Harnessing the power of Indigenous design

Landscape architect Paul Herzich hopes the recently announced Reconciliation Action Plan will help facilitate discussions between landscape architects and Indigenous groups and communities.

As co-chair of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architecture (AILA) Connection to Country committee and cultural ambassador for their recently released Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), Herzich is also the only registered Indigenous landscape architect in Australia.

After leaving school at 17 to work for his father, Herzich spent a year as a jackaroo in New South Wales, before returning to Adelaide to work with a landscape construction company.

“After a few years of working with landscaping plans, I remember thinking to myself that I would like to learn how to draw design,” Herzich says. “However, at the time, there were no landscape architecture courses offered in South Australia.”

Paul Herzich

Herzich continued to work for a few private landscaping businesses before starting his own business at 22. A few years later, at 25, Herzich enrolled in the newly established Design Studies and Landscape Architecture degree at the University of Adelaide.

Herzich worked for Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) during his final two years of study. After he graduated, he worked at TCL for a further two years before making the move to the Department of Transport 14 years ago. For the past two years, he has worked at the Office for Design and Architecture (ODASA), partnering closely with the Kaurna Cultural Heritage Board on various projects including cultural markers and interpretive signage. Herzich has also taken on a small number of public art projects like sculptures and super graphics, including those that can be seen in the rejuvenated Topham Mall.

“It’s about putting things in perspective, he says of the art created for Topham Mall. “I didn’t think it needed to be a complicated artwork.”

The work features 650 white dots, which illustrate the 65,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and two blue dots, which highlight the 200 or so years of non-indigenous cultures, representing white and blue stars above the country.

Herzich’s design philosophy looks at traditional symbolism, and represents it by using contemporary methods like laser-cutting. “I aim to recognise and expose all of the [Indigenous] groups of people in the state. I’ve had people crying as a reaction to the work, as it is the first time that some of these groups have been recognised in a public realm. It’s very powerful, and something very simple.”

Indigenous designed tram-wrap in Victoria Square

AILA’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) was launched recently after a year of collaborative work by the Connection to Country Committee, which was co-chaired by Herzich. He hopes the document will help facilitate and embed early discussions with Indigenous communities and groups within the planning and design process of landscape architecture. He also anticipates that the RAP will help to identify the people (Indigenous elders and leaders) to speak with during design consultation processes, as an opportunity to engage with communities.

AILA recognises the importance of this engagement, stating: “as built environment professionals who engage with land, places, cultures, history, people, natural systems and built context, landscape architects seek to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.”

Herzich is optimistic about the future of his discipline, but he would like to see more Indigenous-led practices emerge over the next few years. As an extension of this, Herzich is also currently part of a design exhibition in Melbourne’s Koorie Heritage Trust called Blak Design Matters, which features Indigenous designers across disciplines such as fashion, interiors, product design, landscape, architecture and town planning. Curated by Jefa Greenaway, the exhibited projects will interrogate how Indigenous design is defined, received, and made visible in Australia’s contemporary design landscape, asking the question: what is meaningful Indigenous design and why does it matter?

By all measures, there is a still a way to go to embed these sorts of discussions in the broader aspects of design practice, not just in landscape architecture, but more generally across all disciplines. What is encouraging is that this AILA initiative sets out to become a benchmark for contemporary design practice, and a precedent for other inter-related fields such as architecture.

Header image: Paul Herzich’s artwork in Topham Mall, representing 65,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and 200 years of non-Indigenous culture

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