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29.03.2016
Along the way he draws on evidence from explorers' accounts, early drawings, anthropological research from the 1930s and archaeological surveys, coupled with his own investigations over 35 years. These constitute an extraordinary picture of Aboriginal architecture across the length and breadth of the Australian continent. Aboriginal architecture is the antithesis of the introduced Western styles that have solidified over two centuries into the habit of a highly Euro-centric, eclectic approach that largely ignored the reality of Australian difference. Instead, they discovered their temples and cathedrals (their most profound spiritual sanctuaries) in the ready-made structures of the landscape itself. For all its apparent variety, indigenous architecture explored a very limited number of shelter types: the windbreak, shade structure and the enclosure. It was magnificent in its simplicity, its lack of affectation and its strict economy of means.
Australian colonial architecture largely ignored the Australian climate by mimicking English or European architectural styles that served as sentimental reminders to the newcomers of what they had left behind. This guaranteed, with the exception of the veranda, that colonial architecture was ill-fitted to its new environment. Their architecture was richly localised and differentiated within its many regional architectural styles. The exceptional two-metre high-rise platform abodes of Arnhem Land, with their Glenn Murcutt-like stringybark barrel vaults, kept their occupants off the wet ground, allowed a view of the surroundings and dealt with mosquitoes by positioning a fire underneath. Aborigines were brilliant improvisers and there was, apparently, no inhibition about what constituted a shelter. Some resembled enlarged clothing, such as the paperbark shelter used by Mornington Islanders, which constituted a strikingly organic form of personal headgear suitable for the Melbourne Cup. In eastern Arnhem Land there is the delightful example of a portable conical shelter made from pandanus leaf, which doubled as a mat and a body screen.


The author briefly visits the subject of symbolism and meaning, and its inclusion in contemporary indigenous architecture.
Memmott also examines various forms of evolved, self-constructed ethno-architecture including a range of different camps. In many of the 20th-century camps, corrugated iron was adopted by Aborigines as an industrial replacement for bark. Memmott, surprisingly, makes no mention of this widespread phenomenon or its revived popularity among architects today as a material linkage with bush landscapes emblematic of toughness and delicacy.
A marvellous gallery of rare and intriguing images, assembled over many years, would alone justify the book. The author is committed to establishing ethno-architecture as a science and sticks to his subject, avoiding discussion of its broader suggestions. In Australia, we are beset by environmental crises on every side after just two centuries of habitation.
It could change everything if we revised our idea of what it means to be civilised to include some of the positive features of Aboriginal culture - its spiritual connection to nature and protection of core species' breeding sanctuaries. Architects are moving towards a more sustainable model but they are held back by society's standards. In the US, and particularly where I know best, California, people tried to make the land look just like where they came from in Iowa or wherever, often somewhat easy to do where the land was most fertile.
It was minimal and not, in the main, about symbolism or social status, or conspicuous displays of wealth.
They concerned themselves with creating comfortable, economical shelters from the wind, sun, cold, heat and insects. If there is a single lesson to be taken from Memmott's account, it is the overriding importance of climate.


Today, enslaved to fashionable imported architectural styles, we have no reason to feel superior to the indigenous builders. Consequently, symbolism was seldom attached to shelters; nor were they much embellished with decoration. The Merrima Aboriginal Design Unit established within the NSW Public Works Department in the mid-1990s is mentioned along with Paul Pholeros's work but, rather oddly, he ignores the internationally famous 1994 Glenn Murcutt house for Marmburra Marika and Mark Alderton at Yirrkala, Cape Arnhem.
He gives case studies that delve more deeply and includes informative climatic and regional maps, as well as diagrams of camp sites. Among them are the Tasmanian windbreaks from the Baudin Expedition of 1802, possessing all the poetry and romance of an Andy Goldsmith assemblage, and Eugene Von Guerard's domed shelters at a campsite on the outskirts of Adelaide in 1858. Indeed, our indigenous architectural heritage brings into question some key assumptions of Western civilisation - its infatuation with permanence and monuments and its extravagant exploitation of the earth's finite resources.
Aboriginal architecture provides a very different model - which, on consideration, could take Australia in the direction of a radical architecture that touches the earth more lightly. His central subject is classical Aboriginal ethno-architecture as practised before the arrival of the colonists. Certain forms, such as the three-eighth dome and the half-dome, were repeated for their economy and were magnificently adapted to their geographical location. Is there an alternative vision, one that is less aggressive, less exploitative, less driven by economic growth and consumption with its devastating impact on the environment?




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