I have discovered again the profound realisation that there in plain sight across the continent was the evidence of the ingenuity of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents in the structures they designed and built.” Marcia Langton AO in the foreword.

The book, Gunyah Goondie and Wurley was published in its second edition by last month. The contents are as described on the cover’s subtitle, The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia. A huge topic, done brilliantly.

It could be the most important Australian book published this year on architecture, or indigenous culture, or the relation between society and design. But I'd say the most important book to be published in Australia this year. Big claim to explain.

The author, Paul Memmott, studied architecture in the late sixties in Brisbane, and became intrigued with indigenous culture. He studied anthropology and formed the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre at the University of Queensland (UQ) and with Peter Bycroft coined the term ‘ethno-architecture’ which evolved into ‘aboriginal architecture’, considered an oxymoron at that time.

Memmott spent 40 years staying in and studying many indigenous groups, in the coastal areas of Northern Australia and the Red Centre. He documented the designs he saw and researched through photographs, beautifully hand-drawn diagrams and plans, always seeking to place it in the social context.

His work was increasingly admired through academic papers that opened an area that many thought we should know better, but through white ignorance we didn’t. Memmott then poured his life's work of research into a single 400-page volume, published by the UQ Press in 2007.

This first edition was singular and spectacular. In large format with diverse layout and in sepia tones, it was elegantly presented (even if it had one section of colored photos like an old-fashioned illustrated text).

It was the most expensive book that UQ Press had ever published; with a relatively small print run that quickly sold out. It became a much-prized volume and its scarcity drove the secondhand market to price it over $2,000. This seemed ludicrous until you saw the book: it’s unique insight into Aboriginal responses to climate and materials, and crucially, as the book made clear, design is always based ‘on country’.

Memmott translated deep, well-researched academic work into a book that was easily comprehended by architects, designers and readers. He describes the responses to climatic conditions, how sunshade, wind shielding, or cold protection drive various solutions. How social mores require certain spatial arrangements in town camps and in the bush. How implements have been developed for making of the ‘bush shelters’ whose various dialect names give the book its title.

The book brought to light the first nations’ creative interpretations and inventive ways that we had ignored; critically the last of the 12 chapters sought to bring the ideas gathered from numerous mobs into the contemporary sphere.

Memmott recounts that people wrote to him almost weekly asking for it to be republished. And thankfully fifteen years later it has been, this time by Thames and Hudson, supported by the Australian Institute of Architects. The second edition is far more than a reprint; it’s a wholly new volume. Based on the original work, the book has been edited and expanded, reorganised and graphically reworked. It's a handsome book, in full colour which doesn’t bleed through the heavy matt paper stock.

The colour allows for additional ‘boxed sections’, highlighting special studies, in one case, sourcing traditional photographs that depict the early first nations buildings, (like that used by Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu). The book is 400 pages as before, but almost twice as thick from the quality paper, and retains all the original reference contents including a glossary and the detailed notes.

Overall, the graphic design is clearer, better laid out, and easier to read. My only beef is that Memmott’s beautiful hand sketches rendered in pale colors is not as good as the original in dark sepia. But that’s a small gripe in such a momentous volume.

Just as in the first edition, the last chapter (number 13 in the new edition) looks to the future through contemporary work, with a series of small buildings that have been influenced by his work in the first edition. These too are carefully chosen and curated. They illustrate how some of these ideas can be taken into new architecture.

My last commendation is the Foreword, by well-known indigenous activist Marcia Langton. She lauds the work, of course, and is herself no stranger to a better second edition. Her own book, ‘Welcome to Country’, is a brilliant guidebook to indigenous tourism that tops my list of texts bringing indigenous culture to a wide audience; it was re-released a year later at twice the length.

Gunyah Goondie and Wurley incites a radical but essential rethinking of what is ‘Australian architecture’. There is so much to absorb from this book as it gifts us an understanding of indigenous culture. We move from ignorance to interest and intelligence. Memmott will one day be seen as the soothsayer for integrating indigenous and contemporary architecture.

Rather than paying $2,000, you can now buy a copy of Gunyah Goondie and Wurley for about $120. I invite you to check out my “seemingly over the top claim” by putting it on the top of your summer reading list, (before heading off to an indigenous locality taken from Langton's book).

Just read the bloody thing.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his / contact at [email protected]