[+] Designing with Country Gains Ground


A growing number of developers are learning how to engage Indigenous voices to bring a deeper level to projects—and to avoid cultural faux pas.

Known as Designing with Country, developers want to ensure that First Nation insights form part of the design and development process well before the first sod is turned.

Designing with Country aims to reset the balance between Indigenous, colonial and migrant histories, and bring a First Nations’ perspective to sustainable design.

While perhaps not quite mainstream as yet, it’s a concept making its way into key development projects around Australia.

The consultation process has several aims, including to improve the health and wellbeing of Country to reduce the impact of natural events such as fire, drought and flooding through more sustainable practices.

It also aims to show value and respect to Aboriginal cultural knowledge and to ensure Country is cared for appropriately. Ensuring sensitive sites are protected so that Aboriginal people can have access to their homelands is also a part of the process.

A number of architecture firms are winning projects from developers after demonstrating their knowledge and understanding in this space.

▲ The Atlassian project in Sydney, designed by BVN. Main image: the Kimberwalli Centre for Excellence, a place of empowerment for Aboriginal youth in western Sydney, also designed by BVN.

Firms such as BVN, HDR, Hassell, SJB and Distinctive number among them.

Indigenous architect Kevin O’Brien, of BVN, led the Designing with Country strategy for the Atlassian project.

The firm also went through the process for the design of Powerhouse Parramatta, which was proposed to be built on Darug Country in the most diverse multi-cultural populations in the nation.

The $50-million Office of Environment and Heritage NSW in Kurnell also incorporated a strong Designing with Country consultation process.

When releasing the plans in 2018, Neeson Murcutt Architects said: “Design cannot heal the impact of 250 years of occupation, but it can provide a platform for diverse cultures and dialogue.”  

Greg Kitson, a Wakka Wakka man and Brisbane Black, is completing a PhD at the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University. His research explains that the concept of Country is not only a common noun but also a proper noun.

“People talk about Country is the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to Country, sing to Country, visit Country, feel sorry for Country, and long for Country. People say that Country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care is sorry or happy.”

▲ The Powerhouse Parramatta by architects Moreau Kusunoki and Genton.

The NSW government has been sharing tools and strategies to assist Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities share knowledge about places with a shared cultural and heritage significance.

It has released a draft framework to help developers and architects understand the value of Aboriginal knowledge in the design and planning of places.

It outlines that constant change requires us to continuously reimagine our way of living and think about renewal, and change requires leadership and willingness to challenge business-as-usual practices within government.

The draft framework continues to be ‘tested’ across the sector through case studies and further research. The next steps will be to refine the framework and test it with Aboriginal Communities to ensure it supports their aspirations.

However, leading architects, Indigenous designers and creatives told attendees of The Urban Developer’s Urbanity 2022 conference that embedding and weaving Indigenous design principles through our cities will be challenging. The event was held in August.

While there has been an emergence of Indigenous design principles, there is a greater need to engage with First Nations people to tell the story of Country in cityscapes, Burundi Design Studio’s Theresa Bower says.

Meanwhile, HDR director Jacqui Straesser reveals she has been fielding a growing number of enquiries related to Designing with Country. She has been working on government projects for five years and has been part of pilot programs that introduce the concept to key stakeholders in new developments.  

▲ The UTS IRC is proposed at the University of Technology’s Haymarket precinct and is considered to be Australia’s first home away from home for Indigenous people studying in the heart of Sydney. Designed by BVN.

While a framework exists, basic knowledge about how to implement Designing with Country into a new project is lacking, she says.

“It’s mandatory for our industry to understand the cultural component as part of our professional development,” Straesser says.

“We’re a multicultural society, and we need to create a unity around our history and how we articulate that.

“We’re starting to see a few projects that have got a Country response, but it would be good to see more consulting with Aboriginal user groups when driving design. To handle this properly, developers need to go back to understanding Aboriginal people’s relationship to Country as a starting point.”

She urged developers to explore the importance of a more harmonious approach to projects.

“I think a lot of developers have fought back against this approach as it isn’t mandatory, but what would be good to see is that people are doing it because they can see the benefit in it, even though it’s going to cost more money. It doesn’t need to cost a lot more money, but the benefits are significant.”

Designing with Country

Seven design objectives that define the key considerations in the design of the built environment

Better fit: contextual, local and of its place

Better performance: sustainable, adaptable and durable

Better for community: inclusive, connected and diverse

Better for people: safe, comfortable and liveable

Better working: functional, efficient and fit for purpose

Better value: creating and adding value

Better look and feel: engaging, inviting and attractive

^ Source: NSW government, Better Placed

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Article originally posted at: https://www.theurbandeveloper.com/articles/designing-with-country-architecture-development-built-environment-australia-first-nations