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Indigenous architecture

The field of Indigenous Architecture refers to the study and practice of architecture of, for and by Indigenous people (including landscape architecture and other design for the built environment). It is a field of study and practice in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Arctic area of Sápmi and many other countries where Indigenous people have a built tradition or aspire translate or to have their cultures translated in the built environment.

The traditional or vernacular architecture of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people varied to meet the lifestyle, social organisation, family size, cultural and climatic needs and resources available to each community.

The types of forms varied from dome frameworks made of cane through spinifex-clad arc-shaped structures, to tripod and triangular shelters and elongated, egg-shaped, stone-based structures with a timber frame to pole and platform constructions. Annual base camp structures, whether dome houses in the rainforests of Queensland and Tasmania or stone-based houses in south-eastern Australia, were often designed for use over many years by the same family groups. Different language groups had differing names for structures. These included humpy, gunyah (or gunya), goondie, wiltja and wurley (or wurlie).

Until the 20th century, a fallacy existed that Aborigines lacked permanent buildings. Europeans’ early contacts with Indigenous populations led them to misinterpret Aboriginal ways of life. Labelling Aboriginal communities as 'nomadic' allowed early settlers to justify the takeover of traditional lands claiming that they were not inhabited by permanent residents.

  • the koruru at the point of the gable on the front of the wharenui can represent the ancestor's head
  • the maihi (the diagonal bargeboards) signify arms; the ends of the maihi are called raparapa, meaning "fingers"
  • the tāhuhu (ridge beam) represents the backbone
  • the heke or rafters signify ribs
  • internally, the poutokomanawa (central column) can be interpreted as the heart
  • the amo, the vertical supports that hold up the ends of the maihi
  • the poupou, or wall carving underneath the verandah
  • the kūwaha or front door, along with the pare or door lintel
  • the paepae, the horizontal element on the ground at the front of the wharenui, acts as the threshold of the building
  • During the time of Tagaloalagi, the houses in Samoa varied in shape, and this led to many difficulties for those who wished to have a house built in a certain manner. Each carpenter was proficient in building a house of one particular shape only, and it was sometimes impossible to obtain the services of the carpenter desired. A meeting of all the carpenters in the country was held to try to decide on some uniform shape. The discussion waxed enthusiastic, and as there seemed no prospect of a decision being arrived at, it was decided to call in the services of Tagaloalagi. After considering the matter, he pointed to the dome of Heaven and to the horizon and he decreed that in future, all houses built would be of that shape, and this explains why all the ends of Samoan houses are as the shape of the heavens extending down to the horizon. An important tree in Samoan architecture is the coconut palm. In Samoan mythology, the first coconut tree is told in a legend called Sina and the Eel.


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