City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The first architects

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From cover of Gunyah, Goondie and Wurley

For someone who has spent most of his career fusing what might be called ‘the sharpish end of information technology’ to other things, I’ve paradoxically retained an interest in vernacular architecture and design, which often deploys ancient solutions, refined by age, use and experience. (It’s not actually a paradox, of course).

Here in Australia, a relatively new country if a very old inhabited continent, there are rich pickings amidst complex histories. Particular favourites are the Queenslander house seen in Brisbane – more notes on this later – but also the various architectural strategies and solutions employed by indigenous Australians. This is partly due to the nomadic lifestyle of some Aborigines – and therefore related to other transient, portable architecture I’m interested in – and partly due to the inherently ingenious solutions for dealing with Australia’s climate and terrain. Recent research has exposed the idea that ‘Aborigines didn’t build’ as essentially a deliberate and expedient strategy, conjured up to ensure that Australia could be seen, legally, as terra nullis (empty land) – and therefore ripe for claiming, clearing and settling. There were numerous kinds of building structures, as varied as their social structures and Australia’s climate.


A new book out – Gunyah, Goondie and Wurley, by Paul Memmott, an anthropologist at the University of Queensland’s Aboriginal Environments Research Centre – details the various architecture and design methods that existed before European occupation.

The Sydney Morning Herald has a short article on the book, the architecture, and its sorry obliteration:

"There was a whole range of different shelters built in different styles depending on climate and social factors," Associate Professor Memmott, who compiled the book over 35 years, said. "There is clear evidence of complex spatial organisation and design based on social rules and structures. It’s additional evidence that the Aboriginal lifestyles were well-organised, which unfortunately still comes as a surprise to people."

"Among the most striking designs featured in the book are dome houses that existed in the rainforests of tropical Queensland and northern NSW. The houses were interconnected, allowing clans to interact, and were high enough to stand in, so that the inhabitants could spend extended periods indoors during the wet season. "Winter houses" built around Port Jackson and Warringah in Sydney by the Gai-mariagal people were made using hardwood beams, clay, reeds and animal hides."

The co-chairwoman of Reconciliation Australia, Jackie Huggins, praised the book for debunking the stereotype of Aborigines being part of a primitive age. "Aboriginal people were among the first architects in the world in terms of ingenuity in providing shelter and accommodation," Ms Huggins said. [Sydney Morning Herald, 9 October 2007]

Dome hut clad with blady grass that has been attached to the frame with lawyer cane. It was constructed in the North-east Rainforest Region near the Tully River between 1893 and 1910

It looks fascinating, and I’m off to purchase asap. More to follow, I suspect.

Gunyah, Goondie & Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia [ | Penguin Australia | Univ. of Queensland]


One response to “The first architects”

  1. Nic Dowse Avatar

    My six y.o. daughter constructed a cubby in our lounge from two ottomans flipped onto their sides and blankets draped across the ‘back’ and top. In the open entrance she had a broom standing vertically, front and centre, with the handle poking straight up. “What’s that for?” I asked. She replied: “It’s so you know I’m home and that I don’t want visitors. If I want visitors I’ll do this” (moves handle to side of entrance at a 45-degree angle)
    I remembered, at that point, a tour we’d taken the previous summer at the Wardan Aboriginal Centre, near Margaret River, WA. We took a guided tour through the bush with a woman who told us that, traditionally, her people always approached shelters from the rear (a polite gesture, as the rear was closed and offered privacy for residents). If a spear was pointed upright in the centre of the (open) entrance (clearly visible to guests), the inhabitants wanted to be left alone. If it was pushed to the side, visitors were welcome. She also explained to us that the rear/closed wall was usually oriented towards the prevailing winds and that the fire, located at the front/open entrance, was placed such that the smoke was blown up and away, while the warmth was sucked into the shelter. We were also taught how the carefully raked sand around the shelter operated as a security system: if a snake, or intruder, had entered during the inhabitant’s absence their tracks would be visible in the sand.
    My daughter will grow up with a different version of aboriginal history than I did. She has already had first hand experience with a traditional landowner who has shared some of the rituals and customs that defined the culture, buildings and beliefs of the Wardandi People. And my daughter was impressed enough to apply that new knowledge in play (the greatest possible compliment).
    I’m a second year RMIT architecture student and, apart from a (politically-correct/required?) and polite mention of the 40,000 + years of occupation of this land before colonisation, there has been barely a mention of traditional ownership and culture. I’ve learnt more about Archigram’s nomadic architecture than I have about the flexible and adaptive structures of the local Wurundjeri people.
    So thanks for the tip on “Gunyah, Goondie and Wurley”. I’m going to find a copy and learn some more.


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