Skip to main content

Putting culture and story at the heart of place-making

Lighting Design By Anjana Ravishankar, Lighting Designer – 17 February 2023

Sydney skyline at sunrise overlooking famous building and bridge in Sydney Australia


Headshot of Anjana, in front of a plant background

Anjana Ravishankar

View bio

Lighting design starts with understanding the story a place is going to tell, and that can mean going beneath the surface to learn about what had gone before. When we were working on the lighting and public art placemaking design for Phillip Lane in Parramatta, we realised the centre of the idea needed to have a narrative of place and meaning.

The project is located in an area I am familiar with, as I have visited so many times for shopping and meeting up with friends. So, I felt a personal connection to the site and to the surroundings. My experience of the neighbourhood is one of tall buildings and a bustling public realm where many cultures meet and mingle – including many people newly arrived in Australia from the Middle East, Asia and the Indian Subcontinent.

People are also attracted to visiting the area because of the diverse range of cuisines from around the world – as humans we are often drawn back to the tastes and scents and textures of our homelands.

The brief also needed us to go past the everyday and dig under the surface to design a concept that reflected the deeper values of the place. The rapid pace of development and the growing density very much shapes the area, but I became curious about what had come before and how the environment relates to people and place.

Discovering the deeper story

I began looking into the history, and the role of the Parramatta River in the human landscape. It flows into the CBD, and there is a ferry transport link to the centre of the city. There are also many walking trials and public pathways alongside the river. So, it plays a role as a connector of communities and places.

Then I started to discover the role of the river for the First Nations Peoples who called the area home before European settlement. It was a transportation route and played a key role in trade between First Nations communities. Travel on the river by canoe would have been an experience of slow transition through the landscape and encounters with the creatures within and around the river. I realised this is where the story for our design had to find its roots.

I also learned about the sorrowful history of the way the First Nations Peoples were betrayed by the colonial government and saw that there needed to be an element of restoration of the First Nations connection to place within the present day placemaking. Respect for both past and present came to the foreground in our thinking. For many immigrants to the area, the story of the past is unknown, I wanted to help change that.

One day I noticed a sign with an imprint of an eel on some hoarding, and I wondered what the meaning was. I found out that the eel was of central importance to the local people. This made sense for me as someone who comes from a culture (India) where the cow has spiritual importance.

Knowing about the eel and its role in bringing people together in the area and connecting to culture and to spirituality became the central element of our design thinking for Phillip Lane. It helped us create a concept that showcases the First Nations Peoples and what Parramatta stands for, bringing back into the light of the present important forgotten history.

“In so many places the role of First Nations Peoples in shaping the landscape and their deep belonging to it has been diminished.”

We collaborated with local Elders and knowledge holders and Awakabal artist, Matthew Fellingham and Uncle James to understand and interpret in lighting design and an art installation the nature of the eel and its importance.

As well as helping me connect to the Parramatta area, the process of discovering, learning and understanding the story of the area gave me new ways of appreciating the story and history of my own country of origin. It brought up many aspects of my own culture that I had taken for granted growing up, so I saw them in a new light.

I also now always want to know whenever I go to a new place in Australia, who were the First Nations Peoples here? What is their story? What did this place mean? In so many places the role of First Nations Peoples in shaping the landscape and their deep belonging to it has been diminished.

Our work can be an opportunity to help bring back to the foreground respect for the importance of First Nations Peoples’ culture and stories and history. This also means that when people visit places where the placemaking has that at the forefront, they can be amazed and inspired by the deeper meaning and importance of a place and understand its significance.