This Is What Indigenous Architecture Is and Why It Matters

There is no greater movement and more thought-provoking phrase in the modern era than Black Lives Matter. This social and political movement has spread internationally since its launch in 2013. Heightened by the events in Minneapolis last year, a country more than 9,300 miles away also felt the aftershocks of the murder of George Floyd. Australia, a country generally associated with blistering summer heat, friendly Aussies, and BBQ culture, is fighting for their own Black justice within the Indigenous community.

Like many Indigenous communities worldwide, Australian Aborigines want to be heard and treated fairly when it comes to fair housing, employment, and architectural design on land founded by their ancestors. In 2018, and possibly earlier, Black Lives Matter was already a catchy and revolutionary expression in the Australian Indigenous community, with local Indigenous artists creating art exhibitions appropriately named: Black Design Matters. Starting with art exhibitions and developing a better awareness of the struggles of Indigenous people, the art movement has expanded into the architectural world of design, which will lead to benefiting Indigenous communities across Australia.

As a born and bred Aussie, I remember learning about Aboriginal art and Indigenous culture at school. One of the most memorable classes was learning about Indigenous art from an Elder (someone who has gained recognition and permission to teach, heal, and advise on Indigenous culture). I remember learning how the Australian Aboriginal People have been able to understand both the history and culture of their people through symbols and paintings and continue to share it with younger generations in the same creative way.

With its iconic dots and intense outback colors featured in Dreamtime paintings highlighting the spiritual beliefs and existence of the Aboriginal people, Aboriginal art is familiar to all Australians. However, Indigenous architecture is not something Aussies know a lot about. Very little consideration is given to Indigenous land when building in cities like Melbourne and Sydney. Similarly, Indigenous communities are rarely consulted on land ownership—a battle the Indigenous people have been fighting since British Colonization in 1788. 

What Is Indigenous Architecture?

Researchers refer to Aboriginal architecture as projects designed with Indigenous clients or Aboriginals in mind, but it also imbues projects that show Aboriginality culture and history through project design. For advocates and researchers of Indigenous architecture, it’s important that Indigenous architecture involve consulting with Elders when it comes to building properties for Indigenous people and the country’s land.

With greater discussion on the topic of Indigenous architecture in Australia, a slow rise of young Indigenous architects is growing. This is in part thanks to further government funding by various universities to help support education in Indigenous communities, like the Close the Gap program at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, which offers equality in education for both Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.   

One such young and inspirational Indigenous architect is Marni Reti. A graduate of the Australian University and a voice promoting greater awareness to Black Design Matters through Indigenous Architecture. 

 

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“Architecture and styles specific to a First Nations cultural practice, knowledge, ontology, and epistemology is Indigenous design. How you achieve this is as important as the work itself,” explains Reti. “The process must be done with genuine participatory design. A singular Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person cannot appropriately design independently. There is always a process of gaining knowledge and the right to use that sacred information by Elders of language groups, we are—at our core—a part of something much bigger than our individual selves, we are a part of our Country. It’s our duty to care for it.”

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The Rise of Indigenous Architectural Design Firms

According to Reti, one of the most prominent organizations in Australia that supports Indigenous architecture dates back more than 20 years ago. “Merrima Aboriginal Design Unit did critical work in the 2000s, representing Aboriginal architects and interior designers exemplifying self-determination in the built environment,” she explains. “The Wilcannia Health Service is a profoundly important piece of Aboriginal architecture designed by and for Aboriginal peoples.”

A growing number of Indigenous architectural design firms are popping up in Australia, one of them being Kaunitz Yeung Architecture, where Reti currently works. To the firm’s growing list of Indigenous designs, the Wirraka Maya Healthcare Hub in South Hedland and Western Australia will serve the same purpose as Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Services (PAMS) clinic, which Reti has worked on. 

According to David Kaunitz, the founder of Kaunitz Yeung Architecture, a thorough co-design process involved consultations and advice with the Elders of the Martu community to create a sense of ownership, pride, and an excellent healthcare center for their local community. 

“The cornerstone of [our process] is spending a lot of time in the community and not making assumptions,” said Kaunitz in an interview ahead of the opening earlier this year. “[It’s about] listening to local people and repeating the process, providing forums and both formal and informal opportunities for every voice to be heard.”

With the project costing more than AUD 8 million, the center integrates design, sustainability, and the community’s approval, but also saw the celebration of local Indigenous artists with seven artworks produced by more than 27 local artists across genders representing different communities in the Healthcare Clinic and meeting space.

“Successful architecture is always considerate of context, [I believe] in Australia the context for all built projects is Country,” muses Reti. “Which country you’re working in defines the context. Culturally competent architecture should be designed for the country, and architects who design this architecture should listen deeply to the country and the peoples who’ve cared for that country for over 80,000 years. Working with our culturally rich and diverse clients allows us to create architecture that is deeply ingrained in Indigenous knowledge. This can only be achieved with the trust, support, and design of the Elders and communities these buildings are for.”

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