Meet the husband-and-wife team running one of Australia’s most prolific, socially driven architecture firms.
By Rachel Gallaher
Photographed by Brett Boardman
As published in GRAY No. 53, to order the magazine, click here.
Punmu artist Jakayu Biljabu sits in front of the screen she designed for the Punmu Aboriginal Health Clinic in the Western Australian desert. The clinic was designed by Kaunitz Yeung Architecture in deep collaboration with the local community, taking into consideration its unique cultures and customs.
On April 4, 2007, a devastating earthquake hit the Solomon Islands, leaving more than 35,000 residents—about 10 percent of the nation’s population at the time—displaced.
Given the archipelago’s remote location (the chain of more than 900 islands sits about 1,000 miles off the northeastern coast of Australia) and the dearth of resources in some areas (no electricity, paved roads, water, or sanitation), recovery and rebuilding efforts were projected to be especially difficult.
An aerial view of the Parnngurr Health Clinic in the Western Australian desert. One of two clinics designed by Kaunitz Yeung Architecture to replace a set of 1980s-era medical centers, it serves some of the most remote communities in Australia.
Nevertheless, relief teams and non-governmental organization workers started to arrive shortly after the disaster. One of the young volunteers, Australian architect David Kaunitz, had returned to Australia after running a commercial architecture firm in London, and had been looking for ways to use his skills beyond typical design studio commissions. Working through various nonprofit entities, including World Vision, UNICEF, and the New Zealand Agency for International Development, Kaunitz spent four months traversing the islands, not only helping to build houses and schools, but also teaching Solomon Islanders how to work with the materials and resources available to them to repair their own infrastructure.
“It was important to us to train local builders,” Kaunitz says. “We used regional materials and tools and built centrally located demonstration schools with groups of locals, who then went out and were able to train others in more remote areas. In that way there were 134 schools rehabilitated in three to four years.”
Above, from left: A metal screen designed by a community artist for the Parnngurr Health Clinic. Ka Wai Yeung and David Kaunitz, the husband-and-wife team behind Kaunitz Yeung Architecture.
Right: The Wanarn Clinic is a treatment venue operated by the Ngaanyatjarra Health Service in Western Australia. Located in the desert, the facility needed to be able to resist high temperatures and dusty conditions but, because of limited resources, operate at a low cost.
“We really enjoy hanging out with the communities and learning from them, even on things that are not necessarily related to the project—whether that be weaving with elders in Wanarn or cooking together in the Solomon Islands. I think when you live it rather than work on it, that makes a difference to the outcome.”
—Ka Wai Yeung, architect and cofounder, Kaunitz Yeung Architecture
Kaunitz continued to work with various nonprofits in the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, and Papua New Guinea through 2011 (in 2007, he cofounded the post-disaster relief organization Emergency Architects Australia, which focuses on shelter reconstruction), when he decided to form his own firm with his wife, architect Ka Wai Yeung (the two met after Yeung attended a lecture Kaunitz gave about his work in the Solomon Islands). Kaunitz and Yeung had both worked for large, successful architecture firms, but were looking to create a studio that went beyond institutional structure and projects that came in from the top. Kaunitz Yeung Architecture was formed as a way for the husband-and-wife team to pursue more socially conscious projects, such as schools, health clinics, and childcare centers for communities throughout Oceania, often located on far-flung islands or in remote, hard-to-reach areas.
Above and right: The Biripi Aboriginal Corporation Medical Centre’s Purfleet Clinic sits on the site of the former Purfleet Mission, which was created by the government in 1901 for means of “protection and segregation.” It is now under aboriginal ownership. The clinic’s entrance screen depicts the saltwater/freshwater tidal zone, and when backlit at night, becomes a beacon of light within the community.
“Doing the work in the way that we wanted to do it would have been impossible at another firm,” Kaunitz says. “We spend a lot of time with these communities before we even start to build, and most practices wouldn’t just OK us to go off the grid for two or three weeks. It’s important to understand their culture and way of life and integrate that into our work.”
The firm’s first project, a school in the Republic of Vanuatu (an island nation located about 2,250 miles off the eastern coast of Australia), was commissioned by AusAid, in partnership with the Vanuatu Ministry of Education and Training, the New Zealand Aid Program, and UNICEF. Completed in 2012 in the town of Takara, the two-classroom building was constructed from local materials (which reduced costs by 50 percent as compared to a cement build). Its design, based on a timber portal structure that meets cyclone and earthquake standards, incorporates a handwoven natangura (sago leaf) roof, bamboo window hatches, and dead coral infill walls, all of which embody local design principles.
From top: The Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Service clinic in Newman, Western Australia, sits about 870 miles from Perth and is the first primary health care facility to be constructed in Newman. A screen in the entryway incorporates a design from a community-based artist. Both photographed by Robert Frith, Acorn Photo.
“Our process varies depending on the particular community we work with,” Yeung says, “but the key is to listen. There is always a deep, genuine, mutual learning and respect. We spend a lot of time up front with the communities so that we can really understand what is needed. Throughout the process the design is ‘naked,’ and decisions are made together with the community.”
These decisions can include selecting the materials used in a project (rammed earth serves desert climates well, as it naturally regulates heating and cooling; the Solomon Islands schools were built with local timber milled near projects, which is more affordable and easier to transport than imported material), prioritizing the use of art created by community members, and ensuring that building programs respect social norms (in some Aboriginal communities it is requested that men and women have separate entrances at health clinics).
Commissioned by the Munupi Arts and Crafts Association, the Art Centre at Pirlangimpi (Garden Point) is located on Melville Island in the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin, Australia.
Since the completion of the school in Takara, Kaunitz Yeung Architecture has designed 50 community-focused projects for more than 230 communities for more than 230 Indigenous communities in Oceania (it also takes on the occasional residential brief). As two award-winning health clinics built last year in the Western Australian desert show, the firm’s work seamlessly blends modern high-end design with utilitarian function and local vernaculars. Each of the two clinics, built in different towns for the Martu, is partially modular, with a sculptural pergola that supports 60 flexible photovoltaic panels that provide 30 percent of the clinic’s power. Both communities chose local artists to create work that was integrated into indoor and outdoor metal art screens. It’s this attention to detail, and insistence on a deeply collaborative process that recognizes the dignity and humanity of the people they design for, that put Kaunitz and Yeung at the forefront of socially oriented design. As Kaunitz, who notes that the firm is currently working on a cultural center, a large health clinic, and a purpose-built Aboriginal-elder-care facility, sums it up, “it’s a profound experience to be satisfied with a finished project and then watch it be loved and embraced by the community for which it was built.”