Jefa Greenaway says that indigenous design thinking, like sustainability, used to be an afterthought


Here is a remarkable fact: There are only five practicing Indigenous architects in Australia.

There is a growing sentiment that more First Nations voices need to be encouraged to join the industry.

told Jefa Greenaway The Fifth Estate that indigenous design is becoming increasingly integral, but more indigenous practitioners need a seat at the table. And just like sustainability, indigenous design used to be considered an afterthought, but it’s now becoming increasingly important to the design process of practitioners.

Indigenous design thinking is “not exotic plumage that can be added after the fact. It should be embedded in design thinking. There has to be reciprocity and commitment to the culture,” he said.

“Sustainability used to be seen as a side issue, now it is seen as an integral part. In the same way, indigenous design thinking cannot be viewed as what I call “muralistic” design, but rather as embedded. That way it gets normalized.”

Mr Greenaway is an award-winning Melbourne architect, Director of Greenaway Architects, Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and a Wailwan and Kamilaroi man.

Along with award-winning designer and Walbanga and Wadi Wadi woman Alison Page, Mr. Greenaway has been named an Honorary Fellow of Design at Deakin University.

Her appointment will strengthen indigenous knowledge systems and design thinking, and create opportunities to collaborate with the School of Architecture and the Built Environment. It is “a validation of how important it is that we begin to embed design justice in design education.”

In the past (and to this day), Mr. Greenaway said that far too few Indigenous peoples were enrolled in design schools.

But interest, appetite and engagement with Indigenous design thinking has increased.

“One of the best ways to change this is to showcase practitioners, to serve as role models and mentor… to show that everyone can have a voice and more opportunities can be offered, aligning the indigenous lens with design bring to. The built environment is closely linked to the land, so it is obvious that indigenous people would be interested in this area. Through this forum we can encourage the younger generation to get involved.”

Mr. Greenaway has worked with academics on an integrated charter for Indigenous design for many years and looks forward to bringing his perspective to the exploration of initiatives, opportunities and partnerships.

But this appointment represents more than just a movement toward indigenous thinking in science.

He says indigenous thinking is now being incorporated into design briefs across the country.

Indigenous design used to be seen as “a nebulous outlier that people weren’t sure how to navigate… but there has been a drive to embed Indigenous cultural narratives into design education and there is a thirst and appetite to engage with it. The industry calls for it. There are many opportunities for practitioners to be culturally responsible in design practice.”

And from a cultural perspective, cultivating country lies at the intersection of sustainability and indigenous design thinking.

The NSW Government’s architectural strategy blueprint, Connecting with Country, is a driving force for change.

“The strategy is beginning to shift the gamut in understanding the value of design and planning for Aboriginal sites… the strategy creates a mechanism for action,” he said.

Connecting with Country is a framework for developing connections with country that can influence the planning, design and implementation of building projects in NSW.

According to Mr. Greenaway, strategy is starting to be used on forums as a benchmark for design results. “It holds people accountable.”

How can companies attract and support Indigenous design?

The best place to start is to engage with indigenous design practices and ensure they have a seat at the table and actively contribute to design outcomes.

“There are practitioners out there who advocate for the importance of indigenous perspectives in design outcomes. They talk about how to embed cultural connections. And it is most authentic when indigenous people hold the pen in their hands – not as translators but as practitioners.”

A good example is the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne. By involving Indigenous practitioners in the project, it was possible to embed and integrate Indigenous design in a culturally sensitive way and in a way that was integral to the project itself.

The Ngurra Cultural Precinct site on Mount Ainslie in the ACT is another opportunity for practitioners to engage with Indigenous design thinking.

The $316.5 million design competition was launched last month to design a Torres Strait Aboriginal and Islander Cultural District in Canberra.

The Ngurra Project will create a national indigenous knowledge and culture center. It will be a new home for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and National Resting Place to house and care for the repatriated ancestral shelters.

“These major nation-building projects are really important and it will be interesting to see the outcome of them,” said Mr. Greenaway.


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