Smart Design: Architect Allan Teramura on the importance of Indigenous solutions

Magazines often portray architecture as a luxury commodity or an arrival statement, not unlike a Louis Vuitton bag or a BMW. And yet architecture, practised responsibly, is much more than creating beautiful spaces and surfaces; at its core, architectural practice is about listening and understanding.

As architects, we need to understand a client’s values and aspirations in order to create a useful and meaningful place, whether it’s a house, a hospital, or a large-scale urban design plan. Sometimes success results in a project suitable for publication in a magazine, but more often it means a building that simply improves the quality of life for its inhabitants in some way. For some, this is a house that consumes minimal amounts of non-renewable energy; for others, it’s a building that increases the productivity of a business.

In my tenure as a director and, later, president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC), I’ve enjoyed many opportunities to experience successful projects and to talk to their architects. More transformative for me personally, however, was the experience of visiting a place where design was a complete failure. I am referring to a trip I made to an isolated fly-in First Nation reserve in northern Ontario.

While the people were warm and welcoming, the environment was chilling. The dominant material was gravel, which generated clouds of dust with each passing vehicle. There were no recreational or ceremonial spaces or any possibility of gathering a group of people for any purpose. The brutality of the elementary school would make most Canadian parents weep at the thought of leaving their child there. There was no functional fire protection service.

This photo, taken by the author, shows the elementary school buildings on the First Nation community in northern Ontario.

Being an architect and therefore familiar with the norms and minimum building standards that apply in Canada, I was appalled.

This trip made me realize that most Canadians take for granted that their environment will reflect their cultural identity back to them in some way. We are free to choose the type of home we would like to live in and to decide what community amenities are important to us. Not only this, but our ability to exert some control over the shaping of this environment is something we naturally assume is our birthright. Consider as proof the outrage and pushback that inevitably follow the announcement of any new development in a mature neighbourhood in Ottawa.

Too often, life on a Canadian reserve means the opposite. The layout of the community is simply a grid of identical box-like dwellings dropped arbitrarily into the landscape, with no regard for how the inhabitants would like to organize themselves. There is no sense of Indigenous identity and not much relationship to the natural surroundings. The latter is particularly troubling, as many Indigenous people strongly identify with traditional ways of relating to the land around them.

It would probably be attributing too much cunning and foresight to the technocrats who created these places to claim that they were intentionally designed to eradicate a culture. And yet that is what they appear to be attempting to do. More than simply an aesthetic deficit, the effect of these places appears to be an expression of institutional contempt. The indifference to Indigenous identity and the failure to acknowledge the existence of a culture have the combined effect of creating an anonymous and inhuman environment that anyone would experience as harsh and punitive. As well, in too many such places, fundamentals such as safe drinking water are missing, as if to drive home the point.

We should be troubled by the fact that these places don’t just happen; they were created by highly paid, highly educated professionals.

The International Symposium on Indigenous Design, which was held last year at the Wabano Centre, saw presentations from a diverse array of delegates. Photo by Abby Klages for the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada.

Fortunately for Canada, this project of eradication has not been completely successful. Increasingly, Indigenous youth are seeing architecture and design as a possible career, and this combination of professional expertise and access to Indigenous culture will be a powerful one. Indigenous Canadian design culture already exists and will, I believe, help find solutions to challenging situations like the one I experienced.

Last year, the RAIC hosted the International Symposium on Indigenous Design, which attracted delegates from New Zealand, Australia, Norway, and the United States, as well as from across Canada. The ideas presented were as diverse as the cultures they represented — all were a celebration of indigeneity. The delegates drew inspiration from one another, energized by the notion of an emerging international movement.

To me, it’s clear that Canada’s future includes an invigorated Indigenous culture, and architecture will be an important expression of this. By restoring agency to Indigenous Canadians, a multiplicity of authentic, regional design cultures will emerge, each interpreting thousands of years of traditional, local knowledge. The movement will transform both remote communities and urban centres, with the result that Indigenous Canadians will, finally, see their identity reflected back to them — and to us all.