The Tenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2008
Berkeley Prize 2008

Sonya Redman

Shaping identity and ‘place’ in Australian Indigenous housing

The history of Australian Indigenous housing is a history that has real relevance in Australian government policy. In the two hundred years since colonisation, colonial, state and Commonwealth governments have taken a series of initiatives to impose social behaviour and cultural expression on Australian Indigenous people which bore no relation to their own social organisation or aspiration. Not until 1967 were Indigenous people granted voting rights; and not until 1992 that the High Court formally recognised Indigenous people’s laws and spiritual connections with their ancestral land (Mabo case). Western notions of private property have been forced on Indigenous people who traditionally took a communal view of space and place. Forced western notions of township and ‘nuclear family’ households have eroded the web of social relations indigenous kinships possess. Dispossession of land and resettlement in colonial housing necessitated a settled way of life, facilitated assimilation and caused destabilisation of culture. From the earliest times, “a cottage inhabited by an Indigenous family was less a shelter than an instrument of management and control” (Read, 2000) that diminished Indigenous sociality and identity.

Today, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) and the new Federal Government link Indigenous housing issues to poverty, employment and access to services including education, health and community building. The Inquiry into ‘Stolen Children’ (HREOC, 1997) highlights the sociocultural, socio-economic and structural barriers still facing Indigenous people. It concludes that Indigenous people often lack the rights stipulated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which identify the right to housing as fundamental to Indigenous self-determination (HREOC, 1999). The Northern Territory Minister for Housing described the plight of Indigenous housing to be “defeating us – and will continue to do so unless radical changes are enacted. Even on absurdly conservative projections, in 33 years time at current construction rates we would still be lagging unmet demand by 16 years. …You can tick every box: health, education, training, employment, community harmony, substance abuse, violence, criminal behaviour. With all our best efforts and despite great financial outlays, without decent housing our chances of solving these problems are likely to be largely futile.” (McAdam, 2006) Fortunately, the recently elected Federal Government has taken strides towards “bridging the gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In February 2008, Federal Parliament formally apologised to Australian Indigenous people for injustices imposed upon them by past government policy. The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs has since announced a AUD$1.6 billion investment into Indigenous housing, as well as an Indigenous Housing Summit where new housing strategies and options will be explored (Macklin, 2008).

The Australian political landscape is ripe for progress and willing to address Indigenous housing’s challenges. The problem is no longer academic or historical but a modern, topical issue of paramount social relevance. It is a special time for architecture students to contribute to a national initiative and participate in enhancing social justice through architecture.

Uncovering a lost sense of ‘place’ Architects and social scientists have long since understood the detrimental relationship between western concepts of town planning and Indigenous concepts of kinship, social hierarchy and boundary in Indigenous communities. Missionary settlements and modern suburbs designed and created by state and commonwealth authorities for Indigenous people have used ‘nuclear’ family housing models. Many indigenous households require more than two bedroom houses to accommodate an extended family. The cultural ideal of “house-as-home” or “house as a symbol of self” (Cooper, 1976) is not a part of Indigenous cultural paradigms. Western housing comprised of contiguous spaces/rooms, each with specific functions that satisfy the physical and social needs of a nuclear family, is a relatively new experience for many Indigenous Australians (AHURI No. 98, 2007).

Qualities non-Indigenous Australians associate with the home, like the possessor of memories, special events and personal histories are connected to dwellings. Traditional Indigenous people were not connected to dwellings, but rather to the sites on which they stood. Shelters lasted a season, but sites were occupied again and again (Read, 2000).

This traditional relationship between site, culture and identity, has, for many Indigenous people, been destroyed. Connections have been broken partly through government legislation. From 1869 to 1969 Indigenous children were removed from their families for integration into white society. Those affected by this policy are known as the ‘stolen generations’. In 1937 the Australian Commonwealth and State governments openly adopted a national assimilation policy that intentionally promoted the gradual disappearance of the Indigenous culture and race. It was not until 1967 that Indigenous people were given formal identity or legal rights through suffrage. It is plain that government policy has fundamentally shaped the cultural identity of Indigenous Australia today.

Largely as a result of these policies Indigenous people have emerged as a group whose identity, sense of place and memories are blurred between traditional indigenous and western influences. Many Indigenous people retain a preference for living in flexible, mixed-use spaces inside a house, under a verandah, in the space surrounding a house (the yard), and in the open spaces between houses. The cultural complexities of indigenous cultures require “all aspects of the physical environment, including the social, cultural and environmental attributes of places” not only dwellings but also open space and infrastructure to be considered in relation to the design of dwellings (AHURI No. 76, 2005).

Competition challenge One of the most important skills architects have is the ability to create ‘place’ using the built environment. ‘Place’ is what gives an otherwise inanimate object a living relationship with people. Peter Stutchbury says “‘place’ isn't identifying the characteristics of a mountain or a soil. It is identifying more the spirit of what things are of that particular place and … finding a balance that exists there.” How can Indigenous ‘place’ be found? Only through open communication with Indigenous Australia. Can architects and architecture students help define ‘place’ for today’s Indigenous people in a way that reflects a new type of identity and cultural association? Yes.

This design competition will realise the identity, culture and spirit of new Indigenous ‘places’. It will be achieved through examination and interpretation of Australian Indigenous housing aspirations by consultative, collaborative and cultural investigation. The competition methodology of interviewing Indigenous clients, group discussion and producing a number of models for client review promotes an opportunity for Indigenous people to participate in design direction and decision-making (Barron & Gauntlett 2001).

This process also provides students and architects with a forum to challenge their cultural and spatial paradigms by interpreting another’s; and a chance to reflect on how one’s preconceptions and ingrained architectural understanding can limit another’s opportunities for “access to self-determination, empowerment and social transformation” (AHURI No. 29, 2003).

This design competition hopes to encourage students’ understanding of the power architecture has on not only the built environment, but the social and cultural issues that surround the lives that inhabit them. Students will learn to identify and understand patterns in the built environment that may detrimentally impose on people from a different cultural or social disposition. This competition will compel students to break, manipulate and invert mainstream architectural and urban design concepts and adopt an open, uninhibited mindset.

The real impact for the competition The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) have a rich research body on Indigenous housing. The Institute has undertaken qualitative and quantitative case studies on Indigenous housing in Western Australia, South Australian and the Northern Territory (AHURI, 2000, No.76). Unfortunately, little has been done in the state of New South Wales (NSW).

Australia is comprised of many Indigenous nations. Research findings in other states are not always applicable to the NSW context. This competition’s consultation and investigation requirement will provide empirical evidence and tangible conclusions of current community needs and their views on identity. This will in turn contribute to the foundation of housing policy reform in NSW. One case study, on its own, may lead to a misrepresentation of needs and aspirations. Two case studies can form comparisons. Three case studies may lead to unsupported generalisations. For meaningful outcomes, a vast body of work is required. A pool of empirical evidence that legitimately reflects the Indigenous collective conscious is essential to address housing with weight.

The first real impact of this design competition is its valuable contribution to New South Wales’ limited pool of Indigenous housing case studies. The competition will require students to present findings informed by Indigenous clients to local government, the National Indigenous Housing Summit and housing bodies such as Shelter, Healthhabitat, Coalition of Aboriginal Agencies, Aboriginal Land Council and the Aboriginal Housing Office. As case studies accumulate, a manifestation of today’s Indigenous sense of ‘place’ can be articulated to bring about systemic change nationally.

An important outcome is the opportunity for students to turn their minds to issues of gender in Indigenous housing. Female students are only able to interview female clients and vice versa for males. The motive behind grouping students in same sex pairs is because there is little research on Indigenous women, specific age groups and housing. These issues need to be treated carefully. The past has shown Indigenous women’s issues treated with mockery and disrespect (Ngarrindjeri women, South Australian Hindmarsh Island Bridge case, 1994). It is important that this competition utilities its potential to advance the importance of special gender needs in Indigenous housing through documentation and responsive architectural means.

Undoubtedly, the competition will have considerable challenges. Some clients may not be able to verbally articulate their ideas of ‘place’ or where they feel comfort. In these circumstances students should be encouraged to think deeply about the messages and words that are being expressed and interpret them with sensitivity. Identifying ‘place’ will require reasoning, empathy and careful listening.

Past approaches have had minimal success. The challenge posed by Indigenous housing is equally an opportunity to make long-lasting, meaningful social change. This design competition is an opportunity to impact students on their powerful role in Indigenous social justice and social sustainability. It will provide students with experience, in understanding cultural and social needs and heighten political awareness through its interactive approach. Without education and guidance on how students can affect social and political change there remains an all too real possibility that this generation and those to come will not fulfil their professional responsibility of enhancing the built environment for those whose voices are often unheard.

Competition details

1. Client

The clients are an Indigenous kinship or community group from mid west, west or north coast of New South Wales.

2. Competition aim

To develop a series of models and a design document brief reflecting current notions of Indigenous ‘place’ and identity. ‘Place’ may be where a kinship live together, it may be a dwelling type, a special site, or a time of day. Clients may envisage ‘place’ in other parts of the country, or perceive it as employment pursuits. These ideas will be collated and presented to local government and relevant peak associations to contribute to the national body of Indigenous housing knowledge.

3. Competition schedule and format

Students from architecture, landscape architecture, urban design and town planning disciplines may compete. 60 students in 30 pairs.

Three weeks from 9am – 5pm during winter holiday period (July) Prerequisite readings and recommended film list will be provided.

Students are to undertake a variety of tasks including: (a) Literature review and group discussion; and (b) Client consultation and interviewing; and (c) Group discussion and analysis of empirical evidence discovered from client consultation and interviews; and (d) Documentation and evaluation of interview findings into a brief format; and (e) Model making and graphic representation. Tasks will be combined, revisited and layered to enable a holistic and refined design outcome.

4. Competition activities, student structure and required skills

Task (a) Prior readings include AHURI “Best practice models for effective consultation: towards improving built environment outcomes for remote Indigenous communities” (AHURI No.76, 2005). Discussion, coaching and mock interviews will take place to ensure quality consultation. Task (b) Students in same sex pairs will interview client pairs of the same gender. This arrangement is to ensure issues relating to spatial arrangement and gender are seriously recognised. The clients will represent a cross-section of the Indigenous community (elders, youth, unemployed etc).

Task (c) Text and/or drawing to display students’ interview findings. Patterns, anomalies and differences will then be traced across the kinship as a group. In pairs, and later as a group, students must identify patterns amongst the vast amount of information uncovered through interviews and draw out possible areas for further investigation. Task (d) Students are to employ documentation skills to write and draw conclusions from the data. Collaborative documentation may be helpful where clients have similar concepts of ‘place’ and identity.

Task (e) requires: i) comprehension of client needs and aspirations; and ii) culturally, socially and gender informed spatial arrangements between, around and within dwellings and site. The models can be made in pairs or individually; with annotated drawings and diagrams; together with oral presentation. An additional component of a large scale abstract or realistic representation of a ‘special’ quality of space, material or component that typifies their clients’ phenomenology. Models will be used because three dimensional representations are clearer for the clients. Tasks are to be combined, revisited and repeated during the design refinement process.

5. Final presentation format

• Individual brief document: interview record, issues uncovered, analysis and conclusions with reasoning. • Group brief document: each student pair will contribute their client pair’s document. Overall conclusions across the kinship will be done as a group in this document. • Individual or pair esquisse and final models at 1:50/1:100/1:200 and made out of any material. • One abstract or realistic representation of a special ‘place’ quality. • One A0 panel (portrait) using standardised layout – hand or computer drawing.

6. Jurors

Paul Pholeros - architect with extensive Indigenous housing experience and Director of Healthhabitat Dr Helen Ross - extensive expertise in Indigenous housing research Andrew Lane – Indigenous architect with experience in small community housing projects like Wujal Wujal Mornington Island Dr Mark Moran - town planner with expertise in Indigenous participatory planning, and inclusive community governance

7. Evaluation criteria of entries

Does the student meet the aim? Did the student conduct appropriate and sound interviewing skills (seek clarification from client/supervisor) How well does the student articulate patterns identified in interview stage? Demonstrated understanding and ability to look at new ways designing for unique issues/needs of Indigenous housing Final presentation – graphic presentation, model work

8. Nominated faculty member

Maryam Gusheh: School of Architecture Design Convener, UNSW.


Barron, L. & Gauntlett, E. (2001) “A Model for Social Sustainability: Working Paper” WA: WACOSS. Brennan J, Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1 at paragraph 35. Charlesworth, E. et al, (2007) “Flexible guidelines for the design of remote Indigenous community housing” No. 98, Melbourne: AHURI. Cooper, C. (1976) “The house as symbol of the self, in “Environmental Psychology: People and Their Environmental Settings”, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, (1997) “Bringing Them Home” Sydney: Sterling Press; (1999) “Bush Talks” Canberra: HREOC. Lee, G. & Morris, D. (2005) “Best practice models for effective consultation: towards improving built environment outcomes for remote Indigenous communities” No.76, Melbourne: AHURI. McAdam, E. (2006) “Our house is in order”. Parliamentary Statement on Indigenous Housing, Parliament of the Northern Territory, Darwin: February. Macklin, J. (2008) “Bridging the gap”. The National Press Club, ABC, Canberra: 26 February. Read, P. (ed.) (2000) “Settlement: A History of Australian Indigenous Housing”. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press at ix, x.

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Sonya Redman, University of New South Wales, Australia
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