Aboriginal Architecture – The Rumbalara Health Facility: The Thursday Podcast

Right Now Radio in conversation with Leon Saunders and Jefa Greenaway
Felicity James spoke with Leon Saunders, the Community Development Officer of the Rumbalara Health Facility in Mooroopna, about the Rumbalara Project in Shepparton and Mooroopna. This project is realising the vision of the local Indigenous community to create living, health and cultural spaces for their elders, youth and other community members. This project was said to be the first of its kind in Australia when it began, and when it is complete, it will be a multi-generational facility encompassing aged care, living units and a youth hostel in Shepparton and a health facility in Mooroopna.
Felicity also spoke with Indigenous architect Jefa Greenaway about what Indigenous architecture is and how it can contribute to capacity building and self determination in Aboriginal communities. One of only ten Indigenous architects in Australia’s history, Jefa spoke at a recent event held by Indigenous Architects Victoria about these issues.
Click here to listen to the podcast.

Interview with Leon Saunders transcript:

[RN]: Leon Saunders, a Yorta Yorta man, moved to Rumbalara in 1958, when he was just two years old. It was in 1958 that Rumbalara, which means rainbow in the local language, was set up as a temporary housing solution for people who had been living on the river flats. It wasn’t until 1967 that Rumbalara received hot water and sewerage. Leon is now 55 years old and is the Community Development Officer at the new Rumbalara Health Facility in Mooroopna. The centre is part of a much larger project to create spaces for Indigenous elders, young people and those in between. The project has also created much needed employment opportunities for local Indigenous people, with 42 apprenticeships awarded. Leon says the community couldn’t be more pleased with the new health centre.

[Leon Saunders] The elders that we speak to, they love it. Bright new building, beautiful architecture and it’s a nice comfortable place for them to come and be looked after by our doctors and our specialists and our dental services we’ve got in that building. We’ve got a four chair dental in that facility and we’ve got room for another two dental chairs, so six chair dental once it’s all up and running. We’ve got our own medical drivers that go and pick up the patients, and they bring them back to our new facility and they’ll be dropped by the front door. You couldn’t get a better service than that. Our region lived on a river bank, so we wanted to keep the bush theme that surrounds us and wanted to blend in with that environment. The architect’s done a great job and everyone we’ve spoken to about it is saying it’s a great design and a great building. Sunshine gets in and lights up the place; it’s a living building.

Leon, can you tell us a bit about the history of the area and how that influenced the design and the site of the building?

The facility was set up back in 1958, and that was set up by the housing commission and the local government of the day to house our people off the river bank. In 1958 they built ten concrete shelters and housed our people there and we did our kindergarten there. I moved in there with my family when I was two, back in 1958 and we were one of the first families to move off that Rumbalara site in 1967. Most families moved off by 1969 and were housed in the commission homes in the Shepparton and Mooroopna areas.

Now I understand it also means a lot to you personally to see the site and buildings restored in this way?

Yeah, it’s great to see where you came from. My parents struggled on a river bank and then were housed onto this site and then in ‘58 when they built the ten concrete shelters, we had one doctor who used to come and see us once a fortnight from Melbourne and he worked out of one of these little concrete shelters. We saved a couple of the concrete shelters as a reminder to the young to say “this is where your people came from” and we left one right beside the new medical service to say “that’s where you came from and this is where we are today”. We set up another of the concrete shelters as a museum and a lot of our community has donated some old photos of the days when they lived on that old Rumbalara site, the Rumbalara site where we are today. My grass roots, I love my community so I love working in Rumbalara and giving back to my community.

And how has the project helped with employment in the area?

It’s got our young apprentices, who’ll be building stages of it. You’ve started from your apprentice builders, your apprentice bricklayers, apprentice landscape gardeners, apprentice painters. It’s a great facility to get our young people involved. As the project grew, there were more opportunities for our young ones to be involved and to finish their apprenticeships. The young blokes are walking taller and prouder of themselves around the town.

What do you think the broader community can learn from the Rumbalara model in terms of looking after our older people, who are often in homes which seem disconnected from young people and the rest of the community?

They’re just left there… like a robot, just waiting to pass away. They’re not robots, they’re human beings with blood running through their veins and they’ve got their hopes and desires to live a full life, and knowledge that’s being wasted. If they can look after their elders, learn from their experiences and the struggles they went through, it would be a better world. We look after our young people and we look after our old. We’ve got to grow with our community; we’re one of the biggest Koori populations outside Melbourne.

So how did you celebrate NAIDOC week?

We’ve got our flag raising and we put on a breakfast for our community and the wider community comes along. Our local Shepparton City Council Mayor came along and spoke, and we get a couple of elders from our community to raise the flag, we’ve got our flag and then you’ve got the Torres Strait Islander flag and we get community members from both sides to raise the flag. Then we have a smoking ceremony and we get some young lads in to do a corroboree and dance shared with the crowd on that morning. Then we would go to our new aged cared centre in Shepparton and have our elders’ lunch with our elders. It was a great day; it’s a fairly packed week. It’s great to celebrate NAIDOC week with our elders and our young.

I also spoke with architect Devkrishna Mistry about the success of the Rumbalara project.

[Devkrishna Mistry]: Basically, the master plan came about through consultation with the Rumbalara Cooperative, and they got the opportunity to buy this large eight hectare site in north Shepparton. What they wanted to do was to create a real community facility, and the Aboriginal community is very much about the community as a whole and the family is not just about the immediate family, but the whole community. What we wanted to do was to create a facility which embraced the whole community and hence there was an opportunity here to create an aged care facility for people who absolutely needed that kind of facility, that were not capable of looking after themselves. There was an opportunity to create independent living units for those who are capable of looking after themselves.

There are associated facilities like respite homes and men’s shed and women’s shed and hot houses. Also, the facility has a youth facility and youth accommodation, which is a future stage which will happen later. It’s about bringing the whole community together and giving them the opportunity for different kinds of spaces and different facilities within this one giant campus. There’s a community building in the heart of the project, the Aboriginal community are big on passing on stories and knowledge and history to the younger generation and by creating this sort of master plan, it provided a framework from which they could develop this story and project and build a community.

We also did another project for them, which was the health clinic in Mooroopna. Again, we’ve done two stages of a multiple stage project for them and obviously as funding is available, we’ll proceed and develop the rest of the projects for them in consultation with the Rumbalara Cooperative.

One of the things they said was we’d like to get the Koori employment enterprise organisation involved, and one of the prerequisites of any of the builders coming on board and working on the project was how are they going to engage with the community and provide employment for the local Indigenous population. The way that was going to work was that the developers and the builders were encouraged to create apprenticeships for not only the youth, but even the older members of the community who haven’t had a job for years to gain an apprenticeship or come back into the workforce to rebuild their skills, give them confidence and build self esteem. That was done and I think about 42 apprenticeships were created.

Interview with Jefa Greenaway transcript:

[RN]: Tonight we’re looking at Indigenous architecture. Jefa Greenaway is one of Australia’s only Indigenous architects. In fact, we’ve only had about ten in the history of Australia, according to Jefa. This week, he spoke about how Indigenous architecture can play a role in capacity building and self determination at an event hosted by Indigenous Architects Victoria.

Jefa, what is Indigenous architecture?

[Jefa Greenaway]: It’s not an easy question to answer, in as much as it’s a fledgling area which I think is a little bit ill defined at this point in time, but I guess that it is in essence architecture which is authorised by Aboriginal people. Where it has involvement with Aboriginal designers, Aboriginal consultants, Aboriginal communities and leaves a legacy, I think that’s where it starts to become something of significance. To define it in an aesthetic sense or stylistic approach, I think is a little bit premature at this point in time because I think we’re still emerging as a creative endeavour which can be clearly defined in any sort of true sense.

In your presentation this week, you spoke about architecture as a means of capacity building and self determination. Can you tell us what you mean by this?

I strongly believe that that’s the way ahead in terms of enabling communities to stand on their own two feet to ensure development and improvement and facilitating the strengths that exist within the communities and picking up on the skill sets and starting to link in with education and training to, in effect, enable communities to build capacities from within, rather than it being adopted externally.

You also spoke about the concept of cultural appropriation, in relation to a particular building design proposal in Melbourne. Can you tell us about this?

There was an interesting proposal for a residential tower just on the edges of the CBD grid, which proposed to use the image of William Barak, a Wurundjeri elder. It’s quite a powerful gesture but I guess what it throws up is some of the complexities of what that means and how culturally appropriate it is, what level of engagement and authorisation has been gone into, enabling such a strong gesture to be put on to the side of a building effectively and embedded within the design of the building. I think it’s an intriguing proposition, but I guess it’s trying to understand whether the gesture can actually work in reality. It speaks to that idea of how do you define culture through built form and how do you do it in an appropriate way, how do you do it in a way which isn’t problematic in terms of some of the references and imagery that may be used and that it doesn’t become an appliqué that you just put onto the surface of the building. I think in many respects utilising Indigenous motifs are much stronger when they’re sort of embedded within the whole design process and become more sophisticated and more subtle and nuanced.

There’s also that interesting dialogue with trying to reframe our understanding of what Indigenous is and given that seventy per cent of Indigenous people engage within an urban construct, and yet the exemplar for an understanding of Indigenous identity is within a remote setting, I think we can sort of reframe it and understand that the majority actually engage within the cities and the suburbs and the regional towns. Therefore, I guess there is capacity to engage with a different understanding and what that throws up for me is that interesting way of trying to reveal layers of history which are often subsumed or concealed, particularly within an urban environment. I think that’s quite a unique and interesting area of discovery which is still evolving. Indigenous identity is complex and it’s a rich mosaic and tapestry of different languages and nations and people. In effect, what we need to understand here is that we need to start to move beyond some of the clichés and stereotypes and default settings of what we understand things to be. The days of defining Aboriginality as a “hang a boomerang on the wall” type thing, we’re hopefully moving beyond that.

How do you think an Indigenous approach to architecture could help with what seems, at least to me, as a lack of a sense of community within our urban environments?

That’s right, and I think that’s experienced everywhere regardless of your cultural background. I think there has been a breakdown over time in respect to a sense of community. I think starting to connect with the actual spirit of a place, a location, understanding its climate,  understanding that it’s an assemblage of people, a community, and that enabling connection, enabling casual linkages through viewing and talking and conversing and seeing people, needs to be encouraged. I think there are planning constraints which actually inhibit this. I think that there is often a lack of master planning to an overall understanding of how to define and create and enhance community. I think there’s much more work able to be done on that front and starting to move from creating a series of silos where everybody is wholly self contained and don’t look outside of their own immediate environment. I think some of this can also be teased out through a connection between the landscape and built form and starting to blur the boundaries and start to create synergies between the landscape and the architecture. I think that’s quite an interesting space to be involved in.


Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

By Georgia Cerni

Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.