Australia’s First Builders

Aboriginal Architecture Past and Present

In fact, there are even a few Aboriginal dwellings in Australia with stones still in place thousands of years after they were constructed. Nowadays, Aboriginal architects are making new contributions to the built environment through a range of world-class designs reflecting the heritage and culture of Australia’s first builders.

Traditional Indigenous Structures

The belief that Aborigines lacked permanent buildings dates back to Europeans’ earliest contact with indigenous populations, when the newcomers’ cultural assumptions led them to misinterpret Aboriginal ways of life. Labelling Aboriginal communities as nomadic also helped early settlers justify the takeover of traditional lands by claiming that they were not inhabited by permanent residents.

Placing all Aboriginal architecture in one catch-all category is problematic, as Indigenous dwellings varied greatly. Shelters were constructed to meet the varying needs of each community and took many factors into consideration including lifestyle, social organisation, family size, local climate, and available building materials. For instance, stone was a key building material in cold south eastern regions. Whale bones made sturdy frames for dwellings in southern coastal regions. Dome shelters with mud and grass waterproofing were erected in the Lake Eyre region, while, in the western desert, tree limbs were used for shelter frames and spinifex for cladding.

As is still the case with today’s discerning homeowner, interior decorating was important. In Tasmania, for example, homes were lined with paperbark and feathers and interior walls boasted geometric interpretations of humans, animals and birds.

Dome shaped dwellings were commonly constructed throughout the continent, both as temporary shelters and permanent dwellings for annual base camps. Large-span structures of this type could be surprisingly large. A single unit might house several family groups or include waterproof passages connecting multiple dwellings. Fan palms, cycad palms, wild banana plants, melaleuca bark, and a variety of grasses were commonly used for thatching. Dome houses in Queensland’s rainforest were constructed out of cane and were sturdy enough to hold up against the elements for a year or longer, while dome dwellings clad with spinifex or hummock grass were commonly used as permanent camps in Western Australia.

Indigenous architecture also utilised stone engineering. Some of the most complex examples of Aboriginal stone structures come from Western Victoria’s Gunditjmara people and date back thousands of years. These builders took full advantage of their natural environment by utilising the abundance of basalt rocks around Lake Condah to erect sturdy houses as well as a complicated eel trapping system of stone weirs, traps, and gates in local creeks and ponds. The lava-stone homes found in this region are the only remaining permanent houses built by an Indigenous community in Australia and were included in the National Heritage List in 2005 as part of the Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape.

Evidence of sophisticated stone engineering has been found in other parts of the country as well. As late as 1894, a group of around 500 people still lived in houses near Bessibelle that were constructed out of stone with sod cladding on a timber-framed dome. Nineteenth Century observers also reported flat slab slate-type stone housing in South Australia’s north-east corner. These dome-shaped homes were built on heavy limbs and used clay to fill in the gaps. In New South Wales’ Warringah area, stone shelters were constructed in an elongated egg shape and packed with clay to keep the interior dry. In western Victoria, Aboriginal people built houses with circular stone walls over a metre high and topped them with a dome roof made of earth or sod cladding.

After European arrival, Aboriginal builders continued to utilise the materials readily available within their environment for homebuilding. And, although the available materials had changed, the ingenuity and practicality involved in using them did not. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 19th and 20th century camp settlements that sprang up around the outskirts of many towns. Forced to make do with whatever they could find nearby, residents found clever uses for trash and scraps. The “humpies,” or homes, in these camps were often fashioned out of bark, kerosene tins, bits of wood, bags, and corrugated iron sheeting. Floors were simply made of packed earth and sometimes covered with scraps of carpet. Over the decades, each town camp developed its own distinctive style of architecture. Residents of the Wilcannia town camps, for example, often added a haphazard blend of interconnected rooms onto their original single-room home. The overall layout of the structures in the town camps reflected that of traditional aboriginal communities, where dwellings were arranged for outdoor living and interaction between neighbours.

Aboriginal Architecture Today

Currently, there are only around 12 registered Indigenous architects nationwide. Some of these pioneering minds have made bold contributions to Australia’s built environment with structures that incorporate Indigenous cultural references and symbolism in eye-catching fusions of modernity and tradition. Other Indigenous architects choose to avoid iconic representations of their heritage, instead forging a new path through which to address identity and design. Regardless of the approach, architecture remains an important venue through which to explore and celebrate Aboriginal identity.

Andrew Lane became Queensland’s first Indigenous registered architect in 2005 and has already left a substantial mark on the industry, particularly in delivering housing and infrastructure to remote communities. Mr Lane was first employed by the Queensland Department of Housing in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing section, then by the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs where he designed the Yuendumu Art Centre. At present, his work centres around planning housing projects in small communities throughout Queensland, Torres Strait, Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia.

Dillon Kombumerri, an Aboriginal descendant of Queensland’s Yugembir nation, launched Merrima Design within Sydney’s Department of Public Works in 1995. The first of its kind, Merrima Design strives to design public buildings in rural areas that properly address Indigenous needs and desires. This objective is more complicated to achieve than one might assume, however. With multiple Indigenous communities involved in a single building project, one community’s icons and symbols cannot be given preference over another’s. This question of inclusion and exclusion is particularly significant in Aboriginal culture because depictions of Ancestral Beings can denote custodianship over a location, granting the represented community more rights to the building than other groups. In response, recent Merrima Design projects have focused more on including Aboriginal people in decisions that affect their environment rather than on incorporating particular symbols and cultural references into designs. Another key strategy has been to use building projects to create jobs and training opportunities for Aboriginal peoples.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous architects, often in collaboration with Aboriginal communities, have designed a number of notable buildings that interpret Indigenous heritage in startlingly different ways. Woodhead International designed Western Australia’s Karijini National Park Visitors Centre in the shape of a goanna to represent totemic symbols of local Aboriginal peoples. The Brambuk Living Cultural Centre, designed by Gregory Burgess in collaboration with the local Aboriginal community, utilises an undulating roofline to reflect the surrounding landscape while simultaneously mimicking the shape of a cockatoo, the Djab wurrung’s and Jardwadjali’s totemic symbol. The Merrima Design Group’s Wilcannia Health Services project in New South Wales captures the traditional layouts of Aboriginal camps by emphasising external spaces and incorporating large, open areas in which people may gather. Indigenous architect Carroll Go-Sam created the Shroud House residential property as an innovative fusion between Dyirrbal symbols and contemporary architecture.

Contemporary Aboriginal-inspired designs are quickly gaining widespread recognition throughout the architecture world. Indeed, these structures reflect a rich history spanning thousands of years. They also remind us that Australia’s built environment did not begin with the arrival of Europeans. From wonderfully simple dome shelters to complex stone engineering, traditional indigenous architecture offers an often overlooked cornucopia of ancient knowledge, skill, and ingenuity.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 18, 2021, 9:31 PM AEDT