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Book Club

Design: Building on Country
In Conversation with Alison Page and Paul Memmott
06.12.22

Book Club is an opportunity for design discourse – news, views and reviews from the world of publishing in conversation with our favourite design authors, commentators and provocateurs.

Alison Page is a Walbanga and Wadi Wadi woman, whose career in design and film production links Indigenous stories and traditional knowledge with contemporary design. She is the Chair of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence and a director of the National Australia Day Council.

Paul Memmott AO is a descendent of Scottish potters and painters. Paul has worked as an architect, anthropologist and agent for change with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia for more than 50 years.

Alison and Paul are members of the Australian Institute of Architects’ First Nations Advisory Working Group and Cultural Reference Panel. They are also the authors of Design: Building on Country, the second title in the First Knowledges six-book series. Design: Building on Country reflects on the cultural nature of Aboriginal design, based in the Dreaming and in ancient practices grounded in Country. It analyses how Aboriginal design principles are now being applied to contemporary practices, and advocates for a new Australian design ethos that responds to the essence of Country and its people.

NHO Founder and Director, Neil Hugh Kenna, recently sat down with Alison and Paul to discuss Design: Building on Country. This is their conversation.

NHK: Hi Alison and Paul. Thanks for discussing Design: Building on Country – a book that reinforces the significance of Country and our ecological responsibility to care for it. Given your areas of expertise in Aboriginal and Western disciplines, what were your motivations for writing the book and how did the process transpire?

PM: We were both invited to write and co-author this book as the second in The First Knowledges series produced by Thames and Hudson. Their publishing agent, Sally Heath, contacted each of us separately and asked if we would feel comfortable working with one another. We both expressed an enthusiasm to collaborate, drawing on a long-established deep mutual respect that we held for one another, despite not ever having worked on any specific project together in the past.

Design: Building on Country is the second contribution to the First Knowledges series, the first being Songlines by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly, and another three having followed ours so far, with each involving an Indigenous and a non-Indigenous co-author. This mix worked well in our case as we creatively bounced our writing ideas off one another, mutually stimulating and binding us into a creative team. Sally had imposed a very short timeline of about 3 or 4 months and our writing rate accelerated towards the finishing line driven by our commitment to one another.

But we were equally driven by our commitment to and passion for our defined subject matter which encompassed the key topics of the spiritual nature of Country, Aboriginal place-making and geography, the properties of materials, architectural, engineering and artefact design, and the contemporary application of the old traditions to design.

In hindsight, we are proud of what we achieved. Feedback from readers has affirmed it is an easily accessible and motivating read for the thinking person, regardless of their training, vocation, or knowledge of First Nations cultures.

AP: At the same time our publisher, Sally, was looking to kick off the book series, I had been making films about traditional knowledges and how this brand of science could inform the future of Australia. I had invited a group of knowledge keepers including Paul to the National Museum of Australia for a yarn and most of those people in that room are now authors in the First Knowledges book series. For me, writing this book with Paul was satisfying in that it came at a time when the architecture and planning industry was grappling with new regulations to integrate ‘Country-centred’ design into projects. We were able to address this question by synthesising our collective philosophies about Aboriginal design thinking from decades of work. But it is an ongoing conversation really. My ultimate aim is to bring the films, the books, podcasts and exhibitions together so that we have a platform for a continual dialogue about traditional knowledges in Australia.

“For me, writing this book with Paul was satisfying in that it came at a time when the architecture and planning industry was grappling with new regulations to integrate ‘Country-centred’ design into projects. We were able to address this question by synthesising our collective philosophies about Aboriginal design thinking from decades of work.” – Alison Page

Alison Page, Author.
Portrait courtesy of Thames & Hudson.

Paul Memmott, Author.
Portrait courtesy of Thames & Hudson.

NHK: In the book’s introduction, the Series Editor, Margo Neile, suggests: ‘In the Aboriginal worldview, everything starts and ends with Country. Yet there are no beginnings in this worldview, nor are there any endings. Everything is part of a continuum, an endless flow of life and ideas emanating from Country, which is often referred to as the Dreaming.” The Dreaming ancestors are said to have left traces of their energies and presence in the landscape, when Country was ‘soft’. How can an understanding of the Dreaming heighten designers’ connection with nature?

PM: A critical aspect of the nature of the Dreaming is that according to the ancient belief system, the entire continent contained these creation sites, now commonly referred to as sacred sites, and most importantly the energies that were left in them were believed to be perpetual energies. One of my old teachers referred to them as ‘generators’, meaning they are always quietly humming with creative potential. The energy in each site is that of the Ancestral Being who created it. So the Kangaroo Man left behind kangaroo creative energy or life cells as some people refer to it. The Yam Woman left behind yam reproductive energies. The Rain People left behind rainmaking energies. They also left rituals or ceremonies in various regions as to how humans could influence the reproduction of the particular species from its site. Humans were thus left with the ritual means to maintain the fertility of species and thereby maintain the ecological balance of the environment. An understanding of this belief system should therefore encourage a designer to get advice on whether local traditional custodians have knowledge of such sites in the vicinity of an urban or building development, and even if they don’t, gauging a likelihood they exist through a reading of the Country. Designers should at least avoid building over and protect such sites, and at best celebrate their presence through referencing their design process and outcomes with the guidance and approval of the local custodians.

AP: Yes, that engagement piece is critical; to understand Country – a city or a town – as part of a cultural landscape that has residual energies that are part of a bigger system, informing how we live, our social mores, and how to care for Country. Only the traditional owners can speak for that Country. But in philosophical terms, it is important to understand this holistic order and its coherence with nature when you are sitting at a table to discuss the redevelopment of a site in the centre of Sydney, for example. It is critical to understand how you can amplify and protect ancient dreaming tracks, also referred to as songlines, that are as much a part of the fabric of Australia as a mountain or a building. The added dimensions in modern Australia is that you are dealing with high levels of ecological damage, retrofitting these ancient songlines in urban developments and finding innovative ways to increase and protect species of animals and plants.

I am currently working on the redevelopment of a coal power station at White Bay near Balmain in Sydney and we are creating a public domain that will work daily to create a new songline for the site and care for Country. We are flooding the parkland with the high tide and cleaning it with saltmarsh so that the water of this working port can be cleaned twice a day. Further to that, we are creating motels for endangered seahorses and looking at creating a water songline so that people on their morning walk along the bay can engage in this place being an ‘increase site’ for white’s seahorse, or hippocampus whitei – a place where the species can proliferate. Once we create an annual festival of the seahorse, which will activate the site through ceremony, we can feel as though we have at least tried to reconcile the deeply spiritual philosophy behind the Dreaming with the challenges of urban developments.

White Bay, New South Wales.
Photography courtesy of City Hub Sydney.

“Designers should at least avoid building over and protect such sites, and at best celebrate their presence through referencing their design process and outcomes with the guidance and approval of the local custodians.” – Paul Memmott

NHK: In ‘Placemaking in Country,’ Paul, you define Australian Aboriginal Architecture as “a selected, arranged and constructed configuration of environmental properties, both natural and artificial, in and around one or more activity spaces, combined with patterns of behavioural rules and meanings, to result in human comfort and quality of lifestyle.” What can these design principles teach contemporary architects and designers, particularly in responding sensitively to place?

PM: What these design principles can teach is that in the design of places, sensitivities to the local Country and ecology should be paramount, and making safe and comfortable places should also be a goal. This requires close attention to behavioural patterns and creating environmental infrastructure that supports such patterns. Or alternatively, environmental design that can accommodate a range of human behaviours if diverse behaviours are anticipated – this is called affordance in design by some analysts. Technology and infrastructure shouldn’t be elevated to be an end in itself. Simple solutions, if well chosen, can often be superior to high tech ones. Another component implied is the embedding of interpretive materials in the environment, which speak to the meanings of the Country in which one is located.

AP: It is an invitation to look at ‘place’ in a multi-faceted way so that when you are doing your site analysis you can zoom out on the map and see where this place sits in a broader landscape, looking at the geology of the land, the endemic species, the prevailing winds, what this place was like before and during the last ice age and what it will be like in the next 100 years. Then you locate the site in terms of the cultural landscape, its adjacency to other sites of significance and the stories that relate to it and then bring all of this together with the social and economic layering to make a place that can be activated by plants, people, animals and the built environment in new and invigorating ways.

Examples of Yolŋu Aboriginal shelters and dwellings, including vaulted roof types, in Arnhem Land, northern Australia.

Illustration by Tim O’Rourke, rights held by Paul Memmott.

NHK: How does ‘deep listening’ foster inclusivity in the design process and engrain aspects of traditional knowledge and culture in design practice? And what was the impact of ‘deep listening’ for the Wilcannia Hospital extension?

AP: Deep listening is about slowing down and taking time to learn from Country. At the heart of that, it is about learning from the Traditional Owners of a place who will open a door to layers and layers of knowledges, memories and stories that relate to a place. But it is also about immersion in place; walking on Country with First Nations people and feeling the place. My colleague Kevin O’Brien calls this ‘Finding Country’ and thinks we should all be camping at the sites we are designing for to ‘feel’ Country. But it is also about understanding place across the day, the seasons and throughout deep time. A lot of the challenge in contemporary design is that these sites have been destroyed, so we go to places that are reminiscent of what we want to achieve and think of ways in which these traditional owners can have ongoing custodianship and a dialogue with the users of the place through activations.

The process at Wilcannia was totally inclusive as the Barkindji Elders essentially co-governed the development process alongside the Department of Health. This took time as the project was seven years from the start to finish. But that was in the late nineties when Aboriginal design processes in major construction projects were relatively new. Now that we have honed this inclusive process, it is much more streamlined – but essentially it is about co-design from project governance through to construction.

“Deep listening is about slowing down and taking time to learn from Country. At the heart of that, it is about learning from the Traditional Owners of a place who will open a door to layers and layers of knowledges, memories and stories that relate to a place. But it is also about immersion in place; walking on Country with First Nations people and feeling the place.” – Alison Page

Wilcannia Hospital Extension, built on the lands of the Barkindji people.
Photography by Brett Boardman.

NHK: In ‘Materials’, Alison, you question: “Now that we are coming to terms with the finality of the earth’s resources, perhaps we should be reassessing what is ‘primitive’ and what is ‘advanced.’” Given the uncertain times in our recent history, what can designers learn from the ingenuity, adaptability and expertise of Indigenous Australians? What can we look back on to move forward?

AP: At the heart of Aboriginal cultural values is the love and care of Country, which is manifested through the management of the land, waters and sky and reinforced through culture. Our whole society is centred around this concept and all of our science and technological practices are driven by this core objective. Now, while that looked primitive to the early colonists who couldn’t see that we had sophisticated systems of agriculture, architecture, meteorology, astronomy and ecology, these ideas were totally in tune with nature and were innovative and adaptive. If we look at the current global challenges we are facing, particularly in relation to climate change, materiality, food security, land and sea management, traditional Aboriginal design offers sustainable systems that may inform some of the most enduring solutions. But this isn’t about a return to the past. Because of the accelerated destruction to the environment, we must bring the best of this traditional knowledge with clever and innovative western scientific methodologies to create a new and more sustainable future.

NHK: The National Aboriginal Design Agency (NADA) brokers partnerships between Aboriginal artists and architects to create social justice. How can such collaborations evolve contemporary creative practice?

AP: I created NADA to give Aboriginal artists more opportunity to take their art to the built environment and create economic opportunities for them to live on Country and support their families by making culture strong. It is because I believe that economic independence and cultural authority within our respective nations is social justice, and those economic opportunities have global potential.

I have recently completed a project with Australian design company Breville which invited artists to apply stories and artworks onto a range of appliance in the same way that we etched and carved our traditional tools for living. The whole process took three years, from the selection of the artists, to the creation of cultural Intellectual Property protections, to the innovations in recreating the individual brush strokes to multiple appliances. We took care in the creation of the Aboriginal Culinary Journey and that took so much will and generosity from both us as artists but also from Breville who ultimately donated 100% of the profits to support more Aboriginal Designers and Chefs.

They handed me their global platform to be able to tell our stories about Country. To take these important stories right into the homes of people all over the world. And by creating a best practice model for the care and respect they showed to the artists and their Intellectual Property, Breville are essentially inviting every other company in the world to do the same. That is social justice on a large scale.

Alison Page with Yalti Napangati and her work,‘Piruwa’ on the Soft Top Luxe Kettle, part of Breville’s ‘Aboriginal Australian Culinary Journey’ collection.
Photography courtesy of The Design Files.

Yukultji (Nolia) Napangati, a Western Desert style painter, created ‘Marrapinti’ on the Barista Pro as part Breville’s ‘Aboriginal Australian Culinary Journey’ collection.
Photography courtesy of The Design Files.

“If we look at the current global challenges we are facing, particularly in relation to climate change, materiality, food security, land and sea management, traditional Aboriginal design offers sustainable systems that may inform some of the most enduring solutions. But this isn’t about a return to the past. Because of the accelerated destruction to the environment, we must bring the best of this traditional knowledge with clever and innovative western scientific methodologies to create a new and more sustainable future.” – Alison Page

NHK: What are some practical recommendations for non-Indigenous to engage with place and design new built environments as purposeful extensions of Country? Places that integrate mnemonics of stories, Songlines, locational principles, ancestral connections, and sustainability.

PM: To integrate these aspects, a designer should seek guidance and authorisation from local First Nations peoples. This does not preclude doing research from available historical and ethnographic sources, and generating ideas for proposals. But it is best that local people can co-design the outcomes and thereby be empowered as partners and recognised custodians of Country. Any research findings should be shared and discussed with them so as to qualify their value. However, there can be practical difficulties in establishing a co-design group that is representative of local First Nations groups and within a project budget. A consultant may need to be engaged to facilitate this process, either an Indigenous creative facilitator or locally trusted anthropologist. I’ve written a paper called “Designing places with First Nations Peoples”, which outlines more practical advice on such matters of consultation and co-design.

AP: Paul is spot on. The engagement with First Nations people and culture is paramount. It is our collective cultural inheritance as Australians. But designers, planners, developers, architects, and passionate advocates for design can immerse themselves in education about Country, songlines, traditional knowledges because we don’t want borrowed landscapes and architecture from foreign places that are making our cities and towns a pastiche of global styles that don’t speak to who we are. We are not second-hand American or second-hand England. We are the proud home to the world’s oldest living culture and we weave our stories of colonisation and immigration into our unique identity to create the most beautiful, sustainable and meaningful places in the world. My advice: get on board!

NHK: Alison, Paul, thank you for joining us. It’s been a pleasure.

Design: Building on Country is published by Thames & Hudson Australia and The National Museum of Australia, available for purchase at Thames & Hudson Australia or NGV Design Store.

“…it is best that local people can co-design the outcomes and thereby be empowered as partners and recognised custodians of Country.” – Paul Memmott