by Catherine Bassey
“The luxury of my life is that I’ve been able to rub shoulders with great people, and meet with people who are vastly talented who have helped change my view of life,” he said.
There he stood, a big man with Greek features and a casual appearance, wearing faded blue jeans, and a light blue collared sweater. He was holding a black leather bag. His hair was swept back, a wild mane of wavy grey hair. He was wearing dark rimmed glasses that gave him the look of an academic. It turned out he is quite easy going, and laughed easily.
Born in 1953, Paul Pholeros got his Bachelor of Science in Architecture in 1974 at the University of Sydney. He established his own architectural practice in 1984, and is also one of the directors of Healthabitat.
He’s been a recipient of several awards, including Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2007 in recognition of his outstanding service to the health of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Mr Pholeros was also Adjunct Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney for almost seven years until he resigned because most of his time was spent travelling around Indigenous communities.
He is married to Sandra Meihubers, who shares similar interests with him.
“I live in a house set on a cliff which I designed and built myself. It’s a very small house, it hasn’t changed. At the time when I built it 25years ago, I had almost no cash, so that was a great inspiration, too. We built it on a very steep cliff so everything had to be carried up. I like a house to keep the rain off.
“My policy is to keep it simple, and keep it small. I think as architects generally, we build way too much. My house is close to my office, I don’t have to travel every day of the week. So that’s good,” he said.
“I grew up in the inner west, as it’s called now. I was the son of a migrant family. My parents came from Greece. They weren’t very wealthy, but it was a good, easy, and happy life as a kid. I went to school on a scholarship. I went to University on a scholarship. Sydney University changed my life. No one in my family has ever been near a university, no one knew what a university was or whether I should or shouldn’t go to university. It was extraordinary.”
For a boy who had never been outside Sydney until his university years, Paul Pholeros would go on to make changes in different communities in Australia, Nepal, Bangladesh, USA, and South Africa. He describes his first travel experience as a life-changing moment. As an architectural student, he had to do one year of practical experience working in an architect’s office. So with some others, he bought a double decker bus for $600 and fixed it up in order to use it for free shows on environmental issues for school kids. He and his friends drove it around Australia for a year.
“That certainly changed my life in a number of ways. I’d never been able to travel because my family didn’t have the money. So it got me out of Sydney. It brought me face-to-face with a lot of Aboriginal people, which I’d never done before. It wasn’t that easy to contact Aboriginal people if you lived in Sydney.”
He said other students worked in city offices and became disillusioned enough to want to drop out of architecture. “But I came back the exact opposite, so that was pretty cool.”
One of the people Mr Pholeros has met who changed his ideas was Yami Lester, whom he says started his career with Healthabitat. Yami Lester is a leader of an Aboriginal community who is blind. He was affected by the radioactive wave from British nuclear testing in the desert where he lived with his family as a child. “A blind man who can see,” as Mr Pholeros describes Yami Lester.
“It was an Aboriginal man grabbing me and saying, you will work with these other guys to stop people getting sick. It wasn’t me getting some grand vision, or having a great idea, it wasn’t the university, and it wasn’t a government project. It was an Aboriginal bloke. And why did he pick me? Probably because I happen to be there at the time, not because I was good, not because I knew what I was doing, I certainly didn’t. I learnt on the job, I knew precious little.”
The other guys turned out to be medical doctor Paul Torzillo and anthropologist Stephan Rainow. The three became the directors of Healthabitat which has been running 28 years. Mr Pholeros’s other source of inspiration was his university lecturer, Glenn Murcutt, who is now Australia’s most awarded architect..
“Healthabitat has 1,100 staff. The name came from Stephan’s wife. She said there are two things you’re interested in: health and where people live, not just housing.”
In Australia, Healthabitat has completed 184 projects in remote communities, improving the condition of 7,800 houses for 55,000 people. The people now have better houses, and improved health conditions. Through the project, the environment is improved and, as a result, the rate of infectious diseases such as trachoma in Aboriginal children has been reduced drastically.
In his 28 years as an architect, Paul Pholeros has devoted his time to working two careers. “I spend 60 per cent of my time working as an architect and about 40 per cent of my time in Healthabitat, on the other side. So that’s my discipline; basically I still earn my money as an architect, and I lose my money in Healthabitat so that works well.”
One wonders if he ever has time for any holiday.
“That’s a good question. I don’t know. Every day of my life is a bit of a holiday. I just happen to do something I love doing, and people occasionally pay me to do it. That’s probably the greatest luxury you can ever have. I’ve never had to feel like I had to go to work. My wife is in the medical area and she does similar work to me, she also enjoys that as well.”
He said the success of his career has come from working with people from diverse backgrounds. “I think you need diverse skills to solve complex problems.
“Architects aren’t going to solve the problems, medicos are not going solve the problems, economists are not going solve the problems, and educators aren’t. The combination of those would solve the problems. That’s something I’ve learnt. The more smart people we drag in, the better the work gets. Nothing to do with me, it has to do with the smart people we come across, who help to make things happen,” he said.