Embedding First Nations perspectives in architecture

3 August 2022

Appreciating the interactions between cultures

Embracing First Nations ideas about Country is key to the future of architecture in Australia, says Dr Michael Mossman, Associate Dean Indigenous in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning.

Dr Michael Mossman wants to change the way we think about architectural design and the built environment - by embedding First Nations understandings of Country.

“Country is the realm that surrounds us all. It’s everywhere, it’s always part of us and everyone has a different understanding of it. It’s infinite and always evolving,” Dr Mossman says. “Architecture is very much about connecting to place and connecting to surrounding contexts and communities. As an architect, I say that we can all listen to and embrace the qualities of Country and First Nations cultures to enrich the way we practice.”

Dr Mossman, who was awarded the University of Sydney’s Sister Alison Bush Medal for contribution to Indigenous community in the 2022 Alumni Achievement Awards, is the only First Nations architecture graduate in the country with a PhD. A Kuku Yalanji man, born and raised in Cairns on Yidinji Country, he is a registered architect and Associate Dean Indigenous, working on Gadigal Land, at the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning.

As an architect, I say that we can all listen to and embrace the qualities of Country and First Nations cultures to enrich the way we practice.
Dr Michael Mossman

His thesis, The Third Space, Architecture and Indigeneity, published last year, explores a framework for implementing First Nations concepts across the architectural profession, academia and education.

“The Third Space is the interaction and translation of information between cultures - it’s how you can take a different angle on what has been communicated by our colonial frameworks. This idea was interesting to me - so if you think of a Venn diagram which has the colony as the Western system in one circle and the Indigenous system in another circle, and then merge those two circles together, the negative space in between is the Third Space. It’s also about the appreciation of the nuances of those spaces and the tensions and harmonies of how we operate as individuals between these two perspectives.

“We can add that nuance to how design professionals understand what it means to connect to place. Thinking in this way can create change and allow the profession to engage with cultural differences, ideological positions, cultures, communities, individuals, and living and non-living entities that are always part of Country.”

Early influences

Dr Mossman’s parents instilled in him a strong sense of connection to place from a young age. He was also intrigued by his father’s work in the building industry. “I was interested in how you could create places and have an impact on how people lived. He was involved in the surveying profession, so his job was intrinsically connected to place, and he would travel around North Queensland.”

Dr Mossman says the changes taking place around him in Cairns as he grew up were also a formative influence. As the place transformed from a sleepy regional town to a thriving city, Indigenous cultural tourism grew along with it. He says despite the continual presence of racism, it provided opportunities to promote and celebrate the proud and enduring qualities of Far North Queensland cultures and the importance of Country.

“With that transformation, it was interesting to see how the visibility of culture led to an increased number of people pursuing tertiary education. My generation was the first to attend university in my family. Reflecting on it now, that transformation opened up opportunities for First Nations communities to express culture and reach out to career options that weren't present before.”

Designing the built environment

Dr Mossman was always good at graphic drawing at school, so he decided to study architecture at the University of Canberra, as a family member was living there. After graduating, he moved to Sydney in 2002, starting work at the NSW Government Architect's Office.

During his 15 years there, he delivered a raft of successful and award-winning public infrastructure projects. His co-design of the Winanga-Li Aboriginal Child and Family Centre in Gunnedah was selected for exhibition at the world’s most prestigious architecture event in 2021, the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Dr Mossman has also had an influence on the industry through his work with the Australian Institute of Architects. As a member of its First Nations Cultural Reference Panel, he has helped revise professional accreditation standards, working to embed meaningful content that is critical for engagement between Country and First Nations culture and the architectural profession. 

As a lecturer and researcher at the University of Sydney since 2016 - and Associate Dean Indigenous for the past year - Dr Mossman has facilitated processes around the Indigenisation of curriculum in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning. He has run a studio project on Country, with architecture students invited to the Yarrabah community in Far North Queensland, where Dr Mossman has family links. Students worked with community leaders and their local cultural practices to create affordable and sustainable housing designs.

“Communities have unique knowledge systems that students need to be conscious of, as they embed culture into the architectural process. This way they get a real understanding of the process of engaging with Country, the community and the underlying social issues that affect design,” Dr Mossman says.

Architecture's next generation

Dr Mossman says that although the architecture profession has started to incorporate these concepts during phases of a project, they are not always intrinsic from its inception.

“There's interest and excitement about including this thinking, but it often comes along after the project has started,” Dr Mossman says. “While it is a compromise, it means the conversation starts. It’s a learning process, and everyone engaging with these frameworks will learn something that they can apply to the next project, embedding it from the beginning.”

He says these ideas are gaining momentum as architects start to follow guidelines such as the University of Sydney’s Walanga Design Principles. Dr Mossman says these principles “embed the conversation in projects from the outset and at multiple levels. It’s an invitation for all participants in the process to embrace the enriching qualities of Country and First Nations cultures and communities to ensure that it's implemented in a meaningful way. The Darlington and Camperdown campuses have transformed in positive ways to make First Nations understandings of place clearer for all in their day-to-day lives.”

Dr Mossman hopes his current student cohort will go out into the world with greater understanding of the place of Country and culture in design – to share with older generations of architects and those to come.

“It’s about the advocacy, the conversations and being open to continual learning and how they can then influence the decisions that are made,” Dr Mossman says. 

“They will be setting up their own practices in 15 to 20 years, so I hope they can transfer that into professional practice and lean back on what they've learnt at university and really drive the decisions and design of the future.”

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