Noonga Public artwork
WSP worked with Perth Artist Drew Straker to integrate his ‘neon’ street art style with local Noongar themes. Also pictured: Noongar artist Yondee Shane Hansen's Shield.

Yuin man Michael Hromek says he’s got his dream job. He works as the technical executive of Indigenous design at WSP, a multinational engineering and design firm that specialises in infrastructure, buildings, and sustainability, and says it’s been steadily working towards a vision that includes Aboriginal design in all its work.

Hromek says the company’s Canadian roots account for its progressive aspirations towards working with their own Indigenous peoples, the Inuit. 

In Australia, the company subscribes to the highest level of Reconciliation Action Plan, Elevate. It’s largely because of the work that Hromek does in bringing First Nations communities to the table before a project begins. His role sits across all their projects and he helps to guide their consultations with Aboriginal people and design inclusion.

The project he’s currently working on is a car park in Western Sydney. It’s Dharug country, and Hromek is working with Dharug artist Shane Smithers on designing an artwork that will be a part of the façade.

The inclusion of the artwork is acknowledgement and recognition of the generations of people who live in the Dharug region of Western Sydney. It’s work that also aligns with Hromek’s studies. He is completing a PhD in Architecture at the University of Technology in Sydney that focuses on Indigenous methodologies and investigating how that has been incorporated in the inner city suburb of Redfern, especially at The Block. 

Hromek tells The Fifth Estate that this involves “looking at The Block from a spatial perspective; how they plan The Block, past present and future, [through] the Pemulwuy project. The key questions around that what are urban Aboriginal values? How do they differ from traditional values and how does that relate to space in Redfern?

“What are urban Indigenous spatial values and how do we use those to plan?”  

In his professional work, it’s a larger planning scale to bridge the gap between the academic environment and Aboriginal design principles. WSP’s projects are Aboriginal community led and appropriately designed, based on the work of another recognised Victorian Aboriginal architect from Deakin University, Wailwan and Gamillaraay man Jefa Greenaway via his Indigenous Design Charter (Charter).  

The charter contains 10 principles and Hromek has distilled those into three for practical implementation in projects.

“We’re going to have Aboriginal led projects that involve community, workshops and then we’re going design this infrastructure or this building to fit the three principles. It’s country design, over individual honouring country. Part of country is understanding what that constitutes, its history and how it has changed, over time,” Hromek says.

He cites Bill Gammage and Yuin man, Bruce Pascoe, as examples of that recognition in the landscape. He says we need to understand that all projects are on Aboriginal land.  That land has a history, and a group of people, Aboriginal people, who are hyper aware of what’s happening to it.

As an example, his uncle does cultural tours of Mount Gulaga on the south coast of NSW.  Every time he tells tourists about his mob’s sacred sites that have been destroyed by infrastructure like roads.  

Hromek says if they did a consultation they could have easily avoided that destruction of sacred sites or special places with histories and stories that have been associated with them for 2000 generations of families or 60,000 plus years. 

Solving this is simple, if you are planning with country and get community input you avoid these problems. If you move this road a little bit or go around there, there’d be no problem. He acknowledges that since colonisation much of the mismanagement of Australian lands and the tensions between white Australians and the Aboriginal traditional owners was due to access to property, the ability to care for it, nurture it and its resources ,especially water.

Karrum Karrum Urban Marker and yarning circle which contains community designed and endoresed Boonwurrung / Bunurong markings in the concrete which signify Bunjil and Waa.

His latest project is the “special activation precinct” in Moree. It’s aimed at activating regional Australia, especially around the NSW Inland rail. He’s been talking to the Gomeroi people, the Uncles and Elders, about how to ensure the infrastructure works well for their community too. Not doing it right has big implications for their communities.

The Fifth Estate asked Hromek, why should other Australians care? He believes that we’re all connected to a place because we live here, despite where you are born and the history of Aboriginal people is shared by all of us, as it is the Australian history of a site.

In his experience, it’s evident that Australians, especially thinking Australians, influencers, leaders in sustainability and young Australians, are all interested in ensuring our land is healthy for us to continue to thrive. They’re seeking out this information more and more.  It’s knowledge that is held by Aboriginal Australians and can be shared for the benefit of all.

Nancia Guivarra is a Meriam (Magaram clan), Wuthathi and Bindal Juru woman with a Bachelor of Applied Science (UQ) and a Graduate Diploma of Arts in Journalism (UTS).  She is a multi-media writer, producer and director who works independently through her company Amneris Pty Ltd.  Her experience includes more than 20 years at the ABC at Radio National and ABC Local Radio and Factual TV, as a producer of Deadly Sounds for Vibe Australia and as a senior journalist at NITV News and Current Affairs at SBS.

This article is part of a series on Indigenous businesses and was produced with the support of the City of Sydney.

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