As at 30 June 2016, 3.3% of the total Australian population were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. However, although only making up 3.3% of the Australian population, 20% of those classified as homeless were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, with 70% living in severely overcrowded dwellings.
Housing conditions and living standards, together with other factors such as environmental standards, a sense of community, education and lifestyle, inexorably affect the health of a population. In remote Australia, overcrowding, a lack of culturally appropriate housing and community layouts which do not meet the basic needs of the community have contributed to our indigenous population having poorer health, lower life-expectancy and lower education than the non-indigenous population.
This issue has long been recognised and discussion around these issues is becoming louder. In 2007 the Australian Government committed to ‘closing the gap’ between indigenous and non-indigenous populations and, in 2020, a housing target was included for the first time. It has also commenced the Indigenous Voice program, a co-design process to develop models for an indigenous voice at a local, regional and national level.
Last month saw the tabling of the Senate Report on the effectiveness of the federal government’s northern Australia agenda. This report acknowledged that housing is at the centre of addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inclusion and disadvantage across Australia and that it has more than just a social and cultural issue. It is also an economic issue and the report estimated that the combined economic and social cost of overcrowding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations is expected to exceed $100 million per annum over the next 15 years.
Primarily, the report recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face systemic barriers to access stable and affordable housing that is appropriate for individual and community needs and, further, that housing needs to be culturally appropriate. Providing culturally appropriate housing should, and hopefully will, become a focus and is a step in the right direction.
Yet, what is culturally appropriate? As these issues gain traction in the media and across the nation, now is the time to consider how some of these issues can be addressed. What should culturally appropriate housing look like? And how should this be determined? I don’t profess to having the answers and, being a non-indigenous middle class white female, I may not be the person best placed to provide these answers and nor do I purport to be so. However, we have a shared responsibility to ask these questions.
Whilst the physical manifestations of indigenous housing might suggest that western and indigenous ideologies are diametrically opposed, if we take a step backwards, we may find that this may not necessarily be the case. In western philosophy, there has long been discussion about the significance of the home. Where we live is fundamentally important and acts as a regulating mechanism for our connections and relationships with other people and entities. There is a symbiotic relationship between people and place. For Bachelard, the house is a shelter, which helps shape a person’s identity. He writes, in Poetics of Space, that “our house is the corner of our world” and that “all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home.”
The house therefore becomes the embodiment of a person’s past, present and future, allowing memories, thoughts and dreams to coalesce and shape his or her identity. As Bachelard writes, “[t]he house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and crannies was a resting-place for daydreaming. Therefore, the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as day-dreams that these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all time.” And in Place and Placelessness, phenomenologist Edward Relph sees places as fusions “of human and natural order” and the “significant centres of our immediate experiences of the world.”
Place is therefore an anchor.
There are similarities between Bachelard’s philosophy and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s relationship with place and the concept of Country which underpins their culture. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, place is sentient. The past is always present. A continuity of knowledge and communication invokes a sense of timelessness rather than a few fleeting moments in time.
This strong connection with Country is the foundation of Australian Aboriginal culture, relationships and social and political systems. People are related to place and place is related to people. It follows that relational accountability is the foundation of indigenous axiology. This means that, unlike the traditional western perception of architecture which focuses on the built form, it is the relationship between the built form and place which is paramount.
Any design is based on a set of underlying beliefs, made up of ontology (the way we view reality), epistemology (how we know this reality), axiology (ethics and morals) and methodology (how we gain more knowledge about reality). When looking at the design of housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, an emphasis should be placed on indigenous ontology, epistemology and axiology. However, it is arguable that an indigenous understanding of Country is still absent in the western models of indigenous housing.
To date, we have sought to impose western design hypotheses onto the design of housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Housing in this context has typically been developed on the basis of cultural appropriateness and is process driven (e.g. involving and empowering indigenous communities). Much of what has been seen as culturally appropriate is based on colonial anthropological perceptions of traditional Aboriginal dwellings and culture. Based on this purported understanding of Aboriginality viewed through a colonial lens, the focus has been on the ways that people will use the housing and on the quality and cost effectiveness of the housing.
We need to reconsider the notions of design drawn from western derived thought and develop an epistemological, ontological and axiological understanding of architecture and the built form through an indigenous lens. This lens shows that a person’s relationship to an object is more important than the object itself. It is founded in the notion of Country and is imbued with the sense of relationality between all entities, both human and non-human, of Country.
Western design paradigms tend to focus on the shaping of places to accommodate human activities, enabling safe and healthy environments. In contrast, indigenous Australians perceive that land use planning is about custodianship of place and Country to sustain its health and those of all its occupants, to celebrate its past in anticipation of the return of ancestors and to protect the land and waters for future generations. Placemaking, siting and design of housing is important as it conveys and enables knowledge, respect and a sharing of responsibility of Country. Accordingly, relational ontology, epistemology and methodology are necessary conditions of any successful design of housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Although indigenous communities across Australia may broadly share the same ontology, axiology and epistemology, there is not a “one size fits all” solution and each community must be looked at individually through the lenses of relational accountability and positionality in order to determine the most effective approach with respect to community engagement and participation.
It follows that the process of design needs to look beyond the built form. There is an inherent crossover with anthropology and comparative philosophy and there is a need for a willingness by architects and designers to accept a different world view. It is not enough to merely appropriate and display elements of indigenous culture. Symbolism and cultural references, while often well intended, can seem disingenuous. There is increasingly a recognition in other spheres, such as health, conservation, education and the environment that an indigenous epistemological, ontological, and axiological understanding is necessary for positive change to be effected. This needs to flow into architecture and design so that the built form can realise its potential to become a vehicle through which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can connect with Country and through which the non-indigenous can develop an understanding and respect for these beliefs.
We can debate and prevaricate about the strengths and weaknesses in housing designs we have seen to date. Typically, the design of indigenous housing has been governed by a non-indigenous, western world view. Yet, although this world view is often incompatible with the relational world view held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it need not be so.
Much focus has been placed on addressing issues such as health, crime and education which, in many ways can be seen as a symptom of the housing problem. We need to encourage an approach which addresses housing as one of the causes of these problems. We should not underestimate the ability of lawmakers and health professionals to address these broader issues. Yet, although we shouldn’t overplay the role of architects and planning and design professionals, they also have the ability to effect change through the built form. Research has long recognised that the built environment has an impact, both positive and negative, on well-being. Yet only a small percentage of registered architects in Australia identify as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. And although moving in the right direction, many universities are not delving deeper into these issues and discussing, comparatively, western and non-western philosophies, ontologies, epistemologies and axiologies in the context of planning and design. Until such time as this is inherent in an understanding of design, and even when it becomes so, the positionality of architects, designers and planners engaging in this area needs to be acknowledged.
We need to try to separate our own, colonial world view when looking at design of indigenous housing and, instead, see it through the relational lens of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems. This is essential if housing is to be designed in a way which reflects and respects indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing. This should be normalised and become a first principle, embedded in design in much the same way as sustainability now is.
Main image: Iltja Ntjarra / Many Hands Art Centre, Sydney Biennale, 2020. Fourteen artists from Iltja Ntjarra / Many Hands Art Centre explored stories of country and struggles with housing and displacement. Connection to country, depicted by painted landscapes, is juxtaposed against cycles of dispossession and a life on the move, symbolised by the ‘dollar shop’ bags onto which the landscapes are painted. Participating artists: Kathleen France, Noreen Hudson, Clara Inkamala, Dellina Inkamala, Kathy Inkamala, Reinhold Inkamala, Vanessa Inkamala, Janie Karpa, Gloria Pannka, Hubert Pareroultja, Ivy Pareroultja, Mervyn Rubuntja, Hillary Wirri.
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