Longing and belonging

GRANT REVELL is a design strategist and writer from North Fremantle. In this week’s Thinking Allowed he explores the 2021 Fremantle Biennale architectural commission Gathering Place, which won the prestigious Iwan Iwanoff Award at the 2022 Western Australian Architecture Awards.

THIS little story is about place, art, and design – a new way of working, reckoning and experiencing environmental architecture – where professional relationships between First Nation and white-fella peoples in Walyalup – Fremantle, Western Australia – really matter.

This is also a story about a rather magical architectural event that happened in the recent 2021 Fremantle Biennale arts program, held along the shorelines of the port city’s Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) – a now highly acclaimed festival of site-responsive contemporary art.

But the story must begin by acknowledging place itself. 

For the heart of Fremantle is known as Walyalup, First Nation Whadjuk Noongar Country understood as the place of Wal or to cry; the place of the Waalitj or eagle; and the place of the Walyo or Woylie, a small marsupial once common throughout Walyalup.

These multiple uncontested meanings are suggestive of a transformational place that yearns for further respect and emotional understanding of an ancient spoken language always in interpretation of those that don’t speak or listen Noongar. 

A level of sensed intelligence from crying, to eagle, to marsupial rat – real or imaginary. 

Walyalup will always speak and sound different to those that care to understand its Noongar relational meaning, and to the familial livelihoods of Noongar Country itself.

And Fremantle is listening.

Listening to a recent Biennale installation.

An architectural commission by Noongar elder and writer Sandra Harben, and young local architects Drew Penhale and Shane Winter. 


As the Biennale program explains: “[this work] is an invitation to gather, sit and spend time in one of the city’s forgotten public spaces. A project formed out of an extended yarn between the authors, a sinuous winding seat is set back from the bilya (river) within a quarried amphitheatre. 

“Collecting, binding and gathering elements; a limestone edge, a Moreton Bay fig, she-oak trees, fragmented river view, this architectural form provides a space for people to gather, to engage in conversation or sit in quiet reflection of the immediate area, amongst the ebb and flow of changing rhythms.

Kwoppada boodjar
Beautiful Country
Dabakan koorliny Dabakan
koorliny Dabakan koorliny
Walk slowly, walk quietly, walk
Boodja wangkiny
The land is speaking
Nyinniny, ni and katitch
Sit listen and learn

Yet as one initially appreciates that this temporary piece is about recognising and experiencing an architecture of place itself, this time one now gets to listen first-hand to the designed relationships where architecture sits back to orchestrate spatial relationships of glorious ephemeral success. 

Continued next week.

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