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Innovative design process reaps rewards

Nov 14, 2017

Empowering Martu people by placing them at the centre of the design process for new public infrastructure has taken Martumili Artists from shipping containers to an architectural gem.

The East Pilbara Arts Centre, home to Martumili Artists, has been awarded a coveted national accolade at the 2017 National Architecture Awards. Taking out the prestigious Sir Zelman Cowen award for Public Architecture, Officer Woods Architects was praised by the jury for demonstrating the contribution architecture can make to the greater public good.

The jury described the East Pilbara Arts Centre as a “masterstroke building-within-a-building concept” that “enabled “a group of remote Indigenous artists to make a substantial and tangible contribution to a town centre, thereby exemplifying reconciliation in this country.”

Since opening in April last year, the East Pilbara Arts Centre has fostered a deeper understanding and mutual respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. The Centre has also been a catalyst for growth for Martumili Artists, with 51 new artists recruited in just 12 months, and more than 1,180 artworks produced in that time. There have been nine new young art workers recruited since the Centre opened, compared to just three in the previous 12 months.

A design brief that challenged the norm

The ambition of the East Pilbara Arts Centre project drove government and industry to work together to ensure that, ethically and literally, Martu people were at the very heart of the design process. Martu contributed their ideas, input and ultimate approval for the design brief which outlined the cultural, environmental and practical needs of the artists.

Continuing to push the boundaries for public infrastructure, the project partnered with the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture to run a design competition for the new Centre. Funded by BHP, the competition attracted 16 entries which were judged by a panel of Martu artists and design experts.

The winning design by Officer Woods Architects was a unanimous choice; it responded to the brief, maximised the space and, most importantly, worked for the artists.

Architect Trent Woods said the design brief had been well formulated through an extensive consultation process before they came along.

“It was an accurate brief, but wasn’t derived from a standard; instead it was aspirational and seemed to us to be about important principles rather than a formulaic scope,” Mr Woods said.

“This invited us to also work from first principles and not be constrained by pre-conceived notions of what the building might be. Using a design competition to help procure the building was a really important part of its outcome – it allowed us to respond to this incredibly important cultural and physical setting in unconventional ways.”

The building is culturally, environmentally and creatively excellent

The winning architectural design features a large span steel frame shed rejecting the notion of a static, finished building. Like a tent, it covers, secures and shades a large area that can be contained, covered or completely open.

The building also features culturally-sensitive design elements to meet the needs of Martu artists. An example of Officer Woods design features is a sizable roof surface that can collect up to 830,000 litres of rain water per year, which is stored in a water tank. This tank not only services the building and provides a thermal sink, but importantly also acts as a cultural barrier sensitive to Martu avoidance relationships.

Martumili Artist Muuki Taylor said he liked being able to paint in the new Centre.

“The old art centre had no room, the new one has plenty of room. It feels like a home, it is a good feeling,” he said.

“Everybody from the Western Desert communities can share their paintings with everybody here at Martumili. Nyiyaparli people are the traditional owners of Newman, we thank them for supporting Martumili.”

Ignatius Taylor, Martumili Artist and Arts Worker said he was proud of the Centre.

“I feel sad that some young people like me don’t have the opportunity to travel and see galleries and other art centres. Having the Martu working and painting at Martumili makes this place special,” he said.

“Martu people from communities from the Pilbara can visit Martumili and learn what we do here, lots of tourists come and have a look and people from Newman. It is helping to learn two ways, whitefella way and Martu way.”

Founding Art Centre Manager Gabrielle Sullivan, now the CEO of the Indigenous Art Code Australia, and current Martumili Artists Manager Carly Day said they were both overwhelmed by the sense of pride.

“We knew the artists cared about the project, that they were excited about the space that was theirs in Newman, but we didn’t appreciate just how proud they were that the most exciting building in the Pilbara was constructed because of their achievements as artists, and how sharing their art and culture with the whole community is their way of being involved and valued,” they said.


The East Pilbara Arts Centre project started seven years ago after Martumili Artists, a unique local government-based arts program auspiced by the Shire of East Pilbara out-grew its previous home in Newman. Comprising two shipping containers, it struggled to support over 300 registered artists from the communities of Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Jigalong, Warralong and Irrungadji.

The 2017 National Architecture Awards received a total of 983 entries, making it the largest field of entries in the almost four-decade-long history of the awards.

The Sir Zelman Cowen Award follows earlier success at the 2017 WA Architecture Awards, where Officer Woods received the Jeffery Howlett Award for Public Architecture, as well as commendations in the Sustainability and Colourbond Steel categories. The project was also a finalist in the Improving Outcomes for Aboriginal People category at the 2015 WA Premier’s Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management.

The East Pilbara Arts Centre, which houses the Martumili Gallery, officially opened in April 2016 and was funded by BHP, the Pilbara Development Commission through Royalties for Regions, Lotterywest and the Shire of East Pilbara.

The Shire of East Pilbara supports the self-governance and direction of Martumili Artists through a unique partnership with the artist group and Martu people.

Image credit: Robert Frith, Acorn Photos


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