Earth and Sky

PROJECT Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, Osoyoos, British Columbia

ARCHITECT Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects + Urbanistes

TEXT Peeroj Thakre

PHOTOS Nic Lehoux

Last summer, on a road trip from Vancouver to Osoyoos in the interior of British Columbia, there were moments when it was possible to believe that I had taken a wrong turn and ended up 1,000 miles south of my destination in California or New Mexico. Brand new Santa Fe-style resorts, hacienda wineries, and restaurants had popped up throughout the Okanagan Valley. And other evidence of the recent growth surge–new vacation properties, shopping malls, construction sites–lined the highway. Amidst this “faux” architecture of the American southwest in the interior of Canada’s most western province, the recently completed Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre by Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects (HBBH) refreshingly conveys a sense of place and the people who live there.

The Desert Centre and adjacent 1,600-acre desert conservation area that preserves the largest intact remnant of the Great American Desert–are located on the Osoyoos Indian Reserve. The project is part of larger economic development strategy for the Osoyoos band to create a new 200-acre resort destination that aligns with their values and helps achieve economic self-sufficiency. As part of the Okanagan Nation whose traditional territory extends from southern BC into the United States, the desert is central to the band’s history and culture. So while the band aimed to strengthen its future through development, it was equally important to respect the land which had sustained them. In the words of Brenda Baptiste, band member, former general manger of the Desert Centre and current Chair of Aboriginal Tourism BC: “from a First Nations perspective, you can’t separate people from the land.”

The opportunity to build the resort, which includes tourist accommodations, a winery, and an 18-hole golf course and clubhouse, came about due to changes in the Indian Act, allowing joint commercial developments on reserves. It was an opportunity for which the band was well prepared. With its history of successful entrepreneurship–first in ranching, trading and farming, and more recently as owners of a number of local businesses including a concrete plant, construction company, gas station/convenience store and the Nk’Mip Vineyards–the Osoyoos band already had the necessary organizational structures in place to undertake the project.

In addition to being economically viable and competitive with other tourist attractions, the resort was intended to embody the identity and spirit of the community. While not all the buildings–each by different architects–have been equally successful in achieving this goal, HBBH has hit the mark. The Desert Centre became an opportunity for the band to shape and express its identity from its own perspective, as well as to offer a counterpoint to ethnographic exhibitions which often give the impression that aboriginal culture is long lost–far away in time and place. The Centre was envisioned to represent the Osoyoos people as part of a living culture. For this reason, the band eschewed overtly traditional aboriginal forms in favour of a design which would simultaneously convey a long history of inhabiting these lands along with their progressive, continually transforming culture.

Entrusted with creating an appropriate architectural response, HBBH translated the client’s vision into a series of design strategies that influenced siting, form and the selection of materials. Underlying the formal strategies was a concern for sustainability that would respect the fragile desert and reflect the band’s role as stewards of the land.

The Desert Centre is the anchor of the resort, and upon arrival, it is the first building that comes into view. It is situated at the end of the resort’s internal street and operates as a bridge between the built area of the resort and the desert conservation area. Embedded in the hillside and folded under a desert-landscaped roof, the building appears to be held back by a massive rammed-earth wall. With horizontal bands of desert-inspired colours, the form mimics the ascending benches of the surrounding topography. Special care was taken during the design process to draw one’s attention to the desert landscape and away from encroaching development. Design principal Bruce Haden and project architect Brady Dunlop staked out the ideal height and position of the wall on the site. As a result, the initial design was modified by dropping the height and extending the wall past the building into the surrounding landscape.

The approach towards siting also included a desire to minimize energy consumption. The partially buried structure and rammed-earth wall mitigate the extreme temperatures, which range from an average of -18C in the winter to +33C in the hot arid summer. The orientation of the building optimizes passive solar performance and minimizes heat gain through the judicious use of glazing on the south and west sides.

From the parking lot, one ascends a series of short steps, then traces the length of the rammed-earth wall to a recessed entry lined with a filigree blue-stained pine harvested from local forests affected by the pine beetle infestation. This attenuated entry sequence is designed to slow down and attune visitors to the space and time of the desert. However, it is not merely the length of the sequence which produces this effect. Up close, the rammed-earth wall, which appears as a bold geometric form from the distance, reveals another set of characteristics. The board-form texture, the shadows cast by the deep reveals in the wall, and the uneven striated multicoloured bands of local desert soil display an unexpected variation at the finer scale. The contrast between the crafted qualities of the wall and the striking clean lines of its overall form simultaneously evoke the ageless beauty of the desert while introducing a contemporary formal language to the project.

Surprisingly, the rammed-earth wall was initially conceived as a concrete wall. But the desire to embody a sense of time and place in its materiality convinced the designers to use rammed-earth construction. Although the architects were confident in their choice, the rammed-earth wall was still a big risk for both the architect and the client. Not only had a wall of this scale–80 metres long and 5.5 metres high–never been built before as the most prominent architectural element, everything in terms of cultural representation was invested in it. The particular methods of construction, from the formwork to the concrete-soil mix and colour selection, were carefully adjusted to convey a sense of the past, present and future. The notion of longevity was essential, and as Bruce Haden imagines the structure, “one day it will make a great ruin.”

The wall has the same appearance on both sides, and becomes a significant interior element along which the program is organized. It carries through the administration, retail and interior exhibition spaces, and guides visitors out to the exterior performance and exhibition space towards the trailhead for 50 kilometres of paths through the desert. The linear form of the building accentuates the passage from the resort to the desert. And as Baptiste notes, the wall is not only literally the spine of the building, but “the values it embodies–sustainability and diversity–form a consistent stream through every part of the organization.”

Since opening last summer, the Desert Centre has become a place in which the Osoyoos band takes pride. Baptiste says, “It’s amazing how closely the building mirrors Okanagan contemporary culture–the building itself is as much part of the Interpretation Centre as the exhibits.” For her, what made the difference in this project was HBBH’s willingness “to grapple with the issues of contemporary Okanagan identity and culture.”

HBBH’s ability to give architectural e
xpression to the elusive values of culture and place makes this project successful, and a precedent for regional architecture. Instead of searching for a style, the architects engaged in a design process which seeks to create an experience of place–an experience which is conveyed through the exploration of form and materials.

And by the way, if you plan to visit the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, when you get there–you will know that you’ve finally arrived in the Okanagan.

Peeroj Thakre is an intern architect and a director of the Vancouver League for Studies in Architecture.

CLIENT OSOYOOS INDIAN BAND

ARCHITECT TEAM BRUCE HADEN, BRADY DUNLOP, NORM HOTSON, STEPHANIE FORSYTHE, TINA HUBERT, JULIE BOGDANOWICZ

STRUCTURAL EQUILIBRIUM CONSULTING INC.

MECHANICAL COBALT ENGINEERING

ELECTRICAL MCL ENGINEERING

LANDSCAPE PHILLIPS FAREVAAG SMALLENBERG

INTERIORS ALDRICH PEARS ASSOCIATES (EXHIBIT DESIGN)

CODE CONSULTANT LMDG

ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT BKL CONSULTING

THEATRE ELECTRICAL CONSULTANT ACUMEN CONSULTING ENGINEERS

LIVE DISPLAY CONSULTANT BUFO INCORPORATED

THEATRE DESIGN CONSULTANT DOUGLAS WELCH DESIGN

CONTRACTOR GREYBACK CONSTRUCTION

AREA 1,115 M2

BUDGET: $3.5M

COMPLETION JUNE 2006

PHOTOGRAPHY NIC LEHOUX

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