Aboriginal Architecture: How universities are making Indigenous voices heard

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For too long Australia’s architectural landscape has been missing the acknowledgement of a history of Indigenous architecture.

By Emma Richards 

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For a long time, Australia’s rich and fascinating history has been ignored, whitewashed, and disregarded by invading forces who didn’t appreciate or understand the complex beauty of the continent’s Aboriginal communities.

While the last decades have brought a slow and sometimes painful acknowledgment of crimes of the past, Indigenous culture has had an uphill battle to have its place recognised in all walks of life. The field of architecture and design is no different.

For too long, Australia’s architectural landscape has been missing the acknowledgement of a rich history of Indigenous architecture.

Across the country, buildings from housing to hospitals have been designed to cater to the functional and aesthetic needs of Anglo Australians, but failing to incorporate the influences of Australia’s First Nation people.


While change has been decades in the making, it is finally starting to happen, and the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are finally being reflected in the built environment around them.

Universities have been a driving force behind this progress through both research into the subject and by embracing the design on their own campuses.

One of the first to raise awareness was the University of Queensland (UQ) who built the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre (AERC) – a research and teaching centre based in UQ’s School of Architecture. The centre aims to increase awareness of culturally appropriate architecture for Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

Their mission started back in the 70s with the establishment of the Aboriginal Data Archive. Since then the AERC has worked to educate and reform government agencies and fellow architects to make them aware of culturally appropriate design and the positive impacts it has on society.

UQ’s Professor Paul Memmott has dedicated his career to researching how architecture can work to fit the Indigenous lifestyle and culture. According to UQ’s website, it was his work that first brought the term “Aboriginal Architecture” to the profession’s attention.

According to Memmott, as the architectural profession’s understanding of the term grows, the change is significantly contributing to Indigenous communities “attaining their rightful place in the architectural and social history of the nation.”


But it’s not a one size fits all. There are over 500 different clan groups or “nations” around the continent, many with distinctive cultures, beliefs and languages.

“We also have to remember that all over Australia, Aboriginal cultures vary from region to region, so what might suit somebody in Inala or West End might be quite different to what would suit somebody in Alice Springs,” says Memmott.

The University of Melbourne appreciates this distinction and has made efforts to ensure their new student precinct reflects the culture of the tribe local to the region.

The precinct has been informed by a “holistic design philosophy which centres on the core tenants of people, purpose and place, which anchor the project to the site’s deep history and connectedness to Kulin Nation culture.”

As Lecturer in Architecture and Knowledge Broker at the university, Jefa Greenaway, says the precinct project “embeds reconciliation at scale”. It seeks to raise the bar and interrogate the question of how Indigenous culture can become embedded as part of the DNA of a project.

Greenaway points out that the design goes beyond the tokenistic “low hanging fruit of surface treatment or plonk art” that you see in many designs trying to claim Indigenous culturally sensitivity. It instead is more immersive and has explored ideas codesigned by Aboriginal voices.

The Kulin Nation have lived on the land around the university for over 60,000 years. A sustaining food source for the tribe was the annual eel migration that made its way up from the bay and local along creeks before finally reaching the Yarra River, which flows through the heart of modern-day Melbourne.

While the creeks and waterways have since been covered over by development, designers discovered piped watercourses underneath the campus in which the eel migration continues to this very day, uninterrupted throughout the millennia.

This connection from past to present, from aboriginal community to bustling Melbourne, became the narrative that tied the design together.

University of Melbourne planned Student Precinct.

“The weaving together of these stories seeks to reiterate the university’s unstinting commitment to reconciliation reflected in deeds and design,” says Greenaway, who also works in Indigenous Curriculum Development at Melbourne.

The Indigenous engagement strategy, supported by Greenshoot Consulting, was what drove the direction of the design. The Indigenous-led initiative created a “culturally responsive design practice” which placed the Aboriginal voice at the centre of the mission.

The result is one that does justice to the beautiful culture and makes a welcoming home for Melbourne University students. As Greenaway say:

“The impact and importance of the New Student Precinct is an exemplar project that fosters Indigenous agency, the evocative power of Indigenous design thinking and a collaborative model that wholly normalises, embraces and celebrates a shared connection to Country.”