In 2015, after almost a decade of work, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released 94 calls to action aimed at redressing the systemic disenfranchisement — past and present — of Indigenous communities across the nation. At that point, there were fewer than two dozen licensed Indigenous architects in Canada, a meagre statistic that was echoed in other countries. In the years since, however, a palpable change has taken root: the global ascension of practices and practitioners that embrace traditional knowledge and its potential to produce more equitable built environments is fundamentally reshaping our understanding of space, place and connection to the natural world.
Only blocks from where those TRC calls were published, for instance, the Winnipeg Art Gallery prepares to inaugurate a modern addition, Qaumajuq, dedicated solely to the work of Inuit artists. Among its many notable features is a sprawling exhibition, conceived in part by an emerging Inuk designer, that takes cues from the richness of life in the Far North. It’s just one of the many ways in which contemporary Indigenous architects and designers, spanning communities from Aotearoa to Sápmi, are integrating long-held values and traditions into a wide range of modern projects, demonstrating the continued relevance of ancestral knowledge to our present moment.
Within the newly designed Kinistinâw Park in downtown Edmonton, Alberta, Tiffany Shaw-Collinge’s family pattern is woven, like thread, along the underside of an angular crimson canopy. By marking the structure with the traditional northern Cree-Métis beading patterns her family has used for generations, the SCI-Arc-trained designer asserts Indigenous stewardship and ways of knowing, the motif serving as coded language to welcome Indigenous communities into a place that hasn’t always been accepting of their presence. “I just wanted [to create] a space for people to have rest and reprieve again,” she says, “to feel something greater than themselves.”
As an interdisciplinary designer (she’s an architect, an artist and a co-founder and core member of the Indigenous collective Ociciwan), Shaw-Collinge produces work that’s diverse yet holistic, each project informing the next in a shared engagement with the public realm. Take Indigenous geometries, a modular installation developed with artist Tanya Lukin Linklater for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial. The dome-like enclosure of laminated bent-wood bars — inspired by the architecture of Linklater’s Alutiiq community in southwestern Alaska emerged after months of rumination on a seemingly straightforward question with an elusive answer: What does Indigenous performance look like? Dancers eventually activated the design, dragging the wood segments into unrecognizable configurations to speak to the structural dismantling of Indigenous governance and the labour involved in restoring traditional knowledge.
A similar approach is evident in her most recent project, with Florence Yee and Arezu Salamzadeh, for the digital exhibition “Exchange Piece.” Highlighting the importance of tea and gifting in their respective cultures, it explores the “fortifying” of relationships “out of circumstance.”
Relationality is the grounding force in all of Shaw-Collinge’s work, where community, collaboration and care remain central to her exploration of space. “I’m much stronger because of the people around me,” she says. “I want to make a better place for them — and for myself — than what we’ve had before.”
From a five-part collection of thick wool sweaters emblazoned with structures inspired by vernacular dwellings called lavvu to a series of images cataloguing upcycled everyday objects, Sámi artist and modern architect Joar Nango’s work traces the very edges of design and its interrelations with circumpolar Indigenous communities. Currently based in northern Norway — part of his people’s traditional territory, known as Sápmi, which stretches across three Nordic countries and a portion of Russia — Nango draws on the long traditions of hacking and improvisation integral to such regions, “where resources are scarce and the climate [is] unpredictable, harsh and unmerciful,” he says.
Nango’s Skievvar, devised for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, is a case in point. Interpreting the traditional windows of nomadic, oceangoing Sámi groups into an “ancient-futurist” screen, the structure comprises dried and stretched halibut stomachs supported by a roughly hewn wooden scaffold and animated by digital projections. Nodding to a lineage of keen resourcefulness and material transformations, the window frames the unfolding dialogue between contemporary design and historic techniques at the core of Nango’s practice.
The peripatetic Sámi architectural library Girjegumpi, meanwhile, brings together various resources on Indigenous design collected by Nango over almost two decades within an ad hoc wooden structure inspired by gumpi, the nomadic self-made shelters used by reindeer herders. “The books and the library itself contain a lot of knowledge, of course,” says Nango of the now-digital catalogue, which ranges from colonial and ethnographic texts to contemporary theory. “But I’m very interested in creating some sort of social gathering space around these books.” In recent installations at the National Gallery of Canada and in Jokkmokk, Sweden, the site-specific reading room was activated with demonstrations of traditional skills such as hide tanning. These skins were later employed to cover some of the more than 200 publications on view, relaying the manifold ways in which Indigenous knowledge and teachings are circulated while continuing to centre the role of space in exercising Sámi agency. “For me, as an artist and an architect, I think that working with space is a powerful tool,” he says. “I think that space in itself is a language.”
A relationship to land based on kinship and reciprocity — the connection to what many Indigenous communities across Australia refer to as Country — characterizes Brisbane-based Kevin O’Brien’s approach to architecture. This often arises from “a curiosity and a desire to understand Country better,” he says. Belonging to the Meriam and Kaurareg peoples of the Torres Strait, O’Brien is one of only a small number of modern Indigenous architects practising in the nation today. His distinct perspective stems from a deep listening to Country combined with a sensitivity to people and place; the result is an aesthetic that isn’t easy to anticipate or classify.
Conceived as an Indigenous storytelling space, Blak Box is a temporary structure designed in 2018 for the New South Wales theatre company Urban Theatre Projects. Lit from within, the lightweight aluminum-framed box clad in translucent polycarbonate is a striking presence, especially against the sky at dusk. Inside, the softly illuminated oblong space has no floor, providing a continuous and unbroken connection to the ground beneath it. Typical of O’Brien’s work, Blak Box resists easy categorization, moving beyond totemism and simple artistic motifs toward a genuinely modern Indigenous architecture. “As architects,” he says, “we’ve still got to define and articulate space in a meaningful way. If that’s not calibrated as a setting for culture, then in my view it’s pointless.”
After running his own firm for more than a decade, O’Brien joined global studio BVN Architects as a principal in early 2018. Becoming part of a larger practice was not only an opportunity for greater influence, but also offered the possibility of integrating the land-based philosophy central to his own work within large-scale projects. The firm’s hybrid timber Atlassian Tower in Sydney is one example of an extensive commercial endeavour that has benefitted from these Indigenous perspectives, embodying a regenerative approach that seeks to improve environmental outcomes through design. “If you value Country, then you stop damaging her,” says O’Brien. More than that, he adds, “we start reversing the damage that has been done.”
“How can architecture be more culturally relevant for Inuit?” asks Winnipeg-based Nicole Luke, who has her professional sights set on Inuit Nunangat, the four Inuit regions in Canada’s Far North. Hailing from Igluligaarjuk, also known as Chesterfield Inlet, in Nunavut, Luke is primed to make history as the first Inuk graduate of a national architecture program when she receives a Master of Architecture from the University of Manitoba this spring. It’s a distinction she is preparing for with full awareness of its significance to her community across Canada.
Most recently, Luke has lent her skills to the Winnipeg Art Gallery as the exhibition designer behind “INUA,” the first major presentation at Qaumajuq (formerly known as the Inuit Art Centre). Creating graphic partitions inspired by Inuit culture, such as the shapes of traditional tattoos and the curves of clothing patterns, Luke worked closely with the all-Inuit curatorial team responsible for the exhibition to create a unique, immersive experience for visitors. Due to pandemic-related restrictions, much of the overall scheme was completed via Zoom calls and leveraged collaborative 3D modelling. Every detail — down to the display platforms that were made to appear like ice breakup — was conceived by Luke with the guidance of fellow Inuit art and design professionals. “The process was amazing,” she recalls, “and it helped me feel more assured of my overall path.”
Contending with the fraught history of the federal government’s relocation of Inuit to permanent settlements from the mid–20th century on, Luke approaches her work with the goal of aiding in the reshaping of northern communities designed for Inuit, by Inuit or in close collaboration with Inuit. It’s a perspective she’s exploring with her ongoing thesis project, which centres Inuit sovereignty and values in the design and construction of much-needed public amenities throughout Nunavut. “We forget sometimes that many of these communities are only 50 to 70 years old,” Luke says. “I want to know what the next 100 years of sustainable, culturally appropriate infrastructure looks like in the north.”
—Emily Laurent Henderson
Raised in a bicultural household in Rotorua, located in the Bay of Plenty region of the upper North Island of Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand), architect Nicholas Dalton (Ngāti Whakaue, Te Arawa, Ngāi Tūhoe, Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Pikiao, Pakehā) grew up surrounded by Indigenous Polynesian culture. However, “when I started practising in 2004,” he says, “there was no Māori design in the firm I was working for.” Dissatisfied with this lack of visibility within the field, Dalton founded his own studio, TOA Architects, in 2010. Today, he has a growing team under his direction and an impressive portfolio to match, although he stresses that the TOA kaupapa (initiative) is a collective one. “It’s not just my voice,” Dalton says. “It started as my vision, but I [now] have this tidal wave of support behind me.”
Ranging from the award-winning multi-unit Aria Apartments to Mahitahi Kāinga, a nearly complete social-housing project that champions Māori approaches to mental health support, TOA’s work is both socially oriented and culturally grounded, with a strong desire to make a difference for the community. “Architecture is not about bricks and mortar,” Dalton says. “It’s about the process and what outcomes can be created from really mindful design.” Maungārongo, a lauded recent residence in the coastal city of Tauranga, is reflective of this philosophy. From the echoes of Mauao (Mount Maunganui) in the building’s form to the facade’s timber battens referencing the palisades of the historic fortified village Ōtūmoetai Pā, the structure incorporates a wealth of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), giving expression to traditional concepts and narratives through contemporary architecture. “The house is born from the pūrākau [ancestral stories] of that whenua [land],” Dalton explains.
He also emphasizes the importance of working collaboratively with other Māori practitioners while uplifting the culture and its visibility through design. “There’s a sense of urgency to what we do in the next five to 10 years in terms of supporting the nation to become more Māori,” he says. “I think that, with the built environment, we have the opportunity to create spaces where te reo [language] and tikanga [customs] are celebrated and lived.”
From Aotearoa to Turtle Island and Inuit Nunangat to Sápmi, these designers are embracing traditional knowledge to broach the challenges of our times.