Aborigines and Architecture

In many of Spencer and Gillen’s celebrated photographs of the Arrernte people, a family can be seen seated in front of a humpy. We note the old man, his two wives, their children, and perhaps a camp dog. Donald Thomson photographed the fierce elder Wonngu with his family in a dry season camp. In his films of Narritjin at Djarrakpi, Ian Dunlop lets us watch the Mangalili family painting under shade shelters they have constructed in their homeland, as Narritjin instructs his sons in the stories and techniques that prove their rights to the land.

Our attention is deservedly focused on what these photographs tell us about people now passed beyond our immediate ken. We can spot traces of body decorations, and marvel at a nose bone in the old Centralian men. The expressions on the faces of Wonggu’s family members are riveting, the crowd peering out from behind intriguing. The delicacy of the cross-hatched lines so expertly and painstakingly drawn on the surface of a sheet of bark astonishes. 

What fades into the background is the spinifex-clad hut, the bark sheets seemingly precariously balanced on forked-stick supports, the welter of interwoven branches that provide protection from both sun and rain. In part, I suspect, because we have been conditioned to think of Australia’s indigenous people as nomadic as well as people who have mastered their environment with simple technologies, we pay little attention to the built environment we barely see in these photographs and films.

After reading Paul Memmott’s Gunyah Goondie + Wurley: the Aboriginal Architecture of Australia (University of Queensland Press, 2007), I will never be able to look at these photographs in the same way. Thanks to Memmott’s scholarship and to the superb design editing UQP has brought to this hefty monograph, I will now be looking for expressions in sticks and spinifex as much as in eyes and mouths. Memmott has produced an eye-opening study of the variety and ingenuity of Aboriginal architecture and told his story with consummate skill. What I thought might be a dry, technical treatise instead provides a shifting panorama of technical, social, and forensic detail that never fails to engage through nearly 400 pages of texts, diagrams, and photographs.

Memmott keeps the reader engaged in part by refusing to proceed in a lock-step manner. On the one hand there are chapters that focus on the unique architectural solutions to Indigneous needs in discrete parts of the country (“Northern Monsoonal Architecture,” or “Spinifex Houses of the Western Destern”). Interspersed are others that deal more with the cultural considerations that come to bear on how these architectural solutions are deployed in camps and communities (“Socio-spatial Structures of Australian Aboriginal Settlements,” or “Campsite Behavior in Arid Australia.”)

And although these chapter titles might sound like the deadliest entires culled from a soporific academic conference, Memmott’s lucid writing style (assisted by occasional collaborators on selected essays), descriptive power, and clear enthusiasm for his subject made me turn the pages at a surprising rate and left me reluctant to put the book away when other responsibilities called for my attention. 

The surprising variations in structural design strategies employed in different parts of the continent are not limited to the expected differences between bark and post construction in the tropical climates vs branch and grass constructions in the desert. I had no real prior understanding of the extent of stone construction in the south, not just for fish-weirs and eel-traps, but for dwellings as well. Nor did I know that in addition to building roofs over their heads, some groups dug sunken floors within their dwellings to enhance the ability of the shelter’s walls to act as windbreaks. Nor would I have considered the implications that such sunken spaces required in terms of drainage during heavy rains.

The lesson that Wadigali and Maljangaba people in the Lake Eyre region built domed structures of tree branches and weather-proofed them with claddings of mud was a surprise to me. Even more surprising was the suggestion, based on narrative evidence from the nineteenth century, that a division of labor, a specialization based on expertise, may have developed among these “Mud Dome Architects of the Lake Eyre Basin.” Certain individuals were reportedly sought out by their countrymen to direct the construction of these punga. Memmott details the strength of the supporting beams required not simply to support the mud, but also the weight of the workman who needs to mount the dome to replenish the mud covering. He also injects some human drama with a tale of architectural disaster that involves the collapse of one these humpies onto its luckless occupants after dogs digging at the foundations and heavy rains combined to bring the structure crashing down.

Memmott does not confine himself in this survey to documenting traditional structures from pre-contact and earliest contact days. Within the realm of the traditional, he explores “Symbolism and Meaning in Aboriginal Architecture,” looking at ritual structures, including the conical mats of Arnhem Land that women use to hide under during sacred men’s business, and also to protect themselves and their children from strong sun and inexorable mosquitos. He inspects nomenclature and examines the connections between the names of various architectural forms and Dreaming stories. In this respect he also describes the bark shelters constructed by the Wagilag Sisters and the role dwellings play in the Lardil myth of Thuwathu, the Rainbow Serpent.

The concluding chapters treat of “Fringe Dwellers and Town Camps,” and look “Towards a Contemporary Aboriginal Architecture.” I was surprised and pleased to see that the former chapter relied on sociological evidence collected by Jeff Collman and presented in Fringe Dwellers and Welfare: the Aboriginal response to bureaucracy (University of Queensland Press, 1988), a book I found fascinating for its insights into socio-spatial arrangements and culture contact. The discussion in Memmott’s book adds much in the way of visual detail and clarity to Collman’s analysis. 

The final chapter looks at how the traditions of ethno-architecture are being transformed from within Aboriginal society, for example, in the growth of “traveller’s camps” designed to meet the needs of transients.” It also explores the interface between those traditional forms and Western architecture. He looks at the works of the first generation of University trained Indigenous architects to speculate on the possibilities for better meeting the needs of Indigenous culture. He notes, for example, the importance of open space–not a terribly new insight–but one that is placed within an intriguing discussion of the possibility of “architecture without walls” that made me stop and reconsider the very nature of my definition of the term.

A book like Goonyah Goondie + Wurley succeeds or fails on its visual design, for as vivd and engaging as Memmott’s prose is, explications of architecture require good illustrations to fully succeed. UQP deserves to win some prizes for its efforts in this publication. Thirty “boxes,” spreads of two or more pages that combine photographs, drawings, plans and text, punctuate the text, intelligently inserted so as not to disrupt the narrative flow of Memmott’s text. These boxes often draw together major themes and concepts elaborated in the chapters in which they appear and act as visual summaries or indices of the subject under discussion. They supplement other drawings and photographs interspersed in the text that are also always used to good effect.

The photographs collected and clearly reproduced here span a surprising length of Australian history, with some dating as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century. Photographs are consistently well captioned, including the dates: an important consideration when architectural styles have been documented only occasionally and in a discontinuous manner. Where photographs are not available to illustrate a particular point, reproductions of eighteenth and nineteenth century drawings and engravings are intelligently used. Eight pages of color plates in the middle of the book are a luxurious and pleasant bonus.

There are plentiful drawing and diagrams, with clear, plentiful labels, scale markings, and explanatory texts. Even the typography displays an unusual and highly laudable degree of flexibility and intelligence. Gutters and margins expand and contract to contribute to a layout that brings related material together on a page. Single columns of text are the rule, but double columns are used occasionally to good effect. If a box must be placed so that it interrupts the textual flow, a clearly visible note at the bottom of the page (“Continued on page…”) guides the reader across the break.

I initially approached Goonyah Goondie + Wurley almost out of a sense of obligation: here was a major publication from an important publisher of Indigenous studies on a topic of clear academic significance. I almost couldn’t avoid the responsibility of taking a look. I wasn’t at all prepared to be captivated, stimulated, and entranced by what I found within the covers. It is a book that is almost certain to change the way you think about and look at Aboriginal culture.


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