2022 - Cummeragunja,
New South Wales

Cummeragunja On Country Learning (ONCL)

  • Location: Cummeragunja, NSW
  • Project start: June 2019
  • Stages 1 and 2: Feb-April 2021
  • Stages 3 and 4: March-May 2022
  • Awarded: University of Melbourne Excellence Award in Placed-based Initiatives 2022

Many indigenous leaders are keen to share their knowledge and stewardship of Country with new generations of indigenous and non-indigenous learners but claim that they lack the support and dedicated space to undertake this role. The Cummeragunja community extends beyond local residents to encompass the wider Yorta Yorta diaspora, many of whom are now living in townships in Victoria and NSW. Maintaining connections with Country is critically important for well-being and to meet cultural obligations. While ceremonies, funerals and informal visits draw extended families together at Cummeragunja there has been no specific focal point to meet while in community. At the heart of this collaboration with community elders has been the creation of a designated place to celebrate culture, co-designed and built by indigenous and non-indigenous students.

The indigenous people living at Cummeragunja partnered with the University of Melbourne’s ASHE and Bower Studio programs to co-design and co-develop an on country learning (ONCL) precinct where stories can be shared with students and visitors. More than 120 community members and university students have participated in this program following consultations from 2019 and the first stage of the precinct opening in 2022.

The Cummeragunja Reserve is located on the Dungala (Murray) River in New South Wales near the Barmah township. Established in 1882 the settlement was designated to rehouse the indigenous residents of the Maloga Mission who rebelled against the authoritarian control of the missionaries. The once thriving Cummeragunja community school, market gardens and store has subsequently suffered under various state government controls. This culminated in the ‘walk-off’ in 1939, the first mass strike of indigenous Australians, that saw many residents crossing the river to establish new lives in Victoria. Nowadays the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Land Council, under the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, supports the dozen or so families still living in the community.

Cummeragunja elders and indigenous people living in larger townships are concerned that indigenous youth are not well supported to engage with traditional knowledge and culture on country and that this has a significantly detrimental effect on their overall wellbeing and capacity to celebrate their indigeneity. Furthermore, it is recognised by elders as well as tertiary educators, that there are accessibility barriers that divide non-indigenous learners from engaging with indigenous people which unfortunately, has traditionally been on the terms of the non-indigenous education providers. This disadvantaging the indigenous communities that seek engagement opportunities that are undertaken in on country settings.

Early in the partnership the Cummeragunja residents requested that the ONCL precinct's design respects vernacular typologies and supports elders discussing the natural environment as well as indigenous knowledge systems. Elders identified a store of felled eucalyptus trees as a source of building materials and identified key stories and environmental characteristics they wished to be incorporated into the design thinking and built outcomes. During the consultation process that included the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Land Council, the Cummeragunja Housing and Development Corporation, Bower Studio and Arup, several sketch models were made at 1:10 scale with detailed sections made at 1:1 scale before the construction of the pavilion at the centrepiece of the precinct was started.

The process driving this collaboration is iterative with each of the design and construction phases informing the next. As the levels of trust and expertise between the collaborative partners grows, the design and building outcomes become more sophisticated. This strategy has several advantages over the typical model of design support for indigenous communities - many of which have failed to meet community expectations and further frustrate and alienate participants. Far too often elders have not been adequately consulted in their efforts to improve their community programs and infrastructure, and subsequently lose confidence in those programs that are developed without sufficient input.

This project has been framed to counter inequality and wasted effort. The Bower Studio model ensures that as the elders’ confidence and understanding of the design/construction process increases, so does their capacity to make significant contributions. The incremental approach undertaken at Cummeragunja underpins this initiative, as it does with previous Bower Studio projects. This approach ensures that the design process is flexible and robust enough to integrate new knowledge and opportunities as they arise and prizes the indigenous voice. This maximises the value and relevance of the outcomes as it ensures that the indigenous voice is at the heart of the collaboration.

The students participating in the Cummeragunja program contribute to a sequence of activities that invert traditional models of tertiary teaching. From the students’ perspective the Bower Studio program reverses the design/build  process so that it becomes more closely aligned to a build/design model. This immediately reduces the risk that the community is not consulted at the highest level as there is ample time for this to take place with an experienced team before the new cohort of students enter the semester. This, in turn, allows the leadership team, indigenous and non-indigenous, to ensure that the project meets community aspirations and that all programmatic components are given their due respect. Not only does this help teaching staff schedule a program that fits within one semester, it also provides an opportunity to allow the students to understand the program complexities before they go on to develop their own design scheme as part of their course requirements.

Most importantly, rethinking the design/build process provides educators with the possibility to elevate opportunities for the students to consult with partners in a connected and direct manner. Whilst working together on-site the students are directly engaging with the local community and the local workers. This provides a strong basis for connectivity and a powerful opportunity for purposeful dialogue. Design options can be imagined on-site and at 1:1 scale where materiality, spatial opportunities, climate, and site combine.

In effect, it is the opportunities and learnings that arise from these direct consultations that further complement Bower Studio’s build/design pedagogy, as the consultation phase works in parallel with the building phase to ensure that indigenous participants play a purposeful role that extends within and beyond immediate ambitions. Ultimately it is more accurate and valuable, to frame the students’ experience as a build + consult/design process – a clear pedagogical innovation setting this project apart from others.

Students and staff from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning’s Melbourne School of Design (MSD) at the University of Melbourne worked alongside the Indigenous community at Cummeragunja to build a pavilion, also known as a Bough Shed, as part of a learning precinct.

Cummeragunja elder May Andy Walker received the award for Excellence in Placed-based Initiatives on behalf of the Cummeragunja Project Team - a collaboration with the Cummeragunja Community, Bower Studio and the Academy of Sport, Health and Education.

May Andy Walker
May Andy Walker and Bower

Community Partners

  • Cummeragunja Aboriginal Land Council
  • Cummeragunja Housing and Development Corporation

Community Leaders

  • Uncle Col Walker
  • Aunty May Andy Walker
  • Uncle Leon Atkinson
  • Uncle David Atkinson
  • Uncle Coke Walker
  • Aunty Nora Walker
  • Roland Atkinson

Studio Leaders

David O’Brien, Zoe Diacolabrianos, James Neil, George Stavrias

Student Mentors

Damien Cresp, Maria Bulmaga, Kate Donaldson, Alice Woods

ASHE Students

Narita Knowles, Cheyanne Cooper, Kobey Sincoe, Noah Cranage, Leon Johnson

Students Stage 3 Construction (Construction Methods A)

Lilliana Marwood, Su Myn Low, Melanie Cherian, Pal Parekh, Claire Schoner, Bronte Smith, Chris Breach, Chantal Zhao, Shilo Burgess, Hannah Rezaie, Yushan Shen, Alex Savory, Fengrui Si, Shannon Merten, Penelope Crowe, Samantha Julian, Luke Costelloe, Meg Sullivan, Fan Zhang, Sidney Wang, Alexandra Khomenko, Sean Fu, Enis Koch, Joel Tito, Xueke Wang, SF, Harry Su, Joy Cheung, Asena Aygun

Students Stage 4 Construction (Bower 22)

Maria Bulmaga, Kate Donaldson, Stephanie Guttmann, Elias Hanna, Theo Lehrer, Holly Mills, Alice Woods, Ellen Zaharis, Henning Rasmussen, Xavier Barnett

Steel Fabricator

Jack Hinkson (Bower 13)

Industry Partners

  • Arup (Brigitte Danks, John Noel)
  • Surdex Steel
  • Milwaukee Tools
  • Nepean Building and Infrastructure

Cummeraganja Local Aboriginal Land Council, Bower Studio, ARUP, Surdex, Nepean Building and Infrastructure, Milwaukee