Seventeen Master of Architecture students have recently visited the remote Indigenous community of Wakathuni, in the Pilbara, as part of the newly established Indigenous Connections project. Initiated by architect and Curtin alumnus Michael Trees, of the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation, and lead by Curtin Professor Reena Tiwari, the four-year project will deliver an orchestrated plan to improve living standards and identify cultural tourism opportunities for the community.
Professor Tiwari says the research-driven project will provide an invaluable opportunity for students from the School of Built Environment to engage in and contribute to a real-life development plan.
“Through needs assessments and site surveys, students will identify the strengths and opportunities of Wakathuni and other remote Indigenous communities,” says Professor Tiwari. “They will then use this information to help develop a feasibility study and business plan for the future development of these communities.”
“Meanwhile, my colleague Professor John Stephen and I will undertake research in co-design and development, sustainable communities and cultural heritage tourism to provide a foundation to support and inform the students’ work.”
“Importantly,” she adds, “the collaboration will engender an understanding of cultural heritage places and work processes as they relate to the development of the Traditional Owners of the Pilbara region.”
The project will also provide a platform for sharing knowledge and developing appreciation for the ‘homelands movement’ that began in the late 1960s, where thousands of Indigenous Australians began to move back to their ancestral lands to resume their traditional social, political and cultural systems.
An estimated 1,200 homeland communities have now been established, including around 270 in Western Australia. These communities have been shown to have positive health and social outcomes for Indigenous Australians, and significantly, to recognise and celebrate the deep spiritual connection to land and place inherent within their culture.
For all the positives, however, there remain substantial challenges politically and socially in maintaining these communities.
“The homelands movement raises issues for government and community members alike,” says Professor Tiwari. “There are questions of governance, infrastructure provision, living standards, employment, finance, food supply and remoteness of community locations.”
“Additionally, though the country remains a spiritual home for Indigenous people, many choose to live elsewhere for employment and education reasons. With diminishing numbers and the current lack of investment, the challenge for our students is to work closely with the communities to develop solutions that are sustainable and culturally sensitive. This can only be done when communities take control of their own future to ensure better economic and social outcomes while simultaneously maintaining their strong culture and tradition.”
Yashka Virassamy was among the group of architecture students invited to visit with the Wakathuni community for three days in September. As the first group to visit the community under the project, the students began by conducting informal interviews and conversations with community members to learn about their lifestyle, history and traditions, as well as any issues needing to be addressed. Then, under the guidance of Michael Trees, they worked collectively to renovate and refurbish one of the community’s original buildings, which required basic reparations so it could be repurposed as a community centre.
Virassamy says that she and the other students had been prepared to visit a very closed and conservative community.
“We took precautions about the questions we were to ask and felt a formal attitude was required for such a delicate interaction with this remote Indigenous community. But upon arrival, and to our good surprise, the community was very welcoming,” she says.
“Their openness and friendliness undeniably touched all of us, and we appreciated every effort on their behalf to share their stories and participate in our workshop.”
As for the place itself, Virassamy says it was similar to how she had imagined low-cost community housing to be. But, what interested her most was the community’s unique cultural connection to the land.
“The most beautiful discovery throughout the expedition was the cultural ground, which reflected the Aboriginal philosophy and identity as it has evolved to date. I believe it was an interesting turning point for my research,” she reflects. “We were particularly fortunate to be able to meet the elders, who were able to elaborate more on the significance of this place.”
“For the sake of my studies, I have learnt a lot about humanitarian architecture as well as participatory, community-centric approach,” she adds. “I now consider it an eventual aspect of my future career.”
“I believe that irrespective of one’s field of study, such projects are very fulfilling for the community and the learner – there is so much to gain.”