decolonising design in the built environment

Face the Irony

Let's say, in colonial terms, you are an award-winning, successful architect. You are one of nine white, male directors leading a large design practice. You pride yourself on your iconic buildings - there is no doubt that you have had an impact on the built environment in Australia for almost twenty years.

Now, let's say you have a new project, a high-rise residential building, centrally located in a capital city. A city frequented by around 800, 000 people each day. Melbourne, say. You have approval to build over 100 metres high, 32 stories of expensive, luxurious apartments. You have an opportunity to do anything you want - to assert your relevance in the "urban fabric" of Melbourne, to prove that you are socially conscious, up with the times, maybe even radical, still. You can do "different", you can do "iconic" - as long as it is of value to a developer, say, Grocon.

So how about you make a statement? How about you design an enormous face onto the facade of your building? How about a black man's face? How about the face of William Barak?

Indeed, how about that!

Construction of ARM's "portrait building", as it has become known, is almost complete, with the face due to be unveiled in March, 2015. It is part of a new development precinct, Swanston Square, located on the old Carlton Brewery site in Melbourne's CBD, the land of the Wurundjeri people.

More recently, the location is known as the "wall-collapse site", where passers-by Marie-Faith Fiawoo, Bridget Jones and Alexandar Jones died in 2012 when a large brick wall from Grocon's construction site fell onto a public footpath. It's also adjacent to Sean Godsell's Design Hub which "proved a danger" to the public when two glass discs from the facade system "plunged to the pavement" (cheers, Herald Sun). Maybe the portrait building will follow suit, and Barak's face will come crashing down onto the streets of Melbourne?

Consider, that even without tumbling down, the 300+ squared metre "portrait" of William Barak's face causes damage to this nation as a byproduct of its existence.

In my previous post, Archi-Crime: (in the name of) Reconciliation, I outlined the need to move beyond visual representations of Aboriginal cultures/histories in architecture, the need to focus on Indigenous ways of knowing/doing as primary design principles, and the need to use these principles/values in design beyond Aboriginal user-groups, for both black and white projects.

The portrait building, in contrast, is a building for mainstream occupants, using design principles/values from the colonial/invader mindset, with a visual representation of Aboriginal Australia stuck to the front of the building. 

It would seem that ARM are trying to achieve some kind of ironic relationship between the war memorial on the south of the birrarung, and a black man's face on the north of the river. Their website states that this relationship "stands to unite the city’s modern heritage with its ancient history" - as though Aboriginal people died out long ago, and only traces of our existence still remain. Wake up ARM - we are still here.

Let's face it: the irony in this project is not the juxtaposition of imagery. In itself, this symbol will provoke short-term thought responses from a small portion of the public, it will provide a topic for conversation, some food for critics, and it will add five more minutes to Melbourne's walking tours. It will not create social change.

The true irony of this project is the lack of substance delivered by the misdirected will of an all-white design team. The irony: that this building raises more questions about the relationship between white architects and Aboriginal Australia than it raises about the relationship between white and black Australian history, culture, identity.  

Yes, this portrait, it tells a history. But it does not live the present. It speaks of our people past as though there is no cultural present, no expected future.

The connection to the war memorial does not hold any significance to me as an Aboriginal woman. I do not need to compare a monstrous stone memorial to an enormous face in order to be able to acknowledge the genocide, to remember the thousands of Aboriginal people who were massacred on this land at the hands of colonial invaders. It is lived and remembered every day.

Of greater value in the archi-sphere is design thinking that chooses to implement change beyond what can be visually seen, and beyond colonial values. Step back and consider the value in Aboriginal ways of knowing/doing - both in historical and contemporary Indigenous cultures. Challenge the nuclear household. Design for adaptation. Understand Country. Engage with community. Build sustainably.

Learn from past mistakes: try something other than statement-making. Stop exploiting Aboriginal histories and cultures for designs that are only skin deep.