Architecture and appropriation


Whilst many art practices are tightening the boundaries around cultural licence, architecture remains a discipline that celebrates the mixing of elements, motifs and typologies. From architecture school into professional life, we are taught to extract, sample, manipulate and infuse our own work with that of others. In architecture, we celebrate the incorporation and adoption of a range of cultures and knowledges into our work.


So I ask myself, if the borrowing and adoption of cultures and ideologies other than the dominant western viewpoint is a process taught within architectural institutions, what is the impact of this pursuit?

As there is an increasing interest in incorporating First Nations’ cultural knowledge within the discipline, without a depth of inquiry we run a grave risk of nothing other than further cultural appropriation.

Mitigating cultural appropriation necessitates a conscious shift in processes, as well as a shift in power structures and relations. The difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is the role and transfer of power. The ability to exchange implies a balance of power – a mutual obligation to share power. By contrast, the imbalance of power implies control, privilege, entitlement and ownership.

The exploitation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage has and continues to be rife both within historical and contemporary contexts.

Over the past two hundred and thirty years, scientists, including anthropologists, have viewed and ‘researched’ Aboriginal cultures and peoples as passive, accessible and available subjects for scientific enquiry.

And why would we anticipate anything different, given the racialised presumption of the white superiority.

The notion that western science is objective and free from prejudice and individualistic ideals of broader society is false. The development of western institutions – political, judicial and educational systems in this country have been founded on western belief systems and ideologies, developed within western frameworks, governed and controlled by white fellas. By definition these institutions inherit a legacy of racism, fiction and subjugation.

Our culture is not a research topic, thematic concern or an anthropological curiosity.

The sacredness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures should not be viewed as a smorgasbord in which you pick your favourite pieces and discard the rest. This theft of cultural customs and knowledge systems is a reiteration of the colonial mentality. And this mentality makes the coloniser feel entitled to take from the colonised.

There is an imperative, a responsibility, indeed an obligation for architects, and students of architecture living on these sacred lands, to themselves connect to place, community and cultures. This obligation goes far beyond mere representation and symbolic endeavour.

Our culture, lore and sacred lands are all encompassing – it is embedded within us and is what gives us our identity and connection to Country.

This article comes from issue 4 of CaliperCaliper is an independent architecture journal based in Melbourne, Australia. First published in 2017 by a group of students, it was born out of a desire to have a messier and more meaningful discussion about architecture and it’s place in the world. The cover image is ‘Map of Nations’ by Sarah Lynn Rees (Plangermaireener, Trawlwoolway).