Ep 4: Designing Past to Present with Alison Page

In this episode, we speak with Alison Page, a Walbanga and Wadi Wadi woman, film-maker, storyteller and architect, about how to include traditional cultures into future designs.



Manisha: So you’re waiting in line complaining on social media or talking to friends about something that just doesn’t work for you. How often do we think, “If only the designers had thought of this or that.” There’s often some really easy fix that we all know would make something much, much better than it is already. I’m Manisha Amin. Welcome to With, Not For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Cammeraygal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we record this podcast today and pay my respects to their elders’ past, present and of course emerging. We’re so excited to have you all here today with us. So often things are designed for us but here we explore the magic that happens when we design with people, not just for them.

So today I’m joined by the phenomenal Alison Page who’s work and writing really engages with the idea of what it means to be human in the twenty-first century and how we can reconcile the past and the present. Alison is a Walbanga and Wadi Wadi woman and is an award-winning designer, film producer and storyteller whose career began at the New South Wales government’s Architects Office in the late 90s. She links Indigenous stories and traditional knowledge with contemporary design. Alison also appeared to eight years as a regular panellist on the ABC TV show, The New Inventors, and in 2015 was inducted into the Design Institute of Australia’s Hall of Fame. She’s an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Technology’s Design School and the founder of the National Aboriginal Design Agency. Together with Paul Memmott she’s written a fabulous book called Design: Building On Country. So hi, Alison. How are you today?

Alison: Very well, thank you. Good.

Manisha: Look, and it’s lovely to hear from you. I know that I’m at the moment sitting in North Sydney and you’re in the lovely Coffs Harbour up the coast in New South Wales Australia at the moment.

Alison: Yes, I am in Gumbaynggirr Country. It’s good that we can all connect from all around the place.

Manisha: Absolutely. I think that it’s an interesting thing at the moment. I’ve been noticing the place I’m on far more and being really grateful for the ability to be on the place that I am. I think COVID, if one thing, has taught me to really be grateful that I’m allowed and able to be in this beautiful country.

Alison: Yes. Look, I think a lot more Australians are becoming a lot more aware of the stories of the places not only where they’re standing but the places where they’re from and it’s not just the modern history but of course the ancient origins when we live in a continent that has the oldest living culture in the world. From my perspective I feel like Australians are really starting to embrace that.

Manisha: It’s an interesting thing, right. When we talk about the oldest living culture in the world. I think sometimes when people think – and I am generalising here – but sometimes when people think of First Nations, we’re not necessarily thinking of doctors and lawyers and architects. We’re thinking of people singing cultural songs or playing the didgeridoo or cultural artefacts in the middle of the outback. But when I read your work, it really reminds me that being an old culture doesn’t mean that we’ve stayed old. It means that with actually had to adapt as time has gone on.

Alison: Look, Aboriginal Australians are probably some of the most adaptive cultures on earth because we had to survive the Ice Age for a start and you don’t do that without a very, very, highly high-end level of adaptation. That’s not just having to abandon eighty percent of the landmass so that you actually survive changing sea levels. It’s also about how you evolve and adapt different aspects of your culture. The interesting thing I think about Aboriginal culture is just how holistic it is and how it’s a holistic order where there is no separation between the land, the sea and sky. Then further to that within the communities themselves, there’s no separation between the scientists, the doctors, the artists, the makers. I think Western society is probably far too taxonomic about nature. So we even divide up nature into biology, chemistry. I mean, we’re just into sort of … Western culture’s just very into classifying things into separate boxes really and I think that there’s a price to pay for that.

Manisha: Absolutely. While you’re talking, it just reinforces to me this idea when we talk about exclusion and inclusion. Again, we’re talking about those taxonomies and the binary nature of the way that we categorise people and places and things. Yet the communities you’re talking about have a really different worldview around this. How do we get that voice heard in a very Western, individualised society?

Alison: At the heart of Aboriginal culture is stories and what those stories are really about is … dreaming stories are all kind of about they’re very filled with social norms, they’ve got a lot of things about our values, how to love one another, how to be kind, how to be truthful, why it’s important to look after Country. We’re a very didactic culture. That is because those stories are absolutely essential to survival. Also we did not have the written word so it’s not like we could have something like the Bible or whatever where we could write down how to love your brother and all these virtues that are quite essential really to actually surviving. A big part of I think the Western world embracing agnostic culture is throwing out all stories which is a bit of a shame I think, and ritual and things like that.

Don’t forget, ritual is about reinforcing those stories and that’s very important in terms of remembering those things and remembering those social mores. So that’s what essentially song lines are. Song lines were stories that were attached to geographic locations and to objects as well so that as we moved around Country over time on a repeated basis we were remembering and reinforcing all of those stories which were written just in the stars, in that tree over there, in that river, in that rock, in that piece of landscape so that we would remember how to treat one another. With all of our – when we went into ceremony, of course, those stories would be reinforced and you would learn deeper levels of each story as you went through initiation.

So the society was very much built around these values which spoke very much to caring for community, caring for one another. We have a culture that is very reverential towards our elders. We don’t farm them off into old people’s homes because they are obviously a huge wealth of knowledge that we value but we also place a lot of value in passing on knowledge to younger generations. So they’re a couple of values that I think we share with many other cultures around the world but they are extremely important to our culture. Our values would definitely, I’d say, centre around caring for Country. I mean, it’s ultimately at the very absolute core of everything we care about.

Manisha: So when we care about Country, and I’ve heard you speak about this in the past, but one of the things that really interests me is this notion about what Country is and especially when we think about cities and development and cities of the future and this idea of what sits on Country and what caring for countries and cities might look like.

Alison: Yes. Well we don’t see any separation between the land, the sea and the sky. So in a way it’s interesting the horizon is sort of like this separation between – in Western culture, it’s a separation between the sky and then rest of it, we can own it. The sky and the sea we can’t own but the rest of it is total property and total asset, right? We’re all in the thick of it at the moment in Australia with this perpetual conversation we’re having about real estate. But in the Aboriginal worldview, Country is a way of seeing the world. We don’t have any separation between plants and animals and the land and the sea and the sky. We view Country like we would a family member.

There’s a great…Deborah Bird Rose, wrote a beautiful line in her book in the 90s called Nourishing Terrains and she writes that Aboriginal people worry about Country. They sing to Country. They long for Country. For me, I just love this notion that the things that we – that Country for us is animate. Country for us is just not a commodity or just the thing over there. We don’t really have things. Even our objects are animate. They are laden with spirit. So it’s very interesting for Australians to get their head around the fact that the ground that we walk on and the air that we breathe and the water that we swim in is our family. It is a family member and it must be cared for.

Manisha: How do you see I guess Melbourne or Sydney for people who are outside Australia, some of our biggest cities, what do they feel like you and how do we incorporate First Nations ideas and thinking into the way that we create what’s going to come next?

Alison: Yes, well there’s a really great story about Bennelong Point and I think it’s very illustrative of the difference of the way Australian cities have been built since the colonial era and how Aboriginal people view Country. So Bennelong Point, the original name for that is called Tubowgule and it means “where the knowledge waters meet.” So that would have been a song line and known in a song line that would’ve been very significant to the Gadigal people because it’s where the Tank Stream, which is the freshwater stream, comes out and meets the harbour. So the place where the saltwater meets the freshwater. Not only very important ceremonial grounds but also really great fishing. So when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney and they sailed past Tubowgule, they saw middens that were said to be as high as twelve metres.

Manisha: Wow.

Alison: As then as they saw this, they immediately took that – saw these middens as an asset – and they took the shells. First of all they put cattle on the point, so they named it Cattle Point. Then they took the shells from the shell middens and they renamed it Lime Burners Point because they were crushing up the shells and they actually put the shells in the foundations of the very first government house which is on Bridge Street. It’s not there anymore, it’s where the Museum of Sydney is. But to me this is an amazing convergence of a whole lot of – I suppose the clash of two different knowledge systems and the clash of two different cultures, right, in this story because they were building the foundation of buildings that they were just replicating from another place.

So a lot of what we see in Australia is, you know, Robin Boyd who wrote The Australian Ugliness, he would call it second-hand American and second-hand England. Which I think he lamented and I think he actually saw that as a great shame that we would just try and copy architectural styles from other places. Of course not only does that architectural style not speak to our climate in any way, shape or form but it also I suppose just adds a layer on top of Country which was sort of building on Country as a usurper or abrogating Country rather than working with the cultural layers that are there written in the land that may be invisible but through great architecture and through great design and I think with this growing awareness in Australia of these stories and these song lines that are part of the fabric of the land right now, the layers that we now put on these cities, they can start to bring some of those stories to the surface and make them visible.

Manisha: You have an example of that happening?

Alison: Yes, look, I think there’s really great projects happening all over Australia. I think a lot of the development at Barangaroo I think has really pushed the envelope in terms of using the public art opportunities there, the architectural opportunities there, the urban design opportunities there. To me, it feels like a lot of the different parties – whether they’re decision-makers, whether they’re developers, architects, artists – these are all different tribes but they sort of seem to be singing from the same song sheet in terms of really wanting to tell the story of the Eora fisherwomen, really wanting to honour the memory of that site and actually start to activate that place in really interesting ways. I think one of the projects that happened a couple of years ago there was a ceremonial – Emily Daniel and Wesley Enoch as part of Sydney Festival – did a ceremony there which honoured the story of the four-thousand fish that were caught I think in the late 1700s.

Manisha: Yes. I think that’s interesting, right, because if I go back in time when we think about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities especially in the workplaces it seems the minute we start to write action plans or something else, the first thing that arrives is the dot painting. I don’t have a problem with dot paintings but what you’re talking about is far more, I guess, is A, more contemporary in its thinking, but also far more nuanced in the way spaces and places are then used to reinforce story.

Alison: Yes. Look, I think Australia’s journey into reconciliation, so how Australia relates to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it’s been a people’s movement that I think in very natural ways has kind of started with the welcome to Country, the appreciation of the dot paintings, the appreciation of the dance that you might see at a conference, et cetera, et cetera. But now I think we’ve matured enough to actually start asking the question, well, what is the story behind the dots? Why is that dance the way it is? I think we’re all sort of discovering that beneath those expressions of culture there is this wealth of traditional knowledge which can actually – it’s a science that can actually teach us how to care for Country and to care for each other in an extremely holistic way and in a way that is hugely sustainable.

Manisha: When we think about that, what comes to mind for me is this idea of almost the great discovery in a weird way because it feels like, number one, we’ve had stolen generation, we’ve had a real movement to keep people away from culture and hide some of the culture that was there. Now we have communities coming back and rediscovering their own culture and Australians who are non-Indigenous actually discovering the culture of this country. How is that unfolding to you, and I guess from your perspective, how do you find the things that were lost but are I guess in plain sight?

Alison: Yes, look, I think that’s the great … Australia is going through I think an awakening about its true history and what actually happened to us. We were an offshore detention centre for England and I think the cold, hard truth of that is that we’re probably all suffering from generational trauma because of it. We don’t know anything about the decisions that were made between Captain Cook leaving in 1770 and discovering Australia and the decisions to actually bring the First Fleet here eighteen years later. Cook is very blamed for that but in fact it wasn’t his decision at all. I’d say Joseph Banks had a lot to do with it.

The War of Independence was happening in America so they had to stop sending prisoners over there and so they just sort of went, “I know, remember that place that Captain Cook, James Cook, came back from? Let’s just send them there and we could send a vial of smallpox there because that really worked for us in America.” Which is really documented in that book Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s all true, right. Yet this was something – we went heavily I think after that into a period which I think the veil is only just starting to lift now of total denial about our history. Perhaps it was far too painful for people to look at. I’m not just talking about atrocities against Aboriginal people, I’m talking about atrocities against some of the convicts as well.

Some of the biggest psychos came over here from England to run this place and it wasn’t good. It was pretty traumatic actually. It’s funny how we were sort of just left here to just deal with it on our own and there was a kind of a sort of, “Maybe they can just blame each other.” But I think now it’s like, “Hang on a second, it wasn’t our fault. Nobody who lives in Australia today is to blame for this story but it is our truth. It’s our painful truth of our history.” Modern Australia was born from trauma and it’s just something that it’s much better if we just all embrace and face because we’ll never be able to move on. We’ll never truly be able to mature as a nation unless we own up to our history. We don’t have to blame ourselves for that. It’s England’s fault.

Manisha: That’s right. If we have to blame someone, let’s blame them over there.

Alison: It’s their fault. They decided to do it and actually colonial England was actually quite brutal at the time. It really was. I just feel like if we want to build an identity that is strong, that is unique, that is really beautiful and has compassion and empathy and respect and care for Country and care for each other at the centre of it, which we totally have the opportunity to do, then we have to kind of face up to some of the truth of our history.

Manisha: How do you think we do that?

Alison: Well I think artists are a major part of that because artistic interventions about Country, and I think architectural interventions because they relate to place. So the places themselves will speak of these stories. I think once we know the stories of this country we will all truly belong here.

Manisha: There’s an interesting thing here that you’re talking about which is something I’ve heard from a lot of my friends who are Aboriginal particularly is this idea that it’s not us and them, it’s a very welcoming culture when it comes to others and a very welcoming way of thinking about place that you’re talking about. How do we create those places then that I trauma-safe?

Alison: I think we do them collaboratively and we do them in really interesting ways and we do them, I think, with a very clear set of values that you set out. So all projects become quite purposeful. So it’s something that is very lacking in a lot of design projects I find. Design briefs are written –you may as well be a plumber really. Deliver the function and that’s that. Goodbye. Artists are expected to come along at the end of it all and sprinkle some fairy dust and make it all nice but we’re just tacking on these bits of jewellery onto developments that lack clarity in terms of what they’re trying to say. So even this idea that design does tell stories. It’s not really something that I think a lot of architects and designers are trained to really think about.

What is the narrative of what you’re doing? What is the purpose of what you’re doing, the ultimate purpose? The higher purpose of what you’re doing. You see Kevin O’Brien who is a really interesting Torres Strait Island architect – I think he’s one of the most interesting architects in Australia today – he would argue that anyone who is doing a major development or project, they should get all interested parties together and camp there for a few nights. Tell stories together. It’s also about forging that relationship with that place and Country and understanding the nuances of the climate and the way the breeze flows across there in the morning and understanding the smells and the vegetation. It really does come down to relationship building and whether that’s with Country or with each other. It’s very, very important to a successful and clear result.

Manisha: While you’re speaking, I feel calm and connected as you’re speaking about these places and I think sometimes were so busy rushing from one part of a project to another part of the project that that early intervention of why we’re doing this and what does this space actually feel like can sometimes get forgotten.

Alison: That’s right. When Aboriginal people set up their travelling camps, they were always very temporary. Aboriginal people viewed architecture … a windbreak, for instance, is something quite functional like a second skin. It was all about the climactic response. They didn’t sort of put highly decorative – they weren’t looking to express their identity necessarily. There are examples of that around the country of course but for the most part they would have an old uncle orient the camp in a direction that related to those cultural sites around the place. They would talk about all the stories that relate to the place where they are. Of course, they would’ve chosen the place as well based on the availability of materials and things like that. Some functional aspects.

But the main thing was about placing yourself in terms of the broader cultural landscape. So before you sat down to eat and while you were building the travelling camp, the uncle would reinforce the mnemonic, reinforce where you are in relation to that song line that relates to the mountain over there and the song line that relates to the river over there. So when we design architecture in a contemporary context in the city, we will basically go through the same thing.

We’ll go, “OK, well where are we in relation to all of our sacred sites around and how can this building reinforce those song lines and reinforce those mnemonics so that anyone –” so you might go up to the twenty-second floor of this skyscraper but there might just be a special little window that’s framing the sacred mountain and a story there that relates to that that might’ve been done by an artist. These are the sort of opportunities where you can converge really beautiful, contemporary architecture and the very best of contemporary design with these ancient stories.

Manisha: So who should be there and how do we start these conversations in the first place?

Alison: Yes, it’s a great question and it’s a really great question in relation to cities because one of the issues that we’re finding now is that there’s this great demand for architects and designers wanting to really engage with community and really engage with traditional owners. But there’s only so many traditional owners to go around

Manisha: Yes, exactly.

Alison: So yes. This is probably why I find – a lot of the teams that I work on now, they’re really multifaceted. So you might have an elder, an artist, an Aboriginal ecologist and marine biologist. Somebody who is an expert in firestick farming. I think the point is in a way – goes back to the very first point I made about not boxing yourself in too much because an architectural project or designing a new city, it’s a very complicated process that involves a whole lot of different species of animal, if you like in a way. You’ve got to have people who design transport, people who are architects, people who design public realm, people who do spatial studies.

So I think having these multifaceted teams that are made of Aboriginal experts in these fields – which they’re out there – I think is really important. But I also think having storytellers involved at the very get go. So whether that’s an artist or whether that’s elders from the site, elders from the area, that is always one of the first protocols. Obviously the larger the project, you just have to wait until those elders are available. You sort of just can’t forge on without them in a way. But we’re looking at innovative ways of engaging with those elders. One of the ways we’re sort of  thinking at the moment around Barangaroo is making films with the elders so the elders are able to articulate very beautifully how they feel about that place and so that becomes the consultation tool in a way.

So for instance, Barangaroo is really interesting in a way because the values, one of the core values that was defined very early on of that development, was the honouring of women. So how that would translate into practice is having gender-biased commissions. Women-only commissions. Designing great places for families or designing great places for women. So how do you build that sort of gender into architectural spaces? So that’s one of the challenges thrown out there by the elders from the very beginning was Barangaroo was a woman, she was fierce. She’s probably Australia’s first feminist actually because when she was invited to Governor Macquarie’s place for dinner, she was told to dress appropriately so she just turned up naked with a bone in her nose.

Manisha: Wow.

Alison: Yes, which is –

Manisha: Appropriate.

Alison: Stuff you guys. Yes. So that sort of strength in her values. She’d stand in front of people, Aboriginal people, who were being flogged for practising their culture and she would stand and protect them. So that sort of resilience, strength, the fact that she’s female. She was in charge of the food supply in Sydney at the time. These are all great values that you can build into a site so that people come away knowing about our identity and history as a nation.

Manisha: Thank you so much for this conversation. What I’m really feeling is this real convergence between the idea of the built environment and the unseen environment that comes to life through storytelling and through the arts and through connection with place and people and sitting in spaces and seeing what emerges from that space. Also the link between the past and the present which is really quite contemporary and the things that we can learn from that as well. So it’s been a pleasure talking to you today. We’ll definitely put some of these resources up for people to see as well as the end. Thank you so much for being with us.

Alison: Thank you.

Manisha: We hope you enjoyed this episode of With, Not For. If Inclusive Design is something you’d like to learn more about or you’d like to work with us, connect with the Centre for Inclusive Design and myself on LinkedIn or head to our website, centreforinclusivedesign.org.au. For more about today’s topic and guests, check the links in the show notes or the podcast page on our website. We look forward to bringing you another episode of With, Not For very soon.

Subscribe to With, Not For wherever you receive your podcasts to be the first to hear our latest episodes.