Shaneen Fantin reflects on a remarkable two days at the Country, Culture Community conference.

Country, Culture, Community was the first Australian Institute of Architects Conference focused on architecture and practice by, with and for First Nations peoples. It was a landmark event; an important moment in time for our profession. The conference ran over two days in an intimate closed lecture theatre and concluded with a culturally immersive field trip.  It provided an opportunity for open, honest and challenging conversations, for self-reflection and collaborative discussion, and for emerging and experienced architects, landscape architects, academics and designers to share their projects and journeys. The scale was intimate and the location in Nipaluna (Hobart) was a salient choice, the place of earliest dispossession and genocide in the land we call Australia.

Day one of the conference opened with a moving and immersive Welcome to Country event by Patricia Hodge and dancers from Nita Education (custodial representatives for Southern Tasmania ) in the amphitheatre of the Menzies School of Health building at the University of Tasmania. Uncle Bumi Hyde (Gimuy Walubarra Yidinji elder), who had accompanied me from Gimuy (Cairns), joined in the welcome and danced side by side with Trish and the dancers. It was an important moment for delegates to observe and was an indicator of things to come, and Uncle Bumi’s influence on the conference as a whole.

When I was invited to present at the conference, I was honoured but also slightly surprised and cautious. I have been working alongside and partnering with First Nations peoples in architecture for 30 years and in the last five years a lot of discussion has occurred about the relevance of non-Indigenous people in the space, people like me. I value and love the work that I do, but I also understand that the space I take up is contentious and a privilege not to be taken for granted. It is a space of deep respect and purposeful collaboration where I apply as much agency and advocacy as is requested of me by the Indigenous people I work with. I thought the best way to illustrate this respect and collaboration was to ask my friend, mentor and First Nations elder Uncle Bumi Hyde to co-present with me so that we could demonstrate our relationship, the protocols, and the communication styles first-hand. Uncle Bumi and I have known each other for seven years and worked closely together for the last four years. We know each other and each other’s families very well. We have supported each other through many life challenges. It is like a father/daughter relationship.

Our presentation was purposefully not about architectural projects. It was about how we work together and through a conversational style presentation – an insight into our relationship laid bare. Uncle describes himself as a “bridge” to us and he shows through yarning and stories how he does this. Through his lived cultural experience, his seniority, his knowledge of Country, culture and people, and the respect that other people afford him. As he would say “It is in him” and his lack of speaking architecture doesn’t detract from his ability to lead and contribute to a design process in a meaningful way.

I did not anticipate the impact of bringing Uncle Bumi to the conference. I know him well enough to know that he’s an extrovert, loves to yarn and dance, and is very confident in who he is and his culture. I knew that asking him to co-present would bring an element of real life to the conference and he would enjoy it. I didn’t know that he would dance with each traditional owner at each Welcome Ceremony and be a beacon of yarning at each morning, afternoon tea and after-dinner event. I didn’t anticipate the full reach of his influence, his generosity and his laughter in bringing everyone together at the conference. His presence was modest but powerful. He embedded himself with the conferences delegates and made himself available and it confirmed for me the power of elders and what they bring to this conversation and others like it. Uncle Bumi is not an architect; he is a man of Country and culture and his ways of being and doing in the world provided a grounding to the conference that benefitted everyone.

The highlight of the conference for me (in addition to Uncle Bumi) was the great diversity of presentations.

The strength and clarity of the work of younger Indigenous women, such as Samantha Rich and Marni Reti, was exciting to witness. They foster a community and elder-led design process where protocols, permission and inclusion are key.

Sarah Lyn Rees’ presentation of the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity (AFSE) hub at the University of Melbourne was no less than extraordinary. Sarah demonstrated a methodology for Designing with Country that can be achieved with minimal direct engagement through understanding the deep history of geology, hydrology, flora and fauna, and which is rich, intelligent and informed. Sarah’s presentation reminded me of my limitations as a non-Indigenous architect. There are a range of things I believe I shouldn’t be doing because I don’t have the cultural permissions or knowledge. Sarah’s work for AFSE includes an incredible element that is a circle of message sticks, each relating to Country, designed and created with the depth of meaning and resonance that should only be imbued by an Indigenous designer. This is the complex space for architects and designers, knowing when to hold back, when to collaborate and be an agent for appropriate First Nations design leadership. 

Dr Michael Mossman and his cousin Daniel Boyd (in conjunction with Aaron Roberts) gave exceptional philosophical and artistic presentations that provided audience opportunities for interaction and learning. Michael got us talking about the concepts of Terror and Refrain with those seated adjacent and in one minute of conversation we suddenly knew our neighbour’s trauma and aspirations for change – what an achievement.

Simone Bliss and Bianca Sciafe (two non-Indigenous women) gave engaging talks about collaborative projects they are actively working on with First Nations traditional owners in regional areas – boots and all, relationships they have built over the long term, which extend well beyond working hours.

James Gillard and Rian Ritter-Branthwaite of Aboriginal Housing Services Victories reminded us of the Indigenous housing crisis in Australia and the urgent need for more housing, showcasing a carefully considered housing project in Dandenong, which was designed and built during COVID, against many odds.

Mat Hinds and Rebecca Digney presented a short profound history and a call to action for Wybalenna, the place of horrific atrocities against the Indigenous people of Tasmania that requires recognition and making right.

Kevin O’Brien and Troy Casey raised critical questions about the value of National Competency Standards for architecture and noted their opposition to the standards, Troy describing it as a “kind of colonization”. Kevin reinforced the importance of First Nations architects leading First Nations work. It’s important that these opinions were raised and discussions around this occurred during the conference. It is a topic not spoken openly about in a formal environment (to my knowledge), and the conference allowed it to happen safely and honestly. It was challenging for many non-Indigenous members of the audience, but it’s critical that conversations about how we do the work continue. In my opinion, if we aren’t challenging ourselves every day on each project: Why are we here? What do we bring? What do we gain? What does the community gain? Is there a better way to do it that benefits First Nations people more? Then we aren’t working hard enough.

What the conference illustrated for me was the diversity of practice occurring around Australia and an array of different approaches: community-led, elder-led, First Nations architect–led, First Nations community–led with non-Indigenous architects, and many earnest collaborations through long-term relationships. The key theme of First Nations leadership in the design space is unrefuted from my perspective, but the question of whether architects also have to be leaders is open to discussion.

The conference activities concluded with a brilliant day on Lunawanna-Allonah (Bruny Island), visiting Murrayfield Station, a First Nations property managed by Weetapoona Aboriginal Corporation. We were welcomed by Uncle Rodney Dillon and his family and together with Uncle Bumi, we danced, ate fresh abalone on Country, learned to weave, visited a beachside rock quarry, and experienced a taste of immersion and grounding that Country provides.

Shaneen Fantin is a director of POD (People Oriented Design). Along with Uncle Bumi Hyde (Gimuy Walubarra Yidinji), she was a speaker at Country, Culture, Community. Organised by the Australian Institute of Architects, the conference was held on 14–16 February 2024. Photographs: Shaneen Fantin.