RMIT: Architecture students embrace life-changing learning on Country

The three-day ‘On Country’ field trips in Framlingham, western Victoria have been developed in partnership with Uncle Lenny Clarke who invited the students to help design a cultural, arts and education centre for the region.
Senior Lecturer Dr Christine Phillips from RMIT’s School of Architecture and Urban Design said the design studios offer an invaluable experience and deeper understanding of First Nation history and culture.
“Our students spend a whole semester working with Uncle Lenny, where we introduce them to Indigenous-led design principles,” she said.
“They start this theoretical learning in the classroom but then to practise ‘On Country’ during the three-day field trip is unbelievable and seems to have an enormous impact on the students.
Design by RMIT architectural students Beatrice Cairns and Mijawi White Bear, created during the design studio led by Dr Christine Phillips and Stasinos Mantzis with Uncle Lenny Clarke.Design by RMIT architectural students Beatrice Cairns and Mijawi White Bear, created during the design studio led by Dr Christine Phillips and Stasinos Mantzis with Uncle Lenny Clarke.
“Uncle Lenny asked them to design the facility that comprises a music theatre space and an educational section.

“They can see the practical difference that they are making, so there’s a mutual benefit in the relationship.
“It’s an amazing experience for everyone involved, including time spent around the campfire yarning with Uncle Lenny, meeting with his community to learn about country, and really developing life experience skills along the way.
“Deep listening, reciprocity and respect, and yarning are very specific to Indigenous ways of knowing and the practical field trips are a great way to embed this into their understanding.
“Our students also discover the importance of forming relationships, to being open minded, and to never come to an Indigenous community with a project, but to allow the project to form out of those connections.”
Design by RMIT architectural students Chukang Liang and Zeke Zhang, created during the design studio led by Dr Christine Phillips and Stasinos Mantzis with Uncle Lenny Clarke.Design by RMIT architectural students Chukang Liang and Zeke Zhang, created during the design studio led by Dr Christine Phillips and Stasinos Mantzis with Uncle Lenny Clarke.
Student Zoe Braybook said the studio highlighted the importance of understanding the broad extent of Indigenous cultures and how they can design specifically to country.

“We have learnt and developed methodologies to reference Kirrae Whurrong Country through architecture,” she said.
“It is crucial for us as young designers to lead this current change and ensure that designing with a deeper understanding of local Indigenous culture becomes an industry standard for future generations.”
Student Geordan Ennis-Thomas said the group also admired how welcoming Uncle Lenny was to those who wanted to learn about his land and culture.

“This has inspired us to share that same positive and receptive energy, especially when consulting with or for broader community projects,” he said.
“Ultimately, the more people you engage with, the richer the knowledge is that becomes encapsulated within a design or project.”
Design by RMIT architectural students Lin Jingchen and Yao Xiao, created during the design studio led by Dr Christine Phillips and Stasinos Mantzis with Uncle Lenny Clarke.Design by RMIT architectural students Lin Jingchen and Yao Xiao, created during the design studio led by Dr Christine Phillips and Stasinos Mantzis with Uncle Lenny Clarke.
Phillips has been running the studios with her co-teacher, Stasinos Mantzis, in partnership with Uncle Lenny and the Kirrae Whurrong community for the past three years, after he invited them to help realise his dream to build the cultural and learning centre.

Uncle Lenny hopes the centre will help empower and support First Nations’ self-determination to eliminate the over-incarceration rates and Aboriginal deaths in custody through a model that combines culture, music and education.
He agrees the joint project is a fantastic opportunity and learning experience for both the students and his community.

“We’re all learning from each other and I like the fact that we went to RMIT to invite them to work with us, not the other way around, and they’ve really run with the idea,” he said.

“We’ve been friends with Christine and other academics ever since we first approached them, and we’ve also made lots of international friends including the students.
“It’s a great working relationship and I encourage other Aboriginal people to approach these organisations to work together as there are so many benefits for everyone involved.”
The design studios and field trips to Kirrae Whurrong Country are part of a broader program at RMIT to embed Indigenous knowledge into research, learning and teaching.

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