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Building Indigenous awareness: Q+A with Rueben Berg

Building Indigenous awareness: Q+A with Rueben Berg


Above, The announcement of the Portrait building by ARM was a catalyst for executive director Reuben Berg to form IADV.

Rueben Berg is a practicing architect and founder of Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria. He has been involved in various government roles within Indigenous affairs for many years. He gained a strong understanding of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 in his role as manager of Metropolitan Heritage Programs at Aboriginal Affairs Victoria. Berg is also a founder and director of the Indigenous Ultimate Association and the managing director of RJHB Consulting. As executive director of IADV (Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria), Berg oversees consultations and mediations relating to the role of indigenous identity in public and commercial projects in Victoria. ADR speaks to Rueben about the role and voice of the indigenous community on our built environment.

ADR: How is your practice involved in the current Relocation of the Koorie Heritage Trust to Federation Square project? What are some of the core issues that are important to solidify from the get go?
Berg: IADV is working with Lyons Architects in a design consultation role. Fellow director Jefa Greenaway and I were involved in the early design discussion with Lyons and the Koorie Heritage Trust, and have provided input on all aspects of the design throughout the process. One of the key issues we focussed on was ensuring that aspects of culture were imbedded into the project in a sophisticated, respectful and nuanced way. The other key was trying to reengage the site with the river, and to reinforce the relationship the building has to that important landscape feature.

How do you feel about the role of commercial buildings assuming the role of public architecture, in particular those that represent Indigenous culture?
I think that commercial buildings can play a key role in recognising and celebrating the Indigenous history and culture associated with the place where they are built. Depending on the function of the building, there are also other ways that culture may be able to be incorporated into to the project.

Were you involved in the consultation process for the recently unveiled William Barak apartment building?  
The announcement of the Portrait building back in 2010 was actually one of the catalysts for the formation of our organisation. We recognised that it was important for a specific Indigenous architecture focussed voice to be present in these sorts of discussions, and wanted to ensure we could make such contributions to future projects. I think that it’s great that architects and designers are looking at aspects of Indigenous culture to help inform their projects, and that the Aboriginal community were engaged in that process. From my own personal perspective, I think there are more discussions that can be had with both the architecture profession and the Aboriginal community, about the best ways that our culture can be embedded into design.

Are you surprised at the level of interest from the general public  in such a building design? What do you attribute this to?
I’m not really surprised. When I talk to people about these sorts of issues everyone is hugely interested, there is just a great level of trepidation in how to engage with these issues appropriately. That’s one of the key roles we hope to play, in helping remove some of that fear and raise greater awareness. I think there is a great yearning amongst all members of the community to see more recognition of Indigenous cultures in the built environment.

Do you feel indigenous culture is architecturally underrepresented in Australia’s major cities? Is this changing?
I only really know about Victoria, and I think there is a growing presence within Melbourne, but we can do much more. The key question is how can we do this appropriately and respectfully, in a way that still gives a sense of ownership and control to the Aboriginal community.

Do you feel indigenous culture is architecturally underrepresented in the outer suburbs and regional towns in Australia?
In those areas I think that Indigenous culture is very much isolated to those key Aboriginal community controlled organisations and does not seem to be embedded in other parts of the community. Personally I would like to see non-Aboriginal people not see our culture as some sort of ‘other’ that they have no connection to, but rather something they can have some sort of relationship with. After all, our culture is intrinsically tied to land and place, and if you are living on this land, in this place, then you do have some connection to the culture.

Can you give a little insight into the challenges and highlights of your position directing your own architectural practice?
IADV is not a stand alone architecture practice, rather we see our role as one of advocacy and awareness. Our role in design projects does not relate to actual working drawings, but more on the concepts and ideas that can reflect culture. However we are keen to help facilitate the involvement of Indigenous architects and designers into hands on roles within key projects. A key highlight for me in my role was the other evening, when we arranged a social gathering of all our members – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are involved in architecture and design in the built environment. When we started there were just two of us, now we have 10 members, and to have the bulk of us sitting around the table, talking about different issues affecting us, was fantastic. The biggest challenge is finding the time to do all the things that need to be done, I am only in the executive officer role one day a week, so I need to be as efficient and effective as possible.

Where do you turn for inspiration, and which architects or designers have had the biggest influence on your work?
I try and draw as much inspiration as possible from culture – from traditional culture practices and art, but also from contemporary culture – ways of engaging, connecting and relating to people and place. From an architectural perspective, my first exposure to architecture was through the work of Greg Burgess and Glenn Murcutt and their projects still provide a lot of inspiration.

What has been the proudest achievement in your career?
My proudest achievement was probably from back when I worked at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Unit for the Queensland Department of Housing. I went and did some consultation work up in Cairns and through the Koorie grapevine I got feedback a few months later that the community there really appreciated the work I had done, and that I had been respectful and understanding.

What is your favourite project from your own body of work and why?
My favourite project would be the reconstruction of traditional stone houses I did in Federation Square in 2012. It was a really great way of showcasing that important aspect of Aboriginal culture and also gave me a really strong connection to culture and place.

What is your favourite space/place in Australia – is there a spot you wish you had designed?
My favourite place would have to be the Hopkins Falls, near Framlingham, which is part of my Traditional Country. In terms of favourite designs, I think the Walsh Street House by Robin Boyd would be one of my favourites. We were fortunate enough to launch IADV there and it is an amazing space.

What is a dream project for you? What aspects does your dream brief encompass?
Before this year I would have said to work on the design of the Koorie Heritage Trust – my Dad started the trust back in 1985, so to get to be involved in the new building has been a dream come true.

What other projects are you working on currently?
A key project we are working on is with the Wurundjeri and the National Trust to advocate regarding the Sunbury Earth Rings. These are important ceremonial spaces that are at risk of being impacted by new housing developments in the area, and we are working to ensure that the best outcome can be reached that allows some form of development to go ahead, while still conserving and raising awareness of this amazing place.



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