Architectures of Renewal

By Dr. Daniel Millette & Amrit Phull, Editor

Amrit Phull sat down with Dr. Daniel Millette, the Director of Strategic Planning and Communications with the First Nation Lands Management Resource Centre, to speak about the vernacular of indigenous lands.

Q: Please tell us about your forthcoming publication, “Architectures of Renewal: The Indigenous Architectural Landscape of Canada.”

It’s been a very long journey—almost twenty years.  The book is not a history book; it is a record of examples of environmental design on indigenous lands, with enough historical background to reach a better understanding of where design precedents originate and where there might be opportunity for further research exploration. The indigenous landscape speaks for itself; one simply has to re-learn to examine this landscape all-the-while making best efforts to remove the colonial lens. The latter is not a simple process and for this reason, I include discussion of several related topics in Heritage, Memory, Tradition, History, and so on. I have chosen to use four lenses through which I approach the research, and while I do not specifically refer to them as “lenses” in the text, each corresponds to the research fields that I discuss. The first lens looks at indigenous planning and architecture through the observations of explorers, traders, missionaries, explorer-artists and others such as photographers, archaeologists and ethnographers who recorded and continue to record their interpretations of the cultural and built landscape. The second lens looks at “traditional” settlement and building design as re-constructed by communities, institutions, or others, using Elder knowledge and passed-down building techniques, often combined with archaeological data and historical-ethnographic research. The third lens focusses on the dynamic set of planning and architectural projects within indigenous communities that address specific community needs, including schools, health centres, community centres, study centres, and so on. And the fourth lens considers what might best be referred to as “affirmations” by indigenous people in presenting their cultures to outsiders, including cultural centres and other sites of re-presentations. I refer to what I see through these lenses as research fields, suggesting further research throughout the book. The book is consequently intended as a launch pad for future researchers. Finally, while I focus on examples sited within indigenous communities, there are several exceptions which I include—projects designed outside the boundaries of the same communities yet within their traditional territories.

Q: How is vernacular architecture defined with respect to land-use planning? How does this change within the context of First Nations land-use planning?

When the Europeans arrived, indigenous communities already owned and governed the lands that are now Canada and already had well-established processes for environmental design. The latter was approached from one perspective, be it architecture, land use planning or settlement planning, and the same community-led processes were involved. These processes were dynamic and “lived” within the community; to some extent, I would suggest that they are presently resurging. To me, the successful examples of vernacular architecture (be it designed by pedigreed or non-pedigreed architects) and settlement plans (be it land use plans or land-based community plans) that we find within indigenous communities today emerge out of the same processes. The multi-purpose building built on Matsqui First Nation lands is a good example of the latter, designed with input from community Elders.

I define “indigenous vernacular architecture and planning” in my book as "... diverse and dynamic... comprised of culture-specific land use planning and purpose-built buildings commissioned by communities; conceived with traditional elements in mind; insisting on community involvement within the design process, regardless of who holds the design pen (architect, planner or non-pedigreed architect or planner); aiming at involving community members within construction; considers program combinations that extend beyond conventional praxis; containing a high element of community pride; and incorporating within its design a host of environmental considerations."

Q: What kinds of processes, formal or informal, are in place to define, preserve, and update vernacular architecture within Indigenous communities?

The processes are for the most part informal and vary from community to community. Priorities are assessed from within, generally determined by community Elders and other knowledgeable community members. Clearly “indigenous vernacular architecture” is not static; it is not meant to remain “as it was;” it is dynamic and adapted to use, need, spirituality, time, geography and a host of other conditions.

Q: What is the value of the vernacular beyond commemorating history?

Vernacular architecture is not necessarily intended to commemorate history.  It is “lived” and as such, evolves in time, varies by community (and within communities), and takes into account immediate context, be it in terms of intended use, cultural meaning, spiritual significance, available materials, immediate skills, artistic intent, and so on. The value of studying “indigenous vernacular architecture” lies within several areas that include, among others, cultural context, historical understanding, and broader lessons that can be learned in terms of environmental adaptation related to several design fields such as “regenerative design.”

Q: You have an extensive collection of photographs from numerous Indigenous communities, soon to be published in your forthcoming book. In what ways do the diverse identities of the communities you have visited become apparent in the photographs?

I have a collection of approximately 10,000 photographs depicting the buildings that I have come across in my travels to over 250 indigenous communities over 20 years.  Some of these are included in my book; others are for another project that I am pondering; and yet others are culturally sensitive and will remain private. To me, even when within close geographical proximity, the varying cultures are manifested differently. This can be seen through traditional practice, art, language, and so many other cultural facets, including architecture. I happen to have focused on built form as well as community plans and have over many years noticed familiar cultural themes, yet manifested differently. The sea serpent legend in Coast Salish communities, for example, is still represented in different buildings, yet always a bit differently.

Q: Urbanization and globalization seem to be forces that are in conflict with the vernacular, the local and handmade.  How do we reconcile urban development and vernacular architecture?  Are there local codes that address this?

I am not sure that urban development necessarily needs to be reconciled with vernacular architecture. The question seems to imply that on the one hand, vernacular architecture does not follow local codes, while on the other, that vernacular architecture designed by non-pedigreed architects requires some sort of reconciliation with codes.  I have been to many longhouses, for example, that include fire suppression systems, are completely accessible, and follow local codes quite closely; the longhouse designed by Squiala First Nation Chief David Jimmie with significant input from community Elders and other knowledgeable Coast Salish members at the Squiala First Nation near what is now known as Chilliwack, British Columbia is a great example.

Q: Architects are often drawn to the vernacular, which we define as "architecture without architects," because there seems to be a certain vibrancy and cultural relevance in the vernacular that is often missing in developments created through top-down planning.  How do we (as professionals, or as a community) maintain these qualities?  What can architects and planners learn from the vernacular?

I believe that your answer is contained within your question.  That is to say that what is missing from the work of many architects and planners is the notion of true “community-led-design.” Successful “indigenous vernacular architecture” always has a high level of the latter and the community always leads. This means that architects and planners need to learn to truly listen to their indigenous clients.  I say this with a great deal of respect for the two professions – we learn all about community engagement in school and we learn about community consultation through formal processes, but to truly listen to a community is to do one’s best to understand the immediate cultural realities, the underpinnings of historical legacies, and the deep desire for better futures. To me, the design for a community health center by Richard Kroeker with the guidance of community Elders at the Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia is an example of the latter.

Q: North American buildings reflecting a colonial vernacular era are often strictly protected under heritage and planning codes. However, these buildings (Hudson’s Bay Company posts, health clinics, or schools, for example) can be sited in remote indigenous communities and be host to negative, collective memories. I’m interested to know if you have encountered different ways in which indigenous communities confront this, either through the adaptation of re-use of such buildings, or through their removal?

I do agree that many (most) of the colonial era buildings carry within them fairly negative memorial significance. From the onset of my research, I chose, quite deliberately, to exclude architectural types and planning schemes that to me were loaded with reminders of the effects of the highly oppressive regimes installed within communities—thus I do not include residential schools and churches, among other types, within my work. This is not to negate the importance and significance of the resulting cultural catastrophes; I am reminded almost daily of the lasting and destructive effects on individuals, families and entire communities. That said, I leave the negative memorial cues out of my work.  My agenda, if I have one, is to project another story:  One of community optimism, cultural pride and individual persistence in the face of incredible challenges. To answer the second part of your question, two communities come to mind: The Kamloops Indian Band, having transformed the area residential school into a cultural centre, and the Namgis First Nation, recently choosing to demolish the residential school within its lands. The choice differs by community.

Q: Which leads to the next question: when is, or rather, when should a building be defined as “heritage”? Should all heritage buildings that exemplify historic or vernacular building practices be protected, regardless of their symbolic nature in the memories of a community?

Not a simple question. The definition of heritage has changed over time and carries various meanings in different communities. It is much like history in the sense that it references specific events and people, generally at a specific moment in time, often using mnemonics (such as architectural examples) to register the same events or people within the collective memory. The problem with it is that at the same time, the mnemonic may activate offensive memories for other groups. Thus a residential school might have meaning to a group of people holding the “heritage registry pen,” but it may be considerably hurtful and offensive to a group of people having held the “classroom pen” within the same building. Registering buildings within official lists thus poses considerable problems for groups struggling to not memorialize the events around the same building. To me, the selection of buildings to be protected, be it through official registries or community practice, should be up to the community within which the building is sited, and here, I do not necessarily mean geographic location; I mean cultural location.

Dr. Daniel Millette has worked on indigenous land matters for over twenty years.  He is Director of Strategic Planning and Communications with the First Nation Lands Management Resource Centre. As a Planner, he specializes in land use planning, land strategizing, and land use - economic development interfacing. As Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University, he teaches history and theory of indigenous architecture and planning; as Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia, he has taught Theory and Environmental Design History. An Archaeologist, he also maintains a research program on ancient planning techniques and their relevance within contemporary planning models.