University of Melbourne Magazine

Design innovator: Sarah Lynn Rees

  • Sarah Lynn Rees (BEnv 2012) wants Australian buildings to better reflect the country’s Indigenous peoples — the Traditional Owners of the land. “We’re projecting who we think we are in our buildings,” she says. “But when I look around Melbourne, I don’t really see an Indigenous presence. And that’s a shame. “But it’s also an opportunity.”

    Rees, a Plangermaireener woman from Hobart, Tasmania, is in a position to help create that change. After graduating from the University’s architecture program in 2012, she was awarded the prestigious Charlie Perkins Scholarship, which gives Indigenous Australians the opportunity to undertake postgraduate study at exclusive universities in the US or UK.

    Rees completed a Masters of Philosophy in Architecture and Urban Design at Cambridge, where she studied Indigenous housing in remote communities.

    Once registered, she will be one of a handful of Indigenous Australian architects working to integrate Indigenous design into the built environment. It’s exciting, she says.

    “I think we’re past the point of hanging an Indigenous dot painting on the wall and that being enough. It’s about actually embodying these buildings with Indigenous ways of being, knowing and thinking — with the complexities and the knowledge of Indigenous cultures.”

    Growing up, Rees says her father, a builder, got her thinking about architecture as a career.

    “I was quite interested in problem-solving so architecture seemed like a good fit,” she says.

    As part of her studies at Cambridge, Rees spent six months living in Yuendumu, a remote Indigenous community nearly 300 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs, where she looked critically at the way government programs delivered remote housing to Indigenous people.

    She found that governments rarely designed housing based on an understanding of the way Indigenous people in those communities operate.

    Now back in Melbourne, Rees works as a graduate architect at Jackson Clements Burrows Architects and as a consultant with Greenshoot Consulting on various projects, including working to support the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning to create Indigenous Cultural Design Competency modules (ICDC).

    She’s also co-organising an Indigenous architecture symposium with award-winning architect Jefa Greenaway (BArch (Hons) 1999, BPD(Arch) 1997), to be held at the University this July, bringing together Indigenous architects from all over the world. She is also a director of Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria. It’s already a lot of work for someone still at the beginning of her architecture career.

    “I subscribe to the notion that we’re all going to have five careers in our lifetimes,” she says, “however, I’m trying to have them all at once because they all feed into each other.”


    By Kate Stanton