Since reading Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu, I can’t stop thinking about Aboriginal design. In fact it’s changed my entire thinking about what truly a successful design could look like and how it could function.

Unknown to most Australians, Aboriginal Australia had an incredible design and architecture culture. This included specialised and climate appropriate buildings from houses to large meeting halls, irrigation infrastructure and water ways and finely crafted objects and tools such as fishing nets indistinguishable from those that were English made. They had also developed highly efficient organisational processes that ensured adequate food harvests at all times of the year, incorporating major events and multi-tribe gatherings.

One of the key notions that stood out for me was that often the design work Pascoe described was so integrated with the natural world and so subtle, you could barely tell it was there. Imagine that, design so integrated with nature it is virtually indistinguishable from it. The book includes descriptions of almost invisible dams that would fill up as if by magic, subtle rock made fish traps* and ponds that could gather huge numbers of correctly sized fish via the movement of a few stones and buildings made from locally sourced materials that were durable, climate appropriate and could be easily be repaired or recycled as necessary.

Is that what would a truly sustainable architecture could look like? Could design and architecture be so well considered and integrated with the natural world that you cannot tell the two apart? Is this a design model we can use?

Whilst doing work in the residential architecture space, I have starting to explore the use of a term “Positive Impact Architecture”. It describes what I would call stage 1 of a plan for plateauing the current ecological and climate degradation of the planet in the move towards a holistic system of design and thinking like that of the Aboriginals of Australia. Positive Impact Architecture describes design outcomes and design processes that are conscious of every single element and process associated with the construction, custodianship (use) and recycling of a building. If we are aware of what happens at every stage of the process of making a building, we can start see how these processes might be shaped to positively impact that natural world, stop carbon emissions and help people.

The good news is that we have the tools to relatively easily accomplish this. Some of the tools are technology based, some are about shifting perception and behaviour and some relate to economies of scale. A number of posts here on the Dreamer website over the next few months will speculate on what a process of PIA might look like and provide some examples of projects that have gone a good way to helping find some of the answers to the design problems we face.

In essence though, as is often the way with design problems, at least part of the answer we seek is already here. We need to look back in order to go forward. Read Dark Emu, it’s inspiring (and very sad too).

*The Brewarrina fish traps still exist today and are said to be 40,000 years old, making them some of the oldest human made structures on earth

Photograph by an unattributed studio. Tyrrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Photograph by an unattributed studio. Tyrrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.