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A new approach to design

Learning at Laurentian infused with Indigenous values

With an interest in, and awareness of, Indigenous issues growing in Canada, the time is right to talk about how Indigenous values relate to architecture and design, says the incoming director of the McEwen School of Architecture.

David Fortin, who will take over as director of the Sudbury school on Jan. 1, 2018, said though it’s a fairly young conversation in this country, Canadians are ready to have it.

“We’re much more aware of our relationship with Indigenous communities in this country, and I think that’s growing right now, and the population is growing as well,” said Fortin, who identifies as Métis.

“I think many Canadians recognize that there’s been a neglect of the rich cultures that are there, and people are genuinely, in a good way, wanting to see more of that, make that more visible, and so architecture’s one way of doing that.”

It’s significant, he said, that there are currently just 16 registered Indigenous architects in all of Canada, even though Indigenous peoples make up 4.9 per cent of Canada’s population, leaving them grossly underrepresented in the industry.

Three of them – Fortin, Patrick Stewart and Eladia Smoke – are faculty members at the McEwen School of Architecture, and they additionally sit on the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada’s Indigenous Task Force, which was launched in 2016 with the aim of promoting Indigenous design in Canada.

Each Indigenous community is unique in its values, but a theme common to many is that objects, including buildings, are considered sacred and infused with meaning.

Sacredness of place, the way certain materials are used, ceremony, and the relationship to landscape are all important in traditional Indigenous building practices, Fortin noted.

Yet, when the Indian Act came into effect in 1876, the federal government took over construction of on-reserve buildings, most of which are generic boxes that have no special meaning to the people for which they’re built.

“If you just pop a building on there, it’s going to have no more value to the community than a Coke can,” Fortin said.

“That’s why the architecture’s failed.”

That long history of colonial rule over Indigenous peoples, which prevented them from observing their customs, speaking their language, or building with traditional methods, means that there is now a huge gap in history where Indigenous architecture “just didn’t happen,” he added.

Many communities are just now rediscovering and redefining what Indigenous design signifies – even to them.

But it’s not as easy as a firm just incorporating a few so-called “Indigenous” elements into a structure’s design, noted Stewart, a Nisga'a architect who owns a private practice in British Columbia and is noted as the first Indigenous president of an architectural association in Canada.

Design of Indigenous buildings requires a process that begins by establishing a respectful relationship with the community, observing traditional protocols, and, most importantly, listening to what they have to say.

“Every community would be different,” Stewart said. “There are differences in culture right across the country, and going into a community, you’re trying to establish a relationship with the community in finding out what it is that they hold important.”

Designers also need to be cognizant that some communities avoid certain colours or building materials because they hold negative reminders, such as residential school experiences.

Alternatively, they request some elements because they reflect the community’s values.

On one project, for example, Stewart incorporated a basketweave pattern into the building’s envelope at the community’s request, because basketry signifies protection.

Unlike previous generations of Indigenous architects, who were trained by non-Indigenous teachers, students at the McEwen School of Architecture are given context surrounding Indigenous design.

They’re learning about the traditions, language, and culture of Indigenous communities. And they’re involved in real-world applications for that knowledge. Upper-year students are currently doing the consultation work on a project in Batchewana First Nation for a 50,000-square-foot social hub that will serve all seven First Nations located along the north shore of Lake Superior.

The students will undertake the consultation, researching and understanding the community over their school semester, and preparing various conceptuals of the building. That groundwork will then be passed on to the firm selected to complete the build, so it isn’t starting from scratch.

It’s an aspect of the students’ education that Fortin said will help reframe the standard way of architectural thinking when it comes to working with Indigenous communities.

“It's not you as a ‘genius designer’ sketching ideas as much as it's you listening to someone and converting those ideas to the built form,” he said.

“So as it moves forward, the community can see themselves in that building and they feel like they are part of the process, and suddenly that takes on new meaning.”