Staging Reconciliation

Woods Bagot completes a workspace fit-out for the longest established First Nations theatre company.

Alexandra Page and Joel Stevens of Ilbijerri Theatre Company. Photography by Samantha Schultz.

As part of Woods Bagot’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) – our formal commitment to cultural competency, impactful awareness, and active contribution to reconciliation – the studio engages in meaningful collaboration with First Nations people and culture. This includes codesigning with Country, selecting socially conscious suppliers, and taking on pro bono projects that nourish community and uphold our corporate social responsibility. 

Recently, Woods Bagot completed a pro bono office fit-out for Ilbijerri Theatre Company in Collingwood Yards – Melbourne’s largescale creative precinct dedicated to providing affordable workspaces for independent arts organisations.

A Collingwood Yards resident since 2021, Ilbijerri is one of Australia’s leading theatre companies and the longest established First Nations theatre company, founded in 1991.

“We had outgrown our previous studio premises and needed a space for the company to grow,” says Tiwi, Larrakia and Chinese woman and Ilbijerri executive director and co-chief executive Angela Flynn. The Collingwood Yards site also provided the opportunity for the troupe to engage in a dynamic cross-cultural dialogue and vibrant contemporary arts incubator, within a 150-year-old, heritage-rich building.

The brief for the fit-out was to create a space for Ilbijerri’s fourteen staff that was low-cost, flexible – similar to the concept of a manoeuvrable stage – and reflective of Ilbijerri’s core values. It needed to host working spaces within a limited footprint, while respecting the heritage fabric of the existing yards and doubling as an agile event space.

Located inside a former technical school, the building was ripe with heritage detail and narrative.  “We used the heritage elements to our advantage,” says project interior designer Tahlia Landrigan, “from the original hardwood floors, to the thick exposed beams and the soft rendered finish that coats the ceilings.”

An original steel 19th-century pulley frame has been retained, conveniently resembling the rigging system used for technical maneuvers in the theatre. This enabled the design team to incorporate motifs of the stage into the design, the structure now providing the grid skeleton for a sequence of cubicle spaces.

Woods Bagot used a restrained tonal palette to enable the studio space to serve as a canvas for Ilbijerri’s collection of artworks. “We kept the palette pretty neutral, because we knew there’d be a lot of collateral coming into the space,” says Landrigan. “It also conformed with our ‘light touch’ philosophy that aspired not to adulterate the embedded heritage and history.”

Alexandra Page and Joel Stevens of Ilbijerri Theatre Company.

Alexandra Page, Joel Stevens and Theo Cassady of Ilbijerri Theatre Company. Photography Samantha Schultz.

“I love the way the design incorporates the building heritage without feeling like caricature,” says Flynn. “At the same time, we were able to put our own stamp on it. We operate in a circular structure, rather than hierarchically, and the open-plan design really reflects that.”

“It was an easy and open process,” Flynn adds. “We felt we were able to make suggestions and they were listened to.”   

“Ilbijerri” is a Woiwurrung word meaning “coming together for ceremony”. It reflects the company’s mission as a performing arts ecosystem that brings Blak voices to the fore through the telling of First Nations stories. Championing the values of deep listening and respect, Ilbijerri creates performances that connect with mob, spark conversations, and sustain healthy communities. It was essential that these values were communicated in the spatial design.

Working within such a limited budget, Woods Bagot was able to complete the kitchen fit-out from IKEA, while furniture and workstations were donated from previous office renovations carried out by the studio. “That way we were able to conserve on costs for the real centrepiece of the fit-out – the Koskela pendants,” says Landrigan. “They are the first thing you see when you walk in, and they beautifully anchor the main social heart of the space.”

Ngardang Girri Kalat Mimini (NGKM) woven pendants in collaboration with Koskela for T2 Emporium store. Image courtesy Koskela.

Ngardang Girri Kalat Mimini (NGKM) Indigenous women artists’ collective. Image courtesy Koskela.

Koskela is a B Corporation-certified design manufacturer meaningfully collaborating with First Nations designers to create products that celebrate Indigenous history and culture. The bespoke woven pendants, made from paperbark and reclaimed materials around a cloche cage frame, were codesigned with Ngardang Girri Kalat Minimi, meaning “Mother Aunty Sister Daughter” – a collaborative of Indigenous women artists producing unique artworks that are tailored to each project and its relationship to site.

Through the collaborative design process, Koskela empowers artists to generate an independent income while maintaining their traditional practices. As of 2023, the organisation returned $1.4 million to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Koskela empowers First Nations artist communities through collaborative design processes. Image courtesy Koskela.

Codesign was an essential component of the Ilbijerri workspace fitout, and a major principle that informs Woods Bagot’s wider RAP. Landrigan said the principles of truth-telling and deep listening make up the methodology that informs the reciprocal design process. “It’s about us sitting back a bit and not necessarily dictating what we think might be best,” Landrigan explains. “It’s more of a back-and-forth briefing process, where the designer acts as a facilitator for the space that they want to create.”

Codesign is one of the ways through which the architecture and design industry can work towards reconciliation. As a placed-based practice, architecture and design can benefit from an engagement with land and its stories; inversely, architecture can also be a valuable tool for documenting the history of Australia’s original inhabitants.

Ilbijerri ensemble. Photography: Jeff Busby

Ilbijerri ensemble. Photography by Jeff Busby.

“The architecture and design sector is uniquely positioned to make tangible change towards reconciliation as a shaper of our built environment,” says Woods Bagot principal and committed ally in Indigenous codesign Bronwyn McColl.

“It is necessary as practitioners that we contextualise modern architecture practice within the 60,000-plus years of history that defines habitation in this country, and seek to engage with the First Nations people – their culture and knowledge – that cared for country long before European settlement.” 

Through the principles of truth-telling and deep listening, we can enrich a project with stories of the land and people, and to sustain important cultural heritage. By engaging First Nations stakeholders, the industry can also learn from centuries of intimate knowledge of the land from the world’s oldest civilisation.

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Isla Sutherland
Content and Communications Specialist (Australia & New Zealand)

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