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Architecture and Design: A Blak Aesthetic

Architecture and Design: A Blak Aesthetic


Is there such a thing as a singular Blak aesthetic? Jackson Clement Burrows’ Sarah Lynn Rees says there is no one way to approach anything, but an understanding of, and respect for, Country is vital.

In the upcoming Blak and Bright First Nations Literary Festival, Rees, along with Alison Page and Brian Martin, will be part of a panel moderated by Timmah Ball. It’s entitled: ‘Architecture and Design: A Blak Aesthetic?’ But, in conversation, it seems as if she deals with that question mark right off the bat.

“There is a long history of Indigenous architecture in Australia, but it has not been carried through in the same way that the stories and depiction of our stories are in art. So, we don’t necessarily have an Indigenous or an Aboriginal aesthetic when it comes to architecture.”

Of course, there’s much more to it than that. Rees is a Palawa woman who was born and grew up in south-east Tasmania before moving to Melbourne in 2010. Her interests and pursuits are wide – she did her master’s at Cambridge University as a Charles Perkins Scholar and now splits her time between practising at Jackson Clements Burrows (where she is also Lead Indigenous Advisor: Architecture and Design), lecturing at Monash and undertaking a wide range of advisory and curatory roles (including with Parlour, Mpavilion, the Office of the Victorian Government Architect and the AIA’s First Nations Advisory Working Group).

She says the reason she wears so many hats is simply because there aren’t enough Indigenous built environment practitioners. “The value in being involved in all of these positions is that each of them has the capacity to contribute to a better future for Country in the built environment.

“I’m really looking forward to a future where there are hundreds of Indigenous architects, but for now we need to encourage more young Indigenous people to go into architecture, so that there are more voices contributing to the conversation.”

Rees says her initial attraction to architecture was due to its problem solving aspects. “It’s a complex problem that you design and solve,” she says, adding that her response evolved when Indigenous architecture finally became a mainstream conversation about five years ago.

“Being able to marry together cultural understandings of place and Country, and the values and rights and laws of that Country with the way we design and build architecture is much more fulfilling to me than what I had originally anticipated architecture to be.”

And this is the key to the ‘Blak Aesthetic’ and how it impacts design’ question that she will be discussing with Page, Martin and Ball in the Blak and Bright Festival panel.

“There is never one specific way to approach anything, but if I had to take it to the highest level possible, I would say that an Aboriginal aesthetic is Country,” she says. “There are thousands of years of cultural understanding of Country depicted through art, through stories, through mapping, through symbols and markings. Whereas in architecture, an industry that can and has been so destructive to Country, we need to balance representation and cultural identity with restoring the health and well-being of Country, while creating culturally safe spaces.

“The first point is understanding whose Country the project is within and advocating, where possible, for engagement with Traditional Custodians so that the values, rights and lores of that Country can be understood and inform all aspects of the project.”

When this isn’t possible, Rees says she’ll do her best to understand what’s most important when designing for that particular place, but without the cultural authority, knowledge and expertise that comes from engagement with Traditional Custodians the result won’t be an Indigenous or cultural project. “There’s a fine, but important, line between appropriate and appropriation, in my mind,” she says.

But looking after the health and well-being of Country can mean something as simple as making sure plantings are Indigenous to that place, to recreate habitats for Indigenous fauna that may have also been displaced through colonisation.

“Sometimes it’s only one small thing. Sometimes the whole building is inspired by it, but every project in my mind has the capacity to do something, to contribute to the restoration of the health and well-being of Country.”

Photo by Scott Knight.

This is an excerpt of an article that will appear in AR170. To read the full magazine, click here to receive a complimentary copy of our first digital issue and subscribe for future issues.

‘Architecture and Design: A Blak aesthetic?’ will be at the Wheeler Centre in the Melbourne CBD as part of the Blak and Bright Festival, 10am Sunday 20 March 2022. Tickets are free, but bookings are essential. Visit blakandbright.com for further information.

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