Little things can lead to big things. When Hamilton-based Cooper Scaife Architects began working on a small public infrastructure project – a public toilet block in Heywood, Western Victoria – it caught the attention of Damein Bell, CEO of Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, whose office was across the road. As the Traditional Owners and caretakers of the lands and waterways of Budj Bim – the world’s oldest freshwater aquaculture system and its clusters of stone dwellings – the corporation received funding to create a masterplan for the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape project in 2015 and invited Cooper Scaife to tender.

building surrounded by water and plants

Slowing down the pace to absorb the breadth of space and time

And so began an enduring relationship between the Gunditjmara community and Cooper Scaife. Eight years later, the architectural practice’s careful and respectful interpretation of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape brief culminated in a multi-award-winning series of buildings, pathways, bridges and lookouts that elevate and frame a distinct and complex landscape that has been evolving for thousands of years. The project spans 5 separate yet culturally and historically-linked sites – including Tyrendarra Recreation Reserve, Tyrendarra IPA, Kurtonitj, Tae Rak (Lake Condah) and Budj Bim National Park – over an enormous 100 square kilometre footprint.

Cooper Scaife came to the project without a preconceived idea of what it should be, something Director, Bianca Scaife believes is critical when working on Country. Listening to the community and gaining an understanding of the place’s significance to the Gunditjmara people was intrinsic to its success.

‘Slowness was important – the time to work through everything the community wanted, opportunities for all stakeholders to have input and for us to reflect,’ said Bianca.

‘Extensively walking Country was also pivotal to the project. Being able to interact at a micro level with individual rocks and pay attention to every detail. It was such a privilege for us to form a connection with Country and with Gunditjmara Elders, to get to know each site intimately and anticipate how future visitors would spend time there,’ she added.

Bianca was acutely aware of how special the sites were and the need to do them justice – making sure that the sophistication of the culture and its legacy were conveyed, and the design was worthy of its place in this ancient and thriving UNESCO World Heritage-listed site

A big part of the brief was story-telling and helping the community share its stories with visitors, so Cooper Scaife partnered with interpretive designer David Huxtable from LookEar from the outset to create an immersive, interpretive experience that would resonate with Indigenous and non-Indigenous visitors alike.

A design approach based on listening and understanding

There is a certain irony to the fact that an architectural project designed to be subtle and disappear into its surrounding landscape has garnered so much attention – including winning the prestigious 2023 Victorian Premier’s Design Award of the Year. It is the ability of the design to neither overwhelm nor distract from the sites’ immense beauty and significance that is perhaps its most meaningful attribute.

Bianca acknowledges that there were challenges associated with the project, but it was these that led to the greatest rewards. The sheer scale and breadth of the site meant the need to completely immerse herself in Country and gain an intimate knowledge and understanding of its spiritual social, economic and cultural heritage value. Being given access to the Gunditjmara lands and being tasked with sharing stories with their authority was a major responsibility and she was very conscious of that.

‘The design has proven itself and in my opinion is the perfect example of collaborative success. Our stories flow throughout the infrastructure and our mob works there with a feeling of constant connection to our ancestors. With quotes from our Elders across minimal signage, Cooper Scaife’s design encourages visitors to look up and look around, to be present, to observe and see Country,’ said Damein.

‘It is still an unfinished project, with Stage 2 on the horizon – but the broader vision is very much in place. The landscape continues to teach us to keep an eye on environmental impacts like climate change while building up our sovereign knowledge of Country,’ he added.

Screening out elements of colonial fragmentation

There is a distinctive cohesiveness in material usage and design language across each of the 5 sites. It helps to ensure that interpretations are continuous – with the underlying message that this is all one Country, despite colonial fragmentation and visitors needing to use a colonial network of roads to access each site to experience Budj Bim in its entirety.

What was highlighted in the design is equally as important as what was screened out. Materials were ‘of the place’ but practical, and wherever possible, prefabricated to minimise on-site construction and potential degradation of the land. Elements such as cultural burns, insects, seasonality and being located in a flood plain were all factored in.

‘We were trying to establish a strong design language that would reflect the integral cultural identity of Budj Bim and the Gunditjmara in a contemporary sense. At the same time, we wanted elements that were immediately recognisable but didn’t overwhelm or dominate,’ remarked Bianca.

‘We wanted visitors to focus on subtle things, to come and see and experience Country – not  to concentrate on the infrastructure itself. The design helps visitors observe and notice key elements by framing and leading them along pathways to offer curated views of the landscape,’ she added.

While some sites are remote, locations like Tyrendarra Recreation Reserve is right off the Princes Highway – so power lines, major roads and even a football ground needed to be blocked out.

‘We wanted to draw people’s attention towards the Killara Creek that runs through the whole site and tell the Budj Bim story of the landscape, turning our backs on all that colonial infrastructure by screening it out and creating a whole new reading of the landscape,’ she continued.

A local connection bringing design back to community

Both Damein and Bianca acknowledge the importance of living and working in such close proximity. The geographical advantage of living on the Country where the project was located brought a stronger sense of connection and partnership-building to the project, encouraging Bianca to spend a significant amount of time in the landscape to better understand the enormous responsibility she was being given and experience its diversity and environmental challenges.

‘The local aspect was very important as it allowed us to embed Bianca in our community and build on our design principles together,’ said Damein.

‘The value of regionality is perhaps underestimated when it comes to architecture and design. We are led by what is here and respond to our surroundings. Being immersed in the community gave us the opportunity to build lasting relationships, in this case with Traditional Owners and the wider community. It also made us more accountable to that place and community, which I see as a really positive and rewarding benefit,’  Bianca noted.

‘The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape was so much more than an architectural project. I’ve developed a different view of Country and a new understanding that informs every project I work on,’ she added.

The Victorian Premier’s Design Award of the Year

Winning 2 awards at the 2023 Victorian Premier Design Awards (for Award of the Year and Architectural Design) was a very humbling experience for Bianca. She was excited about how the acknowledgement would raise Budj Bim’s profile and attract greater visitation and recognition of the site’s importance for the Gunditjmara community – fulfilling the project’s primary mission.

‘Knowing that Jefa Greenaway, such a highly esteemed First Nations architect, was on the jury panel was especially meaningful,’ said Bianca.

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape also received a 2023 ArchitectureAU Award for Social Impact commendation

Damein reflects on the project with immense pride. For him the awards represent a positive step forward for his community and the process of healing.

‘There’s a lot more to Budj Bim and I hope that shines through with these awards. Western Victoria has had a tough history, including squatters, missions and lands being divided and taken. This project gives us a tangible and sustainable way to celebrate our heritage and share our culture. In the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, Cooper Scaife hasn’t just delivered tourism infrastructure and great design. It has given visitors a deeper connection with our community and an opportunity to build a bridge that will help us  heal,’ Damein commented.

‘My favourite part of the design is the jetty in winter – it’s so precise and in tune with the landscape, you become part of the lake and you can envisage our ancestors’ perspective,’ he added.

‘When I go to Budj Bim now and watch the visitors, they treat the site with respect, they see this ancient and continuous culture in a new way and begin to understand the richness of its legacy. It is quite evident, and it was always our intention to design something that would elicit this type of response so visitors would treat Country and culture with care,’ said Bianca.