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Relevance of Indigenous architecture in the modern world

Traditional Maori meeting house or wharenui. Source: waves of colour : flickr/Alpha CC BY-SA 2.0

A public lecture was organized by the University of Queensland to discuss the place of Indigenous architecture in the modern world. As architecture is increasingly being used as a method of reinforcing Indigenous identity and cultural regeneration around the world.

Earlier this year the University of Queensland’s Indigenous Design Place network and School of Archtecure brought together a rare confluence of three influential Indigenous architects from three Pacific Rim nations to discuss their ideas on contemporary Indigenous architecture.

All speakers are contributors to the forthcoming Handbook of Contemporary Indigenous Architecture  which is the first of its kind.

The book will draw on expertise from around the globe to comment on state of the art Indigenous architecture, covering Indigenous architectural approaches, building types, regional variations and case studies of significant buildings designed for or by Indigenous people

Daniel Glenn, an Indigenous American architect partner with 7 Directions Architects/Planners, is one of the participants at the lecture and editors of the upcoming book. He is an expert in culturally responsive architecture and in green affordable housing with a focus on work for diverse cultures. Daniel’s work reflects his Crow tribal heritage.

“It is very important as part of a cultural revival as a sustainability effort to carry on this relatively recent movement to create new architecture that reflects and celebrates our very own very diverse cultures”.

In the sidelines of the public lecture Daniel Glen told Living Black Radio “we all share in the colonial heritage. We were greatly impacted in multiple ways, including our architectural heritage so that our tribal communities in the United States have not had the opportunity for more than a century to really have a lot of say over their type of buildings, the type of structures that we would have.”

“It is very important as part of a cultural revival as a sustainability effort to carry on this relatively recent movement to create new architecture that reflects and celebrates our very own very diverse cultures”.


Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization)
It’s the Canadian Museum of History - The entrance to the Public Wing, evocative of a turtle head, native symbol.
Wikipedia/Wladyslaw CC BY 3.0

The public lecture in Brisbane gave Indigenous architectural voices a prominence rare afforded and  began the conversation on how this can be best achieved.

One of the motivations for the public lecture was the realization that most architecture schools in countries where Indigenous peoples have endured forced colonization attempt to teach or integrate understandings of Indigenous knowledge into their curricula. Registration boards in various jurisdictions are also increasingly requiring knowledge of Indigenous architectures, both historic and contemporary.

But it is currently very difficult for universities to teach Indigenous architecture effectively due to the lack of easily obtainable or appropriate resources. The upcoming "Handbook on contemporary Indigenous Architecture" will be a key text for students taking courses in architecture, landscape architecture, Indigenous studies and related subjects, and also an essential reference for academics and practitioners working in the field of the built environment or related fields, who need up-to-date knowledge of the state of current practice and discourse on Indigenous peoples and their architecture.


Indigenous architecture and environmental sustainability


It was also noted that Indigenous users have differing and varying sociology-spatial, health, safety and cultural needs and new architectural projects are increasingly being designed to incorporate these needs.

Daniel Glen says "Our indigenous ancestors had a very different way of adapting to those changes than modern forms which really try to resist natural forces. Indigenous architectural forms are more flexible and adaptable to environmental changes, and are in fact re-buildable."

"Faced with issues of global warming and sustainability a lot of designers are turning to Indigenous house models"

Another key international participant at the public lecture is Dr Albert L Refiti. Dr Refiti is a Samoan architect and academic. He has written on cultural changes happening in the Pacific in the use of space, architecture, visual and performance art. Dr Albert Refiti is also a co-editor of the forthcoming Handbook of Contemporary Indigenous Architecture.

He says “faced with issues of global warming and sustainability a lot of designers are turning to Indigenous house models, and ways to deal with public architecture that reflect conditions that are either sustainable or environments that are healthy for people who are living in terrible situations.”

The area of contemporary Indigenous architecture and design has grown at a remarkable rate across the world.

Dr Refiti goes beyond mere architecture and calls “for indigenous architecture to be a political movement.” “It has to run counter to contemporary or modern architecture…. It is already happening in the ecological movement where the indigenous component is very important. We have the case of Standing Rock in the US. Here in Australia and New Zealand people go and march to assert their culture. And Indigenous culture has to also run along that view and has to run counter and present an alternative view." 

In Futuna Chapel, John Scott employed a composite language that references a number of different architectural traditions.
In Futuna Chapel - The tree-like central timber post can be seen as an interpretation of the centre posts of the traditional Maori meeting house or wharenui.
Wikipedia/Tony Wills CC BY 2.5

Participants at the public lecture also noted that Indigenous knowledge has been used to produce touristic projects. The area of contemporary Indigenous architecture and design has grown at a remarkable rate across the world.

There is a growing list of contemporary Indigenous architectural projects. Among the hundreds of projects (many by internationally renowned architects) include award winning buildings in the international arena such as:

• National Museum of the American Indian (USA)

• The Musée du quai Branly (France)

• The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center (New Caledonia)

• The Canadian Museum of Civilisation (Canada)

• Precious Blood Roman Catholic Church (Canada)

• Marika-Alderton House (Australia)

 • Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre (Australia)

• Brambuk Living Cultural Centre (Australia)

• Girrawaa Creative Works Centre (Australia)

• West Kimberley Regional Prison (Australia)

• Tānenuiarangi, Wharenui, Waipapa Marae, (Aotearoa New Zealand)

• Futuna Chapel (Aotearoa New Zealand)


Indigenous architecture and modern technology


Daniel Glenn also says:  “what makes a City Unique is its climate; it’s location but also its Aboriginal or native history which preceded the City by thousands and thousands of years. By embracing that heritage and celebrating it; Cities can present the idea that they can be regional and express that “regionnality”… And when you consider the idea of sustainability learn from our ancestors whose designs were very reflexive of each place; based on the local materials, based on the local climate and the local cultures. To create architecture that is distinct and reflects that place”.

Alongside the international speakers there was a very strong representation of Indigenous Australian scholars, architects, and landscape specialists including:

Dr Kelly Greenop a Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, affiliated with the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre at the University of Queensland.

Dr Elizabeth Grant a Senior Research Fellow within the Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice President (Academic), researching in collaboration with the Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning (CHURP) and the School of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Adelaide.

Dr Grant is a also a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge, an elected member of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and a Sir Winston Churchill Fellow.

Michael Aird, an Indigenous photographer and researcher, who has made an outstanding contribution to Australian Indigenous communities through research of Aboriginal history.

Professor Paul Memmott, he is a multi-disciplinary researcher and the Director of the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre (AERC) and the Indigenous Design Place (IDP), at the School of Architecture and the Institute for Social Science Research, University of Queensland

Carroll Go-Sam, an Indigenous graduate in architecture and the recipient of an ARC Indigenous Discovery Award and works at the University of Queensland, School of Architecture.

(The event was broadcast live on Facebook)

Place of Hidden Waters offers a culturally and environmentally responsive new housing model for the Puyallup Tribe in the Pacific Northwest.



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