Coming Back Home: Illusuak Cultural Centre, Nain, Labrador

Todd Saunders recounts the process of designing a cultural centre for northern Labrador, the home of his great-great-grandparents.

The curved form of the Illusuak Cultural Centre is an homage to the temporary sod houses traditionally constructed by the Labrador Inuit.

PROJECT Illusuak Cultural Centre, Nain, Labrador

ARCHITECTS Saunders Architecture with Stantec (local architect)

PHOTOS Bent René Synnevåg

TEXT Todd Saunders

AS TOLD TO Susan Nerberg

The Illusuak Cultural Centre, designed by Todd Saunders of Saunders Architecture with Stantec, recently opened as a gathering place for the Labrador Inuit, the southernmost Inuit population in Canada. A stand-out structure with undulating walls, the centre would be as novel in a large, design-forward city as it is in the small community of Nain. Here, it serves as the nexus of a cultural revival, showcasing Labrador Inuit ingenuity and traditions nearly lost as a result of colonialism.

Illusuak was commissioned by the government of Nunatsiavut—the Labrador Inuit self-governing region formed after a successful land claims agreement in 2005—to celebrate Inuit culture. In the process, the region also got a beacon that places it on the architectural map.

Saunders tells Canadian Architect about building trust with a people which has survived centuries of deception from settlers; the challenges of designing in a remote location for a culture with no permanent architectural precedent of its own; and why Illusuak is different from any other project the Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect has worked on so far.

Kebony, a product that used a bio-based liquid to enhance the durability of sustainable softwoods, was used to clad the exterior of the centre. The low-maintenance material is engineered to withstand harsh winter snow and wind conditions.

Winning the trust of the client—and the commission

During the procurement process, the Nunatsiavut Government interviewed maybe five to ten architecture firms in person. I couldn’t be there, so I had to be interviewed over the phone. It was like a blind date, and I was in a disadvantaged position: they could only hear my voice, I couldn’t present anything or use video. But we had a really good conversation.

I suggested that what was needed in the village of Nain wasn’t just a museum and a cultural centre. What they needed—as in so many small communities in Newfoundland and Labrador—was a living room for the town. People meet privately in one another’s homes as smaller groups, so, I suggested, why don’t we create a living room for the community? The government representatives liked that idea.

They knew I was from Newfoundland. My great-great-grandfather had lived in Labrador, a couple of hundred kilometres north of Nain, the northernmost town, on a river with my great-great-grandmother. He was British, she was Mi’kmaq, and he spoke English, Mi’kmaq and Inuktitut. I explained that I was fascinated with that region and had read about it.

Then it clicked. The president of the government [at the time]—it turned out he knew my great-great-grandfather. At the end of the half-hour call, he and I ended up on the phone for another half hour talking about that. They understood my interest was genuine when I told them I wanted to continue to work in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Kebony, a product that used a bio-based liquid to enhance the durability of sustainable softwoods, was used to clad the exterior of the centre. The low-maintenance material is engineered to withstand harsh winter snow and wind conditions.

Learning about Labrador Inuit culture and finding design inspiration in Nunatsiavut

When the Nunatsiavut land claim went through, the Labrador Inuit donated a chunk of land in the Torngat Mountains, north of Nain, for the creation of a national park. Since then, Parks Canada runs a camp every summer where visitors get to meet with and learn from local Inuit guides and research scientists from different parts of the world.

After winning the commission, I spent three weeks in Nunatsiavut, including a week at that camp. I went out on a boat seal hunting and fishing. I went to Rose Island, where Inuit have buried their loved ones for the past thousand years. I collected fire wood and cooked with Inuit guides. I also went hiking with fish researchers and got an outsiders’ view from them. Then I spent time in Nain to get a sense for the village. It’s very small and it might have been hard for an architect from Toronto to be there, but for me, being used to small towns, it was very comfortable. There, I got to know a few people from the Nunatsiavut Government and from Parks Canada quite well, and they were close to the team as we were working on the design.

Cutaway plan

Designing without precedent

We created the brief with the client, so there was a lot of back-and-forth to massage the design. This is what we usually do—except with a government project, we’d normally be handed a recipe that has to be followed. But here, thanks to this government being small, we could develop the brief together.

Still, at first we created a room program that was too big. Once we got it down to size, we asked for time to put it all together, developing 25 to 30 ideas. The main challenge was that the Inuit never had a built architecture. There was no precedent, nothing to relate our ideas to. When I work in Newfoundland, there’s 400 years of housing to draw from; in Nunatsiavut, they didn’t have any permanent structures.

I looked at the buildings of the Moravian missionaries, but that didn’t feel right. Plus, my great-great-grandfather took issue with the Moravians and the Hudson Bay Company, so drawing on that would feel like cheating on my ancestry. Then I went to Rose Island. There, I saw these organically shaped structures sunken two or three feet into the ground. When a Parks Canada staff sent me an archeological report on them, I realized this was actually something the Inuit had built.

The outline of these sod houses was quite free-flowing. This rounder, softer form was one I had never worked with before, but when I started working with it, it felt right—the shapes were soft and inclusive.

In the end, we decided to present three ideas, including the soft one. Before the presentation, I invited the community to take a look at them. They all went straight to the softer one, so it’s as if it was decided even before the presentation. It was obvious that was the right design for them.

he interior of the centre includes an exhibition area, auditorium, and regional cultural offices.

Reflecting on the outcome

We’ve created a building that wraps around people. The entrance area peels away, and most of the windows open toward the ocean. There’s no pattern to the placement of the windows other than following the ceiling, which changes in height the whole way around. We wanted the idea of a fireplace in the centre, so when people come in, they gather at the café. Beyond that are the collections on view for the public, a movie theatre, and offices for the Nunatsiavut government and Parks Canada.

We designed the building to blend in with the coastal landscape: the cladding is Kebony spruce, which will turn grey like the rocks with time. We added boulders that will eventually be covered with moss, and built a deck around the structure. We had to lift the land on-site because the 100-year sea level comes up quite high, so the building sits on pillars that are concealed by filling in with rock.

I’m very pleased with the shape and the moves—no one has really done this before in Canadian architecture. We tried to stay away from patterns, which are very European. In Nunatsiavut, there isn’t that rigidity, so we used soft forms throughout.

And that’s the main difference with this project: we’ve never worked with these free-flowing shapes, because in a European or Canadian context, the precedents were more rigid. Here, there was no precedent, so we went on an exploration to find out what the architecture could be.

Have we succeeded? I don’t know. But we’ve definitely done something that no one else has done up there, and we feel confident Illusuak has its own identity and its own character. The Labrador Inuit are distinct people. Our architecture is distinct, and hopefully it represents them.

Susan Nerberg is a writer and editor based in Montreal.

CLIENT Nunatsiavut Government | ARCHITECT TEAM Saunders—Todd Saunders, Attila Béres, Ken Beheim Schwarzbach, Rubén Sáez López, Joshua Kievenaar, Chris Woodford. Stantec—Kerry Gosse, Charles Henley, Lez Snow. | STRUCTURAL/CIVIL DMG Consulting (Reg Hedges, Bill Baird) | HVAC CBCL Limited (Paul Sceviour) | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL CBCL Limited (Paul Sceviour, Mike Dormody) | BUILDER Bird Construction Ltd. | EXHIBITS Blue Rhino Design | EXHIBIT FABRICATOR Ontario Science Centre AREA 1,200 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION Fall 2018