UNCEDED: VOICES OF THE LAND
CANADA AT THE 16 th VENICE BIENNALE OF ARCHITECTURE
AN ENCOUNTER WITH DOUGLAS J. CARDINAL
“We see the earth as a Client. Architecture is the play of light, sun, shade, moon, air, wind, gravity in ways that reveal the mysteries of the world. All of these resources are free”, declared the curators of “Free Space”, the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.
“Unceded: Voices of the Land”, Canada’s official entry, presented by Douglas J. Cardinal, architect of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, curated by David Fortin, Director of the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University, Ontario, and Gerald McMaster, professor of Indigenous Visual Culture and Critical Curatorial Studies at OCAD University,Toronto, responds to Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara’s statement through the work of 18 Indigenous architects and designers, showcasing contemporary Native Architecture in Canada and the United States.
Divided into four thematic territories --Sovereignty, Resilience, Colonization, Indigeneity-- the exhibition addresses the fundamental values of Native people reflected in today’s architecture, shining the light on Indigenous architecture as a way of being, as underlined by Douglas Cardinal.
Born in 1934 in Calgary, Alberta, from Métis, Blackfoot, German and Algonquin heritage, Douglas Cardinal grew up in Red Deer, Alberta, where he studied at St. Joseph's Convent Residential School. In 1952, he attended the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia, and later the School of Architecture of the University of Austin, Texas, from which he graduated in 1963. Douglas Cardinal received an award from UNESCO, for best sustainable village, and was awarded “World Master of Contemporary Architecture” by the International Association of Architects. In 1990, he was made Officer of the Order of Canada, in 1999 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and in 2012, he received the Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Settled in Ottawa, he currently works on a sport complex, “Fortitude”, in Orleans, Ottawa. Douglas Cardinal‘s philosophy and ideal envision architecture as a collective adventure, including the clients in their projects, so that the buildings will intimately relate to the inherent nature of their communities.
Invited at the Biennale to present “Unceded: Voices of the Land”, the first ever Indigenous- led exhibition representing Canada, he shared his visions for the future of Indigenous architecture, and his hopes for a global environmental awareness.
What does the topic of “Free Space” evokes, for you, and how did you select the architects?
Free space is about the nature of our people, who always had a sense of freedom, and cared for the beauty of the land: we lived that way for thousand of years before being colonized. David Fortin had the idea to submit Indigenous architects to the Canada Council for the Arts in charge of the presentation at the Biennale. The architects asked me to be the presenter, and I accepted, if we had traditional Native Elders involved, to show the importance of our Indigenous culture to the world. It was a great experience: the people in Venice were very responsive to what we had to present. And of course, being in Venice, so beautiful, was very nice.
What made you decide to become an architect, and who were your influencers?
I was brought up in a convent, surrounded by arts, culture; my mother trained me in music and arts. So I understood the importance of art and architecture, and felt I wanted to become an architect, as I could see how architecture would influence people‘s thinking. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of my influences. And one of my professors introduced me to Rudolf Steiner, who had a great influence on my architecture, because of his spiritual vision, his concern to build with love and care for the people: he was an architect in his approach of education, how he responded to the rhythm and the growth of the children in a natural way, bringing their beauty and values into the world, instead of colonizing them to fit into a patriarchal system of power and control.
Would you say that is what happened to the Native children? How do control and power manifest?
Absolutely; it was all about being forced into a colonial way of thinking, of power and control. But the Indigenous people follow the matriarchal system, of loving, caring, cooperation. The church and state make decisions for the people from the cradle to the grave; and even after. But architecture is about fulfilling people’s dreams and visions, without allowing the system to interfere: it is about freedom. The freedom of choice, not being programed to fit into a patriarchal system. I include the community and the people into the plans of the building, so I can build around their needs. Nobody ever asks the teachers, or students, how to design a class room: but when you do that, you get a building that serves the people properly. The ones who use the building know what works for them: a school genitor knows the school he works in, so you have to consult him.
So when you built the Oneida casino and resort, did you meet with the community before starting the construction?
Definitely. I had them make all the decisions: they had enough people deciding for them in the past, and I do not want to perpetrate that colonial mentality. I make sure they make all the decisions themselves, as they know how to use the space, and what they want. I had the people in the community tell me what their needs were, and I asked them to criticize whatever I do, so I could make changes according to their wishes: I put full responsibility in their hands, as it is for them, so they are the ones who should decide. Architecture is just about serving people, to bring their visions and reality, and not assume that you know all, forcing your vision on people. It is hearing the people’s vision, and carry out their dreams. Architects are usually like the society they serve: it is about power and control. That is not what I do. I do not want to build pyramids for the system, but rather work for the people. It is another way of looking at the world: instead of using your intellect, you look at the world from your heart and feelings. I gave Presidents Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac a tour of the Ottawa Museum of History in Gatineau, and they liked it.
What is the specificity of Native architecture, which examples would there be?
The architecture built in stones, before the arrival of the Europeans: the Mayans, and the Incas in South America, were great builders, who related to their culture and people. Indigenous people always lived in harmony with their values, and built in harmony with their environment and community. There was a relationship between the structures the people lived in, and their culture: when you live in harmony and respect with your environment and the people around you, whatever you do reflects that. The Indigenous world vision is far more compatible with the planet then the Western view, mainly related to power and control, not harmony.
Do you see an evolution among young Native architects, and do Native companies favor Indigenous architects for their projects?
Yes; the young ones want to be able to bring back their values and culture, and it is very important. Native companies are sometimes forced by the Bureau of Indian affairs to work with architects they have not chosen, but they would rather hire Indigenous architects, who think like they do.
You designed a hospital based on Indigenous beliefs and values: do some spaces have a healing quality, or, reverse, can they be destructive, because they do not fit people’s needs?
Space can be healing, when it reflects caring and loving qualities. And it can be destructive; or just serve the ministry who requested it. We had to build a hospital: who knows about patients care? The nurses know how things should be, so they should be included, with the doctors: I had doctors and nurses designing a hospital, which ended up being different from what the Department of Health wanted to implement. And not only did I include the doctors, but the medicine men who heal the people in the hospital; I introduced Indigenous healers inside the facilities and the operating rooms, where we combined both approach – traditional and medical -. Traditionally, Native people built Sundance lodges, healing lodges for their spiritual ceremonies: certain spaces are healing.
Given the way Native communities have been treated, put on reservations, with poor housing, going through a destructive history of their people, their space, does Indigenous architecture represent a political act today?
The architectural factor, or its absence, was part of the apartheid and the genocide policy of the Canadian government. Architecture has always been important through the ages, and can be very constructive for creating social changes. So maybe will we able to transmit our values, to make changes in the world; so that people become more respectful of the environment.
VENICE BIENNALE UNTIL NOVEMBER 25