Last month, Hubud hosted ‘Future Ubud’, an event organized by Melbourne’s RMIT School of Architecture & Design. Fourteen architecture Masters students from RMIT paired with students from Udayana University in Denpasar, to examine Ubud’s infrastructure and come up with solutions to looming problems.

Catriona Mitchell caught up with RMIT’s Professor of Architecture, Martyn Hook, in Melbourne.

Martyn, what is RMIT’s ‘international traveling design studio’ all about?

Essentially we take a ‘Design Studio’ to a city or town and address a particular issue. A group of 14 Architecture Masters students is an incredible resource for getting stuff done. They’re smart, they’re sharp, they can produce amazing imagery, they think really clearly. One of the agendas of RMIT as a university is how we provide and motivate solutions to real problems and in the School of Architecture and Design we are interested in how design might be an effective driver for change.

When we arrive at a place we spend a lot of time carefully observing and documenting what is actually there, in a very deep fashion. For example Professor Sand Helsel did a studio working in and around the backstreets of Taipei, to understand how the bits of the city operate that aren’t so shiny and lovely, and communicating the value in the incidental operations of daily life that occur behind the tourists and commerce. In each case we adopt a series of strategies of documentation that we build a teaching and learning experience around. These then lead to the identification of a set of issues or problems that, when examined, becomes beneficial to the community that we’re working with, as we may be able to contribute to potential solutions.

Why did you choose Ubud this year?

We looked at Ubud specifically because of one of our graduates Charles Dewanto had conversations with prominent Balinese architect Popo Danes, and explored his concerns for the future of Ubud. Underpinned by our notion that Kuta’s gone, Seminyak’s gone, Jimbaran Bay is history, all due to over-development, the question is how to embrace all the benefits of tourism but how to do so in a manner that doesn’t destroy the reason why everyone actually comes.

Had any of your students been to Ubud before?

PresentationCROPNone. Only two or three had been to Bali before, but they’re Indonesian kids. Ironically we didn’t have any Aussie kids on this studio, [as almost half the students in the Architecture Program at RMIT are ‘International Students’]; they were all from somewhere else. So we arrived saying “we’re the Australians” and they were a little confused and said “you’re not Australian!” With students from Thailand, Malaysia, China and Indonesia the real benefits of our international community really came to the fore in this context.


What was your intention in advance, for the project? What sort of discussion did you hope to generate about Ubud?

In a couple of weeks leading up to going to Bali, we had a very intensive period of the students gathering whatever research they could find in the library and online. The research was structured around straightforward stuff like transport, streets, infrastructure, water, traditional Balinese compound houses, and tourism – trying to get the students to do whatever they could remotely to focus their energy and investigation. Out of this we built a Facebook presence and a Dropbox that had a whole bunch of research material that was assembled in preparation of the trip.

Then when in Bali, the students had to basically confirm what they thought they knew, about the topic they’d researched back in Melbourne. In order to do that, they produced photographs and drawings to document Ubud very specifically, over three intensive days exploring the town. So the student who was doing streets measured all the streets and produced quite a beautiful drawing of every single street around Hanoman and Monkey Forest Street. Another student was looking at the use of the footpath, one of the guys was looking at temples and offerings, and another explored the waterways that feed into and through Ubud.

We’re always very concerned that the students understand how to look and how to see, and what it means from a cultural perspective as well as an actual perspective – documenting what’s actually there in precise photographs and diagrams, not what they think they see. They were knocking on doors, saying hello, talking to people in houses and shops, talking to people about their needs, their thoughts, as well as observing how they use space in the community. The students found this aspect very useful.


How did the students then implement their research?

We do a thing in architecture schools called a ‘Super Studio’. A brief is set that identifies a problem to be explored, then the students work for 32 hours in groups and make a presentation in the afternoon of the next day. They work all night, they go hard, then you have a public presentation, a big party and a feast at the end of the 32 hours. That’s exactly what we did in Ubud. So we teamed an RMIT student with a local student from Bali, architecture students at Udayana University and a group of German architecture students on exchange at Udayana. Each group had an equal representation and they then went off and did a project that engaged with the theme of ‘Future Ubud’.

We had a big presentation at the end. Popo came up from Denpasar, the local chief was there, along with academics in landscape architecture and architecture, a couple of local architects, a guy who does social policy and a raft of people who could offer different layers of expertise in addition to the sixty students. And the students did a fantastic job – a really clear series of ideas, so clear in fact that at the end, Odeck Ariawan and the local chief basically said “we want to implement that project and we want to implement it now”. They basically said “give us the images, give us what you’ve got, can you stay on next week and make a presentation to the local community group about this?” So suddenly they’d seen an idea that had real value for them.


What kind of ideas were the strongest? Can you give some examples?

The project they were most interested in is one that began with a study of water infrastructure, and effectively it took the canals that currently sit in between Hanoman and Monkey Forest and suggested that they could be rehabilitated over time through planting, and that they could become pedestrianised walkways alongside the rejuvenated river. This would allow a couple of things – to open up a very different way that you could walk around the town and allow the ability for rituals and ceremonies to be removed form the congested streets. The little laneways that stitch together Monkey Forest Street and Hanoman could become activated with more opportunities for commerce, simply because you’d be getting localised pedestrian traffic.

I’m not sure Ubud needs more commerce…

True, but probably it needs a different kind of commerce rather than the crappy shop. This second layer could be a much more civilised and domesticated due to the way that people could walk through the town. Maybe there could then be a different way of integrating with the public, rather than thinking they need a shiny shop and selling stuff. There was a really enthusiastic engagement with this.


Another one was a project about rubbish collection. One of the students suggested that perhaps you could use the watercourse as a way to move rubbish from the top of the town to the bottom at the Monkey Forest – if you could imagine two layers of watercourse. One layer has the fresh water going underneath. And the layer on top means that people still sweep their rubbish into what they think is the drain, but it goes into a different system which then carries that rubbish down to Monkey Forest and is recycled at that point. So rather than having the big green trucks and organic and non-organic bins, in the tight streets you’re basically getting the water to carry it down to a more open area where it can be sorted and recycled. And use that in a way where you’re then ‘naturally’ separating your waste from the water.

These are fascinating, innovative ideas. But would they be easy to implement?

Yes, I think so. With the development of the projects and a closer consultation with the local community it’s highly possible.

In that case, what happens next? Will these projects have a future?

The RMIT students have returned to Melbourne. Now each of them is developing their project over the balance of the semester, looking towards an online publication which we’ll send back to the community. It’ll be a resource that the community can draw on, and hopefully it’ll allow them to make more informed choices. Let’s look very carefully at how you can use a much more holistic idea about what development might mean, so that it then becomes completely inappropriate for Dunkin’ Donuts or other potential multinationals to even get at the front door.


So now we’ll look at the next step, we’ll present the students’ projects in a more comprehensive manner for people to talk about and engage with. I would hope that that happen in January / February next year – that’ll give us time to get the publication done, present the ideas through social media, and then return to Ubud for a more a public discussion.

Dr Martyn Hook is Professor of Architecture at RMIT University in Melbourne and a Director of multi award winning iredale pedersen hook architects, a studio practice based in Melbourne and Perth dedicated to appropriate design of effective sustainable buildings with a responsible environmental and social agenda. Martyn is currently Dean at RMIT’s School of Media & Communication.

Photos of ‘Future Ubud’ are courtesy of Peter Wall.

Ubud Now & Then will be publishing more of the results of this project over the coming months. Keep an eye on our site for updates!