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Wood brings sense of comfort and familiarity to indigenous structures

Peter Caulfield
Wood brings sense of comfort and familiarity to indigenous structures

Whether it’s the longhouse, the teepee, the wigwam or some other structure, indigenous architecture has usually included wood, says a Saskatchewan architect who is a member of Muscowpetung First Nation.

"Indigenous architecture emphasizes both the variety and the volume of wood products that it uses," said Ray Gosselin, a Regina architect and president of the Saskatchewan Association of Architects.

The wood used in indigenous architecture is valued as a product of the earth and for its ability to retain or resonate with an ancestral spirit.

"In addition, the type of wood that is used should come from the immediate region," Gosselin said. "For example, my ancestors’ nomadic way of life required wood for teepee poles which was locally grown and which was easy to transport."

At the same time, indigenous cultures traded with other regions, so they knew about types of wood from outside their own area.

Gosselin’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, indigenous architecture in Canada is still in its infancy.

To move it along, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada recently set up an Indigenous Task Force to foster and promote indigenous design in Canada.

In the United States the field is older and more advanced. For example, there is an American Indian Council of Architects and Engineers based in Washington, D.C.

There are an estimated 20 to 30 indigenous architects practicing in Canada.

In British Columbia, Alfred Waugh is owner and principal of FormLine Architecture in Vancouver.

"To generalize, the indigenous approach to architecture is based on a synthesis of cultural sensitivity and environmental responsibility," said Waugh. "In addition, First Nations are very adaptive and pragmatic. You can see that in their use of wood to design and construct buildings."

Patrick Stewart, principal, Patrick Stewart Architect in Chilliwack, B.C., said his work for his First Nation clients is based on what he calls "community and lived experience."

"My First Nations clients feel safer and better understood by a First Nations architect like myself," Stewart said.

The process he uses for working with his indigenous clients is very inclusive.

"My clients want everybody in the community to have input into a project," Stewart said. "So I listen to them all, because it’s their building, not mine."

Although most of the projects Stewart has designed use a lot of wood, he doesn’t begin with the project’s materials.

"We start with what kind of space the client wants and how he wants it to feel," he said. "More often than not we will use wood in the project, where it makes the most sense, but we start with the space, not the material."

Stewart designed the Aboriginal Children’s Village on the east side of Vancouver for the Lu’ma Native Housing Society.

"It’s for aboriginal foster children," he said. "It’s made up of large apartments and townhouses that are big enough to accommodate families, so foster children can grow up in a stable environment."

Stewart also designed the Aboriginal Patients Lodge, where patients and their families who come to Vancouver for hospital treatment can stay.

Like the Aboriginal Children’s Village, the lodge features accommodations that are large enough to accommodate entire families.

Brian Porter, a principal at Two Row Architect, at Grand River Six Nations, near Hamilton, Ont. said his designs are based on indigenous history and culture using contemporary architectural principles.

Porter said most of his clients like wood in their buildings.

"Wood brings a feeling of familiarity and comfort, because it’s close to nature," he said.

In addition to Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar, Porter has often specified torrefied wood, which has been heat-treated to produce a dry product.

"It changes the chemical composition of the wood so that it doesn’t wick up moisture," Porter said. "It uses fast-growing, inexpensive species, such as birch and poplar that are native to Ontario."

At Laurentian University’s McEwen School of Architecture in Sudbury, Ont. the principles of indigenous architecture are part and parcel of the curriculum.

"In first year, one of the things we teach is indigenous creation stories," said David Fortin, assistant professor of architecture. "In a subsequent year, we teach the history of the birch bark canoe in eastern Canadian trade routes."

Under the watchful eyes of Metis elders, students construct with their own hands one of the iconic wooden canoes.

"Every component of the canoe — bark, tree roots, mud, tree sap — comes from the earth and can be returned to the earth," Porter said.

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