untitled (Maraong Manaóuwi) by Sydney-based Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones at the Hyde Park Barracks.

First Nations communities have cared for Country since time immemorial. Embedded within this care has always been an understanding of connection, obligation, and respect. 

One of the most compelling ideas is that Country exists all around us and is much more than landscape, plants and animals. As Dr Danièle Hromek describes:

“…Country means much more than land…(it) includes not only land but also skies and waters. Country incorporates both the tangible and the intangible… People are part of Country, and our identity is derived in a large way in relation to Country.”

Country is thus everything and all things, now, the past and future. We are Country, we remake Country and Country adapts, responds and sometimes rejects interventions. 

First Nations communities know this, and thus caring for Country is not simply about caring for plants or certain animals, but caring for all things simultaneously. 

When people talk about Country it is spoken of like a person: we speak to Country, we sing to Country, we worry about Country and we long for Country.

Common Ground First Nations Connection to Country

This is a profoundly different world view from western thought, and its simplicity and complexity underpins much of my current “unlearning” of architecture and the built environment.

Increasingly, architects are being asked to “consider Country” as part of various government commitments to embed First Nations voices in the built environment. 

At its worst, in many projects, this translates to simply talking to First Nations representatives – and more often – informing them of what is about to happen. A slightly better scenario might involve dialogue or the opportunity to contribute to artwork, the landscape or other elements not yet set in stone by the development team. 

The system of delivering the built environment is multilayered and resistant to change. What can non-Indigenous practitioners do to challenge this emerging status quo and move beyond engagement to agency? 

A component of our current practice when working in partnership with Indigenous consultants is as an intermediary between developers and Indigenous communities. Our work is increasingly attempting to acknowledge the impact of construction on Country, and the opportunities of care when re-shaping it. 

Building is an extractive process and the language of construction can be violent – we “cut and fill” when we re-shape and re-form Country. Our language also reveals the value we place on the sites we work within; describing as “spoil” material removed and unnecessary to the project at hand. 

People working in the built environment are well versed in considering the movement of materials through a lens of decarbonisation and environmental responsibility (for instance the notions of ‘embodied energy’); but rarely consider the impact to Country of excavation, shifting raw materials from one location to another, exposing buried Country to sunlight, or reshaping a site’s natural contours. 

Consider, by contrast, an archeological dig or the methodical peeling back of paint on a colonial terrace in the Rocks in Sydney. Yes, there is a disruptive process, but material is treated with reverence and care. Perhaps it’s time to rethink our treatment of the materials used to build our cities and infrastructure. 

In First Nations communities re-shaping Country was always done with the utmost care. Adapting Country or even moving elements of Country for trade or other purposes was done with deep consideration and sometimes ceremony. 

Shaping Country for systems like fish trapping acknowledged the context and eco-system and was designed carefully to ensure maintenance of fish stocks into the future. Likewise, a deeper consideration of geology can inform not only an understanding of structural responses but also the history of place in once supporting livelihoods (e.g. rich soils), as markers of geological time and Indigenous occupation and care. These things can be revealed, learned about, considered and indeed, cared for on any building site.

A tentative first step could be to develop a register to chart the movement and relocation of materials from one Country to another. 

The register would allow materials to be tracked and charted, allowing us to more easily acknowledge the impact on Country whenever we build. It might provide an opportunity for communities to mark the movement of earth from one Country to another through ceremony. 

Think of Jonathan Jones’ evocative work, untitled (maraong manaóuwi) at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks and the respectful seeking of permissions by the artist to move gravel from Wiradjuri Country to Gadigal Country for the installation.

The register could also provide a pathway for recompense and reconciliation with Traditional Custodians. For instance, recompense could be paid to the Country’s custodians from where the materials came, not unlike other credit or offset schemes.  It could also be facilitated by First Nations communities themselves, providing for economic agency.

I often think about the relationship between Country and custodianship, in particular the Western concept of owning land versus the Indigenous notion of caring for it. 

Reframing our relationship to materials from one of ownership to custodianship creates opportunities to make a deeper connection to the way we build and the way we think about place. 

Repositioning practice around concepts of care requires us to view places as more than something to be reshaped but as something that can reveal a cultural landscape. The “chain of custody” approach (as in the timber industry) will require us to be more aware of our actions and create opportunities for self-reflection before we ‘cast our ideas in stone’.

This awareness at the very least may mean Country is no longer a distant concept, far removed from where we live and work; it’s on the ground and in the sky, on the second floor of a roof terrace and in the basement. We are all beings with Country itself. 

A Country register, moving from acknowledgement to compensation, may be one of the first tangible and actionable steps that built environment professionals could take on the pathway of care.

Kieran Wong, TheFulcrum.Agency

Kieran Wong is a co-founder and Principal at The Fulcrum.Agency, a Perth-based creative consultancy that leverages community and social outcomes through evidence-based design strategy, advocacy and research. More by Kieran Wong, TheFulcrum.Agency

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