MPavilion’s BLAKitecture forum explores “working with Country rather than against it”

Nov 9, 2020
  • Article by Tili Bensley-Nettheim

A centerpiece of the 2020/21 MPavilion MTalks program is the fourth installment of the BLAKitecture forum.

The talk series foregrounds the voices of Indigenous built environment practitioners, gathering on the Yaluk-ut Weelam land of the Boon Wurrung people to delve deeply into architecture’s obligations to Country. What questions should architects ask themselves before building in Australia? Who has tended to this land? How do we meet our responsibilities to them? 

‘With(out) Engagement’, the first of the five talks, will take place online on November 12 with a discussion of how architecture can align with Country when community engagement isn’t possible. ADR spoke to this year’s BLAKitecture forum curator Sarah Lynn Rees about what to expect from the upcoming series. 

ADR: What was your ambition for the 2020/21 MPavilion BLAKitecture forum? 

Sarah Lynn Rees: While the content of each season changes in response to the themes and the times, the ambition for the 2020 BLAKitecture season remains the same. We are keen to host yarns at MPavillion that Indigenous built environment practitioners want to have and that contribute to furthering the Indigenous Architecture conversation. 

We seek to bring together a diversity of views, nations, age groups, genders, experience levels, professions and both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples. By doing so we hope to ensure it is clear that there is no single way to consider the topic of each yarn both within communities and across geographies. We are also keen to record these conversations so that they remain a resource for Communities, Universities and the profession as we work together to build a collective understanding.

ADR: This is the fourth BLAKitecture forum. How does it build on the first four? 

SLR: Each season we consider a number of factors to determine what yarns we would like to propose in a public forum. These include the overarching themes put forward by MPavilion, the current conversations happening across the Industry, the conversations that aren’t happening but should be and the theme of questions we received during BLAKitecture talks in the previous season.

This year we have a particular focus on Traditional Owner voices, both through speakers (‘With(out) Engagement’ and ‘Co-design? Collaboration? Consultation?’)  and through the processes we employ as built environment professionals, particularly how these can change to ensure we are all working with Country rather than against it (‘Design Obligations’ and ‘Indigenous First Principles’). This year we are also holding a yarn between Indigenous and Maori practitioners to compare the current state of conversations and similarities across geographies, and how we can learn from each other (‘Pulse Check’).

ADR: The forum presents a number of ways that architecture can meet its obligations to Traditional Owners and centralise the idea that all built work in Australia is built on Indigenous land. Could you talk about this focus? 

SLR: Through conversations I’ve had with fellow Indigenous practitioners, there is a firm position that our role is to work with Country across all projects and in order to do that our role is one of facilitating the values and Knowledges of Traditional Owners through design. This means that we can’t operate under the illusion that architectural projects are created by the genius expertise of a single hand. This stereotype of the egotistical architect is not functional when working with community and Country. This may be a shift for some in our profession as it means relinquishing power and respecting Cultural Authority. 

If I could offer a personal example of this – even though I am an Indigenous practitioner, I do not have the Cultural Authority to speak on behalf of or make decisions for Country or the values of communities across the Countries I work.

Francoise Lane and Danièle Hromek noted in a recent conversation that as Indigenous practitioners, we do not consider ourselves as ‘experts’ – Traditional Owners are the experts and we work to ensure their expertise is translated into the projects we work on. By communicating this we want to reinforce that non-Indigenous people cannot be ‘experts’ on Indigenous peoples, values or Knowledges, they cannot speak on behalf of or make decisions for Country and Community, only Traditional Owners with Cultural Authority can.

Therefore, through the yarns we host at Mpavilion we aim to explore, discuss and sometimes speculate on how we are and should be practicing to ensure we meet our obligations to  Country and to Traditional Owners. Collectively we still have a long way to go before this is ‘business as usual.’

ADR: The final BLAKitecture forum ‘Indigenous: ‘First Principles’ will take place on March 1. What are Indigenous ‘First Principles’ and how can architecture engage with them? 

SLR: ‘First Principles’ is a term thrown around a lot during University studies and in practice, and it seems to mean different things to different people. To me ‘First Principles’ in architecture is about removing any assumptions we may bring as individuals by questioning everything we know, how we know it, and if it is actually contextually accurate. 

An oversimplified example of this could be that we believe that all Indigenous art is in the style of dot paintings. This ‘high-level’ assumption could be inherent within us by virtue of media exposure or something we’ve been taught when younger, however if we question how we ‘know’ this and interrogate if it applies to a local context, we will learn that there is a huge diversity of ’Traditional’ Indigenous art styles as well as a growing diversity of ‘Contemporary’ Indigenous art styles and that dot paintings may not be representative of the Country we are working on.  

Of course it is not always possible to know the absolute truth about many areas of the projects we work on, however it is a critical practice that we should be undertaking because assumptions can be damaging to the development of relationships with Country and Community. The Indigenous ‘First Principles’ BLAKitecture yarn will explore this approach to design thinking. The speakers will yarn about how they navigate this process, if there are any consistencies on the points they always come back to in their own work, and if these could be applicable to the profession as a whole. 

The 2020/21 MPavillion program will run from 12 November 2020 to 5 April 2021 across a series of sites, both physical and online. Explore the full program here.

Lead image: Pre 1750s EVCs for the area surrounding MPavilion’s normal home. Source: biodiversity maps, Victorian DELWP.

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