Nomadic Resistance: Tent Embassies and Collapsible
Illegal architecture and protest
by Greg Cowan
Tents, through their association with the 'primitive'
and 'unselfconscious' architectural traditions, have an established position
in architecture outside the West. The tent has often been used as a means
of besieging, invading, colonising and celebrating new and experimental space.
In central Europe, there is a tradition of elaborate and princely tents, such
as those deployed by the Ottoman Empire during their sieges on the frontier
of the Western countries, and also the use of tents in the sieges of 1529
and 1683 at Vienna, for example. These could clearly be regarded as Tent Embassies
of the Ottoman type, but will not be addressed in this chapter, which is concerned
primarily with the Australian Aboriginal Tent Embassy as an established phenomenon.
Grand Tents appear also in the widely-used, princely tent apparatus used by
travelling nobility in European history, inspired and arguably emulating the
tents of Kublai Khan and other Oriental models.
In the Western world of the late twentieth century, tents and collapsible
architectures have also become familiar features in the context of protests
and demonstrations, increasing with the global activism of the 1960s. European
avant-garde architects contributed to peace and protest movements in Europe
with collapsible and mobile architecture. The Austrian group Haus Rucker Co.,
the French Utopie group and others promoted temporal and portable architecture
through inflatable designs. In Australia, the architectural revolution appeared
in a politically important but apparently architecturally unpedigreed domain,
the protest camp. This chapter suggests that the connection between these
ways of employing tents in the Western world, and the vernacular uses of tents
by nomads, is not a coincidence, but rather that each relates to architecturally
significant features of the tent.
There is an important parallel between the temporal, mobile, and social 'architecture'
of structures for activism and the social deployment of these structures in
temporal and mobile ways. The world wide web of communications in the internet
has provided a tool for activism since the 1990s. This activism has also provided
a demand for indeterminate, mobile, temporary and rapidly deployable architecture,
which has been found in the form of tents. The tent is a choice of architectural
strategy which is not merely pragmatic. Ideological reasons also underpin
the uses of these kinds of structure, contributing to their significance as
In the exhibition catalogue for the Architectural League of New York's The
Inflatable Moment, which is about the architecture of activism in the turbulent
period of the late nineteen sixties, Marc Dessauce describes the resonances
between ideology and activist architecture. At this time, monumental modern
architecture appeared to have come to its logical conclusion, and modernity
was captured in Karl Marx's statement "All that is solid melts into air".
Dessauce makes light of the ephemeral work of activists as "a lot of
hot air", describing the inflatables which formed a prominent part of
the revolutions of the 1960s. The unsettled social conditions surrounding
the global student protests of 1968 were reflected in the architectures of
protest; temporary, mobile and collaboratively deployed.
Tents and Strategies of Occupying Contested Space
This thesis identifies the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (named as such by the protestors
who constructed it) as a prime example of collapsible architecture. The Aboriginal
Tent Embassy is symbolically juxtaposed with the White Invasion/Settlement
of Australia, and to form its case, uses tents as part of expressing the process
of ownership. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy in particular is discussed in terms
of ephemerality, portability, and social engenderment of activism it employs.
The now prominent Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Australia draws attention to
similarities between these two quite separate instances of the use of tents.
It is further argued here that an uncanny similarity exists between two historical
moments of illegal opportunistic camping in Australia.
The encampment of the first Europeans in Australia was eventually made redundant,
with the establishment of permanent settlement. On the other hand, though
the encampment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy began somewhat spontaneously
on 26 January 1972, it continues to the present day, in the grounds of Provisional
Parliament House in Canberra. It has stood in protest intermittently since
1972 and permanently since 1992. It recently appeared at Victoria Park, Sydney
during the 2000 Olympic Games, as part of a delegation to the World Court
at the Hague, and most recently in Woollongong.
Invasion of Canberra
the 26th of January 1972, four young men from Sydney erected a beach umbrella
in front of Provisional Parliament House, in the Australian capital.(see fig.
5.1) Their protest occurred on the annual national holiday known alternatively
as Invasion Day or Australia Day, and which marks the original claim on the
Australian continent by the British Crown. Later the same day, the land rights
protest evolved into the form of a tent encampment. The camp comprised a group
of shelters made of a bricolage of materials, including canvas tarpaulins
and plastic sheets, which could be regarded as festive.
Figure 5.1. The beginnings of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at Provisional Parliament
House, Canberra, 1972 as an umbrella, four activists and some placards. (Film
still from "Ningla A-na - Hungry for our Land" 1972.)
While the protesters called it the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the authorities
clearly regarded the form and the name of the Embassy as disturbing. The protesters
maintained their non-violent intentions, although inspired by contemporary international
politics. International debate in the media focussed on the idea of an Aboriginal
Tent Embassy and its political context of Land Rights. Part of the context of
both the encampment and the case study conducted here is the striking misinterpretation
of the pre-European state of occupation and inhabitation of Australia, as reflected
in the legal status of Terra Nullius. For European legal purposes, it had been
considered that Australia before European settlement was "practically unoccupied,
without settled occupants or settled law". The principle of Terra Nullius
was legally overturned only as recently as 1992, as a result of the Mabo land
claim case in the High Court, which found that native title was recognised at
Since that decision, Australian law concedes that Australia was previously inhabited
indeed, practically occupied. The Mabo decision, in principle,
is profoundly significant for Australias cultural identity and for the
ongoing process of reconciling present day Australia with the ghosts
of its past. Although practical occupation before European settlement
is now legally part of the history of dwelling in Australia, equally, the impractical
or extra-practical the theory of architecture requires
to be reconciled. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy provides a rich case study of
activism in the Australia, playing an important role in advancing the cause
of Aboriginal land rights activism since its inception in 1972. Its erection
in the centre of Canberra has been described as "brilliant, audacious,
imaginative, and strategic." It was always more than simply a demonstration,
and was newsworthy on both Australian and international scales.
The idea of an Aboriginal Tent Embassy was conceived spontaneously by the activists
in response to statements about land rights planned for then Prime Minister
McMahon's 'state of the nation' Australia Day speech, as details became known
on the previous day, the 25th of January. According to Chicka Dixon, one of
the original architects of the Tent Embassy, the protest was intended
to "put our plight into the eyes of the world". Indeed, the Embassy
came about with the loan of a car and a $70 grant from the Communist Party,
enabling four activists to make the trip from Sydney to Canberra. Initially,
a beach umbrella was erected, soon to be followed by a "sprinkling"
of tents. Regularity was not introduced and confusion did not give place to
system, as it had in 1788 when Western settlers/invaders tents gave
way to permanent, ordered structures as discussed below.
The inauguration of the Tent Embassy is a potent symbol of Australia's Post
Colonial identity, and the image reflected symbolically in its architecture.
Pre-colonial Aboriginal architectural traditions were diverse. They varied by
region in terms of building technology and socio-spatial behaviour. Tombs, hides,
traps and landscape elements had greater significance as well as shelters. Toward
the end of the twentieth century, there was increasing interest internationally
in the tectonics and spatial rituals of primitive Aboriginal architecture in
Australia. Enrico Guidoni's Primitive Architecture in 1978 included a section
on Aboriginal architecture. There is a reverence for the basic elements of space
and simply constituted structures from local materials which are portrayed as
elegant in their ecology and economy.
In 1990 Peter Blundell Jones wrote in the British Journal Architectural Review
about "Aboriginal attitude to landscape" and "the meaning it
has in myth and ceremony". In 1987, Bruce Chatwins internationally
successful novel The Songlines, while it was controversial in Australia for
its unauthoritative interpretations of Aboriginality, also attracted international
attention to ideas of Australian nomadic reading of the country,
as an alternative spatial definition of architecture. Australian
architecture and landscape is a cultural interest which warrants close scholarly
attention in regard to the processes of reconciliation of indigenous culture
and race in Australia.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is remarkable for the ways in which it embodies
a nomadological approach to architecture. The 'grounds' or philosophical foundations
for this camp include firstly, its inherent ephemerality, secondly,
the movement rituals of its erection, re-erection, transformation and maintenance,
and thirdly, the activism which it effectively embodies for the cause of Aboriginal
land rights and other rights for indigenous peoples.
The Tent Embassy took shape in 1972, at a point in Australian history when the
National Parliament House, a symbolically 'White' British-style formal 'House',
was losing public acceptability as the symbol of the central seat of government
in Australia. The building was massive and labyrinthine, symbolically impenetrable,
and its public functions were not readily legible. In contrast, the first tent
embassy was a spontaneous and yet revolutionary construction, and as a result
of this contrast was not only highly photogenic for the contemporary media of
1972 but was and is also a highly effective symbol.
With the capacity to appear and disappear suddenly, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy
is ephemeral. Its constituent parts are also collapsible, organically facilitating
compromise and resurrection. This Embassy is also portable, its parts, importantly,
are transportable in the boot of a car. The Tent Embassy became an international
focus during violent clashes surrounding its removal by police in 1972. Similarly,
its resurrection was the dramatic centre of the battle between the 'state' interests
in 'government property' and the protesters' interests, in challenging the legitimacy
of ownership of this land per se. The Canberra Times referred to an incident
in which a passing driver called out to the Tent Embassy staff "Go home
niggers, you've had your fun" whereupon someone replied "We're home
baby you go home." Its collapsible and ephemeral qualities made
possible its dramatic removal by the Police, and also its subsequent re-erection.
Ephemerality is a quality generally associated with the 'minutiae' of existence
rather than the 'big picture'. In the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the reverse is
true the ephemerality of the architecture is of 'fundamental' importance.
The Tent Embassys appearance of ephemerality allowed its 28 year tradition
to be initiated by stealth. Whereas a permanent building might have been illegal
under Building By-Laws, camping on the site in ACT in 1972 was not technically
illegal. The camp allowed the Embassy six months of publicity before an ordinance
could be gazetted and invoked. Only then did Police demolish the Embassy in
the "most violent demonstrations Canberra had ever seen".
Importantly, despite being dismantled this ephemeral architecture did not fade
away, but subsequently came back into life. Indeed, precisely because of its
ephemerality, the camp needs periodic renewal by activists who 'inhabit' the
Embassy structure. Ephemeral architecture can be considered environmentally
responsible development, erected 'just in time', lasting only as long as needed,
and often designed to be salvaged for re-use or to biologically degrade into
the bush once abandoned.
The ironic practicality of the Tent Embassy, evident from its earliest stage
as a lone beach umbrella to its development into a complex collection of tents,
tarpaulins and domestic effects, means it may be regarded philosophically as
a pragmatic structure. The visibility of the domestic 'reality' made the Tent
Embassy more powerful. The "cooking in the open and bed linen spread out
to dry" was reported as "bringing the reality of Aboriginal Australia
right to Australia's front door." The unintentional similarity of the tent
embassy with settler camps draws attention to the double standard of indigenous
and exotic modes of inhabitation.
Importantly, the 'weaving' of the Tent Embassy also has a collaborative aspect.
As a moveable and ephemeral architectural statement it is erected and maintained
collaboratively. The grouping of elements is organic, and does not follow a
Western geometric pattern like a military camp. The Tent Embassy functions as
an expression of its heterogeneous contributors and of the mixing of spaces
and materials. As such it symbolises a great deal about place-making and ways
of thinking about the built environment in Australia.
Architecture, as a Western concept, has roots in material craft traditions developed
in ancient European society. There is an enormous chasm between craft and dwelling
practices of the ancient Western world on one hand, which are at the core of
modern Western architecture, and the nomadic dwelling traditions of ancient
Australia, on the other. This cultural divide is manifested graphically in the
architecture of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The informal dwellings
of the Embassy are culturally significant for architectural thinking: they are
expressions of human inhabitation, of social significance to be reckoned with
on the level of sanctioned institutions. As suggested above, the Aboriginal
Tent Embassy is a practical and potent occupation of Australian
space: physical, social and political.
Western notions of architectural planning and construction cannot be readily
applied to this incidental form of architecture. Nevertheless, the colonial
settler culture, over the last two centuries, has applied Western
theory with limited success to pragmatic traditions of settling
the Australian continent. Western theories of architectural hierarchies are
not helpful in understanding the Aboriginal Tent Embassy because the theoretical
roots of the Embassy are rhizomatic, rather than arboreal, as Western theories
are structured. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy sprang from an impromptu idea, it
"start(ed) as a joke" conceived in collaboration between seven men
discussing the content of the planned Australia Day speech of Prime Minister
White Invasion of Australia
Western societies are often preoccupied with imposing hierarchical order and
permanence through buildings and settlements, while nomadic societies do not
generally share these concerns. Opportunism, ephemerality and collapsibility
are qualities which, it can be argued, have fundamentally affected cultures
of dwelling in Australia. These may be considered to be critical to forming
architectural theories which address the future of Australian culture. Dwelling
on a moment of arrival in a new place is captured symbolically by the sudden
erection of a collapsible architecture. The tent in this instance represents
an opportunistic occupation of space.
The moment of the beginning of transformation from nomadic society, arguably
of both the indigenous culture and that of the invading seafarer's culture,
towards a settled (and oppressed) culture is highly significant. Such a transformation
is still proceeding painstakingly in Australia and in other parts of the world,
with important implications for understanding the nomadic and sedentary tendencies
of the contemporary Australian society.
'Whitening' Australia, (or the first attempt in earnest to whiten) began in
summer in January 1788 with the arrival of Captain James Cook's Fleet at Port
Jackson. The initial camps erected there consisted primarily of tents. After
months living in tents during the mild summer, and as the weather grew colder
into winter, the desire for permanent buildings grew, like a longing for a familiar
'home'. The makeshift tents of the settlement were clearly considered inadequate
by the settlers, if not disdained by the traditional landowners in their huts.
Surgeon to the First Fleet, John White wrote of his reservations about the tents
in June 1788:
We have been here nearly six months and four
officers only as yet got huts: when the rest will be provided with them seems
uncertain, but this I well know, that living in tents, as the rainy season has
commenced, is truly uncomfortable, and likely to give a severe trial to the
strongest and most robust constitution...
After each of the settlements in Australia had
grown into 'permanent' and European forms of settlement over the following century,
a further stage in galvanising the European outposts was the federation of the
Australian colonies in 1901. In the context of a growing desire for a sense
of an Australian national identity, a national capital city was established
at Canberra. Following a 1912 international design competition, "Provisional
Parliament House," as it was called, was eventually built in Canberra in
1927, and was occupied by federal Parliament until 1988.
Provisional Parliament can be regarded as a piece of symbolic colonial architecture,
aimed at establishing an imported European cultural tradition. The building
is of a generic and derivative British colonial architectural style, significantly
massive and white in form, and is set in an orderly, lawned and manicured landscaped
setting. It has been described by architectural historian Jennifer Taylor as
a "visually demanding white building of symmetrical design with an orderly,
rhythmic distribution of its parts."
By 1965, Australias provisional Parliament House was becoming too crowded.
As the perceived need for a "permanent" Parliament House grew, plans
for a new Parliament began to emerge from within the sedentary hierarchy. This
was also a period of increasing media awareness in Australia of the Civil Rights
movements internationally and the Vietnam War at the end of the decade. Increasingly,
it became more evident and publicly acknowledged that racism was a significant
factor in Australian politics. At about this same time, the growing sense of
a Pan-Aboriginal nation began to emerge from the amalgamation of state acts
and the referendum of 1967 on the status of Aborigines. The referendum showed
the Australian publics overwhelming desire to "include Aboriginal
people in Australian Society and civil life", beginning by including their
numbers in the Census of the Australian population.
Provisional Parliament House stood in 1972 as an ambiguous expression of occupation.
Was it a provisional parliament or a provisional house? Australia
appeared not yet ready to occupy a permanent Parliament House. The early seventies
were to be highly significant years for the besieged architectural expression
of Australian national government. As the new 'permanent' Australian Parliament
House began to be a focus of bureaucratic governmental interest, indigenous
inhabitants of Australia began to work towards forming a nation, which in the
beginning of the 1970s was to be symbolised by their own flag and Embassy.
The embassy and its meanings
Despite its ostensibly uncertain future, the Tent Embassy embodies and accommodates
aboriginal activism by example, thus engendering and accommodating activism
for rights of indigenous people. It is closely connected to the modern history
of engendering pan-aboriginal identity in Australia, a history which led to
the formation of an Aboriginal flag, and to the formation of an Aboriginal Nation
from several hundred smaller territories or countries in Australia. Yet, like
the fringe dweller camps of rural Australian towns with which its appearance
has been compared, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is a makeshift camp. It is comprised
of materially indeterminate architecture, which challenges the idea of architecture
as an agency of civilisation and peaceful settlement in Australia. The Aboriginal
Tent Embassy buildings nevertheless represent a subversive architecture of protest
which has a deep-rooted significance for architecture in Australia. Importantly,
the camp is more than shelter: it embodies not only needs, but culturally significant
desires. More than rudimentary primitive shelter, the Embassy is a collapsible
International attention was drawn to the Australian government when it brutally
mistreated the peaceful protesters at the Tent Embassy in July 1972. The police
manhandled and assaulted the structure of the camp and molested
the protesters. The protesters had peacefully demonstrated at Australia's democratically
appointed forum. One MP called this one of the oldest principles of British
law: to respect as the democratic right of all Australians to peaceably assemble
to demonstrate political points of view, in a manner of their own choice, and
without limit of duration. The principle of unlimited ephemeral occupation has
become a critical feature of the encampment. The Grounds of Parliament, in the
nation's Capital Territory, constituted a symbolically laden space on manicured
Since 1992, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has been continuously occupied, although
its exact location has varied. In 1995 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was registered
by the Australian Heritage Commission on the National Estate, as the first Australian
Aboriginal Heritage Site. The Embassy was recorded as a 'heritage place' which
is nationally recognised for the political struggle of the Aboriginal people.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy pitched camp in a gesture intended undoubtedly to
confront provisional Parliament House in a media-savvy and graphic demonstration.
At the same time, the Tent Embassy affronted many people in the
way that it appropriated the language of camping and the great Australian Outdoors.
It was a radical use of 'ready-mades' such as the beach umbrella and after-market
contemporary tents combined with improvised shelters of tarpaulins. Rather than
a presenting a romanticised impression of nomadic life out bush,
the Embassy was actually an embarrassing reflection of the realistic contemporary
dwelling conditions found in many fringe dweller camps in rural towns around
The Tent Embassy is particularly powerful because its architectural expression
confronted the basic cultural assumptions of the imposed European culture and
its expectations of proper architectural expression of that time. The Aboriginal
Tent Embassy is a threatening nomadic 'institution' which is architecturally
challenging in four main ways:
Firstly, the Embassy is an impermanent structure juxtaposed against its context.
Secondly, the Tent Embassy implies, for some, the threat of militant invasion
of the parliamentary circle (evidenced by the bringing of a newly gazetted 1932
trespass ordinance in 1972 to enable the police to remove the protesters legally)
Thirdly, the Tent Embassy's continual resurrection is a strategy for the maintenance
of a culture the Tent Embassys (physical) architecture is short-lived,
Fourthly, the Tent Embassy is strategically placed. The careful urban planning
order which distances each international embassy from the Federal Parliament
is violated with the placement of the Tent on the front lawn. The
lawn at Provisional Parliament House is the equivalent to the front lawn
of the colonial suburban house type, a type which is at the heart of Australian
As an ingenious architectural device of stealth, the Embassy, it seems, evades
the oppression often acted by the establishment through parking violations,
building by-Laws, town planning applications, or signage by-laws.
Symbolically or theoretically interpreting the twenty-eight-year tradition of
the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and its historical resonances make possible an opportunity
for working on the architectural reconciliation of nomadic and settled elements
of society present in Australia today. The Tent Embassys spontaneous and
patchy physical architecture of lightweight, colourful, and impermanent materials
and its mock-threatening location in front of Old Parliament make
the Embassy an ironically fitting pilgrimage destination. The architectural
manifestation of land rights activism of the early 1970s is continuing in the
twenty first century. Besides its role as a media focus for Land Rights and
reconciliation processes, the site is legitimately part of Australia's national
heritage, providing the setting for memorial services for activists in 1993,
and for a wedding in 1997.
The unapologetic and assertively British-colonial architecture of the federal
governments' Provisional Parliament House is effectively foiled by the strategically
placed fringe-dwellers camp. Although critics have called attention
to its outward appearance as "ramshackle" and an "eyesore",
the Tent Embassy offers more than a superficial aesthetic. The ephemeral and
complex folds and spaces of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy provide a useful and
critical aesthetic contrast with the massive and monolithic white architecture
of a colonial society. A need has evolved in Australia for an engagement of
indigenous race relations with cross-cultural thinking about architecture. The
confusion of settlement with occupation is one which lies at the core of built
environment 'ownership', and affects the limitations of what rôle architecture
might perform in the future of Australia. The incidental construction of the
Aboriginal Tent Embassy represents the positive nomadic qualities of a collapsible
This challenge of occupying borrowed or stolen land is posed as a strategic
issue for approaching issues of reconciliation of Australian people and of reconciliation
of Australian people and their environment. The informal and nomadic, it is
suggested, are critical to the process of discovering what architecture means
for Australia today. Increasingly architects and designers of dwellings might
become conscious of the ephemerality of occupation and respond in a conciliatory
rather than defensive way to designing in this context.