Can architecture be a tool for acknowledging Australia’s original inhabitants?
Since the arrival of the First Fleet, the opposite has almost always been true – our cities and towns, roads and farms, have dramatically and fundamentally changed the Australian landscape.
Architecture graduate and lecturer Sarah Lynn Rees is working to turn that story around. She’s a Palawa woman who grew up in Hobart, where her father is a builder.
That means she grew up understanding that “building and construction are part of a complex jigsaw puzzle, because you both design the problem, and then figure out how it can get built”, she says. “I find that process really intriguing.”
Her mission is to bring a greater awareness of Indigenous values to how architecture is practised. And that can range from consulting with traditional owners, employing Indigenous builders, or planting a garden that re-creates a local habitat.
“The history of Western architecture in Australia has too often denied an Indigenous understanding of place,” she says. “Every project in Australia is built on Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander land, and therefore every project is an opportunity for repair, for regeneration, to tell stories, in whatever way that project can.”
'Indigenising the built environment'
She describes this work as “indigenising the built environment”, and Rees is not prescriptive about what that might look like. It involves respecting the past, but not necessarily replicating it.
“With the Indigenous communities I work with, there’s an understanding that this is a contemporary world that we live in. So the question then becomes, how can we make this contemporary world representative of us? That’s an interesting design question for me.”
“Every project in Australia is built on Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander land, and therefore every project is an opportunity for repair, for regeneration, to tell stories, in whatever way that project can.”
Rees studied architecture at Melbourne University, where, as far as she was aware, she was the only Indigenous student in the school (that’s changed now).
“I was probably quite annoying to my tutors and subject coordinators, because I was constantly pushing for critical feedback in regard to how I’d incorporated Indigenous cultural knowledge within my projects,” she says. “But on reflection, I can understand now that my supervisors didn’t necessarily have the capacity to do that, because they were never taught.”
In 2013, she was awarded the Charlie Perkins Scholarship, and pursued a master’s in architecture and design at Cambridge. During these years she returned to Australia for six months, to live with the Warlpiri people in Yuendumu in the Northern Territory, 300 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs. Her thesis examined the government-led Indigenous housing programs, which continue to construct homes designed for a Western-style nuclear family.
Often these dwellings didn’t suit the Warlpiri, where the family units are typically looser and larger. As a result, whole families slept in bedrooms designed for one or two people, with members often moving from house to house – partly in response to the housing shortage, but also because of how the Warlpiri live together.
Many of the houses were also maladapted to the Tanami Desert climate, requiring air-conditioning to be habitable.
“It really opened my eyes,” Rees says. “I grew up so much.” Studying in Cambridge was also freeing; she encountered a refreshing curiosity and openness from her teachers about the Indigenous point of view.
Rees is now based in Melbourne, lecturing at Monash, and practising at Jackson Clements Burrows Architects. Urban projects also have the potential to incorporate an Indigenous perspective, she says.
Polarising: The William Barak building
Perhaps the best-known Indigenous-influenced structure in the city is the William Barak apartment building, designed so that a giant image of the Indigenous elder and leader’s face can be seen from the Shrine.
“The William Barak building polarised the architecture profession, and it polarised Indigenous communities,” she says. “There were critiques about it not contributing anything to the community other than this image … how it was facadism, skin-deep.
“But I don't necessarily buy into that, because I think there’s so many forms of representation that need to be implemented within our built environment. And if you listen to some of the traditional owners [the Wurundjeri] speak about that building, they say it’s the only one that boldly represents their community in the CBD. The dialogue with the Shrine is also critical. I think it’s a really positive contribution to our city.”
But sometimes the Indigenous influence on a building might be more subtle. “Not every project can do everything,” she says. And any new project has the potential to consider an Indigenous point of view.
“Projects that are led by the Indigenous community, or conceived and funded by them, naturally have more opportunity to engage in those kinds of conversations, whereas a developer-led multi-res housing project has to actively choose to engage.
“If they do that in a way that the community feels is appropriate, then we should respect that, because that’s what’s important. That was the opportunity of this site and this project, and the people involved.”
Even a person designing and building a new house can play a part. They may not have the capacity to engage with community, she says, “but you can still understand what the native environment would have been, and reinstate that … then you've not only got Indigenous or native plants in your garden, you’re re-creating habitats for the fauna and insect life that would have been there.
“They were also displaced through architecture in the same way that Indigenous people were displaced through assimilation policies and the development of our cities.”
A chance to repair our country
Taking an Indigenous perspective into account “provides an opportunity to repair our country, not just for ourselves as humans, but for country itself,” Rees says.
“When I think about an Indigenous concept of country, country isn't just land. Country is all the systems that exist within an environment, and that includes the cycle of insects, the cycle of birds, the way that the wind flows, and the way that the water moves. All of it. Every single system that exists within nature is country to me.
“It just makes so much more sense to me that we should work with country, and we should start with a baseline ethic of doing no more harm. That, I guess, is at the core of my beliefs in architecture.”
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