Merrima Design was established in 1995 as Merrima Aboriginal Design Unit within the Australian government's Department of Public Works in Sydney. It was founded by the architect Dillon Kombumerri, later joined by architect Kevin O'Brien and interior designer Alison Page. The first of its kind, Merrima's aim was to design public buildings in rural Australia which could include and respond to indigenous needs and desires. Since 2000, the three designers have worked separately but have founded an association of indigenous architects, Merrima Design, 'committed to the struggle for self-determination through cultural expression in the built environment'. Kombumerri remains in Sydney within the aboriginal design unit, whilst O'Brien practices in Brisbane and Page in Coffs Harbour.
The early attempts at addressing the issue of aboriginal needs in architecture was focused on the design of public buildings whose iconographic language incorporated cultural references and symbolism. But this approach proved problematic since many different indigenous communities are often involved in a single project, raising questions of whose icons and symbols are given preference. This is especially significant since the depiction of Ancestral Beings is related to questions of custodianship, meaning that a particular group can claim rights over a place, object or building that displays their symbols. Consequently, in more recent projects Merrima have taken a different approach viewing the inclusion of Aboriginal people in decisions regarding their environment as key. Having a sustained dialogue with the communities involved creates an architecture that respects Aboriginal cultural practices, pays close attention to the significance and meaning of places, and makes spaces that respond to their cultural needs. The fact that all staff at the design unit are indigenous gives Merrima a deep understanding of the social and cultural issues involved.
Another strategy that Merrima employ is to use their projects to create jobs for Aboriginal peoples and as a training opportunity. For the Wilcannia Health Service project they set up a training scheme for craft workers and labourers to make baked mud bricks. In another project, Girrawaa Creative Work Centre, they set up a design competition for prison inmates to design the building. In all these interventions, Merrima's work seeks to empower those who have been deliberately excluded from any form of political representation through creating a design process that can address their social and cultural needs, using architecture as a tool for self-help and learning.
K. J. O'Brien, "Aboriginality and architecture: Built projects
by Merrima and unbuilt project on Mer" (MPhil Thesis, School of
Geography, Planning and Architecture, The University of Queensland,
"Indigenous Design," Department of Commerce: Buildings & Infrastructure, 2009, http://www.dpws.nsw.gov.au/Buildings+and+Infrastructure/Architecture+and+Design/Merrima+Indigenous+Design/Merrima+Indigenous+Design.htm
Alison Page, "Alison Page - Interior Designer," Powerhouse Museum, 2004, http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/designersatwork/transcripts.php?ID=9
Shaneen Fantin, "Aboriginal Identities in Architecture," Architecture Australia, October 2003, http://www.archmedia.com.au/aa/aaissue.php?issueid=200309&article=15&typeon=2
Jonathan Glancey, "Health and Efficiency: This award-winning hospital in New South Wales heralds a new style of building design: Aboriginal Australian.," The Guardian, January 26, 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/jan/26/architecture
Deborah Mills and Paul Brown, Art and Wellbeing: A guide to the connections between Community Cultural Development and Health, Ecologically Sustainable Development, Public Housing and Place, Rural Revitalisation, Community Strengthening, Active Citizenship, Social Inclusion and Cultural Diversity. (Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts, 2004); www.australiacouncil.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/33937/entire_document.pdf
Catherine Slessor, "Site specific: Health Centre, Wilcannia, Australia," Architectural Review 217, no. 1295 (2005): 32-37.
Michael Tawa, "Weaving Around [Tranby Aboriginal Centre, Sydney]," Architecture Australia 87, no. 5 (October 1998): 62-67.
---, "Wilcannia Health Service," Australia Architecture, August 2002, http://www.archmedia.com.au/aa/aaissue.php?issueid=200207&article=15&typeon=2
Andrea Wilson, "Lizard Working: Aboriginal Architecture Beyond the Blue Mountains," Architecture Australia 87, no. 3 (1998): 64-67.
"Redevelopment News," Aboriginal Housing Company, 2007, http://www.ahc.org.au/redevelop/R&D%20Project%20History.html
"Design Vanguard 2003 | Merrima Aboriginal Design," Architectural Record, December 2003, http://archrecord.construction.com/projects/portfolio/archives/0312merrima.asp
"It is our aim as indigenous designers to achieve a culturally
sensitive response through understanding this synergetic fusion.
Our approach to architecture is about coming to terms with the
realities of modern society shaped by multicultural influences."
- Kombumerri quoted in; http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/jan/26/architecture
'Our design philosophy is not defined by an Indigenous
architectural style favoured by some trend followers who are
formula driven. In contrast we strive for creativity borne from
individuality, cultural diversity, and honest self-expression.'
- Merrima Design Group PDF (2003); http://www.ahc.org.au/redevelop/R&D%20Project%20History.html
'Just as the discovery of culture is a journey, not a
destination, Aboriginal architecture should be a 'process' and not
just a 'product'. When designing for communities, Merrima believes
in a holistic approach whereby there is maximum community
involvement in the design, construction and management of the
project. As each community has a unique cultural identity, it is
essential that an inclusive process of consultation, design
workshops and community meetings are undertaken to ensure community
- Deborah Mills and Paul Brown, Art and Wellbeing, (Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts, 2004), p. 99; www.australiacouncil.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/33937/entire_document.pdf
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