Architecture | Australia

“Building with country”

The Australian architect Kevin O’Brien fuses indigenous and colonial legacies to create buildings that reflect the culture and climate of their locations. A conversation about Torres Straits Islanders’ beach huts, clichés about modernism and loving Australia
[Translate to English:] Modernes Haus mit drei Bögen im Grünen

Unrealised design for the “Darkinjung Aboriginal Centre” in New South Wales


Interview by Ruben Donsbach

Your mother is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, an Archipelago in the northeast of Australia bordering on Papua New Guinea. Did you live there for a while? Could you describe what its like?  
I grew up in Brisbane, but for most holidays we would go to the islands my mother and her family grew up on. It’s a beautiful place at the top of the barrier reef. But going there was a massive culture shock. As a kid, I loved and hated it at the same time. It was very basic. The lifestyle revolves around the sea: fishing, eating great seafood, big families, no fences. Around 300 cousins of mine ran around in a little village. I had to learn how to fight quite quickly, but we grew older, our bonds got tighter and more meaningful.

“Sticking indigenous symbols on buildings is like Disneyland”

In a past interview with an Australian radio show, you talked about how impressive it was to look out towards the horizon and see the curve of the earth. How did that change your perspective?
Socially, it gave me a profound sense of being interconnected with the people living there. But quite literally, there are places on the islands, where you can see nothing but open horizons and water. You really feel the weight of the hemisphere. The only other place I ever felt like that was in the center of Australia. The sky has a weight, and there is an overwhelming depth, that’s the only way I can describe it.  


[Translate to English:] Ein grünes Haus mit großen Fenstern

The "Yarrila Place", an art, culture and education centre in Coffs Harbour


As a young man you travelled the Pacific Rim, visited indigenous communities and investigated the housing they build, the material they used, how they adapted to the nature they were living in. What did it teach you? 
On one hand, I wanted to see whether there were any traditional techniques and approaches that were used before contact with the Europeans. But what I was really interested in was how these techniques could give us a new perspective on current challenges we have in our modern world.  

So, you werent looking for an indigenous aesthetic?  
No, never! To me, reducing indigenous architecture to its symbols and then sticking them on buildings is like Disneyland. The same happens in the art world too. Most so-called indigenous art is really something only for tourists.  

How can we approach it in a better way? 
I met somebody on this trip who profoundly shaped my views: A guy called Rui Thompson, who's a Māori architect from New Zealand. We never talked about indigenous architecture. We only ever talked about architecture: how the structure works, the quality of light. But it wasn’t about a preconfigured structure, that should be imposed. But rather, we explored a structure’s relationship to the land it is standing on. 

Do you have an example of this?
People on the Torres Straight islands create these kinds of huts on the beaches. They are places to camp in. They have simple grid and beam structures with tin sheets - but they are sublime! If you look at them objectively, it's a piece of modernism. 

Unrealised design for the "Darkinjung Aboriginal Cultural Centre". The Darkinjung Council is an indigenous advocacy and educational organisation in New South Wales, Australia


Would that be indigenous modernism?
Here you have to be careful: The architecture-label “indigenous” itself is really a white label that's been used within the academic and professional circles to sort of quarantine us. This being said, I regularly get told that my work doesn't look aboriginal enough because it's not curvy nor made of straw bales and mud. To me, that’s comical. 

The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, in his book Delirious New York”, described Modernism as a practice, that invents a kind of artificial nature which is then imposed on nature itself. That seems the exact opposite to what you describe.  
Totally. The goal of modernism was to use new materials to create functional houses and public spaces for large groups of people. I always thought that modernism failed because it thought it was better than nature, and it just couldn't adapt.

“We can't cancel large parts of our history”

An indigenous contribution to architecture could create a new kind of modernism, one that adapts to culture and climate. That's what I'm really focused on.  

Your architecture hinges on a concept of that you call building with country”. You divide Australian history into three cultural phrases: indigenous, colonial and multicultural. Could you explain that a little?
The first layer is indigenous or first nation and up to 80,000 years old. Then there was a roughly 200-year colonial phase since Captain Cook arrived on our East coast in 1770. Since the 1960s, a post-white Australia gradually emerged. People from all over the world came to live here and we have become a global nation. This is our history, we can't run away from it. I’m not interested in how we can separate these layers. I’m rather concerned in how they may connect.  

The "Blak Box" is a mobile art space with a direct connection to the ground. Strictly rectangular on the outside, the pavilion houses a communal space on the inside


And how can indigenous and colonial architecture, actually fuse together? 
The first nation layer gives us an understanding of belonging to country, loving, doing, being connected. The colonial or rather British layer is fundamentally connected with infrastructure but also opening the country to the world, for better or for worse.

You mean the conquering of Australia by British settlers? 
Sure, that’s correct and easy to say. But words like conquered and invaded don’t tell us what we are dealing with today. A building must be connected to water, energy, to infrastructure. Then there is the concept of landownership, which is foreign to indigenous thought but is a reality. I try to turn all this into something positive. For example: How do we align a modern concept like a smart energy grid with first nations’ perspectives on minimising damage to the country?

You teach at the University of Sydney. Aren't there young students who say: come on, we have to decolonize first! 
I have this conversation all the time. And my answer is always that to be so single-minded is just enacting a different form of colonization. We can’t simply erase or destroy the cultural contributions that have come to this country since the time of Cook. My idea of decolonization is as pluralistic as possible, as opposed to the complete cancelling of one part of our joint culture. I don’t think that’s realistic and most importantly, I don’t believe we can heal our wounds by doing this.

Do feel this is a state if being, that was well known to the indigenous population, but has been lost to modern, urban societies?
There is this sense, that everything is a little reduced in a city, the exact opposite of the indigenous island life. In cities your view is limited, at night you can’t see as many stars because of the brightness of the lights. Also, the social conditions in the city are more “transactional”, more about trade and money. 


In the "Blak Box", visitors can learn about contemporary forms of indigeneity through sound and language artworks


Can architecture heal those wound by somehow highlighting the stories of the land it stands on, giving room for the stories of the people that lived there? 
In my view, as an architect, I think we can do very little in that respect. The minute we step onto a site, we're immediately removing some of it. We're destroying a piece of it by creating some form of shelter. What I’ve learned by investigating the buildings on my native land I have been talking about is something else.  

What was it?
Though architecture, other than art for example, can’t be a medium itself for somehow archiving a colonial history, it can help to build a relationship to our native country, to its landscape, that makes you fall in love with it. By framing the view or enabling you to linger at a given location, like in the huts on the beach.  

[Translate to English:] Menschen sitzen um eine Feuerschale auf einem runden Betonkreis

The "Kimberwalli Centre for Excellence" near Sydney was designed by Kevin O'Brien with a group of Aborigines. It aims to connect young Indigenous people with their history and culture


That sounds great, but how can it work in practice?
A lot! Once you fall in love with something, you belong to it, you behave differently when it's not just a matter of ownership any more. This deeper relationship to country via architecture is indeed a very strong sentiment that I believe in and a contribution that one may call “indigenous”.  

An example of this is the project by my colleagues and I called the “Kimberwalli Centre for Excellence”. It’s a space for learning and conversing. It’s also a place where indigenous people who are maybe marginalised can find help to come to terms with their intergenerational trauma.  

Outside the building, there is a special fire pit for people to sit around. What is this for? 
For thousands of years, indigenous people have used fire. It has no negative connotation for our culture, but quite the opposite: It is a source of life and also of community. It’s the place where generations get together and tell stories.  That is especially important for young indigenous Australians, as these stories bring them into contact with their land and, in the process, with their identity. These are the thoughts that underpin my projects.