Why sustainable living can be an act of reconciliation

Caring for country isn’t something that only happens “in the bush”, says graduate architect and Co-Founder of Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria, Rueben Berg. It is a sustainable way of thinking that is as comfortable among high rise towers as it is among trees. In fact, the choice to live sustainably can be a powerful act of reconciliation.

A Gunditjmara man, Rueben is the co-founder of Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria, an organisation established in 2010 to encourage Aboriginal communities to engage with architecture, and for practitioners to better understand Indigenous culture.

Until very recently, Australians generally accepted that Indigenous people lacked permanent buildings. Branding Aboriginal communities ‘nomadic’ justified the idea of terra nullius, or no man’s land. But stone engineering was used by several Indigenous groups, among them Rueben’s Gunditjmara people in Western Victoria.

Deciding what contemporary Indigenous architecture looks like, though, is still very much open for debate.

“Only a handful of Aboriginal people have studied architecture”, Rueben explains, and whether Indigenous architecture is simply spaces designed for Aboriginal people, or whether it must be infused with Aboriginal culture continues to evolve.

“Aboriginal architecture was once typified by big curved shapes and structures that looked like animal totems, but now we are considering more subtle and nuanced ways of reflecting Aboriginality through design.”

For instance, Indigenous architects are drawing on the principals of traditional materials to reinterpret built forms, and to develop places in harmony with landscape.

“Three hundred years ago, we’d make a roof from bark. Corrugated iron is like bark today.”

Aboriginal culture can be central to a building’s structure, which may be designed around one large communal kitchen to reflect the primacy of kinship relationships. Other strategies include “using landscape to tell stories” and blurring the boundaries between internal and external spaces.

Aboriginal architecture also acknowledges the practical elements of each building – a philosophy that aligns beautifully with sustainability when water tanks and solar panels must be incorporated into the built form. “We don’t try to conceal. We celebrate the structures,” Rueben explains.

“Sustainability is a core principle of our cultures, and this is reflected in our designs. Celebrating sustainability – rather than trying to hide the water tanks, for example – is a way of connecting with culture.”

Rueben says one of the key elements of Indigenous architecture and placemaking is “not seeing sites as clean slates”. This is as true for a site on open pasture as it is for a brownfield development in the centre of a buzzing city.

“Each site will have 40,000 years of occupation, stories and history. Recognise that history and work out ways to celebrate it,” Rueben advises.

“Start by thinking about whether this is a place of significance. Consider where the project sits in the landscape. This is not a blank piece of ground – it’s a piece of land that has 40,000 years of history. What are the opportunities to share and celebrate culture in a respectful way?”

Rueben points to Dillon Kombumerri’s redevelopment of the Wilcannia Health Centre, which embodies reconciliation by recognising the built form as a site of cultural practice. Or RMIT’s Ngarara Place, designed by Greenway Architects in collaboration with Indigenous landscape designer Charles Solomon, which connects with place by working with the eight seasons understood by the Traditional Owners.

We won’t always get it right, but an “openness and willingness” to consider Aboriginal culture and perspectives is imperative.

Melbourne’s William Barak Building, for example, sparked controversy in 2015 for displaying the portrait of Wurundjeri activist, artist and cultural ambassador William Barak on the full height of the 32-storey building’s southern façade.

The juxtaposition between a luxury apartment building and Barak’s lifelong dedication to the struggle over land didn’t sit well with many people, Rueben among them.

“This building was actually the catalyst for us establishing Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria. We saw the need for an organisation – a touchstone – for people to be able to talk to about this.

“However, it was a powerful attempt to reflect Aboriginality, and the idea that putting an Aboriginal face on the side of a building to sell apartments shows how far we’ve come. If you had done that 30 years ago, people would have laughed.”

Simple gestures, such as acknowledging traditional placenames, can be another important act of reconciliation.

“Language is a really powerful thing. To incorporate language is a straight-forward way to help Australians connect with the places and the people who lived in these places.

“Many Australians see our culture as something ‘other, disconnected and far away’. Using Aboriginal names is a great way to bring these stories closer to people.”

Rueben isn’t worried about tokenism. “You can’t tell the intent by looking at something. What do the Traditional Owners think about it? That’s the test.”

“Everywhere in Australia is an Aboriginal place and has an Aboriginal story. Sometimes there is a fear about the best way to go about recognising that. It’s an unknown and people fear getting things wrong. But the best thing to do is try. Start going down that path, because the more you learn, the more we can bring our cultures together.”

Rueben says the property industry has a tremendous opportunity to “reframe our work in sustainability by looking through a lens of caring for country”.

“People often associate caring for country with something that happens in the bush. But it is important to recognise that caring for country can happen anywhere. All projects can better reflect our caring for country.”

This isn’t a new concept, he cautions, but one that has been practiced for tens of thousands of years.

“Living sustainably can be an act of reconciliation.”

Rueben Berg will be speaking at the ‘Reconciliation Breakfast’ at Green Cities on Thursday 15 March in Melbourne, and will join Supply Nation’s Laura Berry, Lendlease’s Cath Brokenborough and Andrea Mason, CEO of Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women's Council Aboriginal Corporation.

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