decolonising design in the built environment

Archi-Crime: (in the name of) Reconciliation

The foundation of my architecture education, both design and theory, was bound and smothered by the design principles of the "great" modern architects. I was taught to glorify our saviours of design: Mies, Corb, Wright.

Indoctrinated, I recite the principles of "good design":  Function over form; Less is more; Truth in materials; Ornamentation is a crime. These attitudes infested the curriculum. My eyes were clouded by judgement, and everywhere I looked I was paranoid about committing archi-crime. Was jewellery ornamentation? Was nail polish a crime?

A consequence of my conditioned mentality: my judgement that each instance of "Aboriginal design" in the built environment was a case of archi-crime. As it appeared to me, the use of Aboriginality in contemporary architecture in Australia had predominantly been through the use of visual representations including form-making, ornament and art. All the things I had been taught not to do as a designer.

The particular instances of poor design, mostly in public architecture, seemed to have increased in production during the reconciliation movement of the 1990's and 2000's. A building shaped like a goanna, walls committed to murals, mosaics of creation stories, circle-shaped gardens. Was this an architect's idea of reconciliation?

Yes - visual representations can create identity and connection for Aboriginal users. Yes - arts, craft and storytelling are integral aspects of Aboriginal cultures. Yet simultaneously, their use in building design perpetuated stereotypes of Aboriginal Australia for non-Indigenous audiences. Beyond visual representations, the world's oldest living cultures have immense knowledge and refined systems which can influence and inspire the way that we learn, problem solve, design and live within the built environment. So why were architects making such criminal design decisions?

Some designers were moving beyond these visual representations to create a different kind of "Aboriginal architecture" which responded to design briefs with a more holistic approach, respecting the values of Aboriginal people. Mostly this resulted in a sensitive approach to consultation and engagement, expression through place-making, and a deliberate connection and response to the landscape and environment. Unfortunately (understatement), the identification and use of these particular values did not remain untainted by the reconciliation movement.

Archi-famous Glenn Murcutt capitalised on what he quotes as "an Aboriginal proverb" (!): "touch the earth lightly". For this, among other things, Murcutt was heavily criticised by Kim Dovey (2000) who highlighted white man's "colonial imperative" to exploit Aboriginal culture as "symbolic capital" for the reconciliation machine. Dovey's writing screamed white ignorance and arrogance - even so, I agree with the over-arching observation: white, privileged designers are well equipped to exploit Aboriginal culture in architecture. (Just as white, privileged academics are well equipped to capitalise on white, privileged architects as they exploit Aboriginal culture).   

I digress. While at this time, and since, the archi-sphere has been distracted glorifying the work of Murcutt (and others), it has simultaneously ignored the thousands of Aboriginal families affected by the social housing crisis, living in over-crowded houses, with no running water, no flushing toilets. "Touch the earth lightly" was synonymous with "touch the conscience lightly". As the industry celebrates and awards hand-picked projects that benefit the 1% of the population who are privileged enough to benefit from so-called "good design", First Nations people continue to be out of sight/out of the mind of the architect.  

Beyond the housing and policy struggles that impact the lives of Aboriginal communities every day, let's take a moment to reflect on the disrespect that building development has shown for the land on which it has no right to destroy. Again, with reference to Murcutt (he is just too easy to pick on!), Dovey noted the contention when corporations (eg. BHP) supporting particular built projects (eg. Merika-Alderton house) are simultaneously destroying Aboriginal lands for access to resources - mining, logging. By all means, please, Institute of Architects, award white-privilege and exploitation, and the mindless destruction of Aboriginal lands.

And let us not forget the development companies, the architecture mega-firms, and the corporations, for accepting Indigenous architecture interns/cadets in the name of reconciliation - what an honourable role they play in teaching our young people that the only measure of success is the success of a white man - to design for the 1%, to damage Aboriginal lands, as they appease their conscience by giving a job to a blackfulla, and checking the box in their Reconciliation Action Plan confirming an increase in Indigenous employee numbers. Kudos to them all.

(A note to any young Aboriginal people who have unknowingly become a part of this system: get your experience, build up your skill set, and get out! Do not sacrifice your values as an Aboriginal person to fit in with the values of an award-winning [or any] design practice. Seek out a practice whose values align with yours, or start your own practice)

//Back on track//

As architects were becoming more conscious of their response to the landscape, a broader view of what constitutes "Aboriginal architecture" was expressed by Shaneen Fantin (2003) who noted the differences between tokenistic visual representations of identity as cultural branding, and a more ephemeral and respectful approach, which she refers to as "identity through occupation first, representation later". And what do we see here? A re-phrase of the modernist design principle:  function over form. The archi-gods above would be pleased.

The failure of the existing projects and discussion of "Aboriginal architecture", is the limited, white view that Aboriginal cultures are only relevant for "Aboriginal projects". Depressingly, this is an all too common perception: that reconciliation is an agitator for white people to assist black people to change, to assist black people to act white, to assimilate. That reconciliation is about black people and their problems. I quote Rosalie Kunoth-Monks: "I am not the problem". (Murcutt can add this to his list of Aboriginal proverbs).

The notion that Aboriginal cultures are only relevant to Aboriginal peoples not only perpetuates segregation, it dismisses the value within Aboriginal cultures to influence and better the way that all people learn and think, design and problem solve, live and experience, collaborate and interact. Above this, it dismisses the reality that Aboriginal cultures are relevant to all people on this land as Australia always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

Linda Kennedy1 Comment