DR Reena Tiwari

Head of Department, Department of Architecture and Interior Architecture
Director of International Cooperation Research Cluster Curtin University

Power OR Empowerment through Architecture?

June 29, 2015
 | Time: 
11:00 AM

Often, there is a range of stakeholders in community-based architectural and urban projects, where some belong to poor or marginalised groups and remain unheard and unseen. Can an architect give a voice to the voiceless? This question has intrigued and inspired me. Can a process of democratic participation in the creation of architecture help by including people of all races, classes, ages and geographies? Can this lead to a co-production of ‘social space’ (Lefebvre 1991) that builds capacity of all involved in the architectural project, so that instead of upward answerability, downward or horizontal accountability is emphasised (Eade, 2007)? Involvement of the residents in decision making further empowers them to take responsibility and resolve their problems. Lefebvre’s notion of ‘right to the city’ is about empowering the users of the space (Lefebvre 2002, p. 2), which calls for a paradigm shift in the way we conceive the role of an architect. The architect needs to be a facilitator who recognises the user as potential resource and involves him/her in creating an architecture that is socially and culturally responsive.

Curtin University Australia and a non-government organisation Indian Rural Education Development began its engagement in 2009 with a small village of Lakhnu situated in the Northern Province of India. Since then, an internal project team has been established comprising key researchers from a variety of discipline areas – Urban and Regional Planning, Construction Management, Architecture and Interior Architecture, Anthropology, Media and Cultural Studies. The project team has led four staff and student fieldwork expeditions to Lakhnu, where extensive primary research and community engagement has been undertaken to provide a comprehensive needs analysis of the village and its residents.  Four key areas have been considered: Sanitation, Education, Heritage and Health, with an overall aim of capacity building for the local community and upliftment of women and girls. Two co-build projects – an Edu-Play Facility and Women’s Wash Facility – have been constructed. The broader goal has been to enhance greater understanding of effective ways of supporting social transformation in the face of poverty, illiteracy and inequality.


The last few years have seen a growth in the philanthropic agenda of the corporate world, and a revision of university curricula with an aim of mobilising the broader community to become co-producers of a sustainable built environment which responds to global issues of climate change, urbanisation, persistent poverty and social inequality.  This paradigm shift offers immense possibilities for architecture and urban design students to skill themselves with tools and techniques of effective collaboration, participation and team-based approaches to problem solving, and to become champions of enabling architecture and urbanism.

Associate Professor Reena Tiwari is passionate about democratic architecture and development and has forwarded a model of enquiry which is ethnographic, collaborative and trans-disciplinary and has a goal to facilitate change and adaptation for all involved in the process. As an architect, urban designer she has been a professional advisor to a broader academic community and industry and has successfully worked on competitive research projects for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Aus-Aid and the Australia-India Council. International significance of her research work and leadership in the area of urban studies, community development and international cooperation is demonstrated by her ongoing research work with the University of California, Berkeley and University International Catalunya, Spain. She has a continuing involvement in the International Cooperation Program which is run by the European Union under the prestigious Erasmus Mundus umbrella and supported by UNESCO and UN Habitat.

Tiwari received the Australian National Award for Teaching Excellence in 2013 for leading and inspiring a model of teaching and research which has established a point of difference in the profession, with its commitment to community engagement and philanthropy (including Lakhnu rural development project in India, Slum Action project in India, Wedge coastal shack community project in Western Australia, To Walk or Not to Walk project in New Delhi, and Body performance in East Perth project for which support and funds were received from industry and professional bodies including the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations WA, Department of Planning WA, Department of Transport WA, City of Canning (Perth), Clean Air Initiative Asia (Philippines) and EMBARQ World Resource Institute (Washington).