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Indigenous spaces: Listen, Learn, Repeat

Designers discuss added responsibilities and benefits involved in creating Indigenous spaces.

Let us find a way to belong to this time and place together. Our future, and the well-being of all our children, rests with the kind of relationships we build today.

–Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, Reconciliation Canada

Dr. Joseph is addressing the broader concerns of truth and reconciliation in our country, but his words could apply to all endeavours directly affecting Canada’s indigenous communities. For designers pitching or working on native-focused projects, the bar is set high. We asked three designers of recently completed projects for their perspectives.

Andrew Frontini, principal and design director at Perkins and Will’s Toronto office, says his experience with indigenous design stretches back nearly 20 years. Still, he was “surprised and impressed by the level of engagement and the diversity of voices that came forward in the sessions with the Indigenous College Council” during the pre-plan stages for Seneca College’s new 274,000-sq.-ft., five-storey Centre for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship. Located on Newnham Campus, itself part of the Mississaugas of the Credit’s traditional territory, CITE represents a portion of Seneca College’s 2015 Indigenous Education Protocol commitment, developed in response to a call for action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A new face for Seneca’s Newnham Campus on Finch Avenue, the 274,000 sq. ft. CITE building houses state-of-the art engineering and robotics labs and an entrepreneurial incubator for students and industry leaders.

“At first, we were concerned that we couldn’t occupy the space in an authentic way,” Frontini continues. But, “we had a very open dialogue with varied perspectives, from elders to first-year students. Most interesting was their perspective regarding design – what ‘it’ looked like was secondary to what message the design communicated and how it supported use and community. Indigenous people were talking to non-Indigenous designers and teaching us how to tell their story with our skill set.”

In CITE’s case, the result is an odd but successful blend of native history and tradition combined with cutting-edge technology. A futurist’s vision of sustainable innovation weaves its way through the building’s indigenous structural and graphic symbolism (the latter courtesy of Bruce Mau Design). These “overlapping Indigenous and technological stories initially might speak to different audiences,” says Frontini, “but over time our hope is that they merge together as one.”

A mixed stream of indigenous worldviews and modern design flows across the building’s exterior as well. One entrance features a two-storey-tall rendition of the signature page and map from the 1787 Toronto Purchase land deal between the Mississaugas of the Credit and the British Crown. The opposite entrance shows a map of the universe, a metaphorical signal for the progression of technology since the signing of the treaty. Running between the two on the front façade are 13 columns, representing the 13 moons of the lunar cycle with the corresponding moon names written in Anishnaabe. Sharing space with bright galvanized steel and glass is a matte brown long-house box clad in punctuated terracotta panels, meant to evoke Anishinaabe birchbark memory chests.

The melding of many into a shared experience moving ahead is, to Frontini, the ruling  principle for this building and others. “Let’s work towards a common future that is guided by a diversity of voices. Let’s stop organizing people and ideas into boxes that don’t overlap. Let’s use design to embrace the complexity of our age and suggest a path forward.”

Farshid Rafiei, principal of Vancouver’s Unison Architecture, also has had broad dealings with native-based design, given that the majority of his firm’s work is on indigenous-focused public space projects. Its latest completed commission is the 18,800-sq.-ft. Ts’kw’aylaxw Cultural and Community Health Centre, located along the Fraser Canyon in B.C.’s south central interior.

The front face of the building is a tall timbered colonnade with a generous overhang that provides sun protection to the upper level.

Dedicated to holistic health care, the Centre was designed to act as a “wellness anchor for the community while maintaining spiritual and cultural values in the form of a service hub model.” It anchors the village’s physical centre as well. Its locale was selected for proximity to existing daycare and administration buildings; an adjacent six-unit Elders Housing Complex is also planned.

The site’s steep topography led to a layered approach in the design, one that would maximize energy efficiency. The first-floor community recreation hall sits half underground, for added insulation. A central atrium draws in sunlight and allows for natural ventilation. It also serves to visually draw visitors up to the second-floor fitness room and the third-floor health and social services space. Here, the Elders Lounge, a gathering spot encircled by aspen poles, facilitates group discussions.

Inside and out, from small millwork to its tall-timbered façade, the building relies heavily on the calming energy of wood. It also employs the latest in sustainable construction: insulated pre-fabricated wood panels and triple-glazed wood-framed windows; large structural members made from carbon-sequestering and fire-resistant heavy timber; and high-efficiency HVAC systems. The Ts’kw’aylax, like many First Nations and others, believe a natural life should exist hand-in-hand with environmental sensitivity.

Because Canada’s First Nations are really an amalgamation of distinct cultures with their own priorities and histories, Rafiei points out that “every project is a new adventure for us due to the client’s programmatic and cultural requirements.” His advice to “outsider” designers thinking about pitching an indigenous project is very basic: “I would say respect and listening should be the core of working with indigenous clients. Learning and understanding the culture before pulling the gun and starting to design is the most important factor. It’s easy for us to start responding to site and orientation and programmatic challenges of a facility, but what make it unique and challenging is the response to cultural requirements.”

On a more mundane note, Rafiei mentions other challenges often faced in First Nation communities that are not present in urban settings. “Simple things such as potable water, hydro capacity and sewage systems” should be taken into account by design professionals.

Echoing his colleagues’ words, Lubor Trubka of Vancouver’s Lubor Trubka Associates Architects, says community involvement is key to successful indigenous design. He advises conducting “a thorough study of the client’s cultural heritage to incorporate their values and identity into the design.” In his 40-plus years’ experience in such projects, Trubka finds design charrettes enormously helpful.

“Some of the community charrettes in the past involved up to 160 community members, engaging all ages from children to elders. Based on our experience, the more community involvement the more successful and appreciated the facility becomes for all of the community members.”

Trubka’s latest project, the 31,000-sq.-ft. Tsleil-Waututh Administration and Health Centre, draws heavily on the ‘’People of the Inlet’s’’ culture, which is closely related to the surrounding cedar forests and the sea. Indigenous plant species dot the temperature-regulating green roof; cedar log columns and beams support the roof’s wavy form, whose serpentine shape repeats in the interior’s ceiling, most spectacularly in the central, multi-purpose Gathering Space that doubles as a community centre and council chamber for local government.

The building is sited on a wooded lot beside a creek running out to the Pacific Ocean. Generous glazing allows 360-degree window views of forest and water that are so integral to the Tsleil-Waututh people. Such extensive fenestration does come at a cost, however. The challenge for Trubka’s team was concealing all necessary technical infrastructure, from HVAC to electrical distribution to a security network, behind precisely cut panels manufactured off-site. The final result seems worth it: visitors can revel in the Centre’s literally soaring aspirations without being sidetracked by its more prosaic features.

For Trubka, indigenous-based projects offer an added benefit to Canada’s designers:
“These projects hold special appeal, as we enjoy working with the community and learning about their past, present lives and aspirations for the future. The feeling that, in some small way, we can play a part in that future makes all the difference.”

 “Everyone is watching this work here in Canada. If we succeed in transforming our relationships and society, the world will be watching us and will emulate us. If we can do that we might have a chance to save this divine place.”

–Chief Dr. Robert Joseph

Photography by:

  • Seneca CITE: Doublespace
  • Ts’kw’aylaxw: Ema Peter Photography
  • Tsleil-Waututh: Ema Peter Photography
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