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JCU Indigenous Outdoor Learning Centre

Procument: Design and Construct

Indij Design Role: Architectural Design

Builder: Gilchrist Constructions

Engineers: STP Consultants

Year completed: 2014





The Indigenous Outdoor Learning Centre (OLC) at JCU’s Douglas Campus demonstrates how indigenous traditional and contemporary ways of learning can be cleverly embedded into the built form. The space has been designed for delivering an outdoor teaching environment including talking circles (break out spaces) and a kup murri (traditional underground cooking method) that promotes two way learning of different cultures. Most people are puzzled when Indij Design describes the OLC as “a lecture theatre with no walls” but this has been a way of teaching in indigenous society for generations.  Indij Design worked in consultation with JCU’s Project Control Group and User Groups that included indigenous lecturers and students. Feedback was also sought from the elders group of the traditional owners for the area.  

The OLC aims to reflect indigenous learning styles through a contemporary interpretation of traditional outdoor learning settings. The OLC draws on references to broader indigenous cultural elements including the coolamon and use of caves as a place for the passing on of knowledge.  Coolamons have multiple uses including the collection of food and water, and as a place for babies to sleep safely. By using the shape of the coolamon and inverting it, the building design showcases an object that was used as a cradle for babies, but now nurtures learning.    

The design of the roof references two cultural teaching pedagogies.  The first is that the curved roof design combined with the tiered seating creates a cave like feel in the teaching/learning space. This is a reference to caves being a place where stories were painted, shared and maintained through generations. What walls there are were simply painted as there are future plans to incorporate the painting of contemporary indigenous storytelling.  The second reference in the roof design is an inverted coolamon. Coolamons are used for carrying babies, collecting bush tucker, and used in smoking ceremonies amongst many other things. Indij Design saw the anology of nurturing minds, collecting nutrients/information and dispelling prejudices – (or ‘bad spirit’ thinking) at this place of two way learning and exchange. 

Other references include the brolga as a significant bird that walks (and dances) on the grounds of JCU and is celebrated in two ways.  Firstly in the columns that support the roof structure, which flair into three points of contact with the roof referencing the brolga’s leg and feet making three points of contact with the ground.  Brolga footprints are also cut into the ceiling which are illuminated by the sun through translucent roof sheeting.  This gives an impression that a brolga has landed on the roof, walked across the ceiling then flown off.  

Indij Design also explored with the client and stakeholders what could be open space versus what needed to be secure space. This lead to designing for minimal construction and use of materials – a reference to the sustainable design practices of traditional North Queensland Aboriginal Architecture.

The OLC provides an alternative educational environmental experience based on the traditional learning practices of indigenous Australians in a contemporary setting - learning and community building shared through song, dancing and storytelling through the provision of a performance and learning space.  There was a desire to create a building that created limited disturbance of the land and trees and the final position of the building on site was determined by elders of the Traditional Owner groups following a walk around the site.  It was important for the project to have the support of the broader indigenous community and this support was expressed at the official opening with a smoking ceremony, singing, dancing and kup murri to feed the many in attendance.


The OLC includes seating to hold 40-50 students, a performance space, a storage utility wall housing audio visual and I.T. equipment, a kup murri area, four break out spaces and design principles around passive energy and sustainable design solutions. At all times Indij Design was cognisant that the OLC was just one part of a bigger picture that included connected walkways and indigenous bush foods/medicine tours.

Whilst there were sustainability practices in the design brief including solar power, the project budget precluded such measures. The response was to design for minimal construction and use of materials.  The siting of the building was undertaken by the elders of the traditional owner group of that area.  This lead to minimal siteworks to prepare the slab and only three non-native trees were removed to make space for the building.  

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