Connecting with Country

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Brad Bell


Brad Bell


Perspective 2023 vol 1
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Gurriny Yealamucka means “good healing waters” in the language of the Gunggandji peoples – and the health service that bears its name is a place that helps the people of Yarrabah in Far North Queensland to heal and reconnect with Country.

In 2021, when the Gurriny Yealamucka Health and Wellbeing Centre on Workshop Street first opened its doors, it bore little resemblance to a typical health centre. Missing were the institutional finishes, long corridors and enclosed spaces that are common to healthcare design. Instead, people were enfolded in the welcoming embrace of a building that echoes the culture, landscape and identity of the community it serves.

The community of Yarrabah on the Cape Grafton Peninsula, just south of Cairns, is surrounded by water from the sparkling turquoise of the Pacific Ocean to the freshwater springs that flow from the rainforest that rises sharply from the coastline.

Breath-takingly beautiful as it is, Yarrabah carries a complex history. For many years the town was a mission where generations of Aboriginal, South Sea Island and other First Nations people were forcibly relocated. For generations, the people of Yarrabah were deprived of their culture and identity and many bear deep emotional, mental and physical scars.

By 2014, Yarrabah was the largest Indigenous community in Australia and one of its most disadvantaged. Determined to change the town’s trajectory, the Gurriny Yealamucka Health Service Aboriginal Corporation became the first remote community in Queensland to assume responsibility for its community’s primary health care, as Yarrabah Health Council in 1991.

A new chapter of Yarrabah’s story could unfold – one told by the community in their own voices.

Designing with Country

The Gurriny Yealamucka Health and Wellbeing Centre outreach facility at Workshop Street was designed by two architecture firms in collaboration, People Oriented Design (POD) and Coburn Architecture. RLB provided cost management and quantity surveying services during the design phases.

The centre offers treatment, general and specialist consulting rooms, group meeting and counselling rooms, as well as staff offices.

“While it’s a small building, it has made a big difference to the community – and that was in part because of the collaborative process we undertook during design,” says Coburn Architecture’s Director Alanna Coburn.

‘Country’ – with a capital C – is an important term used by Indigenous Australians to refer to the land and its spiritual, cultural and physical connections. Country encompasses land, skies and waters, but it is much more than geography. The term also captures complex ideas about law, custom, ancestral knowledge, language, spiritual belief, cultural practice and family. Connection to Country is central to identity and is passed down from generation to generation through story, song and ceremony.

How do non-Indigenous practitioners design in a way that respects and heals Country? This was one of the challenging questions for the design team that delivered the centre.

While ‘human-centred design’ is a common principle of contemporary architecture and planning, Indigenous people often think differently about design. An ‘eco-centric’ approach sees humans as a part of the natural system, and of equal value to animals, resources and plants, rather than first in a hierarchy.

POD’s Dr Shaneen Fantin holds a PhD from the University of Queensland on the relationship between design and culture in Indigenous housing. She has applied this research knowledge to many Indigenous housing and health projects, including the Gurriny Yealamucka Health and Wellbeing Centre.

“As non-Indigenous people, we don’t have rights to, or proper understanding of, traditional knowledge,” Dr Fantin says. “Therefore, our role is to create an open and safe place for First Nations people to share their ideas, identity and culture.”

Dr Fantin, as project manager, led stakeholder engagement, the co-design and review process, and contract administration on site. “Yarrabah had been a place where people were sent and the history of making the community has been through a colonial framework. The non-Indigenous superintendents and project leaders would make decisions about building, education, and work, and people were expected to go along with what they were given. There was almost no consideration for Indigenous culture,” she reflects.

“We turned this upside down by building respectful relationships that put First Nations views at the centre of the project.” This process can take time and can be unexpected for people. “There can be a lot of anxiety around sharing ideas and culture. But when you create a safe space, you can enable people to write their own story.”

Listening and learning

Community consultation can often mean turning up to a meeting with a fully formed design, leaving people with little option but to object or approve. But the Australian Government, which funded the project, didn’t “simply hand us a brief,” Alanna Coburn notes. “We spent a lot of time working with all the stakeholder groups to understand the needs of the community and how that would require a different health centre.”

Several community organisations were engaged in the design and construction process, including the Yarrabah Arts Centre, the Gunggandji Land and Sea Rangers, the Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council, elders’ groups and Traditional Owner representatives, a First Nations building contractor and the client.

From these meetings, a clear design brief and concept began to take shape. The building and landscape were to be “of their place” – with materials, colours and landscaping that echoed the surrounding environment, and by telling the story of Yarrabah’s protector, Guyula the sea hawk.

As both a registered architect and landscape architect, POD’s Belinda Allwood provided key input into the design of the building form and integration of the landscaping. She says the materials palette was carefully selected to mirror the turquoise ocean, the lush green rainforest and the ochre of Guyala’s wingtips. Local plants were chosen with guidance from the senior women’s group. And Guyula is etched into the building’s rust-coloured façade in a design by acclaimed local artists Wayne Connolly and Philomena Yeatman.

Healing waters

The theme of ‘good healing waters’ flows through the building in everything from the façade artwork to the landscaping. For instance, the building is sited on a sand dune and slopes away from an old wetland. “To honour Country, we ensured the stormwater would flow in its natural path,” Dr Fantin says.

The architects “cracked open” the building so those inside could look directly to the spectacular ranges behind or maintain sightlines to the sea. “The spatial organisation means people can feel safe by connecting back to Country and the natural environment that surrounds them,” Ms Coburn adds.

With multiple entries and exits, people have the freedom to come and go – something at odds with most security-conscious health services. But this flexibility offered unexpected advantages during the worst of the Covid pandemic, with easy separation of services. The multi-modal ventilation and operable louvres also allow the building to be flushed with healthy sea air each day.

The building’s organic curves create a safe cocoon for visitors. “Curves always attract a price premium, as they are challenging to deliver, but we worked through these challenges,” notes RLB Manager Brad Bell.

A yarning circle – a gathering place for stories to be told and knowledge shared – and a bush tucker garden are special features. The project team established a strong relationship with the Gunggandji Land and Sea Rangers who manage the natural and cultural values of Country surrounding Yarrabah. The rangers’ gift of a grass tree was an important cultural exchange that represented support from Traditional Owners for the project, Dr Fantin observes.

“It is a beautiful relaxing space,” Ms Coburn adds. “You can see out to the mountains, take in the fresh sea breeze, and enjoy the natural finishes. The building is more like a wellbeing retreat than a health centre.”

Celebrating culture

After a competitive tender process, the centre was constructed by First Nations building contractor HC Building and Construction. The builder engaged local trainees and Indigenous suppliers and sub-contractors. The economic spend from Indigenous suppliers amounted to 8.7% of the budget, equivalent to almost $220,000. “This strengthened skills development and built business opportunities within the local community, contributing an extra layer of value to the project,” Mr Bell says.

Projects in remote regions incur higher construction costs. “This can be primarily attributed to attracting and keeping skilled labour, additional transport costs, and accommodating a workforce.” Despite this, the builder was able to deliver on time and budget, “which was a real credit to their business,” Mr Bell adds. “While the location was not without its challenges, the project was very rewarding.”

“From the landscape design to the façade artwork to the building contractor, this project was a collaboration with the First Nations people of Yarrabah. The result is a modern and culturally appropriate facility for the Yarrabah community.”

Dr Fantin says the lessons learnt in Yarrabah can applied to projects around the world.

“There are many important stakeholders on projects like these, and to do the work well you have to build strong relationships with all of them. The key is to value the knowledge that all the different groups can bring. Then a place is not made by one organisation or one funding group, but by everyone. When we can do this, we decolonise the process of design.”