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]
It looks fascinating, and I’m off to purchase asap. More to follow, I suspect.
Gunyah, Goondie & Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia [Amazon.com | Penguin Australia | Univ. of Queensland]
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