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The opportunity to move beyond tokenism with Indigenous-led design

Jefa Greenaway

Reconciliation Week stimulates many conversations around the relationship between Australia’s First Nations and newer cultures but few more important for the built environment than those that offer opportunities to learn from and prioritise Indigenous-led approaches to design and planning.

Wailwan and Gamilaraay architect, interior designer, lecturer and knowledge broker Jefa Greenaway is director of Greenaway Architects and chair at Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria (IADV).

There’s a simple reason, he says, why Aboriginal-led design should matter to those working in the development and design areas. It’s about how we connect to “this place”, how we connect to the deep history and memory of this place and also how we achieve a distinctive design ethos that is thoroughly of this place.

“Design in the globalised context homogenises everything,” Greenaway says.

Indigenous-led approaches recognise that 65,000 or more years of knowledge has “tangible value”.

There is a need to “build a sense of visibility” about the culture and its knowledge in the built environment and public realm. This can also include acknowledgement of the recent history of dispossession and colonial conflict.

koorie heritage trust

Koorie Heritage Trust image: Peter Bennett

Greenaway says there is now a “level of maturity” in our society that we can have that conversation in a meaningful way.

When Indigenous design sense takes the lead, we also see outcomes that present the culture with “authenticity and gravitas”.

This can reshape our sense of who we are, and where we are.

“Hanging a boomerang or a painting doesn’t cut it,” Greenaway says.

Instead, projects can start to embed Indigenous culture as a narrative, part of the DNA of a project, rather than an “appliqué”.

It can activate design to engage with people and their stories so we can all connect more deeply with place.

A growing voice

Greenaway says there is an emerging cohort of Aboriginal designers, architects and others who are “starting to have a voice” in how our built environment is shaped.

For broader change, it is “beholden on institutions, government and corporates to see the value and benefit, rather than tick a box”.

The outcome is “everybody benefits”, and there is a “richer design response”.

There are already some exemplar projects, such as Ngarara Place at RMIT University, which Greenaway worked on.

In Melbourne, a memorial showcasing the frontier wars, the Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner public marker by Brook Andrew and Trent Walter, is a “powerful mechanism” for change in how the stories of history are told and understood.

Tunnerminnerwait and Mauboyheener Marke

Tunnerminnerwait and Mauboyheener Marker, photo: Jefa Greenaway

Designing for Indigenous people

When it comes to design for Indigenous people on the domestic scale, Greenaway says design has to understand how movement happens in the space.

He delivered the guiding design principles for a large number of properties that have been given over to Aboriginal Housing Victoria in Melbourne. The principles will ensure design is culturally responsive.

Using the Indigenous lens means design acknowledges identity and culture, people’s experience and the situation of a site in relation to the community and country.

These things need to be articulated, he says.

Greenaway says that hybrid models and blended models – combining Indigenous and non-Indigenous approaches – can challenge the existing “simplistic” models.

“Good design practitioners think about the environment, and efficient systems and construction,” he says.

But this is about going deeper.

For example, from an Indigenous perspective, exterior spaces are as important as interior ones.

“It is about centring people as the driver for the solution,” he says.

Rather than designing from the envelope inwards, design should be “from the inside out”.

Ngarara Place; Image, Peter Casamento

Sustainability isn’t a word, it’s a no-brainer

Greenaway points out that “sustainability isn’t even a word in our culture”.

“It is a no brainer that you look after what we have.”

He says the whole check-the-box approach “misses the point”.

There needs to be a holistic approach to design, and looking after what we have should be the starting point.

It should align with concepts like caring for Country. Greenaway says the scar tree is emblematic of the whole concept. Someone who wants to make a canoe doesn’t cut the tree down, they just take the bark they need. The tree continues to provide shelter and habitat and perhaps also sustenance for people.

“These concepts are deeply ingrained.”

Our built environment should celebrate that understanding.

There are also knowledge systems that can be shared. Greenaway says an example is burning practices, where the Aboriginal practices of cool burning are increasingly recognised as a better approach for the land than the hot fire approach.

Moving beyond artefacts

In some cases, artefacts have been seen as the be-all and end-all of engaging with Aboriginal culture, but we need to move beyond that, he says.

In terms of how projects are delivered that means going beyond the traditional transactional approach to creating ongoing relationships between people and place.

This approach can also start to build capacity in Aboriginal communities. When project proponents empower communities, for example by setting up pathways for training and employment or enacting Indigenous procurement, they create a positive legacy.

This can also change the culture of the organisations involved.

Having Indigenous practitioners and designers involved in the process from initial stages is the key.

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Comments

4 Responses to “The opportunity to move beyond tokenism with Indigenous-led design”

  • warri oviedo says:

    definitely a fascinating and challenging and important field of innovation and reconciliation. Bless up all indigenous brother and sisters! I have some photographic pieces which fit these themes to a fn tee!

  • Matt Williams says:

    Great article, love that there can be an authentic and innovative way to embrace indigenous learning in design.

  • Nicholas Loder says:

    Indeed! Willow and Jefa – really appreciate this forthright assessment. Tokenism is patronising and painful.

  • dominique hes says:

    Thanks for this Jefa, Willow and the Fifth Estate this is such an important topic, how to be authentic, mindful and listening to the wisdom of the past. Not to privilege it, but to realise there is 40,000+years to learn from on how to care for this land. Australia can lead the world in meeting this challenge and really develop a modern custodianship for place, a love of place, a deep connection which means we all have a chance to thrive.

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