The Aboriginal narrative offers keys to resilience thinking for our built environment

By Ros Moriarty, Balarinji Managing Director as published in EcoVoice


Australian Aboriginal culture is phenomenally resilient. Aboriginal people have successfully sustained life on our fragile ancient continent for 60,000+ years. Aboriginal knowhow has much to say about sustainable construction.

'The Lost City' by Tim Moriarty

New, exciting revelations are showing Aboriginal people were not only hunters and gatherers but also sustainable agriculturalists. A re-consideration of primary sources from early colonial settlers and academic commentary over many decades proposes they were also effective land managers. Aboriginal people sustained crops uniquely suited to Australian conditions, farmed species like kangaroo and fish, and created processing and storage technologies.


In his book Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe proposes Aboriginal people had clear design and building principles which provided shelter and safety from the environmental conditions they adapted to. He says what is critical is how they used the materials provided by Country. He notes Aboriginal people in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria created large, domed, grass-covered shelters. These structures were adapted so the wet season could be survived in comfort, and so insects could be repelled by having a small, smokey fire within.


Aboriginal people have a deep and interconnected relationship with the physical and spiritual elements of Country. Their lives are entirely integrated with the places where they belong, where language, culture, knowledge, Law, and Ceremony are interdependent and one with Country. A change in one of these elements affects all the others.


This deep knowledge and respect for Country, developed over centuries and passed down through generations, informs the patterns of daily life, for instance, food and water availability, when to plant and cultivate crops, where to reside at different times of the year, when it is time for Ceremony or gatherings, and the materials that are utilised for tools, building and artifacts.


A central pillar of Aboriginal culture is collective responsibility for sustaining Country for generations to come. Caring for, and sustaining Country involves a complex biodiverse system that has been managed for tens of thousands of years within cultural rules and protocols. Country is more than nature, it is Dreaming, an all-embracing concept from the Aboriginal worldview which has no European equivalent. Regeneration is at its heart.


Margo Neale

Adjunct Professor Margo Neale, Head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges, Senior Indigenous Curator and Principal Advisor to the Director at the National Museum of Australia, who is of Aboriginal and Irish descent and a member of the Kulin and Gumbaynggirr nations, says in her newly acclaimed book Songlines: The Power and Promise, “Everything starts and ends with Country in the Aboriginal worldview. Yet there are no endings in this worldview, nor are there any beginnings. Time and Place are infinite and everywhere. Everything is part of a continuum, an endless flow of life and ideas emanating from Country, which some refer to as the Dreaming. In the Dreaming, as in Country, there is no separation between the animate and the inanimate. Everything is living - people, animals, plants, earth, water and air. We speak of Sea, Land and Sky Country. Creator ancestors created the Country and its interface, the Dreaming. In turn, Dreaming speaks for Country which holds the law and knowledge. Country has Dreaming. Country is Dreaming. It is this oneness of all things that explains how and why Aboriginal knowledges belong to an integrated system of learning.”


Gadigal Elder, Ray Davison, says in the National Museum Australia-curated, Warrane exhibition video at Macquarie Group’s Martin Place Sydney headquarters, “We all have one mother and that is Mother Earth and Mother Earth knows each and every one of us, and she loves us all equally, it doesn’t matter who we are, where we come from, we’re all part of the same and we’re all loved the same. So regardless of whether we’ve been here (in Australia) for 10,000 years, one year, or a new child born today, if you’re born on Country, then you are part of Country. Now because of that, each and every one of us has an obligation to care for Country, to make sure that Country is taken care of so she can then take care of us.”


Canada’s Two Row Architect is a welcome example of a First Nations firm that lives by Ray Davison’s principles. Two Row is realigning mainstream ways of incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing, being, design and architecture. In all their projects they have a seven generations outlook representing their beliefs, planning, and processes, with all their projects working to preserve natural resources on sites to ensure they are available for generations to come.


Closer to home is best practice from Kaunitz Yeung Architecture who spent three months living in the Ngaanyatjarra region, consulting with specific stakeholders and community members when designing the Wanarn Clinic in Western Australia. Community-ownership was paramount for this project, as was taking into consideration local environmental conditions. Situated in the desert, the clinic has to resist high temperatures and dusty conditions. Local knowledge guided many elements of the building, including the choice of local stone which decreased dust infiltration, the orientation of the building, and the placement of outdoor waiting areas.


However, it is still more common to see Aboriginal elements integrated into precincts of art installations or in Aboriginal-influenced landscape design than in built form. There are very few architectural examples that have been deeply informed by the Aboriginal worldview, as it has rarely been considered relevant or important for contemporary urban developments.


'Iron Cliffs' by Tim Moriarty

Yet, the philosophies of Aboriginal society, culture, and wellbeing, including the importance of family, and the principles of living close to, and looking after, Country, have great potential to influence how Australian designers, architects, and builders think about climate, sustainability, and the intimacy of built form. The Indigenous protocol of collective obligations to care for Country in proximity to adjacent cultural boundaries fits agglomeration’s central premise of cooperation. Urban thinking shaped by Country is a cultural driver of biophilic design. These are ancient ways of being that focus a new lens on resilience planning.


The Aboriginal worldview on spirituality, science, cosmology, and ecology is an original frame of creativity for architects, designers, and builders to explore. This knowledge cannot be taken in theoretically or without collaboration, deep engagement, and co-design with locally connected Aboriginal stakeholders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people rightly expect an evolution away from typical approaches to integrating Aboriginal culture and knowledge into built projects. For instance, the ‘shallow’ solution of installing Aboriginal artwork that is unrelated to a place in a completed project or the ‘exploratory’ approach (still the most common on public projects) of “show us your stories and images, and we’ll bring you what we’ve done for approval”.


Instead, we need to move to a co-design methodology that is based on deep engagement with Indigenous stakeholders and community-endorsed creative practitioners local to place. Then we can activate authentic voice to draw out knowledge, protocols, history, culture and the contemporary stories of Aboriginal communities, for co-designed interpretation from the beginning to the end of projects.


The question is, which developers, urban planners and architects - and their clients - are ready to embrace this vanguard moment of transformational sustainability thinking in Australia?


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