Australian indigenous architecture
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Traditional Indigenous architecture was domestic—across a range of well crafted and technologically designed shelters and residential camps. These varied from temporary windbreaks and wiltjas (shelters) of stringybark or paperbark to substantial round houses thatched with grass for large families.
The new architecture of the 21st century designed by university-trained Indigenous architects has reflected the desires and standing of community life that reflect upon change and identity.
Meriam house of the Torres Strait Islands. Courtesy of Queensland Museum and Aboriginal Environments Research Centre.
The materials of construction varied across geographic regions depending on the availability and supply of materials. In cold regions of southeastern Australia, stone huts were built. In South Australia, whale bones were used as a framework for structures. In the Western Desert, tree limbs were used for shelter frames and spinifex for the cladding. In the Lake Eyre region, mud was used with grass to waterproof dome shelters.
The types of construction varied from dome frameworks made of cane through spinifex-clad arc-shaped structures, to tripod and triangular shelters, and to elongated, egg-shaped, stone-based structures with a timber frame, and pole and platform constructions. Annual base camp structures, whether dome houses in the rainforests of Queensland and Tasmania or stone-based houses in southeastern Australia, were designed for use over many years by the same family groups.
Indigenous Australian architecture has been influenced largely by Indigenous social organisation, heritage, and social change caused by colonisation and settlement. Indigenous architecture is built around clan groups. This extended to the camps and Indigenous townships of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The layout of individual shelters in campsites had to account for kinship and behaviour patterns between group members. For example, there had to be separate shelters for married families, old men, girls, boys, single men and single women. Together with ceremonial dance grounds, these dictated the overall structure of a camp.
Some dwellings were used for ceremonial purposes. The Raminidjeri people of the Lower Murray region associated star constellations with the houses and camps of Ancestor Spirits. Drawings done on the inside of bark shelters to illustrate Dreaming stories prefigured the later production of bark paintings.
A.A. White, This village is in a woodland not far from a mountainous rainforest area at Bellenden Ker in Yidinjdji country (detail of intersecting dome-type shelters), c. 1904. Image courtesy of Aboriginal Environments Research Centre.
Dome-shaped shelters extended across Australia, serving as both temporary and permanent structures for annual base camps. Well-constructed, grass-clad dome structures were used as permanent camps at Crawley on the Swan River, Western Australia. In the Lake Eyre region, South Australia, mud was used with grass to waterproof the dome shelters and circular stone-walled houses which were constructed in villages.
Rainforest townships—northeast Queensland
In the wet season in the north-east rainforest areas of Queensland, annual camps with permanent dome structures made of cane were located close to a river or creek, and built and maintained for several years. The clearings were maintained to allow for maximum light, and to minimise dripping water and dropping branches.
In 1875, 11 townships of well-thatched gunyahs, big enough to hold six people, were observed in four miles of scrub near Herberton (Mulligan 1876). In 1877, outside Cairns, there was a camp of about 300 people.
Circular or oval dome shelters were clad and thatched from palm leaves—fan palms, cycad palms and wild banana—as well as grass, melaleuca bark or a combination of these. A large-span dome house could be constructed for several family groups. Otherwise, an interconnected cluster connected by passages could be built. Small shelters might also serve as a windbreak or a 'dyadu' might serve as a shade shelter (Yidiny language group, near Cairns, Dixon 1977).
Tasmanian dome constructions
Dome shelters were also in western Tasmania, where there are pockets of relatively high rainfall caused by local mountains. These dome constructions were warm and weatherproof, occupied for long periods, and located near good fishing areas, fresh water and edible figs. Some of these were lined with paperbark and decorated with feathers.
Domes ranged up to 3.6 m in diameter and 2.4 m high with a vertical semi-ellipse as an entrance. Often there was artwork on the inside of walls showing geometric forms, humans, animals and birds.
Unknown photographer, Winter shelter covered in spinifex grass used throughout inland Australia. Image courtesy of Aboriginal Culture.
In the Western Desert region, a distinctive architecture of spinifex or hummock grass as cladding over domed frames dominated. Windbreaks were constructed of piled-up boughs of Acacia or Cassia species with gaps filled in with grass. These were laid out as a circular arc, a crescent or linear form with the wall always to windward. Fully enclosed shelters were built of selected limbs and clad with spinifex and other types of foliage. These shelters usually had no regard to wind or rain-proofing, as the lower part was semi-open and allowed the breeze to flow through.
Dome-shaped semi-enclosed wiltjas, such as in the Warburton Ranges, were made of upright mulga boughs inserted into holes, with the brushy ends upwards. They were then given an outer covering of tussock grass. The maximum internal height of these was about 1.7 metres.
Aboriginal stone architecture is part of a range of Indigenous stone engineering structures that were built. These include stone-walled fish traps in the sea and rivers, weirs, canals, ovens and ceremonial stone layouts on the ground. Naturally-occurring stone caves and rock overhangs were also used for shelter, although these were usually used for other activities than camping.
Stone houses were seen in the Australian Alps and flat slab slate-type stone houses were described in the north-east of South Australia, built as a dome on heavy limbs with heavy clay to fill the gaps (Basedow 1925, p. 103).
In the Warringah area, north of Port Jackson, Sydney, stone shelters were built in an elongated egg shape with clay infill to keep out groundwater to prevent flooding. A hole was made in the roof to let smoke out and an animal hide was used to keep out the rain. They were lined with fern, grasses and paperbark. Possum skin rugs were also used. The same shelter would be used by the same family for many years (Foley 2001, pp. 186-7).
Western Victorian lava-stone structures
The abundance of basalt stones and rocks around Lake Condah allowed the Gunditjmara people to develop complex stone structures. These structures included not only houses but also eel traps based on a complex system of creeks, ponds, weirs, traps and gates. Local groups owned different estates including eel traps and other structures like a village, which were passed on to descendants.
This area was included on the National Heritage List in 2005 as part of the Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape. It contains the only remaining permanent houses built by an Indigenous community in Australia.
Stone structures like those at lake Condah have also been found across south-western Victoria. Windbreaks were formed of stone as well as roofed storehouses in the Eumeralla River region, Lake Condah and around Mt Eccles.
In 1842, near Bessibelle, around 500 people inhabited a 'village' of houses built of stone with sod cladding on a timber-framed dome (George Robinson, Aboriginal Protector, March 1842). In 1898, a number of circular stone walls were seen south of Lake Condah. These had been roofed with boughs and bark like an ordinary hut.
Paul Memmott, A humpy retained as a past lifestyle symbol in a rural town in western New South Wales in 1999 with an ATSIC house behind (detail), 1999. Image courtesy of Architecture Australia.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, camp settlements began to develop around the fringes of towns. The town camps, ranging from one or two dozen people to several hundred, comprised a number of 'humpies' constructed from bark, bags, kerosene tins and scraps of wood and corrugated iron sheeting. Humpy floors were made of compacted earth, or sometimes with carpet or lino. Town camps reflected the layout of traditional camps, where structures emphasised external living and a high degree of interaction between people for activities such as cooking, eating, sleeping and washing.
While usually built as single-room dwellings, some town camp humpies were added to as families grew. For example, the Wilcannia town camps developed their own distinctive architecture over 50 years as interconnected rooms were added to humpies. Camps were also built on pastoral leases, government reserves and missions using the same architectural principles as the town camps.
Town camps reached a peak in the 1950s and 1960s, which coincided with many town laws which excluded Aborigines from entering townsites until the 1967 Referendum. Since the 1970s, town camps have steadily declined and subsequently replaced by conventional Western housing with water supply and sewerage systems.
However, town camps around Alice Springs have developed as an alternative and viable structure for clans people from the different language areas around Alice Springs. Tangentyere Council was established to assist Indigenous people, living on the outskirts of Alice Springs, to gain legal ownership so that they could obtain services in the form of water, electricity and housing on the parcels of land. The Council was able to obtain legal status of 18 parcels of land which are now Leases in Perpetuity in favour of the owners of the land. Progress has been made to provide housing, though there is still some way to go and regular maintenance to the housing stock needs to be addressed.
In the late 20th century, the first Indigenous students of university-based architecture and design courses in Australia graduated. Some contemporary Indigenous architects incorporate different aspects of traditional Indigenous cultural references and symbolism, and fuse modern residential architecture with traditional styles. Others avoid the iconic representation of Aboriginal ancestors or references to 'The Dreamtime', and instead pursues different approaches to the question of identity and architecture.
Brett Boardman, Aboriginal Medical Service, 2004. Designed by Merrima Design Group. Image courtesy of Indigo.
Contemporary designs may reflect traditional layouts of camps, such as the Wilcannia Health Services project in western New South Wales by Merrima Design Group. The design incorporates large, open spaces for meetings and has a focus on external spaces. Although it draws on references from the Darling River and its sacredness to Barkanji people, it does not obviously abstract any Barkanji ancestors. The 'Shroud House Project', the residential property of Indigenous architectural graduate Carroll Go-Sam, incorporated a fusion between contemporary architecture and Dyirrbal symbols.
Andrew Lane, Queensland's first registered Indigenous architect, was first employed in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing section of the Queensland Department of Housing, then at the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs where he designed the Yuendumu Art Centre.
Community-based public architecture
Indigenous communities and architects have collaborated with non-Indigenous people on projects to design public buildings that account for the relationships between family members, are characterised by Indigenous symbolism and meaning, and integrate with the landscape to show the Indigenous notion of connectedness with the land.
The Tjulyuru Ngaanyatjarri Cultural and Civic Centre in Warburton, Western Australia, designed by Insideout Architects, was designed to reflect the landscape and culture in which it is set. It provides meeting areas as a unique environment in which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can mix, and through which visitors can immerse themselves in Ngaanyatjarra culture. The Centre demonstrates a shift in emphasis in Indigenous tourism from 'presenting culture as an object...to culture as a subject' (Mike Parsons).
Unknown photographer, Brambuk Living Cultural Centre. Image courtesy of Gregory Burgess Pty Ltd Architects.
Spiritual symbolism and attachment to the land have been significant considerations in creating culturally appropriate designs. Gregory Burgess designed the Brambuk Living Cultural Centre and Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre at Uluru. The Brambuk's undulating roofline makes reference to the ranges and to the shape of the Djab wurrung's and Jardwadjali's totemic symbol, the cockatoo. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre was designed in collaboration with the Aboriginal community.
The Musgrave Park Cultural Centre was designed on behalf of Musgrave Park Aboriginal Corporation (MPAC) to incorporate the needs of clients, Centre functions, activities, cultural issues, Indigenous meanings and symbolic aspects.
The goanna-shaped Karijini National Park Visitors Centre in north-west Western Australia similarly reflects totemic symbols by basing the design on an animal. Designed by Woodhead International, the Centre houses an interpretative display which talks about the history of the Park and its inhabitants. The design concept was to take a visitor out of the vastness of the landscape, to confine their thoughts, and then tell them about the place. The Aboriginal story is a major part of the display.
References to geographic features are apparent in some designs. For example, Ashton Raggatt McDougall completed the National Museum of Australia and AIATSIS in 2001. The site is marked by a great axis which joins the Federal Parliament House with Uluru in Central Australia.
Recognition of contemporary Indigenous architecture
Indigenous architecture has been steadily gaining interest over the past 20 years, and is assuming a more professional profile in the architecture industry. The Aboriginal Environments Research Centre, based at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, was established in 1979 and has been a focus of research into Indigenous Australian architecture. The Centre is involved in consultancies on Indigenous building projects and designs, and supports graduate students with research supervision.
Research into Indigenous Australian architecture has been undertaken by a number of academics, such as Paul Memmott, Kim Dovey, Shaneen Fantin, Mathilde Lochert, Cathy Keys, Joseph Reser and Catherine Chambers.
The national Indigenous housing conference Which Way? - Directions in Indigenous Housing was run by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. Held in Alice Springs, October 2007, it focused on housing research, design practice and housing construction.
State government departments incorporate specific units to supply culturally appropriate, affordable housing for Indigenous communities. These include the Queensland Department of Housing, New South Wales Aboriginal Housing Office, Aboriginal Housing Victoria, Aboriginal Housing Services Tasmania, Northern Territory Department of Housing, Local Government and Regional Services, South Australian Department for Families and Communities, and the Western Australian Department of Housing and Works.
Indigenous architecture resources
- Aboriginal culture - housing
- An introduction to architecture + building traditions
- Design concepts and processes for public Aboriginal architecture
- History of Indigenous architecture
Basedow, Herbert, The Australian Aboriginal, Preece, Adelaide, 1925.
Dixon, R. M., A grammar of Yidin, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Foley, Dennis, Repossession of our spirit: traditional owners of northern Sydney, Aboriginal History Inc., 2001.
Memmott, Paul, Gunyah, Goondie + Wurley: The Aboriginal architecture of Australia, University of Queensland Press, 2007.
Mulligan, James V., 'Expedition in search of gold and other minerals in the Palmer districts', Queensland Parliamentary Proceedings, Legislative Assembly Journals, Record No. 33, Government Printer, Brisbane, 1876.
Last updated: 7th January 2008
Creators: David Gardiner, Kathryn Wells