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9 projects and people celebrating First Nations culture through design

Here we present 9 projects and designers leading us towards a culturally informed future that puts caring for Country and connection to Country and First Nations culture at the centre of both practice and outcome.

9 projects and people celebrating First Nations culture through design

Darebin Intercultural Centre by Sibling Architecture in consultation with Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Traditional Owners, photo by Peter Bennetts.

Exponentially increasing the authenticity of the design narrative, First Nations architects, designers, consultants, Elders and clients, are refocusing the scope of architecturally inclusive outcomes.

A key driver for contemporary design has been the welcoming of community, whether with motif, colour palette or inclusion of song and cultural platforms. Effectively, the desire is to create a place that emotionally shelters as a safe and nurturing zone where all are made comfortable.

Designers such as Bernadette Hardy and Jacob Nash are leading lights in the industry, while collectives such as AKIN are simply extraordinary. Groups, whether design-led, such as RMIT’s Yulendj Weelam Lab, or taking the form of artist communities such as Willie Weston, are creating incredible work that is authentic to both First Nations visual art and cultural representation.

Within non-indigenous practice, consultation with community and in particular Elders is increasingly seen and understood as a privilege with Connection to Country an earned honour that underpins and supports projects of note.

Here we present 9 examples – and exemplars – leading Australian architecture and design towards a culturally informed future that puts caring for and connection to Country and First Nations culture at the centre of both practice and outcome.

1. Cannemegal (Dharug) and Gamilaraay spatial designer and cultural researcher Bernadette Hardy of hardyhardy

Indigenous ceremony with Bernadette Hardy (right) at Pymble Ladies’ College boarding house dormitory.

Bernadette Hardy (nee Bellwood) is a Cannemegal (Dharug) and Gamilaraay spatial designer and cultural researcher, leveraging her cultural knowledge to change the way we think about architecture. For Hardy, imposing narratives, have their place, but for many environments, these must give way to cocooning experiences: “Design and architecture have that ability to change human behaviour, but it is coming from Country and guiding us, not being guided by the human-centric design,” says Hardy. 

Indigenous ceremony with Bernadette Hardy (left) at Pymble Ladies’ College boarding house dormitory.

“Sometimes you have to be ready to find certain pieces of your life that are corner pieces,” says Hardy whose hardyhardy design partnership is breaking boundaries across government and commercial projects, education, urban, retail and public space design. “We have such human-centric systems and processes, but there is so much more that we are connected to in land, in sky, in water and it teaches us so much,” she says.

2. McGregor Coxall and RMIT’s Yulendj Weelam Lab partnership

This three-year design research partnership launched by McGregor Coxall (an interdisciplinary design firm) and RMIT’s Yulendj Weelam Lab (a design research lab from RMIT’s School of Architecture and Urban Design) is embarking on a mission to transform Australia’s built environment by weaving in First Nations wisdom, embracing sustainable practices, and fostering a sense of belonging.

The two design houses have announced a pioneering collaboration that aims to redefine the landscape of architectural design. In a commitment to First Nations reconciliation, the collaboration seeks to explore how the harmony of academia, Indigenous knowledge holders, and design practitioners can construct an architectural future that sincerely recognises, engages with, and upholds Australia’s First Nations people and culture.

3. AKIN at Barangaroo, Sydney

The AKIN team comprising YerrabinginArchitectusJacob Nash StudioStudio Chris Fox and Flying Fish Blue, with Arup as engineering consultants, have been announced as the winning design for Harbour Park at Sydney’s Barangaroo. AKIN, a First Nations-led design, will cover the 1.85 hectares of open space with a “regenerated natural retreat in the heart of the city”.

At the core of the project is the aim to create a timeless landscape notable for its extensive planting, canopy cover, waterways and ponds. Harbour Park is set to include nature play aimed at all ages and abilities with features such as shallow water pools, meandering pathways and interactive water works. 

4. Heidi Yaluk Langa (River’s Edge) project

Heide Museum of Modern Art and Urban Initiatives undertook Heidi Yaluk Langa (River’s Edge) together in consultation with the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation (WWCHAC). “We have the Heide site with its straight boundaries, but the land sits on Wurundjeri Country. As well intentioned as the idea of landscape restoration might be, real restoration to the ‘pre-Colonial landscape’, which was in truth highly managed, is simply not possible without Traditional Owner collaboration” says Katherine Rekaris, then-senior landscape architect at Urban Initiatives.

Smoking Ceremony.

The process of consultation between Urban Initiatives and the WWCHAC was organic in that layers of knowledge have been introduced as needed. Three Elders, Aunty Julianne Axford, Aunty Gail Smith and Uncle Dave Wandin, were brought into the process. This cultural aspect has been key to the collaboration, ephemerally and culturally enriching the project as well as providing a platform of knowledge sharing and engagement within the Wurundjeri. 

5. Product Collection by Autex Acoustics with Willie Weston

This collection from Autex Acoustics in collaboration with Willie Weston unites First Nations stories, designs and creativity with cutting-edge acoustic solutions. Through partnerships with First Nations-owned art centres, Willie Weston provides meaningful income for artists, often living in remote places. From communities in the Tiwi Islands, Central Arnhem Land, Kimberley, Central Australia and Daly River regions, the artists in Willie Weston’s collections represent diverse and unique elements of First Nations art practice.

Locally manufactured, ethically sourced and entirely carbon-neutral, the collection features designs from eight artists in 21 colourways. Printed onto Autex Acoustics Cube™ and Quietspace® Panel for superior durability, long-term stability and acoustic performance, the range enables specifiers to integrate First Nations designs into a wider variety of project.

6. Darebin Intercultural Centre by Sibling Architecture in consultation with Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Traditional Owners

Approaching the project with an acute awareness of the colonial connotations of the original building with its classical language of tympana, pilasters and prominent columns by the entry points, Sibling has embraced the community feedback to deliver a safe and fostering space. “For us, it was about creating spaces that are safe and welcoming for the diverse community that the centre needs to accommodate. We made a deliberate choice to be quite culturally agnostic,” explains Nicholas Braun, co-founder at Sibling and project architect for Darebin.

“We were dealing with an old heritage building that was quite closed off and colonial. When we went through our consultation with different community groups, including Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Traditional Owners, some of the feedback was that the spaces felt culturally unsafe,” he adds. Photos by Peter Bennetts.

7. Prague Quadrennial by Jacob Nash and University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts students

Australia marks an historic first, with an Indigenous-led exhibition selected to represent Australia at the esteemed Prague Quadrennial. Orchestrated by creative luminary Jacob Nash, former head designer at Bangarra Dance Theatre, and students from the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).

Known for his ability to weave potent narratives from his connection to Country and First Nations identity, Nash brings his distinctive design sensibility to the Exhibition of Countries and Regions. One of Australia’s most sought-after stage designers, Nash was recently appointed as the inaugural creative artist-in-residence at the Sydney Festival.

Jo Briscoe, senior lecturer in design at the VCA and curator of the Australian exhibitions at the Prague Quadrennial, likens the festival to “the Olympics of stage design”. In a year of historic firsts, Australia’s Indigenous-led representation signifies a milestone in the country’s cultural and artistic journey.

8. Warren and Mahoney Melbourne Studio by Warren and Mahoney in association with Greenaway Architects

Warren and Mahoney’s Whare Timu with Greenaway Architects’ Jefa Greenaway have woven a tri-cultural narrative that speaks to Warren and Mahoney’s vision for the future of design.

As a company founded in New Zealand, and operating in Australia for over a decade it was essential the new Melbourne premises represent all aspects of the practices cultural placemaking. “The new studio at 380 Collins Street is our second Melbourne home. We recognised an important opportunity to acknowledge our New Zealand provenance and proudly reflect the influence Māori culture has had on the nation’s society as a whole – and also on our outlook as an organisation,” says Daryl Maguire, Warren and Mahoney.

“We equally wanted to express our respect for the First Nations culture of Australia that inspires and influences our work here and will play an integral role in our future projects,” says Maguire. Photos by Shannon McGrath winner of The Photographer – Residential, presented by Image Makers Association, at INDE.Awards 2023.

9. Wurun Senior Campus by GHD Design and Grimshaw, working with the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung community

Winner of the 2023 INDE.Awards’ Learning Space category partnered by Autex Acoustics, Wurun Senior Campus by GHD Design and Grimshaw features terraces in the sky and dynamic learning neighbourhoods that turn the vertical school model outside-in. The design highlights the importance of community and fostering social opportunities, whether these take place in the breakout spaces, student dining area, or on the three vertically stacked sports courts – one of which is on the rooftop.

Situated right on the street, with no setback, the whole ground level is designed for after-hours use by visitors. “It’s very Fitzroy in that sense,” says Paul Thatcher, GHD Design director of architecture, and education and science leader (Australia). “We also worked really closely with the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung community to develop artworks and interpretative elements that are woven throughout the building.

It was important to acknowledge this aspect of community by ensuring that Country was respected.” The outcome is nothing short of dynamic and most importantly it welcomes students and prioritises them, setting a new precedent for school campus design, vertical or otherwise. Photos by Trevor Mein.

We think you might like this article about the winners of INDE.Awards 2023.

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