A recent report conducted by Arcadia has revealed that in order to end the colonisation of spaces, Australian architects must move towards an Indigenous-led Country-centred design approach. 

The report, titled Shaping Country: Cultural Engagement in Australia’s Built Environment, identifies the need to significantly grow meaningful representation from First Nations knowledge holders on major projects, while breeding an industry-wide culture of striving to exceed design guidelines and legislation, rather than the cultural ‘box-ticking’ approach which persists today. 

The report aligns with the 2021 NAIDOC Week theme ‘Heal Country!’ and saw the practice collaborate with Budawang/Yuin researcher and spatial and cultural designer Dr Danièle Hromek and Yuin woman Kaylie Salvatori, Arcadia’s Indigenous Landscape Strategist.

susan wakil health building arcadia

Hromek says the industry must move towards incorporating Indigenous values into their designs.

“Until the processes we use to design our built environments are adapted to include community, culture and Country, colonisation of our spaces will continue. First Peoples originated from Country and are therefore essential interpreters to truly knowing a place,” she says.

“Country has a relational methodology, meaning that we, people, are related to all things through Country, including flora, fauna, earth, rocks, winds, elements – from the most diminutive microbe to the amorphous ocean. 

“This methodology of relationships keeps everything in balance, as no single entity is privileged above another. This includes humans. The methodology of Country can – and, I believe, must – be incorporated into the methodology of built environment design.”

Arcadia, who celebrates a decade as a practice this week, has identified a lack of First Nations people in the built environment. The practice has called for wider industry action to help encourage more First Nations people to consider a career in this field.

“I cannot speak for all Indigenous people,” says Arcadia’s Indigenous Strategist and First Nations woman Kaylie Salvatori.

“There is a lot of pressure on me to have all the answers or know all the intricacies of my culture. But even I am still learning. We need more First Nations people on design teams not only so that they can represent the interests of more Indigenous groups, but also so they can forge trusted relationships with local communities.”

The Shaping Country report puts forward five key ideas to help architects implement Indigenous values into their design processes:

  • Engaging with Knowledge Holders: what gets in the way, how to engage and examples of collaboration processes
  • Engaging with Country – healing the land, project case study
  • Engaging with Industry – achieving ‘Better Placed’ design, how culture impacts commercial outcomes
  • What to do when you can’t engage
  • Where to next – actions for the built environment

Arcadia has long been an advocate of citing Indigenous principles within architectural buildings. A recent example of this was the landscape and public realm for the Susan Wakil Health Building, on Gadigal country at the University of Sydney, that interprets the cycle of healing, stirring the body, mind and soul, to reflect the Gadigal people’s approach to healing through the engagement of all the human senses in a contemporary setting.

susan wakil health building arcadia

Arcadia’s Founding Principal Alex Longley says the practice has been continually refining its approach to cultural engagement and design over the last decade, and believes the industry is at a real turning point. 

“The field of landscape architecture is something of a front-runner in terms of pre-reconciliatory progress, as there is synergy between our design philosophies and the way First Peoples think about and respond to the land,” he says.

“We hope that by providing this Report, we can spark conversation and action beyond just landscape architecture and into the wider built environment industry, so every person in the sector recognises the role they have to play in making progress.”

Arcadia has delivered nearly 900 projects over the past decade, honing a holistic design strategy that nurtures and celebrates human experience, Connection to Country and collaboration with First Nations people. The practice has also endeavoured to address under-representation of First Nations people in the landscape architecture industry, offering scholarships for Indigenous students to study Landscape Architecture at the University of New South Wales since 2017, and last year extended the offer to seven more universities across the country.

Arcadia’s Report Shaping Country: Cultural Engagement in Australia’s Built Environment can be viewed here.