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Dr Shaneen Fantin

B.Arch (Hons I) PhD Qld

"Housing Aboriginal Culture in North-East Arnhem Land"

Cooking in the wet season when the power card has run out.

   Cooking in the wet season when the power card has run out.



Shaneen undertook her doctoral research under the supervision of Associate Professor Paul Memmott and Professor Nancy Williams. Since graduating in 1994, Shaneen has worked mostly on Indigenous housing projects in the Top End of the Northern Territory, in Cape York, and in the North West Territories of Canada. In 1998 she won a traveling scholarship to Canada to research Indigenous housing issues, and has since been the recipient of a variety of grants and scholarships to pursue her studies, including a Northern Territory History Award. Shaneen is currently employed by the Cairns office of Arup, a leading consulting firm providing world-class engineering, design, planning and corporate advisory services. She manages their delivery of Indigenous health and housing projects.


Following abstract taken from the thesis accepted in fulfillment of Requirements of Doctor of Philosophy, UQ.

This thesis argues that by understanding the customary belief systems, social organisation, architecture and learned experiences of an Aboriginal group one can aim to design living environments, with Aboriginal participation and direction, which respond to and support preferred Aboriginal living practices. A set of analyses is undertaken of a selection of cultural imperatives, of the Yolngu people at the settlements of Ramingining and Galiwin’ku in north-east Arnhem Land, including kinship and avoidance relationships, beliefs in sorcery, and mortuary practices. The analyses combine techniques from architecture, anthropology and environmental psychology (see methodology in chapter 2) and result in an understanding of the architectural design implications of each cultural imperative. The final chapter demonstrates the layers, parallels and contradictions involved in considering Yolngu cultural imperatives in architectural design and proposes an approach to designing in cross-cultural environments.

In north-east Arnhem Land, the socialisation and learned experiences, or culture, of Yolngu is very different from that of east-coast urban dwelling Euro-Australians. Yolngu have belief systems, living patterns, social institutions and architectural histories that reflect their relationship with the land, but which co-exist with non-indigenous influences. With some exceptions, the built environments in which Yolngu live and work on an everyday basis do not acknowledge their culture, and have largely been designed and constructed without their input or control.

In chapter 1, it is argued that the provision of public housing to Aboriginal settlements has contributed to the rapid social change of Yol?u environments, and that housing has been used as a vehicle for the assimilation and integration of Aboriginal Australians into mainstream non-indigenous society. The chapter demonstrates how housing can create stress for Yolngu by inhibiting the practice of particular cultural imperatives. To cope in imposed and unfamiliar environments Yolngu adjust and alter their behaviour according to the needs of each context and situation; however, some situations are difficult to adjust to and create anxiety in people.

Chapters 3 and 4 contain descriptions of Yolngu social institutions, cosmology, traditional and contemporary living patterns, and vernacular architecture. Chapter 5 contains post-colonial histories of settlement and housing development at Ramingining and Galiwin’ku and includes analyses on household compositions, crowding and privacy in contemporary Yol?u houses. Chapters three through five create a picture of Yol?u life that focuses on understanding the relationships between Yol?u social identity, customary living practices and architecture.

A detailed analysis of Yolŋu avoidance behaviour is made in chapter 6. Yolngu avoidance behaviour is comprised of a set of culturally prescribed behaviours governing relations among a variety of kin that manifest in physical and oral restraint. Avoidance law is of prime importance to Yolŋu in the control of living environments. When housing and other buildings are not designed to consider avoidance relationships they can unintentionally contribute to shame, aggression and violence between Yolŋu. Findings from environmental psychology, anthropology and architecture are integrated into a set of descriptive parameters for considering avoidance behaviour in the design of living environments. This chapter demonstrates the importance of understanding those aspects of culture which seem implicit in people’s actions and are best understood through participation rather than observation. The findings of chapter 6 extend the anthropological knowledge of Aboriginal avoidance behaviour in Arnhem Land.

Avoidance law is only one aspect of Yol?u culture that requires understanding if built environments are to be developed, in partnership with Yol?u people, which respond to their needs and desires. However, any attempt to analyse Yol?u avoidance behaviour in isolation would be limited without a broader undertaking of its social context and function. Avoidance law is inherent in Yol?u kinship and the maintenance of personal and spatial privacy.

Outlined in chapter 7 are other Yolŋu cultural imperatives which have implications in housing design and settlement planning, such as Yolŋu beliefs in sorcery and malevolent spirits, the ramifications of Yolŋu land ownership for community settlement planning, and Yolŋu mortuary practices and their relationship to the use of contemporary housing. Together, the findings of chapters 6 and 7 demonstrate the complex and often contradictory design requirements of different cultural beliefs and practices.


Printed from: http://www.uq.edu.au/site/index.html?page=40439&pid=40439

Last updated: Mar 12, 2008