• An 85-metre image of Wurundjeri Elder William Barak on a Melbourne apartment tower caused controversy when unveiled two years ago. (Victoria State Government)Source: Victoria State Government
Leading First Nations architects from around the world have gathered to discuss how Indigenous architecture can shape the modern world.
Ella Archibald-Binge

18 Jan 2017 - 4:15 PM  UPDATED 18 Jan 2017 - 4:25 PM

How can a building reflect Indigenous identity? 

That was the central question at a sold-out lecture at the State Library of Queensland on Tuesday night, which drew speakers from Australia, Samoa and the United States. 

The audience heard First Peoples across the Pacific rim were increasingly seeking to use buildings to celebrate their identity and educate people about their culture.

"A lot of communities are really interested, particularly when they choose to engage or collaborate with architects in educating people about their country, about who they are, their stories, and they see buildings as a powerful way of communicating who they are," says Carrol Go-Sam, an Indigenous architecture researcher at the University of Queensland. 

The Dyirbal woman says while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander architecture in Australia is mainly seen in government buildings,  there is growing interest from the private sector - as shown by Melbourne's controversial William Barak portrait, unveiled two years ago. 

Ms Go-Sam says the key to designing such buildings is to ensure local Indigenous communities are driving the project.

"Indigenous communities need to be fully engaged with the process," she says.

"You need to be respectful of people's country where buildings are situated and sited, respectful of people's stories, respectful of community timeframes... process is really important, more so sometimes than the outcome of the building."

'Our ancestors lived in an extraordinary array of building types and architecture.'

In the US, Indigenous architecture firm 7 Directions works closely with Native American tribes to design contemporary buildings, weaving ancient techniques into modern designs. 

Daniel Glenn, one of the firm's architects, says there's been a long history of devaluing Native architecture, with many Americans assuming "all Indians lived in tee-pees". 

"It's a gross simplification of the reality," says Mr Glenn, a member of the Crow tribe in Montana.

"Our ancestors lived in an extraordinary array of building types and architecture, all of which reflected the diverse cultures and climates of their regions.

"What can we learn from these iconic [structures] that developed in many cases over thousands of years?"

Working alongside local tribes, Mr Glenn's firm has worked on a series of buildings across the US, including senior housing, community centres, health clinics and colleges. 

WATCH: Architects use traditional Native Indian designs to build seniors home

"Many people don't even think of architecture, particularly housing, as a place where their culture can be reflected, and yet we say how can it be? And start to look for ways to get to that," Mr Glenn says. 

Such projects could be a way off In Australia, where there are very few practising Indigenous architects. 

Carroll Go-Sam estimates there are around 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander architects, including landscape architects and interior designers. 

She says it's important to encourage the next generation to enter the industry. 

"It's important that we find a supportive voice for all the Indigenous people that are working in this space... ensuring they have a definitive future and can have a impact on the built environment in Australia and improve it from Indigenous perspectives."

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