Heading North-east from Alice Springs, a long and dusty drive up the Sandover Highway brings you to the Urapuntja Homelands. A community distinctive for being dispersed over hundreds of kilometres and renowned for its art work, particularly the interpretation of batik techniques that were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s (see Figure 1).  Unlike many Indigenous communities, Utopia has no community owned or controlled art centre. This means that artists are free to make individual arrangements with buyers and dealers to sell their work – an arrangement open to abuse and running the risk of surrendering cultural value. The community also suffers from a chronic housing shortage, unemployment and poor access to education and health services.

Fig 1: Bush Melon Bondy Paint, Minnie Pwerle, acrylic on linern, 2004

In response to these issues, the Urapuntja Aboriginal Corporation has engaged the Jack Thompson Foundation, a foundation dedicated to teaching indigenous Australians techniques to build their own homes and infrastructure from resources available in their own country: “The Living Ground”. The construction techniques can be easily taught even after the foundation has left, which will continue to grow the community’s skill base and self-reliance.  The concept of “two-way learning” underpins the success of their programmes. This involves the transfer of knowledge between locals and foundation members to develop a partnership based on mutual respect and trust.

During my last semester at university, I travelled with a small group of students to the Urapuntja Homelands to develop designs for a proposed community owned and operated arts centre and cultural village.

Fig 2: Alparra – The service hub for the Urapuntja Homelands, containing a community store, oval and administrators’ housing

Local Building Typologies

Investigative studies of the local building typologies and construction techniques allowed the project to engage with local resourcefulness. Great intelligence is demonstrated by people with minimal resources; as architects we must ask ourselves what patterns we can read in these spaces and how can we adopt this type of lateral thinking into our practice. The scale of local building typologies including humpies, wurleys and sorry camps is significantly smaller than a typical western style house (see Figures 3-5). The planning is much tighter, which is a result of the multiplicity of uses in each space. The outdoor areas and fireplace are used for socialisation. In order to translate this ingenuity into architectural practice, there must be specificity in the planning both indoors and outdoors. Whereby a range of detailed activities are planned for each space. These activities and their plans are overlayed and areas of concentrated activity receive permanent infrastructure, furnishing and partitions. While the areas less occupied receive a more impermanent or temporal treatment.

Fig 3: Urapuntja Humpy – Camel Bore Single Women’s Camp

Fig 4: Alparra – Camel Bore Single Women’s Camp

Fig 5: Alparra – Camel Bore Camp

Spaces are also smaller in section and elevation, where ceiling heights range from 1.2 – 1.8m. Humpies are not designed for people to stand in, they are used as refuge from the rain and wind, for sleeping and for storage (see Figure 6). These smaller spaces are also easier to heat, and the roof can be used for storage of belongings and food away from dogs. The availability of local materials is also a determining factor in sizes of dwellings. By limiting the palette of materials, architects have an opportunity to engage with this local intelligence and resourcefulness.

Indigenous living patterns are unique, arising from their traditional nomadic roots. In a western style of dwelling particular rooms define the activities that take place within. These rooms are scaled to the activities. A person must move from room to room in order to perform different activities. Contemporary ‘open plan’ living attempts to address this issue, however furniture is still required to create personal zones and intimate spaces. These living patterns are unnatural in indigenous culture and disrupt the closeness of the community. In traditional indigenous culture, dwellings only become meaningful when they relate to other dwellings in the camp. While western houses take their form from the internal planning of rooms, an indigenous dwelling is defined by its relationship with neighbouring dwellings. In this sense, it challenges the traditional western notion of a house. It is then the architect’s responsibility to attempt to understand the complexities of indigenous patterns of living and social structure in order to provide an architecture that engages with the culture.

“Although the form of domestic structures may seem strange and their spatial distribution in the camp unplanned and chaotic, these features are in fact part of an organised, coherent response to social, economic and personal issues.” 

(Heppell, M., A Black Reality: Aboriginal Camps and Housing in Remote Australia, 1979)

Fig 6: Plan and elevation of a cluster of three household camps at Mt. Nancy (Heppell, M. & J.J Wigley, Black out in Alice, 1981)

Design Proposal

Students took many different approaches to the design of the cultural village and arts centre. My design proposal explores the possibilities of the formal spatial arrangements established in some of the humpies, wurleys, sorry camps, and also the radiating growth of a more temporal gathering around a campsite. At the heart of the camp is the campfire. Detailed studies of the behavioural patterns around the campfire in regards to heat, light, cooking and social interaction, formed an underlying theme and unifying element within the design (see Figures 7 + 8).

Fig 7: Design proposal – view on approach to the cultural village

Fig 8: Design Proposal – 1:200 model


Architects and builders have a unique opportunity to learn from and assist remote communities with a very different way of life and world view. Personally, this project was also a reason why I decided to work at CplusC, where I hope to develop design skills in parallel with knowledge of the construction industry, to be able to contribute meaningfully to projects like the Jack Thompson Homeland Building Program. Projects that address the complex issues in indigenous communities with a holistic approach.

Link: http://www.jackthompsonfoundation.com