decolonising design in the built environment

Architecture for Assimilation

What role does housing play in the assimilation of Aboriginal people?

SBS News broke a story last week exposing a racially offensive pamphlet circulated by a South Australian housing organisation, Shelter SA. The title of the pamphlet: "How will you look after your house whitefella way?"

Targeting Aboriginal households, the pamphlet lists "tips to make sure you don't get kicked out", including: "1. Always pay your rent 2. Look after your yard and garden 3. Put out your rubbish,"  all the way up to "13. Tell your landlord if your toilet gets blocked."

Although I was shocked that this story had been published in mainstream media, the pamphlet in itself did not come as a surprise.

Assimilation via housing and design in the built environment has been standard practice in Australia since the unlawful dispossession of Aboriginal lands in the 1780's. The displacement and control of Indigenous peoples via  missions and institutions enforced assimilation, and for over 200 years these practices have forced Aboriginal people to live "whitefella way" for the benefit of colonial invaders.

This "how to assimilate" pamphlet, and the surrounding commentary on social media, did make me consider the following:

In a contemporary context, what role do designers play in the continual assimilation of Aboriginal people via housing? And what responsibilities do architects hold when designing for Aboriginal communities? 

To be clear: assimilation via housing is not exclusively an architectural design problem.  As for any state under colonial control, institutions play a major role in enabling assimilation practices: governments, universities, the architecture profession. Each of these institutions have policies outlining their responsibilities, either direct or indirect, to Aboriginal peoples. Yet by continually failing to comply with these responsibilities, collaboratively these institutions default to attitudes and practices supporting the assimilation of Aboriginal people via housing.

The culture and teaching practices in architecture education contribute to the lens through which designers and architects view social housing and Indigenous Australia. From my experience, this consists of course content which perpetuates the false perception that the “problem” of housing for Aboriginal people is a design problem that a white do-gooder can "fix", and more broadly, course content that perpetuates stereotypes and misconceptions of Aboriginal peoples, histories and cultures. Architecture education in this country does not take responsibility for the impacts that these teaching practices have on the self-determination of Aboriginal peoples.

In parallel, the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA)  ticks the box to confirm that universities are delivering quality courses that equip graduates with the skills to continue pursuing architecture as a profession. This results in a combined effort by universities and the AACA to deliver a concerning outcome: How to be an architect...  "whitefella way".

Beyond university education, architecture registration requires that practitioners comply with state-based codes of conduct, each of which include a fundamental obligation for architects to serve the public interest. It would seem that in Australia, a nation founded on the ignorance and exclusion of Indigenous peoples,  that architects have come to interpret  "public interest" as the assimilation of Aboriginal people.

Reflecting on this as an Aboriginal woman, it does prompt me to consider my own role in the archi-sphere, particularly within the institutional frameworks that surround housing for Aboriginal people.  Under constant pressure to assimilate within these structures, it is a constant reminder to resist, to decolonise,  to design, to write, to do whatever it is I choose to do... "blackfella way".