Paul Pholeros

Paul Pholeros, a unique and generous contributor to Australian architecture over several decades recently passed away at 62 years of age. Pholeros was much loved within the architectural community and a particular favourite within CplusC. Many in the office have heard him speak multiple times and his ethos of always being equipped to contribute practically is reflected in the approach of the practice more broadly. Clinton Cole met Paul at Sydney University in the early nineties and he had an immediate influence on him. Here was a man who built his own house and worked as a Taxi driver to pay his way through University. He spent several afternoons at Paul and Sandra’s house where he remembers the hospitality and generosity of hand and spirit of both Paul and Sandra was comforting and compelling. Like their home in Pittwater they were open and honest people who filled the space they occupied with positivity and optimism.

While most architects are known for their iconic buildings and awards, Pholeros is best known for his work with disadvantaged communities for the organisation he co-founded, Health Habitat (HH). This work prioritised functionality, reliability and serviceability over aesthetics.

From the beginning, Health Habitat clearly established the links between poor physical housing conditions and compromised health outcomes, particularly in remote Indigenous communities in Australia. The consequences of seemingly small failings in buildings contributes significantly to the huge gap in health outcomes for remote and Indigenous communities. As Pholeros would explain in his spell binding presentations, you cannot wash a child in a house without functioning plumbing, or offer meaningful safe food preparation areas without a working kitchen.

To counter this, HH worked to improve physical housing conditions. Pholeros was adamant that every HH visit should be marked by a physical improvement – a dripping tap fixed, a flyscreen secured, or a flaw made safe. This immediate improvement was a key part of his strategy of building trust and contributed to the ongoing success of the organisation in a field where many other initiatives routinely fail. Another facet of HH’s work is the advocacy and lobbying work they undertook. Despite the spectacular health improvements communities served by HH enjoyed and its strong record of Indigenous employment, in recent years HH funding was inexplicably reduced.

As a result, HH undertook pure research into the reliability of building products in remote areas (ie which hot water tanks can survive in a location where 45°C days are experienced regularly and exposed conditions are the norm) and took the HH model overseas, including to New York housing projects and Nepalese mountain communities. The work was both deeply political and Pholeros argued, located firmly within architectures sphere of influence and expertise. Health Habitat’s success with a relatively small budget reflects his approach that money can be part of a solution but it is skill that solves problems.

Pholeros often spoke passionately about teaching, both informally in the wider community and more specifically with architectural students. His story of watching a group of students attempt to improve mud and sanitation challenges in a Nepalese school through (failed) signage then (failed) behavioural change, then incremental semi-successful physical changes on the way to developing fully designed responses reflected his patience as a teacher. This learning journey reflected a refreshed understanding of how outcomes can be ‘designed in’ through a better understanding of behaviour, space, material properties and dimensions and resulted in a reference sheet which became a design guide for hundreds of similar schools in the region.

For his passion, wisdom, generosity and kindness, Paul Pholeros will be much missed by so many whose lives he touched for the better, whether that was directly or indirectly.

Photograph by Sophie Seck