These architects bring Indigenous values ​​to galleries and campus buildings across Canada – 71Bait

What role does indigenous architecture play in the reconciliation process?

Recent work by two Ontario design firms demonstrates that it is not just about indigenousizing spaces, but designing places where everyone can benefit from Indigenous values ​​and principles by incorporating them into spaces across Canada.

One of these companies is Two Row Architect.

Brian Porter is the company’s principal architect based in Six Nations of the Grand River. Founded in 1992, Two Row Architect celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

“We’re not necessarily interested in indigenous representation, we’re more interested in incorporating indigenous values… We’re trying to incorporate them into the design,” says Porter.

“This means that things like the directions of the prevailing wind have a physical impact on the layout of the building. The direction it is pointing. Its connection to the ground. His connection to heaven. We are thinking about sustainable mechanical systems and electrical systems and reducing our carbon footprint.”

Brian Porter is the lead architect at Two Row Architect based in Six Nations of the Grand River. (Submitted by Brian Porter)

Porter says that architecture that was part of the indigenous tradition “is still the finest work ever designed”.

He asks how that can affect your work today: “How can we take some of these ideas and integrate them in a meaningful and honest way?”

The company is aptly named for the double-tiered wampum belt, which represents a centuries-old agreement between settlers and indigenous peoples.

Porter’s designs draw inspiration from traditional indigenous spaces, often defying the industrial, masculine, orthogonal conventional principles of architecture.

The company’s initial focus was working for Indigenous clients on Reserve. Porter says he’s had the privilege of working with 50 or 60 indigenous communities in Ontario. You’ve recently been invited to even more projects.

In April, the Art Gallery of Ontario announced Two Row Architect, along with two other firms, would oversee the design of a gross 50,000 square foot extension.

In September, the company will also begin construction of the University of Victoria Law School. This coincides with the university’s newly offered joint degree in Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Laws – the first of its kind in the world.

Their design gives the structure a contrasting feminine and contemporary aesthetic. One that embraces the surrounding landscape with fluid lines and glass, adapting the current space to one that is more culturally appropriate.

“We work closely with mainstream companies,” says Porter. “They bring their values ​​and we try to bring indigenous values ​​to the table. There is a realization that we share the same resources, walk the same path and we try to work towards sustainability and responsibility.”

bring women’s voices into play

Another firm leading the way in incorporating Indigenous traditions into building design is Smoke Architecture, an all-female, award-winning group in Hamilton.

Indigenous voices have long been alienated from the way Canada was built and organized, even within their own communities, says Eladia Smoke, the office’s principal architect.

Your company wants to reconcile that.

“Our focus has been to provide Indigenous people, and especially Indigenous women, a place where they can have a real voice in shaping our built environment. Canada’s built environment is largely a colonial institution, and the indigenous presence has truly been sublimated in the vast majority of the environments we have created for ourselves on this continent,” she said.

A group of seven women sit around a restaurant table.
Smoke Architecture is an all-female, award-winning firm based in Hamilton. Left to right: Julie Bedard; Marie Kiele; Chelsea Jacobs; Stone of Freedom; Jennifer Kinnunen; Larissa Roque; and Eladia Rauch. (Submitted by Eladia Smoke)

“We see the impact of coming on the built environment from an extractive perspective. I think it’s high time we started thinking about how humans can once again become part of this symbiotic relationship between life systems and the built environment that can reflect and embody.”

Eladia Smoke grew up in Obishikokaang Lac Seul First Nation near Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario.

For her, design is a process of storytelling between the architect and those who will inhabit the space, whom she considers the experts of that space. The dialogue creates a narrative that is then embodied in the architecture.

I think it’s time to start thinking about how humans can be part of this symbiotic relationship of life systems again.– Architect Eladia Smoke

Speaking on Zoom, Smoke spoke of one such example — a 150,000 gross square feet extension of the A Block building at Scarborough’s Centennial College, due for completion later this year.

She described the designer narrative as “seed, growth, climax and balance”.

“Where the main entrance of the building faces east, associated with sunrise and new beginnings. We rise with the natural topography of the land through this beautiful corridor that represents both Anishinabek and Haudenosaunee creation stories,” she said.

The group works with two indigenous artists. The Haudenosaunee creation story is presented from west to east and the Anishinaabe from east to west, representing the two different directions in which each nation conducts its ceremonies.

Each creation story is depicted on vertical plaques that reflect the flowing creek behind campus and highlight the forgotten waterway.

Visible through the main corridor is the juxtaposition of the creation stories on vertical panels and the creek. Learning spaces create informal gathering places for students inside and mirrored outside, lined with wood, glass and indigenous gardens.

An illustration shows the design of a roundhouse.  People sit on chairs arranged in a circle around the room.
The Centennial College Extension includes a room built after Anishinaabe’s roundhouse. (Illustration submitted by Eladia Smoke)

The heart of the room is modeled after the Anishinaabe’s roundhouse, which opens onto an inner courtyard.

This leads to an administrative suite modeled after grandma’s kitchen, a space for parties and gatherings. As you exit the building, basalt columns are chiseled and positioned to mimic a wampum belt.

What is unique about this space is that it was not commissioned by any indigenous organization, nor is it only designed for indigenous peoples. Rather, it will be a central location for everyone to gather, Smoke says.

Indigenous spaces tend to be less prescriptive and more flexible than typical work environments, she added. In addition, multifunctional spaces traditionally allow for ceremonies and other social gatherings. The pandemic has highlighted the need for multipurpose spaces.

Indigenous construction is also praised for its integration with the surrounding landscape and work with the climate in mind. Smoke Architecture is no different.

His net zero designs not only include building envelopes that work with the environment, but also use carbon sequestering materials such as solid wood structures, thermal glass rooms, photovoltaics and rainwater harvesting.

Architecture as an instrument of reconciliation

A more recent double-breasted design provides another example.

Last year, Toronto Metropolitan University (then Ryerson University) commissioned Two Row Architects to design a memorial dedicated to the Dish with One Spoon territory, where the downtown Toronto campus is located.

Porter wanted something effective and meaningful. A large-scale public artwork known as the ring installation was erected.

The sculpture was developed by the University’s Truth and Reconciliation Strategic Working Group in collaboration with members of the University’s Indigenous community and Two Row Architects.

A large monument in the shape of a ring stands on the Toronto Metropolitan University campus.  It is as tall as a small tree and features tiny perforations depicting animal symbols.
Last year, Toronto Metropolitan University commissioned Two Row Architects to design a memorial dedicated to the Dish with One Spoon territory. The result is known as a ring. (Submitted by Brian Porter)

The tiny perforations in the ring represent the seven teachings of the grandfather and their animal symbols: humility, courage, honesty, wisdom, truth, respect and love. Surrounded by the Pleiades constellation, the pictograms also show the lunar phases of the moon.

The ring is deliberately positioned with its opening facing east, representing creation and new beginnings; and vests representing knowledge and wisdom. The exterior of the steel sculpture has been left untreated to withstand the elements over time.

The use of a ring – a piece of jewelry that requires care – is not accidental. It resembles the silver covenant chain used to represent the ongoing relationship between the Haudenosaunee and Europeans.

The silver chain affirms that the relationship should be “pure, strong and unblemished” but also signifies the need to polish and nurture those relationships over time – something Porter and Smoke’s designs also do in their own way .

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