What do we really know today about the origins of Australian architecture? It’s a quandary for historians because no precolonial images seem to exist of structures built by the first settlers.
In the literature search for my next book, Australian Architecture: A History (Allen & Unwin 2022), it was useful to compile a timeline of firm evidence of our earliest buildings. This indicated that most current arguments about Aboriginal architecture rely either on Dreaming stories or on photographs and illustrations produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – after many Indigenous people had seen colonial tents and buildings.
Buildings do not appear in the ancient cave paintings or rock carvings created by Indigenous artists.
Australia’s oldest known physical relics are 300-ish circles of mossy basalt lava rocks beside Tae Rak (Lake Condah) in the volcanic zone of the Budj Bim World Heritage reserve west of Melbourne. These are remnants of a fishing village that was developed by the Kerrup-Jmara people after the Budj Bim (Mt Eccles) eruption about 36,000 years ago. From new rivers in the hardened lava flows, these settlers also engineered an aquaculture system of stone weirs, channels and fish traps, which thrived until missionaries intervened in the mid-1800s.
Australia’s oldest European structure is a low stack of boulders arranged in a double rectangle on West Wallabi Island, 63 kms off north-west Australia. This ruined ‘fort’ was built in 1629 by a huddle of Dutch refugees from the Batavia shipwreck-mutiny-massacre.
Earliest European reports of mainland Australian housing are log entries, diaries and memoirs published by mariners in the 1600s. These suggested that most people around the tropical northern coast lived mainly outdoors, but sometimes built meagre shelters for a few days of weather protection before wandering on. One early Dutch mariner, Jan Carstenz aboard the Pera in 1623, noted ‘wretched huts on the beach’ after encountering 200 hostile spear-carriers near today’s Batavia River on Cape York.
English pirate-explorer-naturalist William Dampier, who landed on north-west Australia in early 1688, claimed that ‘the inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world … They have no houses but lie in the open air without any covering; the earth being their bed and the heaven their canopy … they live in companies, 20 or 30 men, women and children together.’ [Dampier, A New Voyage Around the World, 1697 (1699 edn, p 465.]
Dawes’ drawings and cottage
Our nation’s oldest surviving architectural drawings are four concept sketches that were crudely quill-inked by Lieutenant William Dawes, the First Fleet’s scientist, aboard the Sirius while it was anchored in Sydney Cove on 30 April 1788.
Now archived at the University of Cambridge Library, these were two elevations (exterior wall diagrams) and two roof plans for a small cottage-observatory that convicts built for him near the eastern shore of today’s Dawes Point (Tar ra) Park. Completed by mid-1788, his two-room, rectangular, hip-roofed hut was made of sticks, twigs and mud, with an octagonal star-viewing chamber on its south-west corner, propped against ‘a rock very large and firm’. The door, its sole wall opening, faced north to today’s Milsons Point. At night Dawes would open shutters on the east and west slopes of his roof, prepare his astronomical instruments and pull cords to pleat open the canvas roof of his sky-viewing chamber.
Dawes’ hut was almost certainly the first locally designed colonial building in Australia. While Lieutenant Arthur Phillip’s Government House was far more substantial, it was designed and prefabricated in England. Dawes’ live-in observatory was built while other First Fleet settlers lived in tents, and well before the community learned how to make the lime mortar needed to glue and weatherproof bricks and stones.
After his first dwelling disintegrated, probably by mid-1789, Dawes led convicts to build a sturdier new cottage that was said to face east, towards Sydney Heads. This also disintegrated, soon after he sailed back to London in December 1791. While there are no contemporary depictions or remains of either cottage as built, Dawes’ original concept drawings informed a replica at the Old Sydney Town heritage park; developed by architect Frank Fox near Gosford in the 1970s. Dawes’ drawings were also reinterpreted recently for my book; by French digital artist Julien Alma of Sydney imaging studio Doug & Wolf.
Although Sydney’s First Fleet huts were extremely primitive – often literally dissolving under a downpour – the town’s officials seemed ironically condescending about Indigenous dwellings. Surveyor Captain John Hunter noted in 1788: ‘We sometimes met with a piece of the bark of a tree, bent in the middle and set upon the ends, with a piece set up against that end on which the wind blows. This serves them for habitation and will contain a whole family; for, when the weather is cold, which is frequently the case in winter, they find it necessary to lie very close for the benefit of that warmth to which each mutually contributes a share’.
Lieutenant-General Watkin Tench scathingly wrote: ‘Than these huts, nothing more rude in construction, or deficient in conveniency, can be imagined. They consist only of pieces of bark laid together to form an oven, open at one end, and very low, although long enough for a man to lie at full length. There is reason, however, to believe that they depend less on them for shelter, than on the caverns with which the rocks abound’.
The earliest illustration of Aboriginal architecture shows a camp of eight low, woody domes on the Peron Peninsula in Shark Bay, north-west Australia. It was a French print from an 1801 sketch by an artist, probably Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, aboard Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition of two ships commanded by Nicolas Baudin. These dwellings also appear too low for occupants to stand inside.
Europeans who visited Australia in the early 19th century depicted Aboriginal people living outdoors. When Baudin’s two ships stayed in Sydney in 1802, Lesueur sketched near-naked people beside a smoky campfire at the base of a sandstone cliff which seems like today’s Ball’s Head. An 1831 engraving, from an 1820 sketch by visiting Russian artist Emelian Karneev, showed a group cooking fish beside a branch and bark windbreak at Kirribilli.
In 1845, Charles Sturt, an Adelaide-based British administrator-explorer, crested a barren hill in central Australia and saw a village of 300-400 people near huts ‘occupying a whole crest of a long piece of rising ground at the opposite side of the flat’. [Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia, 1849, vol 2, ch 2, p 75.] He said the huts were ‘made of strong boughs with a thick coating of clay over leaves and grass. They were entirely impervious to wind and rain and were really comfortable, being evidently erections of a permanent kind to which the inhabitants frequently returned’.
Sturt also described another camp of seven or eight circular huts, each 8-10 feet (2.5–3m) in diameter and about 41/2 feet (1.4m) high. [Sturt, Narrative, 1849, vol 1, ch 6, p 254.] This ensemble seems comparable to an 1846 watercolour painting by Samuel Thomas Gill, which showed eight dome huts on barren ground in the northern interior of South Australia.
Sturt’s recollections of these desert huts were highlighted by author Bruce Pascoe in his Dark Emu polemic, arguing that Aboriginal people had evolved from hunter-gatherer societies to build permanent agricultural settlements of structures showing architectural and engineering prowess. As historians continue to debate Pascoe’s arguments, a chronological record will help reconcile the diverse opinions via a lineage of data