A huge Aboriginal cultural centre under construction on Adelaide’s North Terrace will break design rules and set standards for immersive and creative storytelling. With an unusual and distinctive architectural design that evolved and changed with Aboriginal oversight, the centre will be managed by Aboriginal custodians and become a place of welcome and cultural rejuvenation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia, and a way for non-Aboriginal Australians to better understand the lives and cultures of the nation’s First People.
“The experience of the construction of the building, the laying of the foundations, every part of its governance structure will be driven by Aboriginal people,” says assistant director Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin, adding the project has been boosted by immense goodwill from all directions.
“This centre is unprecedented for Australia. The world has First Nations cultural centres in Canada and the US. They exist.
“I think we’ve been waiting for this to exist.”
Named Tarrkarri, which means “the future” in the Kaurna language of the Aboriginal people of the Adelaide plains in South Australia, the centre at Lot Fourteen will have an inclusive ethos, rather than a top-down management style, and provide a stage for truth-telling, for historic and cultural collections, for stories and lectures, song and dance, displays and exhibitions.
Artist’s vision of Tarrkarri
“This country is made up of stories; it’s a huge canvas,” Buckskin says. “We live in an amazing creative country, so there will be so many amazing stories we’re going to see.”
She says cultural history and understanding is lost every time a senior cultural elder or custodian dies, and Tarrkarri will help preserve those memories and culture.
“So there’s a real urgency to have a bespoke building for the first time in Australian history,” she says. “It’s really exciting for future generations.”
Construction began on the $200m Tarrkarri project in the heart of Adelaide on the site of the former Royal Adelaide Hospital in December 2021, with an expected completion date of 2025.
Project ambassador David Rathman, chair of Tarrkarri’s Aboriginal Reference Group, says he was determined the project would not get bogged down in endless circular meetings, with a lot of talk and very little progress.
“Consensus is sometimes a fragile concept for people to try and achieve,” he says.
“We had to get to some level of agreement; the main consensus everyone had was that we needed to move forward on the project.”
The long hours of work by the group paid off: work is now under way on a centre that will showcase First Nations culture to Australia and to the rest of the world and, he hopes, become a leader in the field.
Rathman endorses the location of the centre’s site at Lot Fourteen, noting the district will house an extensive array of hi-tech and space companies and he hopes connections can be forged with Tarrkarri.
On the board of the South Australian Museum and chair of the museum’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee for nine years, Rathman welcomes the burgeoning understanding that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are worthy of high recognition in stand-alone institutions such as Tarrkarri, which have an ethos of custodianship rather than ownership.
For nearly 20 years, he says, there was little progress finding a suitable facility to house a large collection of Aboriginal art and artefacts that were kept for a time in a leaky building – a former South Australian printing press.
Now there’s Tarrkarri: a bold and impressive Adelaide City Deal project; from the original need for a purpose-built storage facility to a journey to construct an international icon honouring First Nations cultures, Tarrkarri will raise the bar for gallery architecture.
Rathman says he and his colleagues have had input into the building plans from the beginning, providing oversight as the blueprint changed and matured into the current design.
“Woods Bagot have done an excellent job in engaging with us all the way through; there have been some extensive discussions,” he says.
“The first iterations of design we didn’t like. So they’ve gone back and softened it all and made it a very impressive building.
“Some of our people thought the initial designs looked like the Matterhorn. They tried to soften it a bit and it looked like the Sydney Opera House.
“Eventually we got there because they used the weaving pattern that you’ll see on there, and an expression of openness.
“What we came to was that you need as much as possible to leave a blank canvas in the interior, so you didn’t force people to go in a certain direction.”
The final Tarrkarri design is a building that settles into the land, that is open to the scenes of bushes, trees and sky outside, that avoids angularity and monumental statements.
“The building works its way into where it’s built, rather than it dominating what’s there,” Rathman says. “It’s taken a while; they’ve done a good job. It won’t be an imposing building, won’t impose itself on what you do inside or outside it.”
Architects and interior designers from two companies, Woods Bagot (whose team included a young Aboriginal graduate) and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, collaborated closely on the Tarrkarri project, seeking a design that both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people will relate to.
“Wholly connected to the landscape, the design embeds the lower ground level into the site and includes an outdoor gallery cantilevered over the terraced landscape,” says DS+R partner Charles Renfro
Rosina Di Maria, principal at Woods Bagot, says: “Our role as designers was to translate the collective vision of what speaks to all Aboriginal language groups,” she says, adding the design evolved through several iterations, building on direct feedback.
“The building grows from the earth but touches it lightly,” she says.
The exterior of the building will be clad in large metal shingles designed to reflect and capture light and visually change with the weather.
Rather than a heavy stone reminder of a traumatic colonialist past, Tarrkarri’s final design is far more open to the elements, with soft curves and large expanses of glass so the interior is visible from the outside and nature can be seen from the inside, Di Maria says.
Tarrkarri will not have the traditional imposing portal of government institutions, she adds.
“We are almost turning our back to that colonial boulevard and saying you must choose to walk through the gardens, gently, and be with nature.”