Aboriginal art in contemporary architecture

Architecture in Australia is starting to incorporate Aboriginal art on a larger scale than anytime before. A sign of Australians reconciling with their past?

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A building showing an Aboriginal leader's face

An Aboriginal leader's face is showing on a building modelled by contoured balcony panels.
'The Portrait' building in Melbourne. The building will be built on the site of the former Carlton brewery. Source: Herald Sun
Portrait of William Barak.
William Barak. Source: Herald Sun

Melbourne's suburb Carlton features a 32-storey building showing the portrait of Wurundjeri leader William Barak.

The 85-metre face has been created with the white balconies against black windows of the southern and eastern facades of an apartment building at the former Carlton United and Brewery site on Swanston Street. It was opened on 5 March 2015.

William Barak (c.1824–1903) was a tribal elder and artist who was an influential spokesman for Aboriginal social justice who fought with the colonial government of his time to return the land to his people. He was renowned for working to bridge the divide between black and white Australia.

The architecture firm said they wanted to design something to represent the deep history of Melbourne. They created the design in consultation with members of the Wurundjeri community and William Barak's descendants, both of whom supported the project.

"William Barak was the voice of the nineteenth century and now the face of the twenty-first,” said Aunty Joy Murphy, a Wurundjeri elder . “His image acknowledges the past and embraces the present and future of cultures working together." .

Horizontal white panels create the illusion of the face but are distanced from residents' balconies.

Designers say Barak's image is best viewed from the Shine of Remembrance, nearly three kilometres away, with which it is connected by a direct line of sight.

At the base of the tower, the carpark podium is faced with a grid of circular portholes, some of which are filled with aluminium discs that form a pattern spelling out “Wurundjeri I am who I am” in braille.

In an online reader poll more than 64% of respondents supported the idea when it was first published .


Of the 12,000 registered architects in Australia in 2018, only 28 (or 0.2%) were Aboriginal. 475 more are needed to match the Aboriginal population's share of 3%.

A building with a face looks across the city.
Face to face. The portrait is positioned to face the Shrine of Remembrance. Photo: Herald Sun

Mural showing a Noongar man

The upper part of the mural showing the Aboriginal man.
Detail of the Adnate Hotel mural showing an Aboriginal man's head and his hand holding Eucalyptus leaves. Photo: Ross Swanborough, Perth Now.

Melbourne-based artist Matt Adnate painted one of the world’s tallest murals (25 storeys) onto a Perth hotel that bears his name.

The mural on the Hay Street facing side of The Adnate features three large-scale portraits: the faces of a Nyoongar man, an Indian woman and a Mediterranean woman.

The artist collaborated with a local Aboriginal artist to create a 50m-long exterior laneway mural.

With the mural Adnate wants to showcase Perth’s cultural history and community.

With more art inside, The Adnate is Perth’s first Art Series hotel dedicated to street art.

Another mural of Adnate shows Aboriginal woman Akira Kelly on the wall of The Trentham Collective cafe in Trentham, Victoria.


Adnate also painted a 23-metre tall mural on the back of the McDonald House in Melbourne's Hosier Lane in 2014. The mural shows the portrait of an Aboriginal boy from Melbourne's northern suburbs, overlooking Birrarung Marr, a significant Aboriginal site.


View article sources (5)

[1] [1a] 'About face: William Barak apartments', ArchitectureAU 6/3/2015
[2] 'A 31-storey portrait of indigenous leader William Barak has been unveiled on the facade of a new city tower', Herald Sun 5/3/2015
[3] 'Building with portrait of leader to become Melbourne's newest landmark', Herald Sun 15/9/2010
[4] 'Sydney family's $1m gift to fix 'startling' architecture statistic', SMH 25/3/2018
[5] [5a] 'Matt Adnate takes on 25 storey mural on Hay Street side of Perth hotel', Perth Now 4/8/2019

Cite this page

Korff, J 2019, Aboriginal art in contemporary architecture, <>, retrieved 20 May 2024

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