Unafraid to resist the status quo, Professor SueAnne Ware is creating spaces that challenge public apathy and disengagement and inspire the adoption of a more humanitarian approach to some of society’s most controversial and pervasive issues.
All of us can recognise a conventional activist scene when we see one – a sizeable group of people, usually carrying painted signs or laying their bodies on the line, marching and sometimes holding a strike in protest of a poor political judgement or other perceived wrongdoing. We are perhaps less familiar, however, with the role that physical structures play in setting agendas and influencing the decisions of ordinary citizens and the citizens put in charge of policymaking. While most are torn between this desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world, Professor SueAnne Ware, the Head of the School of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Newcastle (UON), expertly manages to do both.
“My research is about understanding the needs and wishes of disadvantaged communities and helping them to regain their voices,” the self-described ‘design activist’ elaborates.
“But this doesn’t mean that we come to one outcome or highlight just one opinion – it’s important to recognise competing demands and do something constructive with them.”
“The point is to generate friction and spark debate, not to make an exhibition that looks good and is otherwise perfect.”
“We want to have better public places – better cities, better streets and better country towns that people like engaging with and feeling a part of.”
Comically labelling herself as the ‘anti star-chitect,’ SueAnne also writes books about the efforts of other practitioners in the burgeoning field of landscape architecture.
“It was only recognised as a profession in Australia in the 1970s, so it hasn’t been around for very long,” she comments.
“Those associated with this small discipline tend to promote it in any way they can.”
To console and provoke
A large portion of SueAnne’s creative works can be filed under a category she calls ‘anti-memorials.’ They’re not big, they’re certainly not grand and they’re not here forever, but they are a reminder that things pass.
“Landscape and time are ephemeral in memory,” the Los Angeles native suggests.
“Fixed memorials don’t deal with this, or any contestation of history very well.”
“My projects do because they are not permanent.”
Encouraging individuals to “let go” of past traumas, SueAnne’s commemorative pieces serve as both criticisms of wider society and outlets for the grief-stricken.
“We all think we’re going to make our mark, but we are only temporary,” she muses.
“Why not work with this human condition instead of denying it exists?”
During one of her earliest creative endeavours, SueAnne sought to raise awareness of the sinking of the Indonesian SIEV X fishing boat in 2001 - the largest maritime tragedy in international waters since the Second World War. Collaborating with psychologist Steve Biddulph, Uniting Church Minister Rod Horsfield, and artist and project manager Beth Gibbings to do so, the multiple award winner looked to construct a physical memorial that would help to educate future generations about the Australian Government’s “hideous” refugee policies.
“Only 40 of the 400 asylum seekers who were on board survived,” she concedes.
“Newspapers carried news of the event for several days, but in the midst of a national election campaign, the story vanished.”
“It was a tragedy and deserves to be remembered as such.”
The dynamic team invited secondary schools across the country to contribute design ideas, hoping to give all a space in which to have and express critical thought.
“Only 200 entries were received,” SueAnne admits.
“An exhibition of the collected works travelled through our major cities in 2003 and 2004, and a short time later, Brisbane year 11 student Mitchell Donaldson’s proposal was chosen.”
“It consists of 353 poles which sweep through a gently undulating landscape and form an abstract outline of the small vessel, eventually trailing off into the water.”
“The broader community had a hand in adorning the poles.”
“Put into the ground in Canberra, these will stay in situ until detention is finally a part of Australia’s ugly past.”
A catalyst for social change
Another of SueAnne’s pieces served to celebrate the lives of a group society often “prefers not to acknowledge or mourn” – heroin users.
“In the year 2000, 331 people in Victoria died of a drug overdose,” she recalls.
“Again, this was a tragedy and deserved to be remembered as such.”
Inspired by the fundamental question of “who do we select as worthy of memorials,” SueAnne decided to humanise these people and bring their deaths into the public realm with an installation in the heart of busy St Kilda. Consisting of a floral tribute of poppies, a stencilled text narrative taken from personal statements about the victims, and illuminated resin plaques that incorporated some of their personal items, the work was “meant to be confronting” and challenging.
“It was passed by tourists, families, shoppers, sex workers and intravenous drug users themselves,” she states.
“Individuals were asked to reconsider their perception of those who died and remember them as valued members of society – not as nameless and faceless failures.”
“The aim was to improve human spirit.”
Girl power, flower power
Closer to home, SueAnne is teaming up with an “all-women crew” of landscape architects, construction managers and PR personnel at UON. Nicknamed ‘Outfit,’ the talented, multidisciplinary group is seeking to undertake design work for local communities – for free.
“This alliance was motivated partially by the fact that females are underrepresented in certain disciplines,” she reveals.
“You don’t often see us in the built environment, for example, but it’s important for young girls to know that they can have a career in it should they choose to.”
A Melburnian-turned-proud Novocastrian, SueAnne has “a lot” of interesting plans for the disused Newcastle rail yard. The accomplished researcher is proposing to lead a phytoremediation project on the site, using plant life and animals to clean up toxic soils and increase its aesthetic value.
“Can you imagine an amazing rail corridor with a whole bunch of poppies and sunflowers and lovely goats all eating that crazy stuff and not being bothered by it?” she asks.
“It would become this unusual urban ecology that is both people-friendly and educational.”
“Eventually Council will develop it into something else, but why not create something beautiful in the meantime?”
“Decisions have been made and now is the time to figure out what we can do with them that’s good.”