Designing with both eyes open

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued 94 Calls to Action to build a collective future for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. Colleges and universities are now turning to designers to help formulate a response; in various ways, they’re asking architects to answer a very difficult question: how can reconciliation become a core design principle?

“Two-Eyed Seeing” is a Mi’kmaq concept of observing the world through both an Indigenous and Western lens. When Centennial College issued a request for designs for its A-Block expansion project, DIALOG + Smoke Architecture turned to Two-Eyed Seeing. The firms’ winning design suggests a path forward for architects, and potential solutions to the ongoing crises of climate and inequity.

Eladia Smoke, Principal at Smoke Architecture, and Craig Applegath, Principal at DIALOG, discussed these ideas with writer Thomas Hirschmann.

Craig and Eladia smudging

“We’re all Indigenous from somewhere”

Thomas Hirschmann: What does it mean to place Two-Eyed Seeing at the heart of the design process?

Eladia Smoke: Elders have said to me, ‘we’re all Indigenous from somewhere.’ Land-based teachings originate within all our cultures. In some cultures, those teachings have been sublimated. We’ve developed really astounding technologies, but at the same time pretend we can live without natural systems. Technology gives us ways of putting together materials and sharing knowledge, but we have this very deep memory of when we lived in a much closer relationship with animal and plant life, the cycles of the seasons, as an integral part of the celestial and terrestrial realms. Two-Eyed Seeing remembers that wonderful place without forgetting the useful patterns technology offers us.

Craig Applegath: Contemporary Western thought is founded in reason, logic and science. While this philosophy has helped us understand how the natural world works, at the same time, it’s placed us outside of it, resulting in some fairly obvious problems — like climate change. At the 2000 Chattanooga sustainability conference, a speaker discussed the Indigenous notion of Seven Generations: designing with a responsibility not just for this generation or the next, but for seven future generations. This made a real impression on me, and it was clear that this notion had to be integrated into our design thinking. For me, Two-Eyed Seeing is a way to expand our understanding of what we do as architects and engineers. 

“Western architecture has a very dark colonial history”

Smoke: There’s an important distinction between colonial patterns of thought and Western cultures. Colonial thought is what all of us must react against, because it works against a diverse and vibrant human situation. It doesn’t respect other living creatures. It monetizes life without acknowledging agency or value except as raw material. The colonial age has had severe impacts across the globe. Architecture was used explicitly as a tool to physically erase the memory of a place by overlaying an exploitative reality. Colonial projects eradicate all trace of existing vegetation, topography, and cultural markers, and replace them with imported architectural precedents.

Applegath: Western architecture has a very dark colonial history and isn’t acknowledged by Canadian architects often. The sad truth is that most significant architecture in Europe’s major capital cities, from the Renaissance up to the Second World War, clearly expresses the surplus of wealth created by the exploitation of European colonies around the world. 

“It’s really important that this building has a heart”

Hirschmann: It’s so important to explore reconciliation in architecture. How different would the design of the Centennial College A-Block expansion have been, had it been designed through a purely Western lens?

Centennial College A-Block Expansion

Applegath: Western architecture is typically a dialectic between form and function. Yes, function now considers environmental sustainability, but for the most part, Western architectural culture isn’t very interested in ecology and natural systems, let alone Indigenous culture. What was so refreshing about Centennial College’s project brief was that it demanded that the design be rooted in an Indigenous notion of natural systems and the poetry of Indigenous culture. What’s so different about this project is that all of the key design moves were contemplated through this lens.

Smoke: It’s important that this building has a heart. Elders have told me that teachings about the heart are critical. That heart is the Indigenous Commons, a dome-shaped space designed on the principles of the Nimii’Idiwigamig | Anishinaabe Roundhouse — a place for drum ceremonies. The drum signifies a realignment with the natural rhythms of the rest of the world. When you hear that drum, you feel it, and it brings about a realignment of our heartbeat with that of Shkagamikwe | Mother Earth: all the other life that supports us. It symbolizes a reality where human actions and our built environments are regenerative, not exploitative.

Centennial College Indigenous Commons

Applegath: The ‘rational,’ Western lens would’ve had us place the entrance at the major road intersection — at the north-west corner of the building. Instead, we placed the main entrance to the East, the traditional location for the entrance in Indigenous structures.

Smoke: Yes, the East entry is significant because it’s the direction of the sunrise or new beginnings. It also shaped a narrative of seed, growth, culmination and balance, where we remember our responsibilities to each other and to the territories we share.

“This building has forgotten none of its stories”

Hirschmann: Narrative seems to be an important element of this building; the grand stair is lined with Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee stories. How did story shape the design?

Smoke: Many contemporary buildings don’t have a lot of life because they’re so rational. They’ve forgotten their stories. This building has forgotten none of its stories; instead we keep remembering new ones. For instance, the interior courtyard is a gathering place that students will use as a classroom and to cook traditional foods. We noticed where the noontime shadows fall for each of the full moons; each has its own name that recalls our activities and what’s happening out in the land that month. Those shadow lines are imprinted into the paving patterns, to connect people with the space and the space with a larger understanding of our place in the world.

Applegath: The idea of an indigenous narrative was important for our DIALOG team to explore ecological narratives in the design of this project, especially as improving the wellbeing of our environment is central to our mission. It is one of the important lessons I will take away from this project. The grand stair within Wisdom Hall, with its sustainably harvested mass timber structure, tells a wonderful story of natural carbon sequestration. Another example is the way the building’s landscape was designed as an ecological extension of the river valley to the south of it, with local indigenous plant and tree species.

“Go look at a fish”

Hirschmann: What other examples can you share of how Two-Eyed Seeing shaped the A-Block design?

Smoke: One of our inspirations is the Midewigan | teaching lodge, an open framework made of fast-growing, renewable saplings. The saplings grow tall and straight under the forest canopy because they reach for the sun. Harvesting from the understory has less impact on the forest because it’s not old growth. You bend the saplings to create arches and increase their strength. The mass timber in the building uses a similar approach: fast-growing, renewable wood is laminated to become stronger; it’s a more technological take on this age-old principle of using small-scale, quick-growth wood.

Applegath: The way Anishinaabe Wigwams were designed with their skin pulled up in the summer for air circulation inspired the idea for the building envelope at the corner of the building. We asked, ‘what kind of building skin could blend the technical contemporary and Indigenous natural worlds together?’ So we designed an aluminum panel that’s shaped like fish scales; detailed with contemporary parametric software, which makes it feel like animal skin. Go look at a fish, and see how the scales shift and change over its body. That’s the effect of the building cladding. There’s something alive about it and people ask, ‘What did you do with that façade? It looks like nothing I’ve ever seen before.’

“Pick up things we’ve forgotten along the way”

Hirschmann: Architects are re-examining how their work can help solve ongoing crises like climate change and inequity. How can Two-Eyed Seeing guide them?

Smoke: There’s an Anishinaabe story called the Seven Fires Prophecy. Humans will find ourselves in a place where we have a choice. Some paths result in catastrophe for us. Another path retraces our steps to pick up things we’ve forgotten along the way. Hopefully the path we’re following allows us to pick up the things that we forgot, to rediscover a way of being that’s much more survivable, and to light that eighth fire.

Applegath: Clearly, we’re now living that prophecy. With greenhouse gas concentrations at catastrophically high levels, we don’t have much time left to change our path and ‘pick up the things we’ve forgotten along the way.’ We need to act now.