Future Iindigeneity: Shared values in the built environment

28 May 2020

This article was originally published on Architecture AU, authored by Carroll Go-Sam.

Although still an emerging norm, the inclusion of Indigenous voices in architectural practice is finally occurring in Australia and around the world, enriching our built environment and challenging stereotypical views. In recognition of National Reconciliation Week, Carroll Go-Sam introduces her guest-edited dossier themed "Rights and Reclamations," which includes four upcoming essays that demonstrate how new approaches to design, agency and participation are securing the future of Indigeneity and reshaping architecture.

When I graduated in the late 1990s as the first Indigenous woman from Queensland to complete an architecture degree, the pace of Indigenous recognition in Australia seemed slow in comparison to international shifts. Renzo Piano Building Workshop had recently completed the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia (1998) and, at the time, Indigeneity in architecture was only contemplated as a fringe experience, riding a new wave of commodifying difference in cultural tourism. After Tjibaou, the shift from fringe to hyper-scaled centre began, moving us towards an inclusive future in which Indigenous rights in land and design were made possible. In Australia, Brambuk – the National Park and Cultural Centre in Victoria’s Grampians National Park – was struggling to meet the needs of state visitors on shoestring funding, but there were few opportunities to experience Indigenous cultures through the medium of architecture in urban centres. Indigenous culture and its more exotic features were easily marketable at remote sites such as Kuniya and Liru/Uluru-Kata Tjuta, but the vexed history of colonization was hotly avoided.

That was until 2001, when the National Museum of Australia unsettled the complacency by opening the First Australians Gallery and Garden of Australian Dreams. Still, the architects of buildings such as Brambuk – although sensitive to truths about our national identity – were not Indigenous. In 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian opened in Washington, DC, designed by Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal. Concurrently, Australia’s first Indigenous-led design unit, Merrima Design Group, was finding its stride. These were early steps toward Indigenous recognition, without a clear indication of whether these shifts would have ongoing momentum or be subsumed by competing agendas. So it was unimaginable that, a decade and a half later, architects would be advocating for Indigenous sovereign rights to land and seriously contemplating the implications for the planning and design sectors. At the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2019 National Architecture Conference, Collective Agency, there was a call for architecture to reconfigure its relationship with Indigenous knowledge, not only by necessity but also as a means of enriching the built environment. Indigeneity is now firmly on the agenda.

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