EPISODE SUMMARY: On this episode of Indigenous Urbanism, we speak with Kevin O’Brien, an architect from the Meriam and Kaurareg people of the Torres Strait, Australia. In his work, Kevin has explored a wide range of architectural processes that consider the emptying of the city in order to reveal Country.
GUESTS: Kevin O'Brien
Jade Kake: Tēnā koutou katoa
Nau mai haere mai ki te Indigenous Urbanism, Aotearoa Edition, Episode 13.
I’m your host Jade Kake and this is Indigenous Urbanism, stories about the spaces we inhabit, and the community drivers and practitioners who are shaping those environments and decolonising through design.
On this episode of Indigenous Urbanism we speak with Kevin O’Brien, an indigenous architect practicing in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Kevin belongs to the Meriam and Kaurareg peoples of the Torres Strait, a group of islands located in north-eastern Australia.
To kick off, could you tell me who you are, where you're from, and what you do?
Kevin O'Brien: My name is Kevin O'Brien. I'm a descendant of the Kaurareg and Meriam people from the Torres Strait. I'm an architect, practising in Brisbane, and I’m Professor of Creative Design at the University of Sydney.
JK: How did this relationship and collaboration internationally start? And how is this kind of sharing and dialogue influenced your practice?
KOB: So I think this set of relationships that have developed for me have taken almost 20 years to happen. It started with a guy called Rewi Thompson, up in Auckland, but we actually met in Sydney at a student conference back in the late 90s. And at the time I was working with one other Aboriginal man in Australia, also in Sydney, another architect. And at the time we were the only two. And then we met Rewi, and we thought, oh maybe there's three of us. And we hadn't at any point really looked outside of where we were in Sydney. We were quite young at the time, and we were just trying to get by. Then as we met Rewi we met other people over here, and then slowly but surely over the last 20 years it's been sort of dripping, dripping, dripping, dripping, and the dripping's turning into a bit more of a flow now. And finally, sort of early 2000s we started to meet people up in Canada and the States, and the network sort of started to... you know, it was nice and social and easy and it's just sort of grown and grown. And then I think in the last 12 months it hit some kind of tipping point, which was fantastic, because it's ended up in a really big sort of critical mass between Australia, New Zealand and Canada. One of the fruits of that growing is I think this book that's just about to be published.
JK: Something that is a recurring theme between our countries being settler-colonial nations is this real tension between rural and hau kāinga, like home communities, that might be quite geographically isolated from the urban centres where a lot of our people now live. So I'm just wondering, how do you kind of navigate that as an architect, and how your approaches might be different on Country versus being in these colonised cities.
KOB: I think in the Australian setting, we've got a quilt work of Aboriginal countries across the continent, and then in understanding that, then it's easy to understand the two roles, or the two hats we wear, as architects. Because one is as a professional architect, in the modern sense, but there's something that informs that in terms of an obligation as an Aboriginal man, and that is that you have expectations and cultural obligations. And one of them is to understand precisely what Country you're standing on, before you do anything. Once you're aware of that as a starting point, it does two other things. One is it helps you to look inside yourself and understand who you are, but more importantly, you can only really do that if you have genuine relationships with the people of that place. So once those things are kind of set out, and they develop over time as well, the architecture can then be enabled and followed. So, what I tend to find is, from observing other people and other architects and how they practice, they tend to strike difficulty when they don't have those relationships, or they don't know themselves, or they try to impose work onto a community or onto a place.
JK: And they imagine maybe sometimes a cultural blankness, I think that comes with being, you know, a colonising group.
KOB: To be honest, it's not bound to one culture or the other. I've seen this [from] fellow Aboriginal people, and also non-Aboriginal people. And, it's not one easily explained, but in my experience I've seen some of that occur purely out of, not a lack of maturity, but someone who's in the process of maturing, and they're finding out or starting from a point of naivety, but they're on a search to get to another place. And inevitably, mistakes get made. You learn from those and move on. But in terms of like, when I encounter it in a colonising sort of capacity, or in my way of trying to figure out how to decolonise it, it's obviously complex. Because the relationship is one that has a lot of trauma attached to it historically, but equally, the challenge then becomes how do you move beyond a state of victimhood, where you can get stuck and never, you just can't move beyond things. I think that’s the really big challenge at the moment.
JK: I’ve never been fortunate enough to visit any of your buildings, but I have seen you present a few times, and one of the projects that really struck me was a health centre, somewhere I think that was quite remote, I don't quite remember exactly where it was. But you had some really interesting ideas about trauma and healing, and how culture might influence the way spaces for health and healing are designed.
KOB: I think the project you might be referring to is, it was a medical service in Casino, in Northern New South Wales.
JK: Oh, that's not that remote, I grew up near there.
KOB: It's regional. In the Australian sense. It's Northern New South Wales. It's in Bundjalung Country, and it's the fourth or fifth medical service I've worked on. But in terms of working with the community and understanding that Country, and their histories and their place, and trying to find something that gives you moments of inspiration, or things to draw upon, or things to develop with people, the one thing that kind of struck me about that place was just how amazingly beautiful and generous the people were. But in the face of that, there is some incredibly traumatic history with frontier wars and some of the most brutal massacre sites in the state, in that area. You'd be forgiven if you met people who harboured a lot of hate, and that's not what I've found. I've found a lot of people who were generous, and carried a lot of love, but there was a sense, I think, of melancholy behind the eyes. And I just thought, particularly when I work on this building, there was a couple of things going. One is that you have to make the architecture respond to people, or be a setting, or a background for the things they need to make happen or stage. Second was to figure out how to make materials come from that place, or that Country, to have sort of an imbued connection. And then the third was like, trying to figure out how to then bend all of those things and give another sense of identity. And that thing I usually look for in either a work of art, or working with artists, or affecting something in that space myself. And in this one the thing that ended up becoming the mediator of all of that was this brick. It was a brick that was made out of that land, out of that earth, from that Country, and it was a fired brick, so it had this fantastic reference to fire and how that was used to manage landscape. But in clipping the bricks, we were able to give a quality to one of the elevational treatments, where I thought about it in terms of the loss that people didn't necessarily express overtly, but was there. And the loss that men feel, as opposed to the loss that women feel. And these two fields of brick pattern were either side of a window that was framed in gun metal, framed a view of the local Catholic church. And it was, in one move was trying to reset that, but also acknowledge what was a pretty nasty relationship in the past. But place it into this facility which was all to do with healing, but then also use the material in a way that water would hit it, and it would start crying, and you'd have this tear mark down it. So the thing is, I've always understood that you can't really start healing till you've shed a tear or two. So that became part of the idea and then the brick itself organises the plan, and pops up in the middle as a courtyard for the staff. So they have this absolutely direct connection to Country through that material, and also the native garden that inhabits it. So, they have a place of tranquility, somewhere to recuperate from daily trauma with community, and all of the intensities that come with that. So yeah, it’s an interesting building that one.
JK: I remember when I heard you speak once, you talked about where you're from, and you talked about, I think it was your Uncle's house being pinned down from above. Do you want to talk a bit more about that? I just thought it was an amazing story.
KOB: So the house, or the hut, or the shed, you're talking about, is an Uncle's place out at Meriam, it's in the Murray Island group out East in the Torres Strait. But on the few very fortunate occasions I've been able to get there, I got to see this amazing shed structure. And this is a guy who's not in any way trained as an architect, but in terms of the kind of thinking and the absolute sort of rationalist and pragmatic approach to making a dwelling, this thing is one of the most amazing things I've seen. And it starts by being incredibly free. It makes, in my way of thinking, it makes a wind block, it makes protections from the sun, and then, in terms of making sure the thing doesn't blow away, then pins it down by filling these drums with sand and sticking them on the top. And it kind of makes sense when you think of it as expending the least amount of energy to make a dwelling. This is it. And then it just has this fantastic sort of scale to it. There's a few posts and beams, and they are incredibly minimal, and they are exactly where they need to be because the length of the sheet's that length. That's it.
JK: Very simple, very pragmatic, very suited to place, and these are all, I guess kind of things that architects often strive for, and sometimes it's a bit ironic that, actually, communities often have these solutions.
KOB: Absolutely, yeah. I think it becomes part of what, well it's certainly affected the way I think. Because it as a dwelling isn't the purpose of inhabiting that beach. It's just something you retreat back to. So the rest of the setting along the beach edge, and the trees, and the water, and all these things, is the extended part of the daily existence.
JK: So you really inhabit and have a relationship with that landscape.
KOB: That's right, yeah. And the building itself just supports that. It doesn't become the focus of it.
JK: The primary relationship isn’t with the building.
KOB: Correct, yeah.
JK: Kevin developed the idea of “Finding Country” in an independent exhibition which was shown at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. The radical project sought to recover Aboriginal Country from the Australian City and addresses questions of urban settlement and territory in colonial Australia. We asked Kevin to talk about the Finding Country project, and the significance and applicability of this idea to Australian cities, and other colonial spaces.
KOB: If the building is at one end of the scale of action, at the other end is how we start to look at the city, as a much bigger thing. And especially the kind of cities that have landed on us in Australia and New Zealand and Canada. The kind of new world cities I guess. There's a whole, in the history of architecture and the way we were taught, there's a whole series of Italian architects who were focused on thinking about the ruins of Rome as the origins of their new beginnings, of re-finding the golden periods of Rome in the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries. And in a similar way, I guess I've been thinking about Country, in the Australian context, or in the Aboriginal context, as the thing you belong to as being built on and over and, what happens when, what's a city look like if you start with important things in Country and said, well actually that thing can't be built on or over, and you may build around it, or beside it, but not across it. And the ceremonies and rituals and social settings that need to occur with it, then become the things that generate the new form of an imagined city. So, it doesn't become a blueprint for the rolling out across the whole city, but in terms of an attitude, it means if we know there's something in some part of the city that needs to be, not restored, and not conserved, it has to extended, then I think in a way it's almost recovered. But it has to be, I think, certainly in the historical sense it has to be extended, and must have an effect on the city. Equally, there's other contemporary modern occupations of Aboriginal people in the city, and they take the forms of medical services and all these sorts of things. And they're as much a part of keeping the social interactions alive on Country as well.
JK: And I guess having this approach that really recognises cultural heritage, but doesn't set it in stasis, and also thinks about equally valuing present-day occupation and usage.
KOB: The way I’ve been exploring this idea for the last ten years is working on exhibitions and studios, and there's this idea where I give people or students a grid out of the street directory and ask them to imagine half the population gone. And therefore to empty half of their drawing, with a view of revealing some idea about that bit of the city, by acknowledging Country. Because it's been going for ten years now, the complexity in the thinking's becoming really impressive. And forces everyone to kind of look, not at the edges of the city but back into the centre. Because you know as architects we're trained to, here's a blank piece of paper, here's a pencil, build your creation, go to the edge of the city, off you go. And same with planners, and people in urban design. So, when you're forced to actually put a hold on the boundary and just go back and look at all the mess that's been created and all the opportunities that have been missed, it forces everyone to put a value on everything. And to see things very differently.
JK: Now, I heard that as part of this project, you had a large scale display of the pieces of the street directory, you know, this project created a large version. Now I heard you set it on fire. What's that about?
KOB: Yeah, so the big drawing, the first iteration was actually in Melbourne in a gallery, this was in 2009. And then there was a second in Venice, in 2012, for the Biennale. And, then we did one in 2015 I think it was, in Los Angeles, and then another one back in Venice last year. But probably the one in 2012 was the first one I burnt. We burnt those parts of the street, or the big drawing, that hadn't been changed or affected by people's contributions. So it was those bits of the drawing that were just left as is, that don't have regular fire management. So it got fire managed on the night. And it was just part of the performative work, I guess, to make people understand how fire is used as an agent of change and keeping things in a productive state.
JK: It's not just destruction, but also creation.
KOB: It's never destruction. It's always keeping things productive. It's just moving things onto the next cycle. Destruction is when you don’t fire it, because things just fall into a state of disrepair and can’t be used. Fire’s a tool and it’s got to be seen as that. I think the unfortunate thing in Australia is the understanding around fire is through, mostly through fear. I mean I think in Queensland it's one of the more advanced states in terms of firing in off seasons, and trying to control fuel sources. But, somewhere like Victoria, which really struggles to get their head around it, and then they end up with no fires, but then when they do get one it's a catastrophic one. They're just deadly, they bring all sorts of pain and destruction.
JK: Yeah and I think that maybe comes from such a cultural basis of thinking of the land as something to be conquered or resisted or managed, rather than kind of understanding that it's a relationship, and there's give and take in that relationship.
KOB: Yeah, I think it's that. It's also just a different attitude to the land. So one is, when you belong to something, then you become part of it's cycle in a way that keeps it productive which therefore keeps you alive and that's where the relationship lies. I think, in the opposite condition, the opposite of country is city, and that's all to do with ownership, torrens title, and here's the building you own, and therefore because of this your property that you own, there's rules and regulations that come with that, and one of them is you don't light fires wherever you feel like it. And all of a sudden it changes the way the landscape performs or needs to perform.
JK: You can find out more about Kevin and the Finding Country project at findingcountry.com.au, and at koarchitects.com.au.
Our interview with Kevin was recorded on location at Nā Te Kore, the second international indigenous designers hui hosted by Ngā Aho in March 2018.
Kevin is also one of the editors and contributors to a new book entitled ‘Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture’, edited by Rebecca Kiddle, patrick stewart and of course, Kevin O’Brien.
Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture is an exciting advance in the field of architecture offering multiple indigenous perspectives on architecture and design theory and practice. Indigenous authors from Aotearoa NZ, Canada, Australia, and the USA explore the making and keeping of places and spaces which are informed by indigenous values and identities.
We spoke with Rebecca Kiddle nō Ngāti Porou me Ngāpuhi, one of the three editors and initiators of this project.
JK: Myself amongst a wide group of others have been involved in this publication, Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture, of which you are one of the editors. So I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about how that project was initiated, and where we're at currently.
Rebecca Kiddle: So the project really was an initiated because of another book. Another book that was led by non-Indigenous academics, to start with, eventually Indigenous academics were involved in the editorship. The fact that it was led by non-Indigenous people is not necessarily problematic, per se, except that there had originally been no thought given to involving Indigenous people in that editorial role. And, of course, we know that those who have power are to work to decide what's written, have power to shape stories. And so, a number of us were, I guess took that on board and thought, well actually, it's about time we started telling our own stories. And it came to a head when a few of us, including you and me, went to North America and met up with a number of First Nations architects there, and Kevin O'Brien from Australia. And we started having conversations about this, about is it time to write our own book, to have our own voices heard. And we decided yes, it was time. So we decided we would write our own book, and it's aptly named Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture. To convey the fact that it's written by a wholly Indigenous authorship, from Canada, North America, Australia and New Zealand. And actually a whole range of different voices, in terms of practitioners, academics, community people, are represented in that book. There's actually a young, our youngest author is a young man called Matthew Groom, who is one of the students that we worked with at Aotea College for the Imagining Decolonised Cities project, and his entry into the Imagining Decolonised Cities project is in the book. Because it was an essay, a beautiful essay, written as if he were the whenua, so as if he were the land, he tells the story about him being the sort of papakāinga whenua. And it's a beautiful piece, and so, he's also in the book. But you also hear different types of writing, you get an academic style of writing, you get sort of memoir type works, you get zines - which apparently according to the young people means like a sort of magaziney type / way of writing - you get blog entries. Yeah, so it's a very varied book in terms of style, it's very varied in terms of content. There are very strong common themes though, that run through the book. There's obviously quite a lot of pain represented in the book, lots of people talking about very painful kind of memories and experiences of having been subjugated, or having had families and tribal histories that have not been recognised in whatever land that they are in. So yeah, it's a really, I think it's a really fabulous book, but I might say that, being one of the editors. But yeah, just really, it's a very eclectic, potentially, but also rich set of stories.
JK: Now I’ve heard it’s envisioned that this is the first and with more to come. Tell us a little bit about what's next.
RK: Sure. So, the plan is that yes, this is the first volume of many. The idea being that if there's any profit from this book it'll go back into a sort of publishing collective that will support Indigenous people publishing on things to do with the built environment or natural environment. The plan is that Australia will lead the next book. So this book was led by Aotearoa, but the next book is to be led by Australia, and Kevin O'Brien is going to lead that process, perhaps with another writer who's in this current book.
JK: We also spoke with Patrick Stewart, one of the other editors for this publication.
JK: Tell me a bit more about that publication, which myself and many others were involved with, and what are the longer term plans for that?
PS: So, we have, even at this gathering, some of us have been talking about, where do we go now? Because the book now has been submitted for printing, and it'll be available May 15th, so that's exciting. So we'll have that in Venice for the Biennale, which we'll be at. But we're thinking volume 2, we're now thinking it'll be hosted in Australia. So, what we've decided is, because we're thinking of a series, so, Rebecca and Kevin and myself, we'll stay as series editors, and we'll have guest editors for each volume. So, there'll be a guest editor for Australia, and we'll have an advisory board. So, like Rau has accepted to be on our advisory board, and we'll have Wanda, and we may have Daniel. So there's different people that we want to draw on. So that puts together a real solid team. And it's a peer reviewed process, so it's academically a sound process. And the other two volumes will be hosted in Canada and the United States. And, one of the things that we're doing with all the authors - we haven't even talked to the authors about this yet - is we want to have what we're going to call, I think, Our Voices Collaborative. So we want to have all the authors be part of that, that contribute to the volumes. Just so that, we want the collaborative to own copyright. So we don't want the editor to go and copyright. So that's something that we're looking at.
JK: Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture is published by Oro Editions, and is now available online and in bookstores.
Indigenous Urbanism Aotearoa Edition is a production of Te Matapihi. Sandy Wakefield does our sound recording, editing, and mixing. Our theme was composed by Thomas Burton. I’m Jade Kake, your host and Executive Producer.
For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Indigenous Urbanism go to indigenousurbanism.net. You can drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a review or rating on iTunes.
Coming up next on Indigenous Urbanism, we visit the site of a whānau papakāinga in Waiohiki, south of Taradale in the Hawke’s Bay. It’s here that the Hawaikirangi whānau of Ngāti Pārau are in the process of erecting a 5-dwelling development on their ancestral land.
Hinewai Hawaikirangi: Seeing our houses on our whānau land, right next to our marae, and all our children, my siblings children playing together, and growing up together. It's almost winding back time, like at the Pā site at Otatara Pā, just across the road from us, how our tīpuna used to live, with their own whare yet all these communal areas. It's like, reversing the colonisation process or the urbanisation process. We've been enticed back to our land, and our stories and our history. Those aspects of our life are now strengthened by being at the papakāinga, close to the marae, close to the Pā site which is now our workplace, next to the awa which we grow native trees for, that we beautify the river's edge. It's all encompassing.