Award of the Year 2023

Budj Bim Cultural Landscape

Commissioned by Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation / Designed by Cooper Scaife Architects (Architect)

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape development supports the Gunditjmara to share their story and maintain their continuing connection to Country.

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape project provides tourism infrastructure across 5 sites. It ranges from a crater rim lookout to a visitor centre, boardwalks, toilets, information shelters, picnic shelters, a bird hide, a bridge, a jetty, an Aquaculture Centre and café. The development provides an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable means of caring for Country. It supports the Gunditjmara to share their story with the wider community and contributes to their continuing connection to Gunditjmara Country.

Design Brief:

The brief was to provide a range of infrastructure across several sites to support cultural tourism. The sites are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Landscape that contains ancient remnants of Gunditjmara settlements and aquaculture systems dating back over 30,000 years.

On a functional level, the infrastructure was required to provide safe visitor access to the remote sites whilst also preserving the delicate stone remnants. It needed to withstand seasonal flooding and cultural burns while minimising the physical impact of development. It was also intended that the designs would define a 'Budj Bim identity', allowing the promotion of cultural tours to a wide audience.

The less explicit aspect of the brief was that the architecture should support story-telling, helping the non-indigenous visitor to understand the Gunditjmara story and to convey the message that the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is continuous, despite being physically fragmented by Colonisation.

This project was developed by:

  • Commissioned by Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation
  • Designed by Cooper Scaife Architects (Architect)

Design Process

The project is the result of a 7-year process, starting with a Masterplan in 2015 followed by detailed design and construction. The completed infrastructure was handed-over in early 2022. The project was funded by Regional Development Victoria.

A key aspect of the design process was slowness, providing time for an authentic consultation process to be undertaken that allowed input from a wide range of community members. The architectural design team was also based on Gunditjmara Country (in Hamilton, Victoria) and were therefore able to spend hundreds of hours on Country, meeting face-to-face with the local community.

Recognising that story-telling was central to the brief, Cooper Scaife Architects (CSA) collaborated with an interpretive designer (LookEar) from the outset. Starting with the masterplan and then refining designs throughout the documentation phase, this allowed the interpretations and architecture to be fully integrated as a single solution so that the two worked together to tell the Budj Bim story.

The preservation of cultural heritage was at the core of the solutions developed in response to the brief. An extensive CHMP (Cultural Heritage Management Plan) process informed the design response and continued throughout construction, as the discovery of new artefacts led to realignment of elements such as boardwalks and viewing platforms. The design was conceived as flexible system of parts that allowed for adjustments on site and was mostly prefabricated and carried in by hand to minimise disturbance of the ground. Strict rules were enforced during construction, including requiring contractors not to move any surface rocks without approval from the Traditional Owners.

Design Excellence

At Budj Bim, architecture is a vehicle for the sharing of culture. It acts as an interpretive device, helping to make the cultural landscape legible to non-indigenous eyes by framing views of important cultural features and leading the visitor through a curated experience of the landscape. The Budj Bim landscape is subtle and has been dramatically altered by European settlement. Ancient artefacts are not immediately obvious, so the designs are punctuated with moments that encourage visitors to make careful observation, engage with the place and generate curiosity to learn more.

The restrained material palette recedes and the use of consistent materials at each site reinforces the message that the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is continuous, despite being physically fragmented by colonialisation. Materials such as charred timber battens and steel mesh are used to reveal cultural features, while simultaneously screening the post-colonial landscape, enabling the visitor to focus on the Budj Bim story.

The ground plane is treated with great care. Raised boardwalks minimize disturbance of the soil, plants and cultural artefacts, whilst withstanding cultural burns and seasonal flooding. The designs provide for high levels of accessibility to sites that were previously very difficult to navigate due to their rugged terrain. This has helped not only visitors but also Elders to return to Country.

Aside from satisfying the explicit requirements of the brief, the project demonstrates how good design can provide an expression of culture that promotes pride, understanding and respect for the community it represents. In doing so, it contributes to the ongoing process of reconciliation with indigenous Australians.

Design Innovation

At a time in our history when we are increasingly aware of the need to listen and more genuinely engage with First Nations people, this project sets a new precedent. It serves as an exemplar for engagement with Traditional Owners and takes a new approach to cultural tourism, as it explores the contemporary architectural expression of an ancient culture. The designs are intended to convey the richness and sophistication of Gunditjmara culture through a refined architectural language that resonates for both Traditional Owners and non-indigenous visitors alike.

The architecture provides a highly-specific response to the qualities of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, avoiding literal reconstructions of traditional structures or falling into generic tropes of indigenous cultural representation. Variations of arcs, circles and arches are used as recurring motifs in many locations. The geometry is deliberately kept elemental, with silhouette-like forms creating an experience of enclosure within the landscape that still leaves room for the visitor to imagine traditional forms of occupation.

The notion of identity is considered in both a local and broader context. At the Aquaculture Centre, the charred timber cladding references the traditional use of fire in the smoking of kooyang (eel) and also in cultural burning. The soffit and external walls under the verandah are lined with red gum, a common species found on Gunditjmara Country while ribbons of gold painted steel work complete the tripartite colour scheme of black, red and gold.

In the words of Damein Bell, former CEO of Gunditj Mirring Corporation, “The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape designs extend the traditional engineering of our Ancestors and contribute to our continuing connection with Gunditjmara Country. The designs through the Budj Bim Cultural landscape are weaved together to share the complex and cohesive story of the Gunditjmara.”

Design Impact

This project showcases both ancient and contemporary design in Victoria. Until recently, the rich cultural heritage of the Gunditjmara and the ingenuity of their ancient engineering was not widely recognised. Coupled with UNESCO recognition, the development of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape as a tourism destination raises the profile of Victoria’s First Nations heritage, through designs that provide a sophisticated visitor experience fitting for these World Heritage sites.

The project sets a positive precedent for First Nations communities in reclaiming their role as custodians of Country. The entire project was initiated by the Traditional Owners. Having fought a long battle for Native Title rights, the Gunditjmara engaged CSA, drove the brief for the project, provided input into the designs, were involved throughout construction and now manage and operate the facilities.

The development provides a wide range of meaningful employment opportunities for Gunditjmara on Country, ranging from café staff to tour guides, cultural heritage officers, administration and an extensive ranger program to manage almost 10,000Ha of land. By creating a successful tourism venture, the Gunditjmara can support a wide range of initiatives to restore and regenerate their lands including reflooding wetlands, removing weeds, revegetation, bushfire management and controlling pests.

The designs are intended to be highly durable with materials chosen for their long lifespan as well as to minimise environmental impact of development on the sites. Locally supplied materials such as bluestone were specified. At Budj Bim National Park, the former Parks office was repurposed as a Visitor Centre, using the existing structure rather than building new.

The project contributes significantly to the local economy of southwest Victoria by attracting local, interstate and international visitors to the region. The designs have a positive social impact by enabling visitors to learn about the Gunditjmara community's ancient and continuing connection to Country.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

The Budj Bim infrastructure development creates a circular economy by providing an income stream that supports the employment of Traditional Owners in caring for Country, including revegetation, weed removal, pest control and bushfire management. Many sites provide important habitat for water birds, eels and other native animals. Environmentally sustainability principles were therefore applied throughout the design and construction process in recognition that sustainable practices underpin Traditional Owners’ relationship with Country.

The sites are mostly off-grid and are sensitive both culturally and environmentally. The project harvests water on all sites. Existing resources were also recycled where possible, including stone and timber from trees that were removed. All soil was retained on site and disturbance of the sites was kept to a minimum during construction to protect both cultural artefacts and vegetation. The project avoids pollution through containment of waste on site and efficient systems that minimise the production of pollutants. Due to the proximity to water courses, waste is contained and regularly pumped out to avoid contamination of the flood plain.

Of the 5 sites, 3 are fully electric and one has no energy consumption at all. The fifth site is majority electric, being off-grid. It has dedicated micro grid (including 160kW solar PV, 123kWh battery energy storage and backup 53kW diesel generator). There is also a huge revegetation / planting program undertaken by the traditional owners across these sites (totalling almost 10,000Ha in area) that offsets energy use.

All of the enclosed and semi-enclosed structures have been designed to use passive measures to improve comfort, such as good orientation, appropriate shading, high levels of insulation, passive ventilation and good energy and weather sealing. On some sites existing buildings were adapted and repurposed or refurbished, such as the Budj Bim NP Visitor Centre and the Budj Bim NP Toilets.

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