A cultural gathering space had been at the top of the Flinders University indigenous community’s wish list since the 1990s, and in 2020 we were selected to collaborate with the university and Kaurna Elders to create a space dedicated to the practice of aboriginal culture and teaching.
The proposed site, a steep embankment adjacent to the Yunggorendi First Nation Centre was faithfully reserved due to its 1:2 slopes, awkward positioning, scattered underground services, and mature Eucalyptus trees with their resident Koala.
The challenging site was matched by the brief and the need for authentic engagement to realise such an anticipated space. The design needed to deliver an accessible and inclusive environment that would facilitate First Nation practices and teaching, including smoking ceremonies, cultural cooking and celebrations.
Through an extensive engagement process with Kaurna Elders, First Nation educators and students, we were able to capture their deep insight and vision. We were asked to consider the design from the perspective of “walking on something that is living”. Stakeholders such as Simone Ulalka Tur wanted the project to “re-centre our knowing, being and doing.” Uncle Lewis Yerloburka O’Brien, a Kaurna Elder, spoke of “circles representing a connectedness to Country,” the representation of water, and respecting Nganu the sleeping giant, as important cultural themes. Students expressed the importance of access for all abilities and ages and the need for different learning spaces – places to sit, stand and be in nature.
The site conditions provided a set of critical parameters to follow, and the stakeholder engagement provided a cultural framework within which to design.
We developed design principles that responded to the engagement process. Principles of shelter, protection, visibility, and storytelling drove our thinking. However, one cultural imperative stood out– our design would be sited on a living thing – Nganu.
How could we deliver a project that respects the existing landscape while delivering new infrastructure through a process of minimal disturbance? Could we build a cultural space without waking Nganu?
With this in mind we couldn’t possibly take a typical cut and fill approach, so we took a more innovative response, designing structures and ramps that gently floated over the site. Drawing inspiration from nature, our structures respond to the landscape, bending around trees and stepping down the slope, resembling the patterns of fallen Eucalyptus leaves observed on site.
Having developed a conceptual design, we sought and gained endorsement from the stakeholders. Finally, after three decades of waiting the documentation began.
A series of light weight steel framed, fibre reinforced plastic (FRP) mesh panels were engineered to form the leaf shaped platforms, and compliant ramps provided all abilities connections to the main pathway network, including an aerial walkway between the Yunggorendi building and cultural space, truly making it their own.
We designed a central fire pit for cooking and smoking ceremonies with a laser cut lid representing surrounding cultural landscapes. Around the fire pit is a circular ceremonial space, the only cut and fill on the site, held by curved sheets of aged steel, tying in with the aged steel edge restraint to the FRP panels.
Retention of the existing landscape was an imperative design principle, and the lightweight permeable elevated structures were designed to ensure airflow, rain and sunlight still reach underlying landscape. This creates a protected environment where plants and animals are uninterrupted by human use above; even ensuring the resident Koala has unimpeded access to its preferred tree. It also provides users with cool, comfortable spaces, while adjacent tree trunks and garden were used to frame outdoor ‘rooms’ with living structure. Continuing the natural vernacular, rocks and logs create informal seating areas and a dry creek reflects the passage of water over the site.
Working with the construction team, we explored prefabrication in response to the challenging site conditions and tight delivery program. Detailed shop drawings of the panels, platforms and ramps were prepared and then manufactured off-site, while targeted bored piers ensured limited site disturbance.
When the day came, 17 prefabricated panels were crane lifted and secured onto 56 uniquely designed steel supports that matched the exact elevation and profile of the site. Installed in 5 hours and without the removal of a single tree or underlying landscape, months of targeted thought became a community asset almost overnight.
Since its completion, the space has been in constant use; formally as a ceremonial and teaching space and informally as a quiet retreat from the busy central hub. It is now a precedent for how small, difficult and underutilised sites can be transformed to benefit the community.
Project location: Flinders University, Sturt Road, Bedford Park, South Australia
Design year: 2020
Year Built: 2021