Bronwyn McColl on alleviating cultural loading on First Nations designers

This NAIDOC Week, Woods Bagot Principal and First Nations ally Bronwyn McColl discusses how non-Indigenous practitioners in the built environment industry can help to alleviate the cultural load, by listening to Elders and Community.

“There is a small but growing number of First Nations practitioners in the built environment,” says Bronwyn McColl, “and that places a huge burden on those Indigenous individuals who are negotiating this cultural and political space.”

‘Cultural load’ refers to the additional responsibility placed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees to provide cultural awareness and education for their non-Indigenous counterparts. Cultural loading can inflict heavy and unwarranted feelings of responsibility and expectation on First Nations designers. To relieve some of this load borne by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designers, McColl proposes recontextualising First Nations representation in the built environment from an “Indigenous” issue to an “Australian” issue.

“What I’m interested in is, how do we start to train non-Indigenous Australians and built environment practitioners to be able to be a conduit for those conversation?” says McColl.

Spearheading several of Woods Bagot’s reconciliation activities and leading the charge on a number of culturally enriching co-development projects, McColl is curious about how to better First Nations empowerment and self-actualisation through everyday design practices.

“It’s not to speak on behalf of First Nations people, but to help bring those conversations to the fore, and with it, bring insight, care and consideration,” she says.

One co-design work in progress is Woods Bagot’s project with the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative in Wathaurong Country, North Geelong. Established in 1980, the Co-operative was conceived to provide a holistic and culturally sensitive service for local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

From its origins as kitchen-table community meetings to a fully-fledged organisation of 170 staff today, the Co-op has radically expanded its operations over the last 40 years, now servicing more than 85 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the region.

McColl and the team have been entrusted with co-designing a new community centre with the Co-operative that encompasses its comprehensive operations from administrative facilities to health services, childcare, to ceremony and celebration spaces.

“That sense of home and connection from the early days is what, in Simon [Flagg, chief executive at Wathaurong]’s mind, has been missing from the Co-operative,” says McColl. “It used to be there before the services became siloed, and that’s what we mean to bring back.”

Wathaurong holds events and community activities, many of which are currently held externally. The objective of the redevelopment is to bring all services back to one central heart, where Community can be together.

Currently in the schematic design phase, this milestone follows 12 months of extensive community engagement and concept design. “Co-design is a much more circular and iterative process,” says McColl. “It’s fluid and evolving.”

Where a traditional design process will involve the presentation of a client brief, followed by a series of options devised the design team that are then presented back to the client, a co-design looks something a little different.

“You hear the term ‘deep listening’ applied to reconciliation; our co-design process really was about respectfully listening to the community, to ensure we have interpreted correctly, and playing back what we understood to the Aunties and Uncles and Elders in the form of a conversation. The process has been about learning, developing our knowledge, and building trust,” says McColl.

“There’s a great deal of respect towards the Elders in the group and on their board,” says McColl. “If there’s a decision to be made and an Aunty or Uncle can’t be there for any reason, then we’ll talk about it, but they’ll go away and consult the Elder before it feeds into the decision-making.

“It’s very different approach to corporate entities – it’s been really encouraging to see a more value-centric approach from an organisation,” she says.

Woods Bagot’s Bronwyn McColl, Jasmine Kerdel and Tahlia Landrigan with Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative’s Simon Flagg and Rose De Jong.

Woods Bagot’s Bronwyn McColl, Jasmine Kerdel and Tahlia Landrigan with Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative’s Simon Flagg and Rose De Jong.

Early visioning that begins to identify key elements of the Cowies Creek ‘microclimate’ as a result of multiple visioning, aspiration and strategic workshops held with Woods Bagot and Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative.

Wathaurong circular concept.

“Co-designing with Country is a process of unlearning and relearning. It’s not bringing our preconceived notions of what should go into a space. We want to move away from representation and into ways of doing, to actually reflect storylines and songlines in built spaces.”

Both consolidating and expanding the existing facilities, the project constitutes a new typology based on the traditional yarning circle that provides an instrument for community gathering. Woods Bagot is pursuing an architecture that responds intimately to the Cowies Creek microclimate and engages with the extensive ecological restoration work carried out on the site.

“The site, formerly council land, was given to the Co-operative once council had degraded it and no longer had use for it – as it regrettably did in those days,” says McColl. “Neglected as the site was, the Wathaurong Co-operative regenerated it and made it beautiful again. What they’ve demonstrated is that we can regenerate the land by going back to First Knowledge and respect for Country.”

To continue to ensure the cooperative’s self-determination, it was important to create a space within the site through which Wathaurong could self-generate revenue, as well as providing space for Community to come together. The result, McColl says, is a truly mixed-use development that caters to the full spectrum of community needs.

“To bring Community together, you need a mix of activities so it feels welcoming – not solely a space you associate with medical services or activities with potentially negative connotations,” says McColl. “If Community can go there for celebration, socialisation, and to access health and wellbeing; if they can go there to access the garden and use the library, then all of a sudden it becomes a social space for everyone.”

Currently in the schematic phase, the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative and Community redevelopment project will be an ongoing dialogue with Wathaurong to create a deeply responsive, contextual, and highly attuned cultural hub to service the needs of generations of First Nations families to come.

“Neglected as the site was, the Wathaurong Co-operative regenerated it and made it beautiful again. What they’ve demonstrated is that we can regenerate the land by going back to First Knowledge and respect for Country.”


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