119 Redfern Street: Aileen Sage with Djinjama, Jean Rice and Noni Boyd

119 Redfern Street | Aileen Sage with Djinjama, Jean Rice and Noni Boyd | Photographer: Hamish McIntosh
A question that has been percolating in my mind for several years now is: How can architecture in Australia respectfully engage with both Indigenous heritage and post-settlement non-Indigenous heritage? How can we create architecture that responds to multiple stories and histories, however difficult and tricky those relationships might be, and what might this look like?

The First Nations community culture space at 119 Redfern Street is a terrific recent example of how the collision of multiple histories, stories and perspectives can greatly enrich our built environments, if it is embraced. The new facility, which is an addition to and upgrade of the former Redfern Post Office on Gadigal Country in Sydney, is the result of a collaboration between Aileen Sage Architects, Djinjama Indigenous Corporation, heritage architect Jean Rice and architectural historian Noni Boyd.

New South Wales has been a leading force in post-settlement heritage, with champions like Annie Wyatt – who founded the National Trust of Australia in 1945 – raising community awareness about the loss and destruction of built and natural heritage in Sydney. Yet the relationship between Aboriginal heritage and post-settlement non-Indigenous heritage within Australia’s built environments has been a challenge only recently accepted. (From my observations, this delay is a result of both outright racism and a fear of “getting things wrong.”) Thanks to the hard work of several leading First Nations design practitioners and academics, Australian design practitioners are now beginning to understand that we cannot think about site, place and heritage without thinking about Country; that every site we design and build on always was and always will be Aboriginal land; and that “we are all, always on Country,” as Yugambeh/Quandamooka architect Dillon Kombumerri clearly states.1 This marks a profound shift in our understandings of site, place and heritage.

The Redfern Street facility constitutes the fourth project in the Eora Journey program2 and progresses the City of Sydney’s commitment to provide a culturally safe space to share First Nations cultures. With the assistance of the council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Panel, the City selected and purchased the former post office in 2018 with a vision to upgrade the building and hand it over to the First Nations people of Gadigal Country to manage and determine how the building should be used. Designed by the office of the Colonial Architect under James Barnet in the early 1880s and situated in the heart of Redfern on the corner of George Street and Redfern Street (neighbouring the Aboriginal Medical Service and Redfern Jarjum College), the Victorian Italianate building is now state heritage listed. The selection of such a colonial building, in an area known for its strong First Nations presence, activism and self-determination, speaks to the complexity of the architectural response developed by the team.

The built outcome is an exquisitely detailed, highly textured brick tower facilitating a lift tower to make the building accessible, along with a lower-level glass brick entry form that connects the tower to the former post office, which has been thoughtfully reworked and restored. The form represents a confluence of three different perspectives and three different ways of knowing: Boyd and Rice’s specialist knowledge of architectural heritage and conservation is enmeshed with Djinjama’s Indigenous perspective and further intertwined with Aileen Sage’s multi-layered approach to design. The whole team shares a love of storytelling and a desire to uncover the multiple layers of history and Gadigal Country.

Flying from my home on Boonwurrung Country in Naarm/Melbourne and arriving in Gadigal Country on a hot, sunny day, I was warmly welcomed on site by City of Sydney senior design manager Chris McBride; Isabelle Toland and Yvette Salmon from Aileen Sage; Djinjama leader Danièle Hromek; and Jean Rice. There was a great buzz and energy between them that speaks volumes about the importance of building respectful relationships when designing with and for Country.

The new addition took its cues from Gadigal Country along with a careful rereading of the existing colonial building. The Turpentine-Ironbark Forest that once characterised this area, and the powerful owl (Ninox strenua) that inhabited it, became core drivers of the design response. The brown, textured tower is reminiscent of a turpentine tree (Syncarpia glomulifera), while two different shades of recycled brick – detailed with intermittent cut bricks that induce a dancing of sunlight across the facade – represent the owl’s feathers. The recycled bricks create a roughness to the facade that was, Toland says, a challenge for the bricklayers.

The incorporation of a tower form in the new addition is both a nod to the clock tower on the corner of Barnet’s colonial design and a cheeky reminder that this was and always will be Aboriginal land. Hromek explained, “We reread the existing colonial building and created a counterpoint to the clock tower.”

The team further challenged the existing colonial building in its handling of the new approach and entry. Instead of the building’s former entries on George and Redfern streets, entry is now via gates off Redfern Street that welcome you with the words “Bujari gamarruwa Good Day” and lead you down a laneway (a right-of-way shared with the adjacent buildings) to the building’s new entry. This struck me as a shift in the way we engage with post-settlement heritage buildings. Rather than honouring the way the colonial building was previously accessed, the design creates a celebratory and culturally safe outdoor space. From here, you enter the building away from the hustle and bustle of Redfern Street, in a place where the flora and fauna can also be welcomed into the space – both literally, and through visual and tactile representations.

There was a coalescing of multiple perspectives in the team’s approach to the materiality of both the new and existing fabric. Rice explained that the sandstone base of the former post office had been sourced locally from Gadigal Country at the Pyrmont quarries, and the bricks were most likely from local brick pits. Toland had discovered that many of the local First Nations peoples also had a deep connection to the stone and bricks, not only because of their direct relation to Country, but because their family members had worked at the quarries or transported the materials across Sydney. Drawing on Rice and Boyd’s historical knowledge and research, and the team’s desire to honour Country and the beauty of the materials provided by Gadigal Country, rendered surfaces were removed at certain points to expose the existing fabric, leaving the materials with a certain roughness and incorporating another reminder of Country and extraction. Clay – previously untouched material from Country – was recovered from pier excavations and stored for future interpretation by community members.

This approach to materiality reminded me of a chapter about the spirit of objects in Alison Page and Paul Memmott’s book Design: Building on Country.3 The authors describe an Aboriginal worldview where nothing is inanimate and everything is living, and where all objects are connected to the humans that make them and to the Country they come from. I imagined the life and history of the bricks on this facade, the Country they were sourced from, and the first round of makers and bricklayers, followed by the second round of bricklayers – who injected a new measure of human energy into these bricks. From Rice and Aileen Sage’s perspective, there was also a depth of thinking in the heritage response: “We wanted to create a contrast between the new and old structures, not through a use of contrasting materials but through the design of the addition,” Toland explained.

One of the key drivers of the project, said Hromek, was the idea of “enoughness” – an Indigenous economic philosophy that there is enough in the world, and that we don’t need to waste resources.4 This idea connects to the Burra Charter’s principle of doing “as much as necessary to care for the place and to make it usable, but otherwise chang[ing] it as little as possible so that its cultural significance is retained.”5 Toland spoke about this through an environmental sustainability lens that seeks to minimise demolition and retain as much fabric as possible, including the kitchen joinery from the occupants of the 2000s: “We wanted to be as resourceful as possible with the materials.”

Internally, both tangible and intangible cues remind us of what once was, with pre-settlement and post-settlement layers of history unveiled in different ways. Originally split-level, the building is now designed on two levels to resolve accessibility issues. As a result, some of the new spaces – such as the upper-level corridor and bathrooms – include odd apertures that celebrate the location of the former levels and recognise the history of the building. The spaces are well-ventilated and ample natural light floods both levels to create connections to Sky Country.

Rice’s attention to detail has resulted in the restoration of original elements to enhance these atmospheric qualities; for example, the original ventilation system delivers fresh air to the space and extracts stale air to the outside via shafts within the brickwork. There was also a decolonising of original fabric. The existing crown-etched glass panels in doors were removed, carefully stored and replaced by new panels etched with the words “Gadigal Country” [this required a section 60 works application under the Heritage Act (1977)]. Other visual storytelling devices assisted in the decolonising process, such as the inclusion of images of the powerful owl and a turpentine tree. The spherical light fittings and glass brick facade on the upper level reference the fruit of another significant species from the Turpentine-Ironbark Forest, elderberry panax (Polyscias sambucifolia).

In Design: Building on Country, Page writes: “Cities like Sydney are lacquered with so many impermeable layers of Western thinking that architects, designers and builders must decide how each new layer can dig below the surface and reveal the original story of Country. How can we, as designers, pick the scabs and allow the country to breathe again?”6 The work at 119 Redfern Street has allowed Gadigal Country to breathe again. The success of this project lies in the relationships that were formed and nurtured throughout the design process. These relationships between the team members and the client, which cannot be underestimated, ultimately led to complex relationships between new fabric and old, which were themselves imbued with relationships to Gadigal Country. These relationships are just one demonstration of how architecture can respectfully respond to a collision of the many histories that exist within this place that we now call Australia.

Notes

1  Government Architect New South Wales, Connecting with Country: Good practice guidance on how to respond to Country in the planning, design and delivery of built environment projects in NSW, Issue no. 03 (Sydney: New South Wales Government, 2023), 20; planning.nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/2023-10/connecting-with-country.pdf

2 “Eora” means “the people” in the Gadigal language; the Eora Journey is the people’s journey

3 Alison Page and Paul Memmott, “Chapter 2: Objects and Spirituality,” in Design: Building on Country, First Knowledges series, ed. Margo Neale (Melbourne: Thames and Hudson, 2021)

4  For more on the idea of enoughness, see the dossier “What can non-Indigenous designers do?” in Architecture Australia, vol. 112, no. 4, Jul/Aug 2023, 43–61; also available at architectureau.com/articles/enoughness

5  Australia ICOMOS, The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance, 2013, 1

Page and Memmott, Design: Building on Country (2011)

Christine Phillips is an Eastern Kulin-based non-Indigenous architect, writer and senior lecturer at RMIT University’s School of Architecture and Urban Design.

Published online:
14 May 2024

Source:
Honouring the Australian Institute of Architects’ National Prize Winners.
2024 Gold Medallist Philip Thalis
May / Jun
2024

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