Learning from the Land

Project Piqqusilirivvik Inuit Cultural Learning Facility, Clyde River, Nunavut
Architect Stantec Architecture
Text Michèle Aubé and Arnaud Paquin
Photos Dave Brosha unless otherwise noted

Piqqusilirivvik, or “a place to keep the things we know,” is a centre for the transmission of Inuit traditional knowledge in the community of Clyde River on Baffin Island. Opened in 2012, it functions as a kind of alternative school. The program caters to First Nations Inuit fluent in Inuktitut: unlike other educational venues, academic performance is not a criterion for entry. It’s also a bridge between past and future. For generations of Inuit before the arrival of western schooling, the territory and land itself were the master teachers. The project thus aims to immerse its young Inuit students in the Arctic landscape, returning them to traditional sources of knowledge and know-how. At the same time, it is fully equipped as a state-of-the-art building with contemporary tools and technologies.

To launch the hybrid education-architecture initiative, an integrated design process was conceived to explore the program’s unique needs. Locals, architects, engineers, government delegates and representatives from Nunavut’s divisions of culture, language, elders and youth gathered for charrettes and workshops throughout the design process. According to design architect Harriet Burdett-Moulton, this working method allowed the Inuit representatives’ innovative ideas to be brought forward. The integrated design process also offered the enormous advantage of facilitating acceptance by the participating community. “Integrated design is the best. They get what they want. They have ownership of the place,” says Burdett-Moulton. She adds, “They are part of the process so they understand the choices made even if they don’t like some of them.”

Creating a building in the High Arctic entails numerous cultural, programmatic and technical challenges. Added to this, Piqqusilirivvik was a one-off in the Nunavut education system, and the creation of a new program was in itself a challenge. During our recent visit, Shari Gearheard, manager of curriculum development for the school, explained that a critical moment in the project’s progress was the translation of the ambitious program into a concrete plan. Particular attention was accorded to this step, resulting in a careful delineation of spaces that reconcile traditional activities with up-to-date technologies. Accordingly, the compact building includes a wide range of parts: library, sewing workshop, woodworking facilities, large-capacity kitchen, residences for students and invited teachers, and spaces for preparing and storing animal skins and other products from the hunt. Custom equipment and furnishings were developed for the programs, as well as for the needs of the elders responsible for much of the teaching. This included sewing tables, ergonomic benches, fur and animal skin treatment tubs, and special containers for food from the land, among other elements.

The interior organization makes reference to a qaqqiq, or large communal igloo, which is traditionally encircled by smaller spaces for specific functions. At Piqqusilirivvik, this translates into a hierarchy of gathering spaces at the heart of the building that encourage casual encounters and informal discussions. Various teaching and work areas open on to these central spaces. The layout aims to build on the dynamic of a communal workshop, where students learn from each other through observation. Two residential wings link into the central zone, completing the composition of the complex.

Architectural details reinforce ties to the landscape and to local culture. Following the suggestion of stakeholders, wood elements inside and earth-toned façade panels outside pick up on tundra colours. Large openings on the south façade overlook the bay, assuring a constant visual connection between interior and exterior. Other interior elements–from lichen-red flooring to sealskin-covered built-ins–also reference the surrounding landscape.

The site itself was chosen through community consultation. Elders were involved in the process of identifying a location outside of the village, selected for its close relationship with the landscape. Situated between land and sea, it privileged complete immersion within a natural setting. Incidentally, it also allowed for keeping watch on polar bears, known to prowl near the sled dog pens at the end of the bay. The distancing of the building from the community was a means to encourage autonomy, self-organization and interdependence among students. For instance, during a snowstorm the students and instructors would be left to their own contrivances–as would have been the case in seasonal campsites.

Construction in the Arctic involves construction challenges and risk-management decisions with significant project impacts. In this case, the distance of the site from the community facilitated site management in terms of materials transportation and storage. Materials and heavy construction equipment were carried to the site by boat during the short navigable period when the sea is ice-free. There was no room for error: forgetting or damaging a single component could result in needing to modify part of the building design to avoid delays and huge cost overruns. The extreme climate also necessitated strategic design adaptations. For instance, the restricted height of the building and curved roof limit the impact of dominant winds on its façades. A wind barrier is integrated into the project; the building’s exposed location otherwise risks being buried by snow buildup. 

Piqqusilirivvik has had an undeniably positive impact. It successfully reinterprets traditional architecture in a contemporary idiom. The interior space organization, choice of materials, and overall exterior design display an attuned sensitivity to Inuit culture without falling into cliché. The open and interlinked communal areas integrate an understanding of traditional apprenticeship, affording opportunities for observation and oral transmission of knowledge. The community’s enthusiastic appropriation of Piqqusilirivvik testifies to members’ acceptance of the project and of the consultative processes that led to it. 

One of the questions that the project raises, however, is that of the “omnibuilding”–that is to say, the autonomous building that incorporates all needed functions. In terms of functional efficiency and energy savings, it’s a logical strategy. But some of its effects appear to contradict Piqqusilirivvik’s initial intentions. In particular, by annexing the student residences to the central gathering and teaching spaces, the objectives of autonomy and daily connection to the outdoors are seemingly weakened. A more dispersed, village-like scheme would have tied the project more closely to its landscape, albeit with trade-offs in terms of accessibility and maintenance costs.

Nevertheless, Piqqusilirivvik is a remarkable success for the community of Clyde River that has skillfully negotiated many challenges. The involvement of regional stakeholders in the design process ensured the project’s feasibility, while also integrating Inuit culture in the building’s core fabric rather than through ornamental add-ons. In short, the program and its architecture form a balanced whole: a building that is a powerful and essential tool for diffusing and protecting Inuit culture.

Arnaud Paquin and Michèle Aubé are graduates of the Université de Montréal’s architecture school. They are teamed with the Clyde River Ilisaqsivik Society and Montreal firm FGMDA to develop one of five models for the Arctic Adaptations exhibition at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Client Nunavut Community and Government Services | Architect Team Harriet Burdett-Moulton, Joshua Armstrong, Terry Gray, Roger Tulk | Structural Adjeleian Allen Rubeli | Mechanical Stantec Consulting Ltd. | Electrical Stantec Consulting Ltd. with Stantec Architecture | Interiors Stantec Architecture | General Contractor Kudlik Construction Ltd. | Electrical Contractor Ryfan Nunavut Inc. | Mechanical Contractor Narwhal Plumbing & Heating Ltd. | Education Design Consultants Fielding Nair International | Food Services S.I. Bellingham & Associates Ltd. | Area 2,058 m2 (main building) + 142 m2 (outbuildings) | Budget $22 M | Completion October 2012