Practices, processes and politics of Indigenous place-making – Paul Walker reports on the recent symposium.
Melbourne likes to tout its multicultural credentials, the Greek precincts of Lonsdale Street or Oakleigh, Vietnamese Victoria Street and Springvale, the Italian heritage of Carlton; the waxing or waning diversity of Dandenong, Brunswick and Footscray. The pride in this mix – manifest in street festivals, food tourism, Lygon Street’s Piazza Italia, municipal urban decor in Footscray and Chinatown, and in The Travellers, the vast kinetic sculpture by Nadim Karam installed on the Sandridge Bridge to celebrate the city’s migrant communities – barely registers any active Indigenous presence in Australia’s second largest city. The traces of Indigenous Melbourne are there, but they are scattered and aestheticized, museumized or overtly presented as heritage.
Practices, Processes and Politics of Indigenous Place-making was organized to address this gap. The symposium was hosted by Janet McGaw and Anoma Pieris of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne as part of an Australian Research Council Linkage research project focused on the prospect of an Indigenous cultural centre for Melbourne. It was preceded the previous evening by a well-attended Melbourne Conversation at BMW Edge where some of the symposium’s speakers presented to a public audience. Pieris and McGaw’s partners in the research are the Melbourne City Council, Reconciliation Victoria, and the Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group. Officials from the city who attended did little more than listen. Rather, the key interaction both at the symposium and the “conversation” was between representatives of the Indigenous community looking for ways to initiate a cultural centre in the city and those advocating that architecture should play a significant role in this.
Greg Burgess spoke at both events about his experiences in working with traditional owners in Victoria and elsewhere in Australia, most notably on the Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre in the Grampians. Brambuk and his design for the Uluru–Kata Tjuta centre hung in the air, so to speak, throughout the symposium, tacitly the exemplars of an MAKINGarchitecture that transcends the “building with boomerangs on the wall” that traditional owner representative Gary Murray wants a new cultural centre in Melbourne to avoid. Burgess’s discussion of Brambuk focused on the emergence of its design as a collaborative process, and one that was transformative for him as a designer. But despite the well-deserved regard that Burgess clearly enjoys among many in the Indigenous community, Brambuk is problematic for some. Murray, a member of various agencies and boards active in promoting the rights of traditional owners in Victoria and acknowledged at the symposium to have initiated the current moves for an Indigenous cultural centre for Melbourne, noted that Brambuk’s location on crown land meant that it was not owned by the community whose culture it is meant to sustain. In a presentation pointedly called “We Don’t Dream” Carroll Go-Sam, an architect and researcher at the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre at the University of Queensland, offered as a counter example to the overt zoomorphism of the Burgess buildings a recent design for an Indigenous centre at Musgrave Park in Brisbane by architect Richard Kirk – rather than prioritizing the representation in built form of the cultures it is intended to accommodate, its aesthetic austerity came from their other, more straightforward community needs.
Like Burgess and Go-Sam, many other speakers in the symposium reflected on the process of negotiation in the course of successfully developing a design and delivering a building that works for its community. Emmanuel Kasarherou, director of the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, was explicit about the value of ongoing collaboration between architects and the communities which such a centre is intended to serve. He set out the complex story of cultural politics in New Caledonia in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the assassination of Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou in 1989. The centre that was subsequently initiated under his name has taken as a principal institutional ethos Tjibaou’s own belief that Kanak identity was not to be found in the past but rather to be established by engaging with the present and the future. Aligned with this, Kasarherou believes that the success of the Tjibaou Centre was achieved through working with the best available professional skills, both to hone the mission of the centre and to develop its design; the significant resources made available to realize the project meant that these skills could be drawn from anywhere in the world. What Renzo Piano Building Workshop brought to the project after winning the international design competition for the Tjibaou in 1991 was not only its considerable technical and aesthetic inventiveness but also an ability to collaborate with and learn from representatives of Kanak communities. This led, for example, to the decision to change the entry to the centre so that it would be off-axis, a more culturally appropriate approach.
Kasarherou’s testimonial to the value of Piano’s input in shaping Tjibaou’s success no doubt pleased the architects in the symposium audience. Lisa Findley, another of the international keynotes at the event, underwrote Kasarherou’s point with her presentation of several other recent “cultural centres” whose construction coincided with moments of political change and empowerment. But despite her judicious words about consultation and participation, Findley’s slides of, for example, the Norwegian Sami Parliament building designed by Stein Halvorsen and Christian Sundby, kept their focus on architecture in a conventional, highly aestheticized manner.
Two presentations by architects closely identified with their own Indigenous communities pointed to the complexity and possible opportunities in being both indigene and architect. Dillon Kombumerri of Merrima showed several of that group’s accomplished designs, but framed his polished presentation in terms that emphasized the absolute priority for Indigenous designers of their country and the needs and wishes of their community over the individual’s own authorial position as designer. Rewi Thompson prefaced his lively survey of his own career by explaining the ubiquity of “indigenous place-making” in contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand: rather than being confined to the “cultural centre”, the marae – the key collective space for Maori – is found everywhere now from schools, to prisons and government offices. And as demonstrated in Thompson’s own design from his student days for a marae for Ngati Poneke EVENTin Wellington, the forms of marae need not be prescriptively related to tradition. While Thompson’s presentation of his work certainly demonstrated that he had carved out a role as a distinguished designer in his own right, the framework of obligation under which he sometimes finds himself working is akin to that delineated by Kombumerri. Thompson explained the rebuilding of the Rangiatea church in Otaki in these terms: the historic building attacked by arson in 1995 has been rebuilt as an exact replica with Thompson’s participation because this is what the local Maori community determined should occur.
Perhaps amplifying these points from Thompson’s and Kombumerri’s presentations, one view that gained support from some symposium attendees was that the planning and making of an Indigenous cultural centre in Melbourne should be used as an opportunity to further develop the creative and professional capacities already established or nascent in Victoria’s Indigenous communities – or, for that matter, among traditional owners living in Melbourne but from other parts of Australia. In Murray’s opening remarks to the symposium, he asked the question “Where is the space of traditional owners in this state and in the city of Melbourne?” Making a lively and compelling physical space must also open up spaces of opportunity in the city’s professional, intellectual and commercial worlds. Practices, processes and politics of Indigenous place-making, then, will involve thinking inventively not only about design in such place-making, but also about the relationship between designers and the communities for whom they work.
Paul Walker is associate professor and deputy dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne.