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Winning design concept unveiled for Ngurra, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Precinct

Winning design concept unveiled for Ngurra, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Precinct


Djinjama, COLA Studio, Hassell and Edition Office have won a design competition for Ngurra: The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Precinct in Canberra.

Ngurra – meaning ‘home’, ‘country’ or ‘place of belonging’ in many different Aboriginal languages around eastern parts of Australia – will be a significant cultural landmark where Australians and international visitors can learn about and engage with over 65,000 years of culture, tradition and story, according to a statement from the office of The Hon Linda Burney, Minister for Indigenous Australians.

The design concept, which won a competition to revamp and expand the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ (AIATSIS) current premises, houses two distinct spaces: the National Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Centre, and the National Resting Place. 

The Ngurra Cultural Precinct design is specific to Country that is home to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, who have lived for thousands of years amid a landscape of limestone plains, mountains, swamps and streams.

Concept image of The National Resting Place (foreground building) and The National Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Centre (building in the distance), Canberra, Australia. Image credit: WAX

About the winning design

The concept for Ngurra was designed collaboratively by First Nations cultural research and design agency Djinjama, majority Indigenous-owned landscape architecture firm COLA Studio, international design firm Hassell and architecture studio Edition Office. Set within an undulating landscape, the design captures the drama, beauty, and spontaneity of the stunning wild grassland landscapes of Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country. The organisation, flow and movement of people throughout the design have been drawn from observation and meditation on the movement of animals through the landscape, a movement that has occurred for millennia.

The jury commented that the winning design was “bold, yet elegant in integrating with the landscape” and commended “the commitment to rehabilitation of the site as a statement about the environment and First Nations connection to Country”.

“At the beginning of this project, we asked that our Ancestors guide our hands and minds in the design and we believe they have done so,” says Dr Danièle Hromek, director of Djinjama.

“We know that Country has led our design team, and we believe this is the legacy of our project; Country, kin, and community embedded, guiding, fore-fronting First Nations culture.”

Concept image of The National Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Centre, Canberra, Australia. Image by WAX

National Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Centre

Welcoming all visitors, the winning design concept for the National Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Centre incorporates a large, organic and embracing canopy. This is gently held aloft over a central plaza, framing and bowing towards Bulajima, Mount Ainslie, marking the presence and arrival to the precinct.

The outstretched form of the central canopy gives presence and grace to the site, declaring a clear and proud identity while providing an invitation and shelter to all.

The canopy features an array of timber columns, representing the many hands of a community working together to keep each other safe and strong.

Held between the sky and the earth, the central plaza creates a new cultural and community room for Canberra, a place of welcome for ceremonies, community events and functions.

Concept image of the Cultural Centre public space arrival area. Image by WAX

The National Resting Place

The National Resting Place is designed as a private ceremonial building, an indentation into the rolling ground that forms a soft counterweight to the floating form of the Cultural Centre’s canopy.

The respectful eastern entry plaza makes it publicly recognisable and a powerful symbolic reminder of historical truths, yet ensures a private, introspective discrete space for cultural sensitivities and moments of reflection.

Formally, The National Resting Place design concept is composed of two structures. The curved embrace of the outer welcoming building, assembled under the gentle blanket of rolling grasslands, and the tall, stand-alone structure of the Resting Place sheltered within.

The Repatriation Space lies in the centre of this form, in direct relationship to a secluded and sacred inner courtyard, allowing a highly protected place for ceremony, song, sorrow and love.

The design team said they hoped this overall design concept and proposition would set the beginning for a dialogue and developmental process together with First Nations peoples.

Concept image of The National Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Centre internal view. Image by Edition Office

“Rarely does there come a chance to make a genuine difference for First Nations peoples across the whole continent,” says Hromek. 

“Ngurra – The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Precinct is one of those chances. Clearly it must be done right, which means First Nations voices must be at the heart of the project, guiding, deciding, designing, and living culture through the process. I am proud to have contributed my voice and guidance as part of the successful design team for this incredibly significant place.”

Hassell head of design and project director Mark Loughnan said Djinjama led the design team through an Indigenous-guided design process that enabled them to connect with Country, incorporating deep time and memory into the design.

“The result is a distinctive design concept which creates a globally recognisable home for the National Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Centre and The National Resting Place,” Loughnan said. “It’s a design where Country, kin, and community are embedded. Landscape and built form merge together with equal value to provide living infrastructure for future generations to learn and reflect on their shared history.

Concept image of The National Resting Place, private area. Image by Edition Office

“In a similar way to how significant buildings like the Sydney Opera House have become a physical symbol of modern Australia, we sought to propose a bold and compelling concept that rightly places and expresses the significance of First Nations’ history and cultures in Australia’s national conscience.”

Lead Image: Concept image. Lake view of the Ngurra cultural precinct. The design for the national landmark houses both the National Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Centre and the National Resting Place. Image by WAX

Renders supplied by WAX. 


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