A significant place

Biripi elder, Milton Saunders, in front of the new Biripi Clinic at Purfleet

Biripi Aboriginal Corporation Medical Centre has a stunning new building that works as a hub for community wellbeing.

Taree, New South Wales: A few months ago, Biripi Aboriginal Corporation Medical Centre opened the doors to a stunning new building that operates as a hub for community wellbeing. It was the culmination of a long-held dream of the members and directors to join up its buildings and revamp the old baby health clinic in a way that respected its heritage value.

Biripi Clinic and its welcoming front door

Biripi Aboriginal Corporation Medical Centre was incorporated in 1981 and is registered under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006. It was set up to serve the health needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Taree and the surrounding areas, and to involve Aboriginal people in the planning and provision of healthcare in their community. Its headquarters, including the new clinic, are on the site of the former Purfleet Mission, which the New South Wales government set up in 1901 to ‘protect and segregate’ local Aboriginal people, and to facilitate their removal from country. Most Biripi people ended up living there, in poor housing conditions, with little control over their lives – and as a consequence, many health issues. It wasn't until the early 1970s that the paternal oversight of the missionaries and the station manager was finally removed.

The new building joined up to the old

When the Biripi corporation was set up 37 years ago, it inherited the title to buildings including the 1950s baby health clinic. The corporation’s plan was always to connect the buildings and create a beautiful, culturally-appropriate space for health and wellbeing. The new building came about as a result of a successful grant application for new consultation rooms for visiting specialists, and training and education spaces. The corporation matched the Commonwealth funding dollar for dollar. Kaunitz Yeung Architecture won the tender to design it and the doors opened in March 2017. Seeing it finally built was a powerful experience for James Glass, Chair of the corporation's board:

As a member of this community, to see such an advanced building come up in front of my eyes, with 21st-century technology, was just astounding. Everyone is very pleased. We come from humble beginnings and now we have a culturally-appropriate health service – catered for by young people of our own community. We got it built for the good health of our community into the future, and it’s good because it also commemorates all those who came before.

The new Purfleet Clinic incorporates designs by Biripi artist Eden Davis, which provide filtered light patterns throughout the day. Significantly, the original health clinic – a simple weatherboard cottage – now serves as a gallery space off the new waiting room, displaying a history of health delivery and community advancement. And rather than a stale, bland indoor waiting room, there’s an outdoor courtyard with a birthing tree as its focus.

Biripi elder and corporation member, Milton Saunders

The clinic wraps around the garden and ceremony tree.

The corporation couldn’t be more pleased with the result. CEO Brett Cowling describes the dramatic effect of the new space on those who enter:

Aboriginal people are focused on holistic wellbeing of the family and community, not themselves. Aboriginal people tend to be reluctant to seek help for their individual physical health needs, but this is also really important. When people come in now, they look up, out, around; they can read about the heritage value and history of their ancestors, or they can sit out under the ceremony tree while they wait. (There have been many Biripi elders’ weddings and several Biripi babies born under this tree.) It makes me realise how much a building can shape your experience.

A good place to wait

The opening ceremony was an afternoon of nostalgia, culture, music and food held in the new waiting room courtyard to the sound and sight of children playing. Eden Davis, Biripi artist who designed the art integrated into the new building, recited a poem describing the importance of the new building to her and the community:

Recognition of the significance of this building goes beyond the community. In June 2017 Kaunitz Yeung Architecture received a European Healthcare Design Award for the Biripi Clinic, for its community integration and clinical innovation.

Through this new building, Biripi acknowledges its past and those that worked hard to get the corporation where it is today. The directors, members and staff are now focused on continuing the journey to improve the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the region.

All photographs courtesy of Brett Boardman