Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
Supporting First Nations practitioners
With the demand for their input accelerating, First Nations practitioners find themselves facing a multitude of requests. Georgia Birks asked four professionals about their experiences and how the industry can best support the small but increasing number of Indigenous designers and collaborators.
Introduction by Georgia Birks
As for many of us, architecture has defined me.
An architectural education and experience in practice has refined my creative and analytical skills and shaped my political and social values. But perhaps more than anything else, it has strengthened my cultural understanding of who I am as a person. I am a descendant of Kamilaroi, Dunghutti and Birpai peoples, and Danish and English. My identity has come with wonderful opportunities, many assumptions and plenty of self-reflection.
The dossier in this issue, “The wellbeing of architects,” prompted me to consider my own experiences in the profession – specifically, circumstances related to my heritage. Conversations I have had with friends in the industry who also identify as Indigenous suggest that we have faced (or are facing) similar challenges through the ongoing journeys of our careers: amplified exposure or invitations to work on niche (“Indigenous”) projects or events. This is one form of cultural loading and can inflict feelings of heavy responsibility leading to mental exhaustion.
With this in mind, we asked a small collection of practitioners, at different stages in their careers, to respond to the following questions:
What has been your experience of the expectations, assumptions and/or opportunities associated with identifying as an Indigenous built environment professional, and how have you managed these circumstances?
With the built environment’s growing interest in engaging, collaborating with and learning from First Nations peoples, how can the profession support, rather than exploit, Indigenous built environment professionals?
Many, many more voices and stories could have been included here if space were not limited, so I hope to see this conversation evolve off the page and provoke further action.
Bradley Kerr is a Quandamooka man and an architect living, working and learning on Wurundjeri Country. He is a member of the Australian Institute of Architects’ First Nations Advisory Working Group and has been a juror for the Institute’s awards program. He has participated as a guest university critic, a speaker and a moderator on panels with EmAGN, BLAKitecture and Reconciliation Week.
I’m an architect. I enjoy designing simple spaces and material composition. I enjoy detailing, early-morning conversations with builders on site and resolving construction details. I enjoy the technical aspects of architecture and of being an architect.
I’m also white.
I took the decision not to disclose my Indigeneity to my employers and to focus on learning the necessary skills to be an architect.
The trend to engage with First Peoples within the discipline was beginning during my time at university and became more marked in my formative years post-university. I had feared that disclosing my Indigeneity in my workplace would distract from my desire to learn and build on the fundamental aspects of architecture. I did not want to be the Aboriginal voice in my office; I wasn’t ready to be the token Indigenous representative or for competitive corporations to exploit my cultural identity. And I did not want to fall victim to cultural loading in a workplace.
This is not a position that all First Peoples can take, and this period of hiding my identity remains a constant source of shame and guilt for me. I have a responsibility within practice, and within the built environment, to acknowledge and work with Country and community. As architects and built environment professionals working on Country, we all share this responsibility.
When I felt comfortable with my role and skillset, I “revealed” my heritage.
I had entered my employment as an architectural graduate with the intent to be a project architect and my cultural identity had not previously been considered. The opportunities that followed my disclosure were exceptional, but overwhelming. My fears about the weight of expectation and the tokenization of my cultural identity were realized. While I was presented with plentiful opportunities for leading projects, for polemic design, and for engaging with and working with community, I couldn’t help but feel that my voice was being misused. For example, I cannot write from an “Indigenous perspective” because we are not a homogeneous group and I am a visitor to the Country from which I write.
I am grateful for my opportunities and bear no resentment.
I had not learnt this at the time: It is okay to say no to these opportunities, to set boundaries around what you do and do not feel comfortable with.
The interest in engagement and understanding no longer feels like a trend and, much like the environmental or sustainable movement, this one will be led by practice and not by government or authority. But before attesting to proficiency in responsible and appropriate cultural engagement, built environment professionals need to reach a place where they are culturally aware; to truly understand terms such as “cultural loading,” “cultural knowledge” and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property; and to give space for blak voices within practice.
Elisapeta Heta is principal and Kaihautā Whaihanga – Māori Design Leader at Aotearoa design practice Jasmax, where she guides the practice’s bicultural strategy. Of Ngātiwai, Ngāpuhi, Waikato Tainui, Sāmoan and Tokelauan whakapapa (affiliation), she is an advocate for change, speaking internationally to provide Māori and Pasifika perspectives on the importance of place to design and cultural identity.
I want to begin by stating a fact: Indigenous people’s presence within our industry still feels, and is, radical, political and agitative. I mean this in terms of both the burden being carried by the few of us trying to negotiate this space, and the absolute power in the change we are instigating. There is beauty in standing in the margin, and in recentering our voices from where we are. To our young Indigenous practitioners: I encourage you to channel this space as one of agency.
Across the colonized world, an important acculturation is necessitating huge societal shifts; naturally, these shifts are being reflected in our industry. How, though, are we (Indigenous practitioners) being supported to keep up with the supply-demand shortfall caused by the desire, and the need, for Indigenous knowledge, systems, processes and design outcomes to be embedded into our built environment outcomes? How do we achieve this when Indigenous people have, historically, been locked out of educational opportunities and disconnected from our relationship to land?
Given this, how can we encourage young Indigenous practitioners to envision a future in the built environment that feels like a viable way to live out their ancestors’ greatest dreams?
To our non-Indigenous practitioners, my advice is this: get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Shake off any ego or fragility around this shift. Lean in to having two ears and one mouth – do twice as much listening. The Indigenous world view is inherently different and that difference – the idea that everything you know to be true needs to be challenged, overturned and re-analyzed – is an uncomfortable space. The idea that knowledge-holders from outside of “traditional” practice might be able not only to challenge but to add inextricable value to the creation of the built environment is an opportunity to add value to your program and your budget. I promise.
As an industry, the built environment can support Indigenous practitioners through really interrogating what it means to provide safe spaces for us to practise – places for us to learn what it means to grow our professional experience and show up in the fullness of our Indigenous identity. We bring the joy of another world view to the dimension of a project. And I don’t mean just our token presence, by sprinkling in a few words in our language; I mean our real presence. We’ve got big aspirations for our people, and all peoples will benefit.
Kevin O’Brien identifies as a descendent of the Kaurareg and Meriam people of north-eastern Australia. He is a principal at BVN, based in Brisbane, and an adjunct professor at the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney.
The acceptance of Indigenous perspectives in the built environment in Australia has slowly gained traction over the past 25 years. Certainly, it began at a glacial pace over the first 20 years post–my 1995 graduation from architecture at the University of Queensland. Over the last five years, however, a small cohort of practising architects has been in high demand, alongside a new wave of architectural graduates eager to get involved.
The 2020 release of the Connecting with Country1 and Designing with Country2 discussion papers by the Government Architect New South Wales, through the leadership of Dillon Kombumerri, realized an opportunity for solely Indigenous voices to articulate a framework around the relationship between our cultures and the built environment. The inclusion of Connecting with Country as an objective in the New South Wales planning process via the State Design Review Panel marked a significant milestone.
This is part of a longer project begun by Kombumerri in 1995 with the establishment of the Merrima Aboriginal Design Unit within the Government Architect’s office. The unit launched an exploration, by way of practice, of the power of our cultures to inform a genuine approach to architecture. With the unwavering support of the then-Government Architect Chris Johnson, members including Alison Page, Michael Mossman3 and myself were afforded opportunities to work directly with communities throughout New South Wales to advance projects in such fields as education, health and the arts. It was not easy, but we were young, eager and full of energy, and we fought hard to make space for our work. For us as young graduates, it was the equivalent of an apprenticeship. Not only did we develop our technical and professional skills, but the more we immersed ourselves in communities and projects, the better we were able to frame our thinking.
Personally, my thesis, “Aboriginality and Architecture: Built projects by Merrima and unbuilt projects on Mer,” revealed an idea between culture and architecture that enabled me to develop my own practice and a number of built projects. A highlight was the independently funded Finding Country exhibition as an official collateral event for the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. Since joining BVN as a principal in 2018, this experience, and the opportunity to draw on guidance from mentors and community alike, has resulted in the formulation of a BVN Designing with Country framework, which is freely available for use.4
My accumulated knowledge is the result of these incremental steps from graduate, to architect, to project lead, and it signals a clash of trajectories. With the growing awareness of the need to include Indigenous people and concepts of place within architecture and the city, we have on one line the rise of “influencers” from non-practising, non-architectural and non-Indigenous backgrounds. On a converging line sit non-Indigenous practising architects who, whether by desire or by compulsion, use the “Indigenous consultant” as a value-add for bids. Spearing in on a counter line is the new wave of graduates and early-career practitioners: ambitious, smart and finding themselves on a collision course with the previous axes. Out on a slightly diverging line are the likes of myself, Jefa Greenaway and Craig Kerslake; with more than 75 years of combined architectural practice and experience, we are still searching for clients and communities who will support projects that we can comprehensively lead and deliver. I am most curious about the aftermath of this clash.
1 Government Architect New South Wales, Better Placed: Draft Connecting with Country, issue no. 01, 2020, governmentarchitect.nsw.gov.au/resources/ga/media/files/ga/discussion-papers/draft-connecting-with-country-framework-2020-11-12.pdf (accessed 16 June 2022).
2 Government Architect New South Wales, Designing with Country, March 2020, aidr.org.au/media/7760/designing-with-country-discussion-paper.pdf (accessed 16 June 2022).
3 Michael Mossman worked with Dillon Kombumerri from 2002 to 2016, after Merrima was disbanded.
4 BVN, Designing with Country, 2021, bvn.com.au/tenet/designing-with-country (accessed 16 June 2022).
Timmah Ball is a writer, zine maker and cultural producer of Ballardong Noongar heritage. Her work is influenced by her study of urban planning and a number of years of work in the industry.
Over a number of years, momentum has grown toward Indigenous praxis and methodologies in the design and planning industries. This has increased the recognition of and the desire for blak conceptions of place and ways to decolonize traditional or western approaches to city-making in urban, regional and remote contexts. While the benefits have included an improved understanding of First Peoples’ ongoing sovereignty and the need to address Eurocentric industry norms, exposure and opportunities have not always proved mutually beneficial for Aboriginal practitioners. Those who identify as Indigenous in workplace situations are often asked to participate in blak design events, conferences and staff networks, which extend knowledge for both the individual and the wider organization. But it is important that the value of these staff members is recognized not only in these situations.
Following are my brief guidelines to improve how the industry works with First Nation practitioners and to help ensure that blak design thinking continues to enrich the industry.
Working with First Nations practitioners
Provide clear and transparent remuneration standards when approaching Indigenous practitioners for freelance work. Avoid general statements that emphasize the desire to decolonize a
work process or project; instead, clearly outline the conditions and rate of pay.
Avoid approaching practitioners for pro bono work, such as volunteer or unpaid roles on boards, guest lectures, academic articles, interviews or judging panels, as people often have other responsibilities that are prioritized over unpaid work.
Don’t assume that First Nation practitioners can only benefit projects that are perceived as “Indigenous,” such as community consultations or the design of a building or masterplan that is specifically for Aboriginal people. Our skills are needed across all sectors and can greatly benefit projects by ensuring that they meetthe needs of Aboriginal people and are delivered in ways that respect Country.
Ensure that multiple views and perspectives are sought, rather then relying on a single staff member, and never assume that all First Nation professionals will share the same opinions. People come from 350-plus language groups and bring their unique cultural perspectives.
Be prepared to work slowly to ensure that complex cultural views can be included.
Provide positive career development opportunities to ensure that First Nation staff don’t get stuck in mid-career roles with limiting portfolios or responsibilities. Question organizations that have blak staff but few or none in leadership roles.
Critically examine personal or unconscious biases in the workplace, such as behaviour that resorts to cliché or makes assumptions about First Peoples’ behaviour / appearance.1
1 Books such as Debbie Bargallie’s Unmasking the Racial Contract: Indigenous voices on racism in the Australian Public Service (Aboriginal Studies Press,
2020) and Chelsea Watego’s Another Day in the Colony (UQP, 2021) can help with this.
Georgia Birks is associate editor at Architecture Media, a graduate of architecture and co-curator of the Asia Pacific Architecture Festival.
05 Sep 2022
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable:
Supporting First Nations practitioners
Sep / Oct