As shapers of our built environment, architects are in a unique position to incorporate First Nations culture into the world around us and reflect the true history of the land buildings occupy.

This could range from incorporating significant colours or story elements into building designs, to creating employment and learning opportunities, to advocating on national policy issues.

However, architecture studios make up just a small proportion of the roughly 650 Australian companies with a Reconciliation Action Plan, representing a missed opportunity in terms of moving reconciliation forward.

To help mark last week’s National Reconciliation Week, the Association of Consulting Architects along with consultants The Fulcrum Agency, hosted a webinar to discuss and help rectify the discrepancy.

Panellists included Christine Dernee from Reconciliation Australia, Rosina Di Maria from Woods Bagot, Tamara Veltre of Breathe Architecture, The Fulcrum Agency’s Emma Brain and RAP consultant Viviana Sacchero. 

Reflect

The RAP program is designed as a framework for organisations to contribute to the process of reconciliation and falls into four main categories — Reflect, Elevate, Stretch and Innovate.

Recently national architecture firm Hames Sharley partnered with Whadjuk man Brendan Moore from the Yunga Foundation to implement its first RAP – Reflect –  which involves listening and developing relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders.

“By engaging Traditional Owners we can ensure that any new developments reflect our stories; stories from one of the world’s oldest civilisations that date back tens of thousands of years. At the very least, this incredible history has to be acknowledged,” Moore said.

We always started the conversation with talking about shelter and water and let the conversation evolve from there; the discussion would lead to talking about fire, shade, the stars and the moon, plant life and how people inhabit space

A comparably larger firm Woods Bagot, also recently implemented a RAP and found community consultation to be a critical step in the process, followed by creating a “roadmap” to ensure the company paid more than lip service to the reconciliation movement

Di Maria explained that the company had consulted with Aboriginal groups and individuals as well as other organisations that had implemented a RAP, and the company was in the final stages of translating that knowledge into policy.

Viviana Sacchero acts as project manager for the implementation of RAPS across five different organisations including Breathe Architecture, and said that her first step was to arrange an introduction to a First Nations Elder to involve them in the process.

“I think the big piece, what we’re actually trying to achieve with RAP, is to contextualise your practice or your organisation within the 60 thousand plus year history of this country,” Sacchero said.

Putting plans into action

Associate at Hames Sharley, Ryan Dunham has worked on several projects in Western Australia and the Northern Territory where he sought to incorporate Aboriginal history and culture into the designs. Moore, who is working with the company on the RAP explained there were many ways to do this.

“Perhaps it’s a site where the Bibbulmun – the Noongar people – lived, who made their houses out of Melaleuca bark; in which case the shades of grey, white and brown of the paperbark might influence the colour scheme of the building,” he said.

“Perhaps it’s a site where the Bibbulmun – the Noongar people – lived, who made their houses out of Melaleuca bark; in which case the shades of grey, white and brown of the paperbark might influence the colour scheme of the building,”

“Or perhaps it was a traditional fishing spot, where the shimmering silver of the fish and the shiny green-black colours of the crow could be used to enhance the design.”

For Optus Stadium in WA, Moore helped facilitate the design elements around the exterior that represent Noongar Community stories, while in Yagan Square, the inclusion of tracks acknowledge how the area was once used as a food source and meeting place.

“Whether it’s the shape of the design or the colours that are used or even the materials chosen – it’s about understanding the significance of that site and finding a way to tell its stories. Rather than simply erecting signs which can fade or get broken over time, if you build the culture of the story into the design itself, then it’s there for life.”

On the recent, Home in East Newman project, Dunham worked with Nyiyaparli Traditional Owners and Martu Custodians of the land in WA to guide his design.

“What I found interesting was that we always started the conversation with talking about shelter and water and let the conversation evolve from there; the discussion would lead to talking about fire, shade, the stars and the moon, plant life and how people inhabit space.

“Considerations around the importance of the outdoor spaces first and the indoor spaces second, approaching design with this order in mind – was completely opposite to how traditional architecture may be considered, but it made so much more sense and the outcome was richer for it.”

On the larger scale, developer Lendlease is in the process of implementing their third consecutive RAP into national strategy with a focus on elevating First Nations voices through employment and consultation and investing in partnerships that preserve language and culture.

The company also acts as a national advocate on issues such as constitutional recognition and incarceration rates.

Reconciliation Australia Christine Dernee urged companies to work to their own scale and implement strategies and projects that are unique to them.

“I always encourage organisations to take a strength-based approach to their RAP. We have those with five employees and those with 50,000 employees, so the impact those organisations can have will vary substantially,” she said.

She encouraged all organisations to reach out to Reconciliation Australia to help craft a strategy that works for them.