Indigenous Placemaking in Central Melbourne: Representations, Practices and Creative Research

Exploring the processes behind indigenous cultural placemaking

Northcote Koorie Mural, Thornbury (Photo: R Berg 2013, courtesy Megan Evans and VAAL)

In 2008, representatives from the Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group, Reconciliation Victoria and the City of Melbourne Arts and Culture branch formed a working group to advance a proposal for an indigenous cultural precinct in the heart of Melbourne. The proposal of such a precinct is profoundly significant in the history of urban Australia, marking a new recognition of the centrality of indigenous culture to our national identity. While Australian Indigenous culture has a long and rich history, very little of it is manifest in built artefacts. Thus translation into contemporary architecture that is a meaningful expression of that history is challenging. Examples in Australia range from the most pragmatic responses of providing functional spaces to purpose designed facilities that represent the Indigenous identity of a specific community. Often these places become either Aboriginal enclaves (implicitly excluding non-Indigenous Australians) or Aboriginalized white space determined by the reproduction and performance of white stereotypes of Aboriginality. Perhaps the most difficult issue faced in the design of cultural centres is the identity of the architect, typically a non-indigenous professional from an urban background quite remote from the realities of the community he or she is serving. Reconciling the cultural practices of the client group with the dominant architectural culture of Australia is often a difficult task.

Out of this working group evolved the idea for a research partnership between academics from the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning, University of Melbourne (Janet McGaw, Anoma Pieris, & Grahamn Brawn) and Deakin University (Emily Potter), The Melbourne City Council’s Indigenous Arts Program (Janina Harding) and Reconciliation Victoria. This research project was funded by the Australian Research Council, 2010- 2014. It followed three lines of inquiry which produced distinct outcomes: a precedents study, a collaborative creative engagement with Indigenous architects, artists and Traditional Owner communities and a theoretical inquiry.

The precedents study considered what might be learned from Indigenous cultural centre precedents in architectural practice in Australia and other international contexts, including identifying best-practice organisational systems that respect cultural difference and values different types of knowledge, as well as processes of meaning-making. These questions were to be addressed through an academic symposium, The Practices Processes and Politics of Indigenous Placemaking and a public ‘conversation’ at Federation Square (June 2010), and field work and interviews with architects, communities and organisations in over 250 Indigenous places of significance in Australia. The focus was on southeast Australia but also took in other (mostly urban) centres in Australia. It also examined the phenomenon of the architecturally designed Indigenous Cultural Centre internationally. Outcomes were disseminated in two book publications:

  • Anoma Pieris, Naomi Tootell, Fiona Johnson, Janet McGaw & Rueben Berg, Indigenous Place: Contemporary buildings, landmarks and places of significance in southeast Australia and beyond, Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2014; and
  • Anoma Pieris, Indigenous Cultural Centers and Museums: An Illustrated International Survey, Maryland & London, Rowman and Littlefield, 2016.

The creative research investigated the shared cultural concepts of Aboriginality in south-eastern Australia and considered how these could be made manifest on a site that has been completely transformed by colonisation. It was addressed through creative collaborative engagement with Traditional Owner communities around ‘mapping’ Aboriginal Victoria on the back of possum skins. Each Traditional Owner group was invited to represent their ‘place’ through etching on possum skin, following a traditional craft. The researchers used the process of gathering together and crafting as an opportunity to talk with each group about whether and how a statewide centre for culture and knowledge could be of benefit to each group. The project was published in the following:

  • Janet McGaw and Naomi Tootell, “Aboriginal ‘Country’: An Implicit Critique of Terra Firma and Traditional Architectural Practices”, Architectural Theory Review: Special Issue: Terra Firma, Vol 20, Iss 1, 2015, 91-114.
  • Janet McGaw, “Mapping ‘place’ in southeast Australia: crafting a possum skin cloak”, Craft Research, 5:1 (2014), pp. 11-33.
  • Janet McGaw "Mapping Country: Creative Research Through Making and Marking Possum Skins" Cultural Ecology: New approaches to culture, architecture and ecology. School of Architecture & Built Environment, Deakin University, 2013, pp.  92-97.

Other creative research took place in Masters of Architecture and Landscape Architecture design studios, where Indigenous architects, artists and other stakeholders were involved in teaching our students who in turn explored Indigenous cultural centre design typologies and possible sites. Results were published in:

  • Janet McGaw, Jillian Walliss & Jefa Greenaway, Re-making Indigenous Place in Melbourne: Towards a Victorian Indigenous Cultural Knowledge and Education Centre, Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2014; and
  • Jefa Greenaway, Janet McGaw and Jillian Walliss, "Designing Australia: Critical Engagement with Indigenous Place Making" in Graham Cairns (ed.) Design for a Complex World, Libri Publishing, Oxfordshire, 2014, pp. 29-52.

The third strand of the project was to engage in the theoretical literature from the fields of museology, postcolonial politics of race, cultural difference and aesthetic practice and consider their implications for the architectural design of contemporary Indigenous cultural centres. How might architecture move beyond its current practice of essentialising or stereotyping Aboriginal cultures through particular aesthetic responses? This unfolded through conference presentations, a Special Issue of the Journal of Postcolonial Studies and a scholarly book:

  • Janet McGaw & Anoma Pieris, Assembling the Centre: Architecture for Indigenous Cultures in Australia and Beyond, Routledge, London, 2015.
  • Emily Potter, Anoma Pieris & Janet McGaw (eds), Postcolonial Studies, Special Issue: Making Indigenous Place in the Australian City, 15:2 (2012).
  • Emily Potter, “Introduction: making Indigenous place in the Australian city”, Postcolonial Studies 15:2 (2012), 136.
  • Anoma Pieris, “Occupying the centre: Indigenous presence in the Australian capital city”, Postcolonial Studies: culture, politics, economy, 15:2 (2012), pp. 221-248.
  • Janet McGaw, Anoma Pieris & Emily Potter, “Indigenous place-making in the city: dispossessions, occupations and implications for cultural architecture”, Architectural Theory Review, 16:11 (2011), pp. 296-311.
  • Potter, E. & J. McGaw, 2009, 'Sustaining collaborations: creative research practice and cross-cultural engagement', in Loo, S., G. Nolan, S. Sequeira & F. Soriano (eds), Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Conference of ANZAScA, Launceston.


Indigenous cultural sites under the spotlight in new national study (The Melbourne Newsroom, 2 March 2014)

Project Details

Major Sponsor

Australian Research Council and partners

Research Partners

University of Melbourne
Deakin University
City of Melbourne
Reconciliation Victoria
Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group

Project Team

Dr Janet McGaw
Emily Potter (Deakin Uni)
A/Prof Anoma Pieris
E/Prof Graham Brawn


Dr Janet McGaw