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Navigating nationality: Australia’s multicultural built landscape


Above image of Dhamma Sarana in Keysborough by Anuja Manchanayake

Immigration has always been central to the success of Australia’s nation building. Much of Australia’s built environment bears the undeniable influence of generations of planned immigration, and our urban population consequently consists of many first and second-generation immigrants.

The Australian immigrant intake has increased considerably in the past two decades. Notably, the number of China-born Australian residents has tripled, while the number of India-born residents has increased fourfold during this period. As a result, Australian cities and regional towns are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan in character.

A study by Deakin University examines how multiculturalism is being negotiated in Australia’s built environment, by analysing the architectural interventions of the recent immigrant groups.

It finds that residential and institutional areas tend to be more resistant to cultural shifts, whereas commercial zones are more amenable.  For instance, a temple-style house presents a greater challenge to the status quo than an exotic grocer or restaurant.

Buildings which feature overt religious or cultural expression are particularly divisive, because they suggest the presence of communities for whom both quotidian and spiritual points of reference are different.


The ill-fated Taj-on-Swan in its early construction phase, in 2007.


A case in point is the Taj-on-Swan, a palatial Indian-style mansion located in Perth’s heritage Peppermint Grove residential district.  The mansion’s ethnic design includes seven bulbous domes typical in Hindu architecture, turrets, a stargazing pavilion, and a separate temple structure within its 6600 sqm site.

The mansion features several ritual design elements. Its circulation, layout, and access, are all based on the ancient Hindu principles of the Vaastu Shatra. According to the Vaastu, the dwelling itself is a shrine. The building plan derives from the divine square, so that the deity may reside on site.  Lying flat, the deity’s position is determined by the shape of the site and the lay of the land.  It is believed that when his head and limbs are in the right position, success will come to its inhabitants.

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The abandoned Taj-on-Swan


The owners of the mansion famously stipulated that their religious beliefs should be respected on site. Because they were vegetarian Hindus, the owners mandated that no meat could be consumed on site. According to rumours, the workers retaliated by lacing the concrete with mince. Now left in disrepair following the financial misfortunes of its owners, Taj is likely to be but a memory in Peppermint Grove, with the local council voting unanimously to have it demolished in December 2014.

An opinion piece on the Taj-on-Swan by Christopher Vernon, who was then the associate professor Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Visual Arts at The University of Western Australia, used the building to flag the problematic issue of racism within architecture, sparking heated debate when published on ADR back in 2011.

The Dhamma Sarana, a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in Melbourne’s Keysborough residential district, is another building featuring overt symbolism and distinctive religious architectural forms.

Like the Taj-on-Swan, the architecture of the Dhamma Sarana is the embodiment of its religious, ethnic, and cultural beliefs. This is most evident in the large white stupa on site, and the octagonal front pavilion of the main building. The stupa is a solid, hemispherical structure, and is the architectonic form that most closely represents the mystical body of the Buddha. The stupa is the principal focus of Buddhist ritual, and is the Buddhist Dhamma law made visible.

The octagonal front pavilion of the main building is similarly symbolic. It is the patimaghara or image house, which contains Buddha images, ritual items, and offerings. The octagonal form is one that is closely associated with Sri Lankan identity, and has been a symbol of power for many past Sinhalese kings. As such, the octagonal form suggests a Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition that is closely connected with Sri Lankan nationalism and Sinhalese ethnicity.

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Buildings at the Dhamma Sarana worship complex in Keysborough


The appearance of foreign symbols within Australia’s Anglicised suburban neighbourhoods could unintentionally carry connotations of excitement and threat. These foreign buildings may often been perceived in negative terms – of how they might be assimilated into existing environments, instead of how they might transform them in a positive sense.

But many are now advocating a more progressive and realistic view, which is to embrace the diversity of the new buildings that have appeared and developed within the area. There is an acceptance that buildings intentionally referencing foreign styles are but a progression of multicultural institutions in our community, a burgeoning indication of a more inclusive Australian architectural conversation.

In a 1982 publication developed by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, entitled Multiculturalism for All Australians: Our developing nationhood, professor of sociology and leading government advisor Jerzy Zubrzycki observed that “[Multiculturalism] is not a dangerous new ‘ism’ to be foisted on an unsuspecting nation. It is not a radical plot to change the nature of Australian society. It is not a devious attempt to open the immigration floodgates… It is essentially a recognition of reality and an enlightened attempt to respond positively to the changes in a growing community”.

Perhaps the best way forward would then be to recognise the potential contribution of immigrant and ethnic cultures, to make city life more liveable, equitable; with a visual dynamism reflecting the diverse population we have become.

Read the original opinion piece on the Taj-on-Swan by Christopher Vernon here.


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