Architecture of Accretion

Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, is located at the north end of Great Slave Lake in Canada’s sub-arctic. This government town–which some call “the world’s smallest city”–had its humble beginnings as a tent town on the shores of Back Bay when gold was discovered in the mid-1930s. In the cauldron of its creation, a potent seed was planted which has germinated to form an identifiable place, Yellowknife’s Old Town.

Yellowknife is seen by most as a dot on the map surrounded by green arboreal forest and muskeg, blue nameless lakes, and white ice reaching north to the Pole. In this region, with a population that could easily fit into a large sports stadium, few roads are found. Indeed, for the first 30 years of Yellowknife’s existence, the only way for materials and supplies to be brought in was by dog team, barge or plane. Even with the road built in the mid-1960s to connect Yellowknife to the South, materials and equipment still need to be moved before freeze-up if the route is by water, or after freeze-up if the route is by land and ice. The journey 1,000 miles from Edmonton, which crosses a two-mile wide stretch of the Mackenzie River, usually involves a great deal of hardship and expense. For a construction project, significant logistical effort is required to ensure that the materials, machinery and labour arrive at the appropriate time. Due to the enormity of this task, materials constitute a most precious commodity. The arctic climate has fostered ingenuity and resourcefulness in the local inhabitants, who utilize imported resources to maximum advantage. The process results in imaginative and intriguing buildings.

Like an oyster that uses sediment to slowly grow a pearl, early buildings in Yellowknife incorporated any and all materials available in the creation of shelter and ornamentation. The results were gems. As the sediment of southern colonization settled in the form of packing crates, abandoned machinery, old diamond drills, aircraft motors, traps and jacks, early Yellowknifers, operating in a resource-starved environment, embroidered these precious materials into the fabric of their dwellings. Early housing was built from material scavenged from the mines and the dump one board at a time. In more than one instance, 2 x 4s no more than four feet long were used to frame a dwelling. These houses were modest in size but took years to complete; the builders had plenty of time to think about where to put that next precious board. Like Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaist “ready-mades,” these buildings exhibit a playfulness and spontaneity by shifting the context of the objects that adorn them from the utilitarian to the aesthetic realm. A kind of dissonant jazz is created by this unorthodox use of everyday items, lending a unique charm to these simple buildings.

Much has changed in the North since the 1930s, but the Old Town aesthetic is still alive. Although materials and labour are more readily available today, there are a few individuals who strive to keep the playful spontaneity and inventiveness that was forged in the buildings of the ’30s alive in a Wal-Mart world. The residence of architect Don Jossa in Willow Flats uses bold colored elements in which the fence, the gate, the balcony railing and the red accent wall are broken out from the muted main mass of the building to generate variety and interest. This approach was perhaps foreshadowed by the Shack on Franklin in which the use of white blends in with the ubiquitous snow to bring attention to the coloured ornamental elements. The Shack at the Foot of the Rock incorporated colours inspired by the sub-arctic sunrise and sky for the siding and the exterior roof beam. The irregular massing of this building has as its antecedent shacks in which the scarcity of readily available material was a factor.

The place-making challenges that Yellowknife faces today are the same as any community. In a globalized consumer-oriented world where materials and transportation are cheap, there tends to be an anonymous uniformity to building. Suburban houses stretch for miles with little differentiation, interrupted only by big box stores. The relative ease of construction does not allow enough time in the process for builders to improvise, economize, and alter the event of construction to reflect the diversity of its inhabitants, or develop a culture of place. The jazz and dissonance have been lost to affluence and convenience.

R. Wayne Guy is Past President of the NWT Association of Architects and principal of Guy Architects of Yellowknife and Atelier BUILD of Montreal.