Craig Kerslake, Wiradjuri man and UNSW Alum talks about his study and career journey and explains how his architectural design work is deeply anchored in First Australian cultural knowledge, a sense of humility and the desire to give back to Country.
I chose UNSW as my preferred university as I felt the engaging thinkers in the design and architecture faculty were aligned with how I wanted my learning experience to be. One particular academic, an architect called Francis Marten, had a huge influence on the architect I am today. I recall him asking me, “Craig, what would the design look like from Mars and how would you explain it to a Martian?” His teaching really tested my critical thinking and has led to so many freedoms in how I view architecture.
It wasn’t until I graduated that I realised the freedom which comes through immersion when studying at university. It’s like being in a flight simulator, practicing skills learned, making mistakes (and if you don’t crash-out sometimes you are simply not trying hard enough), testing your thinking in front of your peers and ultimately learning how to get “yourself” out of the work you do. In Aboriginal culture we call this taming the inner Emu.
Applying the professional skills from university was only part of the story for me. Parallel to university, my cultural education came in the form of an old man with deep brown eyes and no front teeth. I only know of him as Uncle. As an Aboriginal man myself I have always been drawn to my Elders. I spoke with Uncle about graduating from UNSW and he said, “Great, now what are you doing for Country?”. He went on to tell me that it was a privilege to be well-educated and become an architect and that I now needed to look after Country. The next time I saw Uncle - ten years later - he asked me the same thing. I said, “Yes Uncle, I am giving back to Country.” He smiled.
First Australian culture has so many rich and sophisticated guiding principles all centred on a wonderful relationship we call “Belonging to Country”. Like all meaningful relationships, when you Belong to Country you are responsible for everything in your conscious world, in a Custodial sense. Your Country, in return, looks after you. Reciprocity. This includes being there for other people and for nature which are inseparable; one and the same.
The thing I love about what I do is that I can tell this story of Belonging to Country, in many different ways, by embedding Aboriginal stories within architecture. Baladhu Wiradjuri (I am Wiradjuri). I am so proud of my culture, and I am being something my Grandfather was forbidden to be. In many ways I owe it to him to stand tall and to my Great Grandmother Maude Mary too, who spent her life as a fugitive running away from The Aboriginal Protection Board. This gives me purpose and reason for all that I do.
Builder or Architect? A pivotal point came after completing a B. Arts. I was drawn to the construction sector as I had been working with builders swinging a hammer to get me through university. While there was a practical side to me, what really inspired me was the thinking of what was to be made. I saw so many possibilities in design and architecture, so applied for architecture. Crisis came through questioning the meaning of architecture. During my first year of architecture, I met my Aboriginal family in Dubbo. This sparked new personal learnings that quickly washed over the architectural discourse for me. It gave me a genuine purpose and understanding of the idea of “Place”.
During study and soon after graduating, I worked on a number of building types including hospitals, schools, public and civic space, urban design and community-based projects. It became apparent that my strengths were in conceptual design, and I was drawn to sectors that impacted social wellbeing. After starting my own architectural practice, called Saltwater Studio Architects (I was born on Wodi Wodi Saltwater Country) – giving back to Country became a strong pursuit. The void in the profession for me was the lack of an Indigenous voice. This was exacerbated by the fact that there were not enough First Australian architects. I was the only Aboriginal person in my year at university and so I personally set out to change this. The typical white middle class profession had a critical problem for me; it desperately needed vernacular expression and identity.
I spoke to trusted business advisors who told me that I needed to connect with a larger practice with a national presence. I created a matrix of the best firms within Australia and ranked them as to their suitability. I met with directors and, without their knowing, interviewed them as to their suitability. I measured each firm based on company values and their history of working with or giving back to First Australians. The matrix defined a clear standout and I reached out to DesignInc to gauge their interest. They welcomed the idea with both arms, and we started what today is called Nguluway DesignInc. Seven months in, we have two Aboriginal staff, are making offers to graduates as and when we find them and DesignInc just signed up its first scholarship for an Indigenous student. I continually provide cultural training for my team and Indigenous narratives are already enriching and informing our design thinking from interiors, landscape, urban design and architecture. Designing From Country is now central to our thinking and all we need now is more graduates to come and join us on this wonderful journey of belonging.
Whenever a project is stuck, as with writer’s block, it is really rewarding to be asked to assist. I nearly always reach back into my cultural learnings and find enticing design solutions that take the architectural narrative to engaging places such as with the concept of Brackish Space. As water passes over the earth it takes on the character of the land. Like people, as we move across the landscape, we are influenced by it and find belonging to it. People and place. Brackish Space is an exploration of the sacred qualities of where the fresh and saltwater come together. With the ebb and flow of each tide the landscape is forever in a state of transformation. As the water levels drop the water becomes more fresh water and on the incoming tide the water tastes more saline. People also move between work and home. The spaces we pass through can be seen as Brackish Space. If we focus on the qualities of Brackish Space as a starting point our design thinking is also transformed. In a way, Aboriginal culture rewrites the entire approach to design, as it simply asks different questions.
I build resilience by working with purpose. I completely enjoy strategic problem solving and this is definitely my sweet spot. Work should not be an inward pursuit; you know: “I’m going to be an architect who will be famous, published and adorned with accolades of praise and admiration.” When what drives you is serving others, endless energy and enthusiasm seems to prevail. Sleep and work-life balance is of course important.
One of my proudest professional moments was working on an Aboriginal tourist centre. Sitting in front of my own Wiradjuri community, I presented our design concept of the “Yindyamarra Meeting Place”. The Wiradjuri community leaders were quiet and contemplative of the somewhat “out there” concept design that put Wiradjuri culture front and centre in every aspect of the design. We exchange some limited words in Wiradjuri and I felt completely immersed in my belonging. Whether we won the design competition or not did not matter from that point on. Right there I knew that the cultural lens I was applying to my work was something I could be immensely proud of. Like I was presenting their voice and a design that stood tall for my people.
The Emu stands tall and looks down at others. Always trying to be above with a superior position of power the Emu stretches his neck taller and taller. Try to understand that your work is not actually about you. No, really, if what you do is self-focused, you will be setting yourself up for disappointment. No matter how hard you work you will never find career satisfaction. This is because self-pursuits are nearly always somehow missing the mark. You need to tame the inner Emu. As soon as you manage this, inspiration flows from every pore. Your work, and even your studies will be enriched and an unexpected drive meshes with all you do. Find a purpose, stay true to it and if the purpose loses its mojo, find a better one.