Jeffa Greenaway says, just like sustainability, Indigenous design thinking used to be an afterthought

Here’s a striking fact: there are only five practicing Indigenous architects in Australia.

There’s increasing sentiment that more First Nations voices need to be encouraged to join the industry.

Jeff Greenaway told The Fifth Estate that Indigenous design is starting to become more integral, but more Indigenous practitioners need to have a seat at the table. And, just like sustainability, Indigenous design used to be considered an afterthought, but it is now becoming more essential to the design process of practitioners.

Indigenous design thinking is “not an exotic plumage to be added on as an afterthought. It should be embedded in design thinking. There needs to be reciprocity and engagement with the culture,” he said.

“Sustainability used to be seen as an afterthought, now it’s seen as integral. In the same way, Indigenous design thinking can’t be seen as what I call a ‘muralistic’ design, but rather as embedded. In that way it becomes normalized.”

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

Alongside award-winning designer and Walbanga and Wadi Wadi woman Alison Page, Mr Greenaway has been appointed an honorary fellow of design at Deakin University.

Their appointment will strengthen Indigenous knowledge systems and design thinking, and create collaborative opportunities with the school of architecture and built environment. It is “an affirmation of the importance of how we are starting to embed design equity in design education”.

Historically (and until now), Mr Greenaway said there have been far too few Indigenous people enrolled in design schools.

But there’s been an uptick in interest, appetite and engagement with Indigenous design thinking.

“One of the best ways to shift that is to showcase, role model and mentor practitioners… to show that everyone can have a voice, and more opportunities can be provided to align the Indigenous lens with design. The built environment is viscerally connected to Country, so it is obvious that Indigenous people would be interested in the field. By having this forum, we can encourage the younger generation to be involved.”

Mr Greenaway has been collaborating with academics on an integrated Indigenous Design Charter for many years, and he is excited to integrate his perspective into looking at initiatives, opportunities and partnerships.

But this appointment represents more than just a movement towards Indigenous thinking in academia.

He says that Indigenous thinking is now being built into design briefs across the country.

Previously, Indigenous design was considered “a nebulous outlier that people weren’t sure how to navigate… but there’s been a push to embed Indigenous cultural narratives into design education, and there is a thirst and appetite to engage with it. Industry is crying out for it. There’s many opportunities for practitioners to be culturally responsible in design practice.”

And through a cultural lens, caring for Country sits at the intersection of sustainability and Indigenous design thinking.

The NSW government architectural draft strategy, Connecting with Country, is one driver of the change.

“The strategy is starting to shift the dial in understanding the value of Aboriginal design and planning places… the strategy is creating a mechanism of action,” he said.

Connecting with Country is a draft framework for developing connections with Country that can inform the planning, design, and delivery of built environment projects in NSW.

According to Mr Greenaway, the strategy is starting to be referenced at forums as a benchmark for design outcomes. “It holds people to account.”

So how can companies attract and support Indigenous design?

The best starting point is to engage with and ensure Indigenous design practices have a seat at the table and have active contribution to design outcomes.

“There are practitioners out there who are championing the importance of Indigenous perspectives in design outcomes. They are talking about how to embed cultural connection. And the most authentic way is to have Indigenous people hold the pen – not to be translators, but to be practitioners.”

A great example is the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne. By having Indigenous practitioners on the project, it was able to embed and incorporate Indigenous design in a culturally sensitive manner, and in a way that was integral to the project itself.

The Ngurra Cultural Precinct site at 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 an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural precinct in Canberra.

The Ngurra Project will create a National Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural 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 repatriated ancestral remains.

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

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