficiently addressed as such in this place.
The Traveller home and culture was criminalised by the 1963 Commission on Itinerancy Report. The report denied Irish Travellers status as an ethnic group and used Facist language to describe the government's stance towards Travellers: “there can be no final solution to the problem created by itinerants until they are absorbed into the general community”.
A policy of complete assimilation was based on an unsubstantiated origin theory that Travellers came from a “failed” group of people that dropped out of settled society during the Potato Famine. The assumption of this theory as fact allowed the State to justify their attempted erasure of an ethnic minority and frame it as charitable and a return to old ways. This view is no longer acceptable:
“No longer is it acceptable to say that Travellers were settled people and therefore it’s perfectly alright to resettle or re-assimilate them. Now you must look at Travellers as having an identity and culture to be celebrated and resourced.” (Michael Hayes)
Complete assimilation was realised through the creation of halting sites; undesirable land, usually beside a dump and a main road, to house Travellers for an intended temporary time until social housing would come available. Designed to be unappealing, the halting sites had no electricity or adequate plumbing services nor water supply. These halting sites remain occupied to this day, 2021, still without basic services, still beside, or on, dumping grounds, but now overcrowded. These sites have contributed to the economic decline of Travellers as they do not provide space for the crafts they previously employed. These sites also contribute to a higher mortality rate for Travellers due to their poor sanitary conditions and their proximity to main roads. The suicide rate among Travllers is six times that of settled Irish people. Restrictions around accommodation have most definitely contributed to this statistic.
Settling on unofficial sites has been rendered illegal and sites previously used by Travellers have had giant boulders placed on them: space laid idle deemed preferable to space occupied by Travellers . Though some Travellers have settled in the social housing provided, others have refused to. Traveller activists demand self-determination and culturally-appropriate accommodation:
“We have a right to say where we want to live. We have a right to live the way we want to live and it’s not up to anybody else to plan how we should live.” (Irish Traveller Margaret Sweeney)
I have never been on a Traveller site. I drive past them; drive, never walk because there is no reason to walk there, they are at the end of everything: they are dead ends of sorts. I am only familiar with the street faces of the sites in Limerick City: all of them at the edges of the urban environment: out of sight and far from amenities, and other people.
Berlin artist Tamara Eckhardt’s photographs show Traveller children within their built environment in Carrowbrowne, Co.Galway. The photos are reminiscent of sites around the country. Any beauty or visual celebration of Traveller culture present is despite government aid, rather than because of it. The elements the government provides (enforces) are sterile and industrial. A concrete boundary wall divides the tarmac sea that is at once road, footpath, driveway, and garden. It doesn’t stop until it reaches the base of the immobile caravan with beige aluminium cladding. The colourful, wooden barrel-roofed wagons, seen in the 20th-century photography of Alen MacWeeney, are nowhere to be seen and seem unlikely to return. Built celebration of the Travelling culture appears completely squashed, though aesthetic celebration remains in Traveller clothing and decoration.
As professionals, Irish architects are enveloped and party to the systems of state, law, and capitalism that actively discriminate against Travellers and deprive them of physically or culturally suitable accommodation. They are in a position of relative power and influence. I propose that where there is power there is the possibility of transferring it to others.
Adolfo Natalini of Superstudio said: “[I]f architecture is merely the codifying of the bourgeois models of ownership and society, then we must reject architecture; if architecture and town planning is merely the formalization of present unjust social divisions, then we must reject town planning and its cities—until all design activities are aimed towards meeting primary needs. Until then design must disappear. We can live without architecture.”
In Ireland, the hiring of an architect has been deemed by many as an unnecessary expense. In the recent past, most people who could afford to build new homes built ‘Bungalow Bliss’ catalogue houses - without consideration for site or design integrity. To an extent, this attitude persists to this day: architects increased involvement in the built environment due to law rather than desire. Despite being a figure of public importance, the architect is not a basic necessity in the same way as walls and a roof. Yet, the architect, more than anyone else, realises their own essentiality in matters that extend beyond the basic needs of shelter:
“Everything that is, must appear, and nothing can appear without a shape of its own; hence there is no thing that does not in some way transcend its functional use, and its transcendence, its beauty or ugliness, is identical with appearing publicly and being seen”. (Hannah Arendt)
This public appearance contributes greatly to how Travellers are perceived: unhygienic because they are placed, by the state, next to dumps, disrespectful because the state criminalised their nomadism and so they must use private land or allow their culture to be eradicated. Travellers have not had adequate authorship over how they are portrayed to the general community. Architect, as listener, designer, and creator, has the ability to facilitate positive image creation through the use of culturally appropriate and Traveller-directed design.
Though there is the obvious architectural work to be done in designing dwelling for Travellers, the initial work is immaterial. To begin with, there must be a site -a site which does not yet exist and thus must be advocated for. Architects, as professionals versed in conservation, are capable of advocating for the conservation of places and pieces of land with cultural significance. They have the language, knowledge, platforms, and contacts to make that argument.
The most effective way for architects to be heard is to form a collective voice. All registered architects are represented and approved by the RIAI. This, however, does not include non-registered architectural workers and architectural students. It is also not a collective of architects so much as a professional and hierarchical body. Ireland currently has a weak culture of architectural unions and collectivism.
“I’ve heard architects compare themselves to doctors and lawyers when considering their material conditions, citing length of training and licensure as similarities. But have architects made themselves as essential to society as doctors and lawyers?” (Jessica Myers)
Architects are currently underappreciated as a social asset to Irish society. They are usually hired for the sake of good design but rarely as an actor of social change. Though Ireland does not have a culture of architectural unions, other places do: “We organise against the harmful impacts of architectural work on us as workers, but also communities, other sectors, and the environment. By working together, we collectively empower each other to re-shape the architectural profession from within.” (Workers' Inquiry) By unionising, architects have more collective power to decide how they want to work. The more power the architect has the more power they have to share with others in participatory design practices. However, this culture will not exist here until architects decide to make it exist. We must ask why this move has not yet happened. Perhaps it could be due, not to a lack of care for unethical practice and architectural impact, but to the current structure of architectural work itself.
The very work culture of architecture is framed not as a business or office culture, but rather as a ‘studio’ where workers are presumed to have a vocation for architecture. This assumption facilitates a culture of low wages for skilled work and excessive overtime. Poor work conditions are rarely questioned or protested against due to the belief that architectural work is not done for sustenance: “...architecture is a form of labor that masquerades as a form of love” (Adjustments Agency). In order to help others we must first help ourselves. How can we speak on behalf of people we want to serve if we do not yet serve ourselves? How can architects collectively feel ready and able to act as one when they feel like mere commodities, estranged from the labour they desire and in some cases, architecture itself?
Travellers represent alterity in Irish society. Their customs and ways of life have been forcefully and cruelly rejected by the systems of wider Irish society. Otherness has been stamped out before any attempt at understanding was made. The vast majority of Irish architects are members of that society. Even with design expertise, they cannot possibly be given the task of designing accommodation for Travellers, within the systems that currently exist.
Architects have a history of proposing new ways of living and thinking, through design. New modes of practice have been increasingly utilised and discussed as awareness around social justice grows. The critical culture of architecture has allowed architects to question how they practice and develop participatory and community-led design processes. The space between the architect and the client becomes acutely visible and leads to a social choreography of sorts.
It is this practice of creating new and counter systems that will allow Travellers to decide how they want to live, through the medium of architects and their expertise and power. The architect has to be the one to create that space and transfer of design power.
In order to grant some amount of architectural self-determination to Travellers, the architect must either be granted that as a project, or else fight for more self-determination themselves. Architecture has the advantage of being a recognised profession with the gift of creation. Throughout history it has both influenced the movement of society, and enabled social governmental decisions. It has also acted as a reminder of spirituality, beauty, and thus hope. Architects must now acknowledge the systems in which they work and either renounce them or accept them. Architecture does not begin with the stone but with the social, economic, and physical conditions that bring about the stone. It is time for the architect to become involved in shaping those conditions. For architecture is not merely a material thing.
“ A true architecture of our time will have to redefine itself and expand its means. Many areas outside of the traditional building will enter the realm of architecture, as architecture and ‘architects’ will have to enter new fields. All are architects. Everything is architecture.” (Hans Hollein)
Bibliography available on request.
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