Property Australia

Songlines of design

PROPERTY AUSTRALIA September 8, 2020

WSP’s Michael Hromek is championing a new Australian design vernacular that incorporates images, culture and language of local Aboriginal people. How can WSP’s future-ready approach help us build symbolic and practical bridges to reconciliation?

“Every infrastructure project developed in Australia is located on Aboriginal country. Aboriginal people prioritise country first, then community, and then the individual. Therefore, any project must start with country.”

Michael Hromek, Technical Executive – Indigenous Architecture, Design & Knowledge, WSP

Indigenous Australians have a problematic relationship with the built environment, as settlements, roads, bridges and railways often run through and break connection between people and country.

How can we reconnect the relationship between country and people?

This is a question that occupies the mind of WSP’s Michael Hromek.Hromek_Michael_wsp

Hromek is descended from the Yuin people of the Budawang tribe on his mother’s side, while his surname was the gift of his Czech father. The country Hromek’s Yuin ancestors occupied for more than 4,000 year stretches from Cape Howe to the Shoalhaven River and inland to the Great Dividing Range.

Hromek is currently completing a PhD at the University of Technology Sydney, investigating the urban Indigenous community in Redfern and its spatial values. But for nearly three years he has also worked with WSP as its technical executive for Indigenous architecture, design and knowledge.

He calls himself the “ultimate middleman” translating a rich treasure trove of stories, history and language into design principles that build cultural competency among WSP’s design teams.

“Strong cultural competency means understanding which tribe and which language group lived in this place, as well as the topography, stories and significant places,” Hromek explains.

“Aboriginal people want to talk about their culture and share these stories. The challenge is getting designers to be comfortable in asking questions.”


Enter a new Australian design vernacular

Hromek is a champion of architecture “designed perfectly for the place in which it sits”. Each country has a unique design vernacular, Hromek explains.

“The Western Desert has the dot; Darug country uses lines. Wiradjuri people use repeating diamonds, chevrons and radiating lines. Tapping into that design vernacular is what makes a project innovative in its connection to country.”

Importing a design vernacular from one part of Australia to another is a frequent mistake Hromek sees.

“It’s easy to copy and paste, but by articulating a very placed-based design – one that allows property to exist in landscapes – suddenly we are creating a new Australian vernacular; one that distinguishes place.”

Hromek points to WSP’s work on the Level Crossing Removal Project in Victoria, a state government initiative to remove 75 dangerous and congested crossings across Melbourne. Each stage of the project involves consultation with an Aboriginal reference panel that sits alongside the urban design reference panel.


The level crossing removals in Carrum, for example, offer both practical and symbolic bridges to reconciliation. A new bridge connecting Station Street across Patterson River, Karrum Karrum bridge, features designs inspired by the Bunurong people, including a wedge-tailed eagle, or Bunjil, and diamond patterns representing unity. A nearby yarning circle provides space for traditional owners to pass on cultural practices and values.

WSP’s Michael Hromek argues that an Aboriginal-led design approach is based on three pillars:

  • Images – from signage to surface treatments, walls to artwork – chosen with the help of local Aboriginal design knowledge and artists to tell the story of the country and its people.
  • Space or landscape is important to celebrate culture through activities like land management, firestick farming or daisy yam propagation.
  • Sharing language through the built environment keeps it alive.

“Latent knowledge is sitting there and is quite easy to find in the digital age. I can quickly pull together research and provide the cultural competency,” Hromek says adding that sites like the National Library’s Trove and JSTOR are invaluable resources.

“This cultural competency is starting to be a big differentiator for us,” Hromek adds. Increasingly, around 30 per cent of judging criteria for some design competitions is focused on Aboriginal participation, he says.

Everyone has a genuine interest in the history of place – what happened in this place. Bringing together Indigenous design with Aboriginal planning principles enhances everyone’s connections to place and enables us to be future ready.”

The Property Council is currently engaging with people across the industry as we develop our first Reconciliation Action Plan.

With a history spanning 60,000 years, First Australians have deep insights into the role of placemaking in creating identity, connecting communities and supporting long-term sustainability and liveability.

Tell us how your company is working towards reconciliation with Indigenous Australians. Contact to be featured in an upcoming issue of Property Australia.