Canadian Architect

Feature

Book Review: Our Voices—Indigeneity and Architecture

Shelagh McCartney reviews a new volume on indigenizing architecture.

March 8, 2019
by Shelagh McCartney

Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture

Edited by Rebecca Kiddle, luugigyoo patrick stewart and Kevin O’Brien. ORO Editions, 2018.

REVIEW Shelagh McCartney

I am a settler-scholar, architect and planner living in tkaronto. Over the last five years, through work on housing systems, I have had the privilege to partner with First Nations across the Treaty 9 territory and to often be generously welcomed onto their lands.

View of the 2017 Niitsitapi Learning Centre in Calgary, Alberta, by Wanda Dalla Costa. Photo by Pierre Comty.

As a settler on Turtle Island, I do not have one of the voices being shared in the book Our Voices: Indigeneity and Architecture by Rebecca Kiddle, luugigyoo patrick stewart and Kevin O’Brien. This book is about voice—Indigenous voice—and is an important contribution to the small but growing global body of literature on the relationship between Indigeneity and architecture. A self-declared “unashamedly Indigenous-centric book,” Our Voices offers a model for Indigenous scholarship by carefully curating texts by a range of practictioners, academics and advocates with diverse perspectives on design. Our role as allies is to find a central place for Indigenous partners and their stories, and most importantly, to listen to those stories.

The book’s creation itself exemplifies a decolonized process that included reimagining the review process, offering various presentation formats, and itself being of a place. (It’s described as being hosted in Aotearoa New Zealand, with a Māori elder offering a foreword and Māori designer Rau Hoskins closing the book.) A chapter that discusses these choices hints at the type of decisions one must make in the parallel—and vastly more complex—process of building architecture.

A design for the Red Crow Community College Learner Resource Centre in Blood Tribe, Alberta by Wanda Dalla Costa, the first First Nations woman in Canada to become a registered architect.

Conceptualizations (and in many cases, breakthroughs) for decolonized architectural processes are shared throughout. At its core, “Indigenous architecture is about ‘a’ people in ‘a’ place,” the book explains. The book shares examples from a variety of people and places, demonstrating the diversity of sites that have always been Indigenous places—and that continue to be Indigenous places.

The book also shines a light on the injustices of colonialism, from the scale of communities to the individual home. Stories from coöption to forcible destruction are carefully delivered, not from a place of victimhood, but instead as a context from which, “this generation      […] has begun to speak back to the machine of colonialism      [sic] and it is an international phenomenon      [sic] architects / artists and designers have begun a process of speaking up/out/back.”

Speaking up happens through a variety of media: Kiddle describes young Māori mapping their urban experiences and brainstorming utopian visions for a site, while Timmah Ball describes Indigenous art that, despite attempts at commodification, “pierces the colonial landscape creating tranquil moments.”

View of the 2017 Niitsitapi Learning Centre in Calgary, Alberta, by Wanda Dalla Costa.

Other voices present alternative understandings of how places are made and kept, and how these processes can be made concrete in the future. While standard best practices—including in residential design, preservation and emergency planning—may seem immediately actionable, there is a risk of recolonizing these processes by understanding their significance through a non-Indigenous worldview. Researcher Michael Mossman describes recognizing the transactional and translational aspects of architecture through enacting a Third Space—“a place where differences touch, interact, disrupt, unsettle and de-centre preexisting narratives to produce a structure for marginalized cultures to symbolize themselves to their counterparts.” In understanding messages shared with us as settler practitioners, both in this book and in practice with Indigenous peoples, we are entrusted to learn from a place of critical investigation. We must take care not to repeat colonial relations of power by immediately placing these ideas within our own established frameworks.

This collection presents a set of voices that have been marginalized from the mainstream discussion of architecture and architectural theory for too long. Theory-building and practice with respect to Indigenous placemaking, architecture and design must be led by Indigenous academics and practitioners. To experience one’s own awkwardness in reading this book is to know the importance of not just listening and learning from this one book, but in searching out more of these Voices.

The book calls on all architects to question their Western preconceptions: “We learn to think on our feet and to be able to verbalize our thought process and make connections on the fly. I catch myself doing this all the time. I have to remember to listen. To learn from the stories.” As settler architects and allied practitioners, we must learn to listen to a growing number of diverse voices. Our Voices demonstrates that Indigenous life (and Indigenous architecture) is present not only on reserves or in specific communities, but across cities around the globe. This book provides a platform for a number of voices to be heard—to some readers for perhaps the first time—and with them, offers some tools with which architects may begin to understand their own work in relation to Indigeneity. This book is an excellent resource for any professional to use as a guide to find the relevant Indigenous voices in their work, to begin to listen to them, and to join in a continued journey of learning.

Dr. Shelagh McCartney, OAA, MRAIC is an assistant professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University.