decolonising design in the built environment

A Determination of One's Own

Summer break, back home, laying  up on the sand at North 'Gong, book in hand. Inside the front cover: "Linda Kennedy 07/09". A book I had purchased five years ago and never read: Virginia Woolf - A Room of One's Own.  I wondered how many other unread books I had at Mum's?

By the fourth sentence Woolf was speaking inside of me.  The way she wrote of the multi-layered meanings of women and fiction were the same sentiments I shared for the weighted meanings of Aboriginality and architecture/ Aboriginal architecture/ Aboriginal design. I wouldn't even know where to begin when including the remaining element: women and Aboriginality and architecture.

As Woolf, appropriated by myself, begins:

"When you asked me to speak about [Aboriginal] [architecture] I sat down on the [beach] and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply a few remarks about [Dillon Kombumerri];  a few more about [Jefa Greenaway]; a tribute to the [Lanes] and a sketch of [Merrima Design/NSW Government Architects Office] [in the sun]; some witticisms if possible about [Michael Mossman]; a respectful allusion to [Rueben Berg]; a reference to [Carol Go-Sam] and one would have done. But at second sight the words seemed not so simple. The title [Aboriginal] [architecture] might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, [Aboriginal people] and what they are like; or it might mean [Aboriginal people] and the [architecture] that they [design]; or it might mean [Aboriginal people] and the [architecture] that is [designed] about [their culture]; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light."

Of course there are many differences between Woolf and I, as there are between women/fiction and Aboriginal(ity)/architecture. To start, nobody has asked me to speak about Aboriginal(ity)/architecture - the days have passed when a woman may only be asked her opinion.

The thinking that linked me to Woolf was the critical response of deconstructing the questions asked of us as the other, rather that appeasing the listener with niceties and carefully selected examples. Often as the 'other', we burden ourselves with expectation/responsibility, in my world, the expectation that as an Aboriginal person in the archi-sphere, I should be able to reach a conclusion, to identify a solution, to define meaning in a concept such as  "Aboriginal architecture".

I am not interested in the separation of the many present layers: pre-invasion Aboriginal architecture, or Aboriginal identity and architecture, or architecture designed for Aboriginal people, or Aboriginal people designing architecture, or contemporary architecture for Aboriginal users. I am interested in how they are all inextricably mixed together.

As Woolf, appropriated by myself, continues:

"But when I began to consider the subject in this last way, which seemed the most interesting, I soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion.... ...All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point - [an] [Aboriginal person] must have [a determination] of [one's] own if [one] is to [study/design/practice architecture]; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of [Aboriginality] and the true nature of [architecture] unsolved."

This "minor point" of self-determination and its relevance to Aboriginal people and architecture I will surely develop across future blog posts. As a start, I will say that access to public education is fundamental. Beyond that, one must remain determined to push through the white colonial patriarchal system that overwhelms architecture education and architecture practice. One must expect systematic racism and ignorance in institutions and one must be determined to resist them. It is more complex than having money, it is more complex than having a room of one's own.

To follow this "minor point", a note on "the great problem" that attaches itself to any opinion in the greater discussion of Aboriginality and architecture. The problem being that the "true nature" and meaning of the colonial constructs of "Aboriginality" and "architecture" have created rigidity and boundaries within design and the built environment that limit design solutions, that limit design innovation and discussion, and most concerning, that limit the way that we live.

The notion of "Aboriginality" or what it takes for something designed/built to be "Aboriginal" or to have Aboriginal identity is complex and as any other cultural construct, it is diverse, and it is in a state of constant change. The notion of "architecture" and what it means to be "designed" or "built" remain colonial concepts, and beyond that, what it means for a space to be occupied, to be owned, are impositions of the colonial value system.

And so it is - the beginning of my blog - Future Black. Stay tuned to read more of my opinions/questions about "Aboriginal architecture", my passion for decolonising design in the built environment, and my experiences and perceptions as an Aboriginal woman navigating the colonial systems of design and architecture in Australia.

To end this post, I will again quote Woolf, appropriated by myself:

 "At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial - and any subject about [Aboriginality] is that - one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold."