The air travel distance from Afghanistan to Australia is approximately 10,000km, but this difference says nothing about the fact that a part of Afghanistan can be found Down Under. Where the people go, places and designs that reflect their cultures and values tend to follow.
The Afghan Bazaar Cultural Precinct in Dandenong, an outer suburb of Melbourne, is one of these places. Celebrating the unique concentration of Afghan Businesses in the neighbourhood, the project was heavily invested in by the City of Greater Dandenong and Office of Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship, which aspired to recast the precinct’s core – Thomas Street – as an authentic venue for public life, community identity, pride and unity.
HASSELL was engaged to create a design that would ensure that the upgraded emblematic urban streetscape would not just stand out and stand alone, but be integrated and responsive to the cultures of the local, and broader, Afghan community.
Part of this process involved intensive community consultations, facilitated by landscape architecture practice Sinatra Murphy, which proved highly useful – it highlighted to the design team the diversity within Dandenong’s Afghan population whilst generating a design framework that focused on community-endorsed themes supporting social unity.
“The community consultation allowed us to understand the way people used the existing space, and how it could better accommodate specific cultural requirements. For example, the custom seating we’ve designed reinterprets the traditional Arabic ‘suffah’, or dais, for the urban Australian context. This allows the community to socialise in familiar ways,” says HASSELL Senior Associate, Cassandra Chilton.
The custom furniture was fabricated by Commercial Systems Australia. Laser cut stainless steel forms a filigreed edge to the timber plinths, seats and stages. LED lighting illuminates the perforated pattern at night
Out of these discussions, three key themes presented themselves clearly: the colour blue, a centrepiece, and celebration. These were established by a palette of public realm materials and furniture that interpret and abstract unifying elements of calligraphy, geometry, and colour.
The Colour Blue
The extraordinary tiling of Mazar-e-Sharif, specifically the Blue Mosque in the centre of the fourth-largest city of Afghanistan, was a major inspiration for the design, and HASSELL gave its own contemporary spin to what it calls “the geometry of gathering”.
Within the Dandenong precinct, intricately detailed paving on both sides of Thomas Street introduce colour, texture and pattern to define the primary meeting places. Three pavement types were developed to incorporate classic Persian geometries (the six, seven and ten-pointed stars) that expand to generate the arrangement and form of the streetscape elements, increasing in intensity at the focal areas of the precinct.
Paving type diagrams. Clockwise from top left: Granite Banding, Insitu Concrete Exposed Blue Glass, Setts, Road Paint
The first is a pixelated pattern achieved with two tonnes of granite setts; the second is a concrete pavement, top seeded with blue glass aggregates and abrasive blasted. Finally, an Omnicrete Deco blue resin and glass aggregate surfacing system was applied with stencils to deliver a distinctive signature for the precinct.
“The vivid blue of turquoise and lapis lazuli are colours that resonate with the community,” explains HASSELL. “Their highly visual introduction, via blue glass aggregates and resin pavement stencils, adds vibrancy to the street.”
An integrated artwork by Afghan-Australian artist Aslam Akram is the show-stopper of the space. Fabricated by Akram with Big Fish Projects, Lamp, a sculpture with two parts, provides an opportunity for cultural expression in a way that resonated with the local community.
“The base represents the fuel source – human energy, knowledge and experience. It also symbolises holy places, histories and memories of Afghan Australian people,” explains Akram.
“The top is a filigreed shade symbolising creation as a result of human energy, as well as friendship and respect between communities, and within cultures in multicultural Australia.”
Steel framing and screen elements of Lamp are painted in shades of blue, turquoise and white, while the base features a traditional glass mosaic tiling.
The intricate details of the illuminated Lamp represent the transition of an established culture in Australia through freedom and change, while the solid lamp base represents the traditional art of Afghan cultures through mosaic and geometric patterns.
Through community consultations and recognising the role that cultural and artistic expression plays in defining the visual identity and liveability of the community, the Afghan Bazaar precinct has successfully moved beyond the clichés of precinct branding.
Other reconfigurations and enhancements include narrowing the roadways and widening the footpaths to establish new infrastructure for festivals and events, such as Nowruz (New Year). Improved lighting, new trees, overhead power lines removal and better links to neighbouring precincts and transport will also contribute to the activation of the precinct.
“[The project] celebrates the street as an important space, not just for movement and commercial exchange, but also for the social and cultural encounters that are so important to daily life,” says Chilton.