September 24, 2023

Culturally Intuitive Design: Why Australian Architecture must Honour Traditional Owners

6 min read
Culturally Intuitive Design: Why Australian Architecture must Honour Traditional Owners

I’ve dedicated most of my career to exploring how built form impacts our social and cultural interactions. As architects, we have a responsibility to ensure a building’s design reflects the local histories of its site; past, present and future. It must engender a sense of place and purpose that is respectful to all cultural and social groups who have deep connections to the site.

My team and I take great pride in using design to educate the community about the sensitive relationship between the built form, and the traditional owners of the land. The preoccupation with globalism and innovation in architecture today means we’re often swept up in the alluring universality of branded or ‘modern projects’. It can be hard to see beyond newness and ‘progression’. As a result of this, First Nations histories, narratives and customs that have enriched Australia’s landscape for thousands of years are often overlooked in the design process. This is something that must be addressed with fervour through a culturally intuitive design approach.

Architecture is the art of showing, not telling. This offers immense potential for us to share the important cultural histories of our First Nations ancestors. ARM Architecture has spent years cultivating a co-design process directly engaging First Nations communities from day one of the design journey.

The intricate research and development process we undertake with First Nations elders, consultants and community members ensure our designs honour place, culture and language and remind people of what and who our land truly represents.

Our approach to culturally intuitive design starts with listening and extracting key messages that need to be expressed. What does it mean to be an Australian, and represent culture in architecture and design? What are the absences and silences we need to address? How do we communicate this respectfully and factually to the wider community?

Culturally Intuitive Design: Why Australian Architecture must Honour Traditional Owners


Wominjeka is a Woi-wurrung word, often translated as ‘welcome’. It was introduced to me by Aunty Doreen Garvey-Wandin, great-granddaughter of William Barak for whom ARM codesigned the Barak Building in 2015. It is a word that has stuck with me, continuing to inform my efforts in understanding First Nations culture.

But wominjeka does not literally mean ‘welcome’. It translates more accurately as ‘come with purpose’; a definition that is far more powerful and reflective of the manner in which we must approach intercultural learning. Welcome – what histories, stories and perspectives can we welcome in? What has not yet been welcomed that needs to be communicated? After all, architecture can be seen as a vehicle for finding meaning, an exploratory journey with the potential to enlighten everyone in society. 

Good design in this context means adopting a sensitive approach to sharing authorship. For the Barak Building, we received the blessing of Aunty Doreen Garvey-Wandin to share William’s legacy in a meaningful way.

The original location of the Barak Building was an old brewery at the end of an axis, indicating its locational significance to the historical landscape of Melbourne. William Barak was a significant figure who bridged two distinctive societies, a change-maker who was largely unknown among colonised communities.

The design of the building evokes Barak’s profile, which is increasingly more legible when viewed from afar. This representation of knowledge and uncertainty, clarity and confusion, inspired us to integrate the conversation of First Nations history into mainstream society.

There are nuances of the word Wominjeka, and we wanted to express this in many facets. While we were offering a physical greeting to the wider community, we were also saying, ‘tread carefully, with respect and with open eyes and ears’. Our objective was to encourage people to engage with the stories and narrative inherent in the site, inviting them to discover these beyond just a superficial level.

Design as an educator

Design must encourage future generations to understand reconciliation and share First Nations histories with our patchwork of cultures that Australia has come to represent.

Embedding First Nations culture and design into spaces can inspire educational propositions within architectural outcomes themselves. Much of our work at ARM is inspired by the collective experience.

Imbuing traditional First Nations stories in a design outcome adds to the paradox of our own sense of identity and place. The lived design experience is therefore perhaps a more valuable educational tool than anything we can from a textbook.

Celebrating our complex history is important, and something we shouldn’t shy away from. We believe it is best achieved through amplifying an authentic representation of First Nations communities and their stories.

Through co-designing and consultations with Boon Wurrung senior elder N’Arweet Carolyn Briggs, we have started to better understand how cultural threads are interwoven, and how we can express these as a celebration of the Kulin nation.

Together with Carolyn, we designed RMIT OurPlace, a learning environment featuring seventeen different hubs for students, each evoking the six seasons of the Boon Wurrung and other narratives inspired by Carolyn’s appreciation of Country.

People often make sense of things in connection to their environment, integrating historical messages through colour, art, texture and words. Integrating education and design exposes end-users to culture and storytelling on both a physical and subconscious level. They are immersed in a multi-sensory experience of First Nations culture via the spaces they engage with every day. 

jesse judd

Jesse Judd.

Embedding First Nations Culture in Australian schools

First Nations design has a powerful application in primary schools. It offers an immersive opportunity to educate new generations about First Nations culture on a daily basis.

Our recent educational work in the practice has included studio-based co-creation workshops with Wathaurong, Boonwurrung and Woi Wurrung elders, artists and makers.

We embarked on a co-creation process to develop visions and briefs for eight different schools, delving into the geographical, historical and cultural attributes of each site. This process informed an authentic First Nations-led design outcome.

On one key project, ARM collaborated with Wathaurong elder, historian and artist Barry Gilson, and engaged representatives from the communities whose country each of the school sites would be located on. This First Nations-led design process enriched our vision for each site through location-centric stories, thematics and visual art applications.

This work is an important example of how culturally intuitive design must be used to nurture a more positive path to reconciliation for Australia’s next generation.

Extending the voice of First Nations people

I hope the relationships we form with First Nations artists, consultants and cultural practitioners can extend beyond our projects, and come to fruition in numerous other profiling and leadership opportunities in the wider community.

Australia lacks an amplified presence of First Nations architects, and I hope a culturally intuitive and co-designing approach can begin to set a new direction for the future of our built environment.

It is important to consult with this community, making every effort to support conceptual ideas as true representations of culture. We can grow this interest by offering opportunities for artistic expression and educational resources, thereby redressing misconceptions of what Australia’s built environment means to the colonised world.

It is a sensitive collaborative process, and one that continues to reveal profound insights into the role of art, storytelling and community in First Nations culture, something we do not know enough about as a collective.

There is a yearning for more insightful and truly representative expressions of First Nations culture in Australian architecture, and it has largely been overlooked until recent times. We must regularly pause and reflect: How can we better educate ourselves about our cultural roots, and share these learnings with the wider community?

There is a deep history we need to understand in our practice. It has been a 20-year journey of reconciliation for ARM Architecture, and one that continues with almost every one of our projects. 

The Uluru Statement of the Heart expresses this essential shift towards more inclusive architecture and design outcomes reflecting our cultural roots. This also speaks to the idea that sovereignty is a spiritual notion, and it has never been ceded or extinguished.

Our connection to Australia’s ancestral roots on this land has not disappeared. It is our collective responsibility to recognise and communicate First Nations culture as it has existed for centuries in this place, we call home. 


Jesse Judd is a Director at ARM Architecture. This week, Judd moderated a panel discussion with Australia Build Week Online on the topic of designing for culture.