decolonising design in the built environment

Competitions & Affairs

What occurs at the political intersection of design competitions & Aboriginal affairs?


First year, 2010. Quit my full-time job to go to uni, to study architecture at UNSW. Commuting for five hours each day to/from Randwick, CityRail became my home away from home. Myself and fellow commuters shared what seemed like endless hours of our weeks together on the South Coast line. We shared the olive-green leather seats and musty, re-circulated air. 

As I adjusted to the commute, I also adjusted to the new institutional environment of the University. During the first weeks of class I was confronted with the ignorance/absence of Aboriginal history/culture/peoples in archi-education. A history class which focussed on international architecture. A science class which skimmed over the technical and sustainable resolution of pre-invasion Aboriginal architecture. A design studio project based on a hypothetical site. An introductory subject, BENV1080, based on the white history, design and politics surrounding Australia’s most recognisable "piece" of architecture - the Sydney Opera House, designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon.

In week four of my first semester, the Faculty of the Built Environment launched a new lecture series, the Utzon Lecture Series. The Faculty had arranged/paid for Jorn Utzon’s son, Jan, to give the first lecture - a talk about his late father, the "world renowned" architect of the SOH. Big deal, right? So I attended. Scientia Hall was full. Over 500 people in attendance, mostly suits. (My back-pack was an offence to the dress code - my first realisation that guest lectures are not targeted to students.) 

The Dean, Alec Tzannes, introduced Jan Utzon. Jan spoke for an hour. Richard Johnson closed. Simple..? 

Not so simple, at least not for one Koori first-year student sitting near the back of the hall. There was no Welcome to Country or acknowledgement. I was so frustrated that I didn’t listen to any of the lecture.  Why no Welcome? These people (and I) not welcome here? Why no respect for protocol? Is a tick-the-box acknowledgement better than no acknowledgement? Do I speak up? I don’t know anybody here. I’m not from here. I’ve just started uni… Do I really want to be a "trouble-maker" in my first semester..!?

I stayed silent. 

And although I was silent, my critical thinking of architecture and politics was triggered. A spark to the fire. My refusal to accept that Aboriginal Australia is removed and disconnected from architecture in this country; my questioning of how we have reached this point in architecture education, history, design, the institution, the industry, the politics. At the end of first semester, I based my final zine submission for BENV1080 on the politics impacting Aboriginal people in parallel to the politics impacting the Sydney Opera House - some of which I will share below. But first, some context for non-archi readers.

So. The SOH. 

The land of the Gadigal people, Eora nation. The site of the SOH was known as Dubbagullee to the local Aboriginal people, a ceremonial site and shell midden. Originally an island in what is now known as Port Jackson/Sydney Harbour, the small island only connected to the mainland at low tide. Constructed into a permanent peninsula by the British, the site is now known as Bennelong Point. Read more about the pre-invasion history of Sydney here.

Bennelong was a Wangal man, captured by the British in 1789 in order for the invading colony to exploit his knowledge of the Sydney area and Aboriginal peoples. In 1790, Governor Philip built a hut for Bennelong on what is now known as Bennelong Point. He was taken to Britain for "exhibition", and returned to Australia a "troubled" man in 1795, torn between Wangal and white culture. (Imagine being abducted by aliens...) Read more about Bennelong here.

Fast forward through the next 100+ years of continual genocide, forced assimilation and land theft, controlled and deliberate strategies which led to "Australia" becoming a federation of states in 1901. Fast forward another 50+ years of continual genocide, forced assimilation and land theft, Bennellong Point was now "owned" by the NSW State Government, who called for designs for a Sydney opera house in an international design competition. Danish architect Jorn Utzon won the competition in 1957. His design is considered a masterpiece for its innovation in architecture, engineering and construction technologies. The project ran over budget, and with State Government changing hands in 1965, the design integrity was compromised including late changes to the design brief. The Government refused to pay Utzon, and he resigned from the project in 1966. 

Architects rallied, to no avail. (The selfish rabble of the 60’s.) 

The project was handed over to new architects (Farmer, Hall, Todd & Littlemore) for completion, who incorporated changes to Utzon’s original design. Utzon never returned to Australia to see the final built project. Fair enough. 


Whilst learning about this history in first year, none of the pre- or early-invasion history was discussed beyond mention. My teachers stressed the impacts that political interference had on the architectural design integrity of the building, and encouraged us (students) to consider the impacts that such political interference had on the "truth" of architecture - without any critical discussion of the truth in place, the truth in the site’s history, the truth of Australia’s history. 

Consider: Assimilation policies were well in place during the time of the SOH competition and early construction period of the 1950’s and 60’s. At the Native Welfare Conference in 1961, all states agreed that Assimilation policies had the following defined purpose: 

"all aborigines and part-aborigines are expected eventually to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties as other Australians"

That is: at the time of the SOH design competition, Aboriginal people were expected, in policy by the Australian Government, to accept cultural genocide. 

From the mid 1960’s, Government policies began to reflect an attempt at integrating Aboriginal people into wider Australian society, including Aboriginal people “gaining” the right to vote in 1962. Across wider Australia, there was a growing awareness of Aboriginal social justice issues thanks to the staunch blackfullas that worked tirelessly on resistance including the 1963 bark petititons in Yirrkala and the 1965 Freedom Ride.

In 1964, a change in NSW State Government led the way for Premier Robert Askin to change financial control for the SOH from the Opera House Committee to the Minister for Public Works - meaning the State now had direct control of the SOH project. The following year, 1966, Utzon resigned, & left Sydney. 

One year after that, 1967, the Commonwealth Referendum passed, not only allowing Aboriginal people to be included in the census, but also allowing the Commonwealth to make "special"/racist laws controlling Indigenous people. 

By the time construction of the SOH was completed, 1974, policies of integration were phased out and the concept of "self-determination" was established in order to:

"restore to the Aboriginal people of Australia their lost power of self determination in economic, social and political affairs"

This self-determination is something which we are still fighting for today - to have control over our own affairs as Aboriginal people. 


It’s early days in my questioning: what occurs at the political intersection of design competitions & Aboriginal affairs? What happens when a design competition, inherently political & deliberate in proposing a representation of "national identity", is completely disconnected from Aboriginal histories and current Aboriginal affairs/politics? 

Is there an impact from an architectural sculpture that looks like the sails of colonial ships entering the lands and waters belonging to sovereign Aboriginal peoples? (Note: Utzon stated that his sketch design was not inspired by the sails of yachts.)

Moving on from the 1960’s, what are the impacts of more recent design competitions that result in architecture that encapsulates a mis-connection with/to Aboriginal history/culture/identity and current politics impacting Aboriginal people (NMA, Barangaroo)? And how can/when will architecture education incorporate critical thinking inclusive of Aboriginal histories/cultures/politics? 


Of course, it is/has been frustrating over the years of my architecture education, to sit in lectures/tutorials/studios and be taught white history and white politics by white academics who have no awareness/acceptance of the truth of Australia’s history, and no understanding of current state and national politics that impact Aboriginal people. It is this frustration within architecture education that initially triggered my questioning and resistance to the colonial constructs of architecture in Australia - starting with one introductory subject about the SOH, the beloved architectural icon of Australia - occupying stolen Aboriginal land.