Sydney. Light and colour to transform the perception of public housing

Clare Lewis
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By giving each resident of the Waterloo Towers a light to they can use to illuminate it as a whole, the “We Live Here” project created a form of resistance to the devaluation of social housing.

When Clare Lewis first saw a light coming from one of the twin towers of a public housing development in Waterloo where she lives in inner city Sydney, she was impressed by the building’s stark concrete beauty. Her neighbours and her imagined all the windows lit up in different colours. Months later she heard about a proposed redevelopment of the site, including the likely demolition of the towers and the fragmentation of its community. Lewis approached a local community organisation with an idea, to give each resident of the towers a light to they can use to illuminate it as a whole. Recognising a vivid symbol of their physical presence, the Waterloo community adopted and transformed the project. Since the lights went on last September, the buildings have been transformed into objects of attraction and beauty, a form of resistance to the devaluation of their homes. Domus talks to Clare Lewis about the project, the value of public housing, and what the future holds for the Waterloo residents.

What inspired you to do this project?

Some friends and I has seen a coloured light in the window of one of the towers which started a casual discussion about how amazing it would look if all those big recessed concrete balconies were illuminated in different colours. The redevelopment announcement happened a few months later and we didn’t trust that the residents would be looked after. It felt like the beginning of the end in some way. I started going to the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group meetings, talking to people, and introduced this idea to transform these buildings – which a lot of people see as an eyesore or a boil on the side of the inner-city suburbs of Sydney – into a symbol of strength, unity and community.

How did you roll it out?

At the beginning we did a load of community outreach events, slowly developing trust and relationships. Then we started showing people what the lights looked like, installing some in the community rooms of the buildings. And we got an academic at UWS to put together a summarily of what different colours can do physiologically.

Can you explain that?

We wanted to allow people to be able to change the colour of the lights themselves. Every night when the lights go on people can choose their preferred colour, we call them ‘mood lights’ but they don’t necessarily care that green can create ‘feelings of calm’. We wanted to give them the option of corresponding colour with the physiological effects of what colour can do, or as a communication tool. Once lights started going in there was a lot more excitement and momentum as people could really see how it looked.

What was your impression of the building?

Every place is completely different. Each floor has a communal area with these big windows that look out onto the city and each of those is themed around different sections of [British explorer] Captain Cook’s voyages, such as different beaches or battles or names of ships. So you have this brut modernist building and then this really retro interior.

Very colonial?

Yes, it’s very colonial. It would be very offensive to Indigenous people to be walking into buildings named after key botanists and explorers from that invasion period. Yet in terms of nostalgia and kitsch there are a lot of interesting features, it’s like a time capsule. You look out of these big windows toward this skyscraper city, but then you have this rope rigging and foam modelled like wooden Tudor features to look like you are inside a boat, and artworks that look like they were made by some of the housing commission staff themselves – there are even curtains that match the art work!

The lights can be seen for very long distances across the whole community of Waterloo and inner-city Sydney, has it changed the atmosphere of Waterloo at all?

One of the subversive things about the project is that it is disarmingly beautiful. It is like a visual spectacle it transforms something that has been there or 40 years in a new light literally. It has had a great ripple effect in the social media community - more than we would have hoped - as millennials don't generally take up arms with housing rights. Sydney is such an expensive city it’s very easy to become very individualistic. So we are really gratified that people who wouldn't normally be talking about housing rights are talking about them.

The lights of the towers still burn bright over Waterloo, as tenants have continued to turn them on every night, communicating their ongoing presence to the rest of Sydney. Increasingly exhausted, they are still waiting for the three options for the redevelopment masterplan to be released, though it is likely that their relocation will be a core component of any plan to develop the area. A documentary film about the project will be screened on the Australian TV network ABC Arts and on their online platform iview in the second half of 2018.

Sydney. Light and colour to transform the perception of public housing

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