Australia’s architectural landscape was once missing a very important layer: the acknowledgement of a history of Indigenous architecture, landscape cultural histories and cultural needs of Australia’s Indigenous people.
Across the country, housing and community institutions such as hospitals, clinics and courthouses were being designed to cater for the functional and aesthetic needs of Anglo Australians, but failing to meet the cultural needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Change has been decades in the making, with UQ researchers leading the way. In 1976, UQ established the Aboriginal Data Archive to focus on cultural safety in built environments – the first time research about Aboriginal architecture had been carried out in Australia.
Since then, the unit has grown to become the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre (AERC) – a research and teaching centre based in UQ’s School of Architecture that focuses on increasing awareness of culturally appropriate architecture for Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
Over the past 40 years, AERC researchers have worked tirelessly to change the way the architecture profession and government agencies think about culturally appropriate design, which has led to positive changes that are improving the lives of many Indigenous Australian communities.
Introducing new terminology
Professor Paul Memmott has dedicated the majority of his career to this research, and it was his work that first brought the term ‘Aboriginal Architecture’ to the profession’s attention.
In 2007, the term was used for the first time in the title of his book Gunyah, Goondie and Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia. In 2012, it became an entry in the Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture, which has led to wide-ranging impacts on people and policy.
Professor Memmott says there needs to be an acknowledgement of catering to different cultures through architecture.
“If we look at traditional Indigenous communities, we start to see there are different behavioural styles when it comes to cooking, sleeping, preparing food, washing and socialising,” he says.
“When we look at how people do those things, they can be done in characteristically different ways and that can depend on how many people there are, the size of the household, how people divide into sleeping spaces, or what roles people have in the household.
“We also have to remember that all over Australia, Aboriginal cultures vary from region to region, so what might suit somebody in Inala or West End might be quite different to what would suit somebody in Alice Springs.
“It’s important to develop a built environment that caters to those cultural differences. They’re really basic things and it might be equally as different for a Vietnamese family or an Indian family.”
Professor Memmott says the profession’s growing understanding of the term is significantly contributing to Indigenous communities attaining their rightful place in the architectural and social history of the nation.
It has also provided architectural professionals and educators with new resources to learn about and teach more inclusive and accurate architectural histories.
“Through the AERC, UQ researchers have contributed to a better understanding of the important role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the architectural history and current practice in Australia and the world,” Professor Memmott says.
UQ’s Adjunct Associate Professor Elizabeth Grant and Dr Kelly Greenop and their colleagues have taken this a step further, recently publishing The Handbook of Contemporary Indigenous Architecture.
The book provides the first comprehensive international overview of Indigenous architecture, practice and discourse, while showcasing established and emerging Indigenous authors and architects from around the world.
“It’s the beginning of a broader discussion in which Indigenous architectural voices will be heard discussing contemporary architecture, instead of being solely referenced in respect to history,” Dr Greenop says.
“The legacy of Indigenous communities has an ongoing role in maintaining the diversity of architecture across the globe.
“Cultural values and perspectives should be incorporated into contemporary designs, reflecting the importance of a diverse and inclusive society that provides everyone with appropriate and enriching environments.”
UQ's research into how Indigenous people use and procure housing, and the administrative barriers they experience, has also had significant influence on policy development and change.
For example, Queensland Government departments have relied heavily on AERC research to provide context and information about how to better provide services to solve Indigenous crowding and homelessness.
AERC researchers have also helped policymakers understand how housing inequity manifests within Indigenous communities, and how policy change can alleviate these issues.
This knowledge has led to policy changes. For example, members of the AERC group Mark Moran, Shaneen Fantin and Alex Ackfun have promoted change through research and advocacy that has allowed some Indigenous people to purchase homes on leasehold Indigenous community title land for the first time, removing for them a major barrier to Indigenous home ownership in Queensland.
Professor Memmott says this is just one of the many ways AERC researchers are working with Indigenous communities to contribute to positive change by redressing problems that have plagued their communities.
“We have longstanding Aboriginal community clients who are collaborators with our research group” Professor Memmott explains.
“You’ll start on a design issue and then they’ll take you on an ongoing journey once there is a relationship of trust and will ask you to assist with other problems that they’re experiencing.
“This is how we get involved in helping them address homelessness, crowding, family violence and addictive issues.”
He says when it comes to community services, the team not only helps address design problems, but also capacity building challenges.
“Community services organisations want a stronger cultural base to the way they operate, and for their staff to start thinking about their practices. This is also to do with cultural safety.”
Research into community consultation and healthcare settings by one of the AERC’s Adjunct Associate Professors Shaneen Fantin recently resulted in the development of a culturally sensitive health facility for Indigenous people in Cairns with an acquired brain injury – the first of its kind in Australia.
Based on community consultation, the facility’s design included floor plans that suit Indigenous cultural norms of family visitation, taking into consideration room shape and scheme layout. The building’s design also featured seasonal native planting to stimulate residents’ senses, and had views to significant local story places.
More work to be done
While the AERC has made great progress over the past 40 years in raising awareness of the importance of culture in the built environment, Professor Memmott says there is “still a long way to go”.
“The housing situation for Aboriginal people across many parts of Australia is still atrocious, and there is still extreme crowding, which exacerbates social and health problems,” he says.
“There’s more work to be done, views to be changed, and knowledge to be put into the public arena. The knowledge has to have a political impact, and we recognise that this is all still ongoing.
“The number of Aboriginal architects in Australia is still very small. I’d say in another ten years, it’s going to be looking a lot better.”
1995: The Archive is formalised as the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre (AERC).
2007: Professor Memmott publishes his award-winning book Gunyah Goondie and Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia.
2007: A program for Indigenous pre-vocational training in North-west Queensland is instigated by UQ Adjunct Associate Professor Colin Saltmere and launched under a Queensland Government Scheme. Professor Memmott is invited to participate by running cultural workshops for trainees with Aboriginal Elders and mentors. Professors Saltmere and Memmott also assemble a team of UQ researchers to implement the spinifex research project, which has a long-term aim of starting an Aboriginal bush industry of farming spinifex grass and manufacture innovative products.
2012: The concept of ‘Aboriginal Architecture’ is recorded in the Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture.
2011–ongoing: UQ Architecture researchers continue to be invited to present to government policymakers and Indigenous housing and community groups on the importance of Indigenous-specific approaches to housing and homelessness.
2013: UQ Adjunct Associate Professor Elizabeth Grant and other researchers launch a Facebook community page titled Indigenous Architecture, which has garnered an international following of more than 11,000 people.
2014: Changes to Queensland Government policy, catalysed by AERC alumni and earlier AERC research, allow Indigenous people to purchase homes on leasehold Indigenous community title land for the first time.
2015–2018: A health facility for homeless Indigenous people with acquired brain injuries is designed and constructed, incorporating floor plans that suit Indigenous cultural norms (with design led by AERC alumni through their practices People Oriented Design, Indij Design and Aboriginal consultants Abriculture).
2018: The Handbook of Contemporary Indigenous Architecture is published, edited by UQ's Adjunct Associate Professor Elizabeth Grant and Dr Kelly Greenop and affiliates, which comprises 34 chapters on global practice by Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors from North America, Aotearoa New Zealand, the Pacific and Australia.
Video credit: Getty Images/David Ewing