Finalist 2023

Ngulu Djeembana (The Gathering of Voices)

Shao Tian Teo / Taylor Ristevski / Alexander Barr / Dr Christine Phillips (RMIT Design Studio Leader) / Stasinos Mantzis (RMIT Design Studio Leader) / Professor N'arwee't Carolyn Briggs AM (Boonwurrung Elder/RMIT Design Studio Leader) / RMIT University

Ngulu Djeembana is an exploration into the multifaceted and deep culture of Victoria’s First Nations custodians through architecture and design.

Ngulu Djeembana is an exploration into the multifaceted and deep culture of Victoria’s First Nations custodians. The formal qualities of the building and its surroundings embed the specificity of Country through design, celebrating cultures of the Eastern Kulin Nations. The project envelopes poetic processes through Songlines, engagement and architectural disruptions as a way of looking towards Yirramboi. Our research and processes intertwines public and indigenous knowledge provided by Boonwurrung Elder, N’arwee’t Carolyn Briggs.

  • Easter Kulin Nations - Boonwurrung, Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri),
  • Djadjawurrung, Taungurung and Wathaurung language groups
  • Songlines – Indigenous walking routes that link important locations and knowledge.
  • Yirramboi – ‘Tomorrow’ in Boonwurrung language.

Design Brief:

To design an arts, cultural and treaty building in the heart of Melbourne’s Arts Precinct. The design of Australian cities post colonization have failed to include First Nations voices, cultures and traditions within them. The studio examines a future Melbourne where the cultures and traditions of our First Nations people are made visible within our colonized city.


This project was developed by:

  • Shao Tian Teo
  • Taylor Ristevski
  • Alexander Barr
  • Christine Phillips (RMIT Studio Supervisor)
  • Stasinos Mantzis (RMIT Studio Supervisor)
  • N'arwee't Carolyn Briggs (Boonwurrung Elder)

Design Process

Through this project design and research were cyclical in nature and often occurred in an iterative process, as we learnt more we would tweak, change or even completely restart our project to wholly capture a cultural understanding and respect that we were continuously learning in conjunction with design.

Consultation and collaboration with Yaluk-ut Weelam and Boon Wurrung elder N’arweet Carolyn Briggs throughout the design process was a way in which the project could develop in a culturally respectful way as her in depth knowledge forefronted the ways in which we approached the celebration of First Nations traditions into the architectural world.

The design brief was primarily to design a building but we chose to extend our urban disruption to that of three significant locations around Melbourne synonymous with colonial and indigenous significance.

A system of codesign was outlined in the ‘design and engage’ process of our proposal.

The five stage process encourages iterative community engagements between design teams and the Eastern Kulin Nation Communities from early conceptual to construction phases of each cluster. Starting from deep research of the Eastern Kulin Nations and communicating with the client through a format of a collage, this bottom up approach of listening seeks to compose new Songlines and architectural spaces while providing job and enterprise opportunities to the people of the First Nations.

Design Excellence

Dreaming stories (Songlines) / totems and sites of significance are highly researched and translated into the programmatic arrangement and physical form of the building.

The building is a physical abstraction of the Eastern Kulin Nations, a three dimensional map which is further used to distinguish the History and Culture of the Indigenous Custodians.

It has 6 clusters distributed vertically, the 5 Kulin Nation clusters which wrap around the main first nations assembly space. The spaces in each cluster of Ngulu Djeembana embraces an Indigenous Education Model to reinforce learning catered towards Care for Country and Cultural Reconnection through song, dance and storytelling.

We have focused on 3 main spaces - the Wurneet Theatre in the Boonwurrung cluster, the You Yangs foyer in the Wathaurong cluster and the First Nations Assembly Space, to showcase the ‘design and engagement’ process

The foundations of the building are those of the creator of the Kulin Nations, Bunjil, who exists in the form of both a wedge tail eagle and human. His bones and veins form the base structure and his skin or feathers drape over the massing. joining every cluster of the building in a continuous connection to ground and Country.

We seek to provide opportunities of reciprocity and reinforcement of country and language through Bunjil's skin by making use of endemic timber cladding, metal paneling inscribed with language specific to each nation and codesigned artistic glass exhibiting cultural stories.

Design Innovation

Melbourne has consistently under-represented the First Nations Custodians, while steps have been taken to ink their culture through design (Melbourne Art Trams, Barak Building, Ngarara Place) these still fall short of linking the Indigenous population of Melbourne to Country. They can no longer identify the confusing roads and alleyways of Melbourne as their home, although it is their ‘country’ it is scarred and alienated from their Songlines that speak of the tea trees, abundant wildlife and basalt falls (located where Queensbridge currently resides).

The project successfully redefines The City Of Melbourne's urban fabric through integration of indigenous cultural and artistic expressions throughout the CBD while reinstating what came before colonial habitation while acknowledging the development of First Nations People. Through this reinstatement we are creating a New Songline to articulate the change and growth of Melbourne, its Custodians and its people.
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In conjunction with real world architectural examples it utilizes the local climatic conditions such as the flooding of the Yarra to promote its cultural significance such that the architecture welcomes the water into the site.

Yirramboi facilitates multiple disciplines in its programme including spaces dedicated to political discussion, performance arts, visual arts and trading markets to name a few. Through these spaces Indigenous Knowledge is filtered through architecture and design to become a reflection of Country. The Boonwurrung Theatre highlights the scales of the Gurnback while the seeds of the Red River Gum lead people to their seats, the Wathaurong lobby architecture is concerned with material identity and reciprocity that both embed storytelling and dreaming through installations of Indigenous Glass Art.

Design Impact

Social sustainability was implemented through the design process to create enterprise/job opportunities including codesign with potential indigenous stakeholders, designers and businesses including the Wathaurong glass & arts company who inspired moments within the design.

Material sustainability came through consideration and implementation of local of construction materials that reduce the overall carbon footprint (as compared to overseas materials, eg. timber from Country).

The design impacts the political realm dealing with Indigenous voices in parliament and Australia as a whole celebrating First Nations culture as the project designates spaces for conversation and celebration. Through research and design on First Nations culture it is clear that Indigenous knowledge is capable of creating a positive impact on how Melbourne can develop through long lasting relationships with Indigenous peoples through reconciliation and celebration within the project and its spaces that foster community and storytelling.

The project facilitates a cultural hub for all Indigenous and non Indigenous people to embed First Nations traditions and modern day arts and culture into Melbourne’s strong arts precinct. A dedicated Tanderrum space within the project provides a welcome space to the building and its surroundings. WIth this, theaters for indigenous performance, artists studios for indigenous creatives and offices for indigenous leaders are implemented into the project all to enable enterprise opportunities and promote Indigenous culture that are ultimately embedded into the City of Melbourne.

The project looks to embrace and welcome the Yarra River within the site and the design as a way of reinstating its cultural and environmental presence with the added effect of restoring wildlife in the area.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

Throughout this project circular design is embedded within the natural, durable and repairable materials. These products would be sustainably harvested within Victoria and emphasize these endemic materials. While wood is the dominant material within this project it also has the ability to incorporate reclaimed timbers and other materials as to not further displace natural materials which scar the land such as stones and recycled iron, steel and metals. As these materials are sourced from Victoria it heavily lowers the amount of embodied energy required to transport and manufacture these units within the design. The use of local timbers embodying the project promotes a sense of caring and protection of our built environment through maintenance of the timber elements.

Through the cultivation of this design a large importance was established around the Local Indigenous manufacturers which promote this circular ecology through lo the materials have an additional value added through co-design opportunities for other third-party indigenous artists and designers.

Another part of this project is the use of the expansion of the arts precinct to reinstate the endemic flora and fauna pre colonial habitation of Melbourne, this partial flooding of site becomes an extension of the Yarra River and the runs the water through a fresh stream cleaning and purifying the water while promoting the regrowth and re-emergence of native flora and native wildlife while Indigenous practices are utilized to manage the growth of planting through controlled burning.

The materials within this product are able to be recycled back into the earth (wood, clay) or can be reused and repurposed into different products (steel and iron). The altered landscape of this design will stand long after the building. The reintroduction of the natural Australian landscape, forever to cut through the CBD, a moment of purposeful disruption.

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