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What does a knitted jumper have in common with the shopping centre it is displayed in? More than you would think. A study of knitwear designers, found that having shared experiences and the use of a common language was crucial both as inspiration for new designs and to communicate design ideas. Urban designers, planners and architects similarly draw upon collective knowledge, and use a unique design ‘language’ to inspire and express their designs, from shopping centres, to placemaking.


Languages are known to have a powerful effect on everything from our brains, values, ideas to our worldview. Some words even represent concepts so unique to a culture, that they never quite translate to other languages: saudade, schadenfreude …wabi-sabi? They can describe ideas that are rich in meaning and identify uniquely with a culture. Infrastructure of today is the living representation of a designer’s vision. So, what do Aboriginal Australian languages then mean for our communities, our places and our cities? Can we use the stories hidden in the rich tapestry of these languages to design our places and cities? 

“There may be some small essential gaps in your mother tongue, but never fear: you can look to other languages to define what you’re feeling” - Ella Frances Sanders, author of Lost in Translation

Australia’s rich history and cultural heritage is reflected in the myriad of languages included in our vocabulary, places, and everyday life. One estimate places approximately 500 commonly used Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander words from across 100 Aboriginal languages in current Australian language. Aboriginal words are traditionally oral, handed down in stories, song, and word of mouth. They were only first written and documented in the 1800s. UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) affirms, oral languages across the world are fragile and in desperate need of revival and preservation particularly in a rapidly urbanising and globalised world. Can we keep them alive through our designs for future generations to experience?

Technology and multiculturalism are rapidly changing the languages spoken in our cities, from ‘googling’ to ‘gramming’ or ‘ubering.’. Can we turn the tables around and actively look for inspiration in languages that have been handed down for thousands of years? Languages that describe the land we live on through unique and often untranslatable concepts like the Dreamtime? Aboriginal languages reflect principles of sustainability and living harmoniously with the environment around us like Indigenous ‘fire-stick’ management practices that successfully prevented high intensity bushfires for hundreds of years. They talk of a connection and love of land and kinship, they describe relationships, and people sometimes in greater depth than counting, numbers or possessions. They place emphasis on learning from the wisdom of Elders and sharing with the younger generation. The Budj Bim aquaculture engineering works considered by Engineers Australia to be the World’s oldest engineering project, and nominated for recognition as engineering heritage, is a fantastic example of the learning our historic cultures offer particularly for the engineering and allied fields.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages are not just a means of communication, they express knowledge about everything: law, geography, history, family and human relationships, philosophy, religion, anatomy, childcare, health, caring for country, astronomy, biology and food” - National NAIDOC committee co-chair Anne Martin speaking of this year’s theme.

Often Aboriginal influences are prominent in places like Uluru and Kakadu, but within the urban landscape, these influences start to dilute and spaces tend to become more homogenised and less distinctive. Arts and culture have proved hugely successful in helping to create and enhance a sense of ‘place’ across the world.  A celebration of Indigenous history, culture and relationship to land in our Urban spaces can help revitalise our cities and make them uniquely and distinctively Australian, like the Barangaroo precinct, a culturally led project where Aboriginal culture, language and even native Australian vegetation is front and centre of the development. These places are designed to imprint visitors with a uniquely local experience.

“A community's sense of place is not a static concept; rather, it evolves and develops over time, reflecting the spectrum of social values within and around the community.” - How Arts and Cultural Strategies Create, Reinforce, and Enhance Sense of Place

Designing urban spaces with Indigenous inspired designs can make them inclusive, welcoming and distinctive as opposed to following monotonous trends. A thought echoed by Samoan-born architect Dr Albert Refiti as he points to the National Museum of Australia as a good example of Indigenous inspired designs. He talks about the concept of space in Indigenous terms involving openness and a larger territory as opposed to dwellings which often seem untranslatable to contemporary understanding of space restricted to cities, buildings and streets. Loci Environment & Place Inc. ask questions to start a discussion around what this could mean - what if environmental spaces can be designed around local Totems? Or if Aboriginal knowledge of climate, landscape and seasonal changes can help us manage climate change?

Can a greater understanding of our languages help us translate better ideas? Can the designers of today examine our landscape through a fresh lens? What if we can delve into history and make broad leaps to design a better tomorrow?

What if we can? 


Click on a city to see a sample of the local Indigenous language.

Language sources:
Note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are oral languages and there may be variations in spelling and pronunciation. Check with local language speakers/custodians as to the preferred local pronunciation.

Aboriginal culture - Language - Why translating English to Aboriginal languages is so hard, retrieved 28 June 2017

http://theconversation.com/how-technology-is-changing-language-and-the-way-we-think-about-the-world-35856 https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/12/language-immigrants-multiethnolect/420285/
http://www.barangaroo.com/news-media/news-archive/2012/march/international-cultural-consultance-13-march.aspx https://www.domain.com.au/news/its-time-to-rethink-how-we-design-our-cities-indigenous-architect-20170123-gttxqf/ http://www.nma.gov.au/about_us/publications/pubs/the_museum_two2/issue_four/hidden_meaning https://www.planning.org/research/arts/briefingpapers/character.htm


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