Indigenous affairs

Noongar vernacular


In the afternoon, the sun hits the side of Edith Cowan University’s golden Ngoolark building and filters through the perforated metal. Patterns resembling feathers are cast in shadow on the concrete pavement below.

The Ngoolark building literally glows

Students carry cups of coffee and come and go from all directions, winding paths carrying them to their meeting place in the middle; the recently built student services building known as Ngoolark.

“The Ngoolark is the white-tailed black cockatoo,” says ECU Awareness Officer, and Noongar man, Jason Barrow.

“The white-tailed black cockatoo is significant to Noongar culture. It’s significant to the entire region.”

Ngoorlark is a shining example among a groundswell of building projects whose architects are now engaging with the traditional custodians of Western Australia’s Southwest, the Noongar people.

Lead architect Libby Guj

The $72 million structure was conceived and designed by a team that included a group of Noongar Elders, Mr Barrow, and lead architect Libby Guj.

The design comes from a desire to move away from what lead Guj describes as “tokenistic mosaics or gardens”.

The building grew from a two-page mind map produced by Barrow that incorporated all the things he believed were special in the area. The list includes the Jingee – the honey eater, the Bindi Bindi – the double spotted line blue butterfly, and the name-sake for the building: the Ngoolark, which is endemic to southwestern Australia.


Inside the Ngoorlark building

Barrow took his ideas to the Elders. He says they were moved by the gesture of a building design dedicated to their culture.

“From all the negative stories … never did they think they would see their culture being celebrated,” he says.

ECU Joondalup is the only university campus that carries its original Noongar name, and Ngoolark is the only ECU building with a name rather than a number.

‘Joondalup’ is derived from the Noongar word ‘Joondal’, meaning the place of silver moonlight reflecting on water.

Joondal, in the pavement design

This image is captured in ripples on the pavement outside the building.

Guj says the design team simulated the pattern of the pavement in a computer, which produced the course a river would make if it flowed between the concrete pillars.

“The billabong [was traditionally a] place where you would gather, which is what this building is,” she says.

The perforated gold coloured aluminum of the building’s exterior represents the tessellated chest feathers of the Ngoolark, while the pattern on the glazed glass is derived from the feathers of the Jingee.

Ngoolark architectural feature

The design includes an office with a mural of ngoolarks covering an entire wall, and a parents’ room with cartoon-drawn parent Ngoolarks, and a baby Ngoolark.

Barrow says it was the people involved and the strong relationship between them that made the Ngoolark building something special.

“Libby and I needed to quickly form a good, solid relationship whereby I needed to be mindful and respectful of the timelines of her project management and likewise she needed to be respectful of me in the appropriate consultation of our old people,” Barrow says.

Guj says what means the most to the Noongar people involved is that the design was more than just “a little something in the courtyard”.

“We said, ‘Well, actually the whole building is expressive all of these things’,” Guj says.

Guj says the design is a symbolic step toward recognising Aboriginal culture is often ignored.

Photo by Molly Schmidt

Ngoolark in the afternoon light

“… This building is a physical acknowledgment, which acknowledges pride, and whatever essence of pride you can put back in gives strength, psychologically and culturally,” she says.

Twenty-six kilometres to the south of Joondalup, in Western Australia’s state capital, Yagan Square, named after a prominent Noongar resistance fighter at the time of colonisation, is taking shape.

Yagan Square is part of the $737 million Perth City Link railway-sinking project that for the first time in more than a century will connect the Perth CBD with the culturally diverse locale of Northbridge.


Digital tower at Yagan Square

Kieran Kinsella, chief executive of the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority that is building Yagan Square, says recognition of a Noongar leader was a unique opportunity to incorporate Aboriginal culture in the CBD.

Mr Kinsella says the most obvious symbolic reflection of Noongar culture at Yagan Square is the digital tower, with 14 beams representing the Noongar language groups.

Noongar artist Sharyn Egan is one of the people working on art installations for the project, and says she is in two minds about the name.

“It is good to recognise Yagan, but Yagan is not from there, he is from out [at] Beeliar,” she says.

Yagan was part of the Beeliar Noongar clan, who lived to the south of Perth in the area now known as the City of Cockburn.

Egan’s paintings for the project are made from grass tree resin taken from around Bibra Lake, and represents the associations between fire and the grass tree, and the ancestral origin of Yagan.

Project architects from Lyon Architects and Iredale Pedersen Hook, collaborated with the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council and a representative group of the Whadjuk Noongar community.

Architect Finn Pedersen says the topic of Yagan’s homeland had been mentioned quite a few times at consultative workshops.

“Often our meetings would start with one of the Elders starting the meeting the same way,” he says.

“She would laugh and she’d say ‘now I am going to say this and I say it at every meeting, this is not Yagan’s country this is Balbuk’s country’.”

In the mid-nineteenth century, Fanny Balbuk was well known around the fledgling settlement of Perth for refusing to observe colonial obstacles to her usual pathways, including fences, and houses. If an element of Perth’s emerging built environment was erected on a path taken by her and her people before colonisation, she simply walked through or over it.

Pedersen says the design team responded strongly to the importance of Fanny Balbuk and reflected her resistance in the paved tracks at Yagan Square.


North Metropolitan TAFE

Yagan Square project director Neil Appleton, of Lyon Architects, says his work on North Metropolitan TAFE in 2011 showed the value of engaging with the Whadjuk Noongar community.

The TAFE is in Northbridge, not far from Yagan Square. Appleton says that consultation with Whadjuk Noongar people influenced the design of the building’s main library, with meeting pods shaped like ant hills and acoustic ceiling panels spread out like dot paintings.

Main library of North Metropolitan TAFE

Main library of North Metropolitan TAFE

Just inside the entrance foyer is the Koolark Support Centre for Indigenous students. Project architect James Wilson says he worked on the centre’s design with staff from the centre.

“The last thing we were interested in doing was creating an Indigenous unit that was off to the side,” Wilson says.

The most visible example of inclusive design at North Metropolitan TAFE is the green, tessellated concrete wall at the front of the building, which is inspired by the shell of the long-neck turtle.

Koolark’s Simone Penny & Alisha Nelson

Koolark Support Centre mentor, and Noongar woman, Simone Penny says it is great that Indigenous culture was included in the design.

“You are building bridges with the community,” she says. “When people come into this area, they feel comfortable.”

Architect Philip Gresley says it is important for architects to give voice to Noongar people and to consider their experience.

His architecture firm, Gresleyabas, won a competition hosted by Armadale Redevelopment Authority to design and develop an amphitheatre at Champion Lakes, at Armadale in Perth’s southeastern suburbs.

Philip Gresley

The project sits on a site of cultural significance to the Noongar people.

Gresley says in honour of this, the project team set aside a large portion of the project budget to employ Noongar people to create artworks on the already completed architectural design.

Photo supplied by Peter Zuvela

One of Hill and Dawson’s artworks. Photo supplied by Peter Zuvela

He says the site’s design is mindful of its Indigenous significance, with the structure honouring its original use as a meeting place.

“We used the shape of the land leading down over the lake to create this walkway that digs down into the earth and into history and into place, leading visitors to the stage,” he says.

Noongar Elder and visual artist Sandra Hill was one of three Indigenous artists involved.

Hill says, historically, the land was abundant in food and was utilised through all seasons.

“In the spring and summer time [Noongar people] would come down after the turtles laying their eggs,” she says.

“It was an important place, not just for the food, but as part of the journey through country.”

Hill says the site was close to six different songlines, the closest was used to travel to Armadale and Pinjarra.

Photo supplied by Peter Zuvela

Sandra Hill and Jenny Dawson: Photo supplied by Peter Zuvela

Ceramic artist Jenny Dawson collaborated with Sandra Hill to create clay tile interpretations of Hill’s designs, which express Noongar stories significant to the area.

Dawson says the designs are surrounded by red concrete, but the architects had originally chosen grey.

“The colouring of the surrounding concrete being that deep, deep red was very important to the Noongar artist and they went with the architects to Concreto – a concreting place,” she says.

Dawson says after the Noongar artists left the concretor’s workshop, they were upset with the architects’ choice of grey.

“So I rang them up and said, ‘The Indigenous artists really want red, can you do it?’, and they said, ‘It won’t work’,” she says.

But I said: ‘You just have to trust them. They are all painters. And it looks fantastic’.

“It’s very rare for it to happen like that, where the Aboriginal artists can have a strong say.”

Photo supplied by Peter Zuvela

Photo supplied by Peter Zuvela

Hill says there is a particular Noongar story for the entryway for Champion Lakes, told in her artwork.

“It’s about how the Noongar people got fire,” she says.

“It’s the story of the pigeon, who took fire from Meeka, the moon, while he slept and gave it to the Noongar people.”

She says that while she feels like Noongar voices are heard within this design, there have been other projects she has not taken part in, on the account of them seeming tokenistic.

She says Aboriginal stories usually just end up on a plaque.

Photo supplied by Peter Zuvela

The mosaics tell traditional Noongar stories: Photo supplied by Peter Zuvela

“It has to be authentic or not at all.”

Gresley says the thing that makes this project special is the honest act of sitting down and talking with the people involved.

“All the work we do, whether they are Noongars or developers and everything in between, it’s about listening and creating what they want, and working with them to understand who they are and what their story is,” he says.

Southwest WA is not alone when it comes to the increasing presence of inclusive designs.

Melbourne-based urban planner Timmah Ball, a Ballardong Noongar woman working for the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, says most collaborative work in Victoria is in the realm of public art.

“The City of Melbourne recently launched a major public art memorial to commemorate the deaths of [Aboriginal resistance fighters] Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner,” she says.

“And the City of Yarra are planning on developing a public memorial to honour the Stolen Generation.

“At the moment it seems that in terms of public space and Aboriginal culture in urban contexts this seems to be led more by artists through public art rather than the built environment professions.”

Ball says that real collaboration with Indigenous people must become an integral part of building of Australia’s cities and towns.

“Too often, simple or quick engagement is considered good enough,” she says. “We need to focus on building long-term relationships. Building strong relationships also means we can start focusing on Aboriginal-led projects and more opportunities for our people to be in control of the design and final outcomes.”

Categories: Indigenous affairs

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