Reaching for the Sky: Youth Centres for Indigenous Communities

Haisla kids from soccer field. Haisla Youth Centre and Field House, Kitimaat Village, B.C. by Mackin Architects Ltd. Photo credit: Andrew Latreille

Can buildings be aspirational?

“The building itself points to the sky, like an arrow,” says Dr. Nancy Mackin, principal architect of Mackin Architects in reference to the recently-completed Haisla Youth Centre. “That was deliberate in the idea of reaching up.”

These are more than metaphors in building design.

TFN reflections from fritted windows. Tsawwassen First Nation Youth Centre, Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN), south of Vancouver, British Columbia, by Mackin Architects Ltd. Photo credit: Ema Peter

“The buildings speak about story,” says Dr. Nancy Mackin whose doctorate is in architecture, Indigenous design, and landscape ecology. “The amazing mosaic of First Nation cultures in Canada has something to teach us about the environment, getting along with each other, and how to teach kids in a way that is culturally meaningful.”

Since 2021 when the Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN) Youth Centre opened, Mackin has brought three more youth-centered projects to completion. And there’s more to come.

The First Nations provide licensed day care and after-school care, so that the kids have somewhere to go. The centres have kitchens that provide breakfast programs, lunch programs and after-school snacks.

“Another commonality is that the young people don’t want to leave their building. Knowledge-keepers report that the children are doing better in school because they have a place where they can study together while sharing meals and fun with their friends.”

The Tsawwassen First Nations website states: “The building gives the TFN community a home for their youth programs, allowing the creative freedom to expand their physical literacy, artistic, culinary and multi-media programming to better support their youth…gives youth…amenities to support a wide variety of programming to help them excel in all areas.”

Former Chief Ken Baird said at the opening ceremony, “It’s a place of learning, nurturing and preparing our youth for becoming our next generation of leadership.”

MLA and former Minister of State for Child Care, Katrina Chen and other dignitaries echoed his sentiments.

“The TFN was the biggest and the first-completed youth centre,” says Mackin, who received the Against the Grain award for “an individual who has shown excellence in architectural skills.”

The Tsawwassen Youth Centre is situated on the traditional lands of the Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN), south of Vancouver, British Columbia, on the sparkling waters of the Salish Sea.

Principal architect, Dr. Nancy Mackin designed the space around the Coast Salish creation story in which birds came down from the sky. They shed their feathers as they transformed into humans.

Barn swallows, Western sandpipers and hummingbirds adorn walls and welcome poles. Fritted windows with their art decals prevent bird collisions.

“Architecture isn’t just about tangible materials,” says Mackin in reference to how natural light ripples around the room, casting bird silhouettes on wall and floor surfaces.

With the passing of each day and season, reflections change. These plays of light denote transformational themes found in the Coast Salish narrative. Lighting fixtures depict Coast Salish circles, crescents and trigons in keeping with their traditional design elements.

Local carvers and cultural guides, Karl Morgan and Bryce Williams provided collaborative art forms. The project took flight among children, teens, and community elders.

Haisla Youth Centre and Field House, Kitimaat Village, B.C.

Haisla sunset. Haisla Youth Centre and Field House, Kitimaat Village, B.C. by Mackin Architects Ltd. Photo credit: Andrew Latreille

Like other Mackin Architects projects, the Haisla Youth Centre is designed for climate-and-climate-change disaster resilience. Tsunamis, flash floods, heavy winds and snowfall are addressed in the design of this youth centre that has been the dream of the community for over 40 years.

The Haisla name for Kitimaat Village means ‘dwellers downriver’. Tsimshian roots point to ‘people of the snow’. Thus, the Haisla Youth Centre is built on a high plinth at the head of Douglas Channel, ten kilometers south of Kitimat.

The centre features large viewing decks and roof overhangs supported by the brilliant-red-painted steel poles. The poles are top-coated with polysiloxane to resist saltwater damage and corrosion. Walls and roof are clad in aluminum which is resilient to moist salty air and seawater floods. The processing took place in neighbouring Kitimat.

Haisla angled poles. Haisla Youth Centre and Field House, Kitimaat Village, B.C. by Mackin Architects Ltd. Photo credit: Andrew Latreille

Carved poles would be the first thing visitors would see upon reaching a Haisla village.

Mackin notes that in Haisla culture, poles are never vertical. “Being bent at all different angles uses their structural strength to the optimum (and) reminds the young people that carved poles need to be left to lean or fall without people moving or straightening them.”

“This rule is unbreakable,” says Mackin. “If a pole falls across a road, the road is moved, not the pole.”

Architecturally, the team responded by designing every component to last a long time. At the same time, materials were selected for their availability and affordability.

Haisla teens at play. Haisla Youth Centre and Field House, Kitimaat Village, B.C. by Mackin Architects Ltd. Photo credit: Andrew Latreille

“Standard gang nail trusses were exposed to minimize extra drywall and to make tall spaces lit from above,” says Mackin. “Marine plywood was used on the main floor as a flood-resistant material that could be easily cleaned and restored.”

In a National Post article, twice-elected Chief Crystal Smith says, “…come to our home (and) see our new youth centre which is the first dedicated construction for our young people ever built.”

Chief Smith has called it a historic moment.

The building is on the site of a former soccer clubhouse.

Mackin says, “The youth centre becomes the fieldhouse…we design change rooms, washrooms, a concession, and athletic storage that open right off the field. The change rooms, along with classrooms, commercial kitchen, and other amenities are designed as a refuge for villagers in the case of emergencies including Tsunamis, storm surges, and record snowfalls exacerbated by climate change.

Traditional dance, drumming, singing, and story-telling are facilitated here, or on the back-lit band shell. Reaching up and reaching out.

Tla’amin Youth Centre, Powell River, B.C.

Tla’amin Fieldhouse interior with artwork. Tla’amin Youth Centre, Powell River, B.C. by Mackin Architects with Zhiwei Lu BCSLA. Photo credit: Andrew Latreille

Tla’amin Nation calls their fieldhouse/ youth centre on the Sunshine Coast “či čʊy ʔaye & ayiš ʔaye” which means “cousins’ house”. It earns the name by being a place where young people can go and feel like one extended family having good times together. The Spring Guide indicates a recreation team, youth programs and a youth council in full swing since its opening last year. Language classes are held weekly, brimming with story, history and song.

Mackin Tla’amin Fieldhouse, teens at work. Tla’amin Youth Centre, Powell River, B.C. by Mackin Architects with Zhiwei Lu BCSLA. Photo credit: Andrew Latreille

The Nation put out a call for teen artists to create artwork that celebrates Tla’amin culture and language. The winner designed shapes and lettering that explain the valued foods and medicines in Tla’amin tradition.

Tla’amin Fieldhouse, raven and thunderbird. Tla’amin Youth Centre, Powell River, B.C. by Mackin Architects with Zhiwei Lu BCSLA. Photo credit: Andrew Latreille

“Amazing programs come out of the relationships with the building,” says Mackin. “We designed a big covered area so that the kids could make things and carve, with a multi-sport court where they play lacrosse. With the fieldhouse component, the Whitecaps Soccer Club come and coach sometimes.”

“We used exposed 2X12 roof framing…which minimizes suspended ceilings, part of our commitment to employing minimum amounts of materials.”

Tla’amin Fieldhouse building as thunderbird. Tla’amin Youth Centre, Powell River, B.C. by Mackin Architects with Zhiwei Lu BCSLA. Photo credit: Andrew Latreille

The roof structure, with large round ‘shoulders’, reflects upon a Tla’amin origin story wherein Thunderbird, supreme bird of all birds, links the spirit and physical world.

Tla’amin Fieldhouse, kids playing soccer. Tla’amin Youth Centre, Powell River, B.C. by Mackin Architects with Zhiwei Lu BCSLA. Photo credit: Andrew Latreille

The building evokes a powerful, protective and strong design to replicate the Kathaumixw ‘gathering together of different peoples’ The Thunderbird logo calls to mind the hospitality of the Tla’amin host Nation.

Nuxalk After School Care and Dance Centre, Bella Cola Valley, B.C.

Sunlight exterior. Nuxalk After School Care and Dance Centre, Bella Coola Valley, B.C. by Mackin Architects Ltd. Photo credit: Parker Albanese

“In Nuxalk tradition, every building has its own name,” says Mackin.

The Nuxalk After School building is named ‘Asmayuusta’, which encapsulates Nuxalk ancestral wisdom including a learning style that integrates the ‘3L’s’ instead of the ‘3R’s’. ‘Look, Listen and Love’ come to life in ‘Mask, Dance and Song’, the popular school program that was the original impetus for the centre.

Central space with feast. Nuxalk After School Care and Dance Centre, Bella Coola Valley, B.C. by Mackin Architects Ltd. Photo credit: Nancy Mackin

Mackin says, “Desiree Danielson, vice principal from Acwsalcta School, phoned me in 2019 and said, ‘We need a building for our Mask, Dance and Song program, can you help us?” and I said, ‘If we have the licensed after school care, we can fund it and design it.’ It started like that.”

“The building was designed with a big space like a longhouse,” she adds, “ lit from above…built with a special dance flooring that doesn’t hurt the knees when the children do the dances that require them to be on their knees like some of the supernatural beings.”

The sun is represented on the side of the building and harvested in the solar panels that reduce the remote community’s reliance on fossl fuels. Nuxalk After School Care and Dance Centre, Bella Coola Valley, B.C. by Mackin Architects Ltd. Photo credit: Peter Snow

Mackin says, “The Nuxalk Nation sourced red-cedar from their own lands and milled it in their mill. The cedar was used for exterior cladding of the front and rear faces of the building, and for interior wall, ceiling and window trims.”

Former students and professional artists have done the artwork. The moon crests suspended over the entrance identify parts of the year when the tides are right to fish.

Sunlight exterior. Nuxalk After School Care and Dance Centre, Bella Coola Valley, B.C. by Mackin Architects Ltd. Photo credit: Parker Albanese

In Nuxalk cosmology, four supernatural carpenters built the nation. Their hands encircle the creator in the centre of the universe (40 fingers make the work go faster). The hands also depict the rays of the sun, an image of the creator. A half-sun, rising like the children in their sunrise years, is painted by Nuxalk artists on the side of the building. Inside the building, four cedar poles from the Great Bear Rainforest represent the four carpenters and the significance of the number four to Nuxalk history.

These four poles anchor each corner of the main dance space. Here, the children learn to dance traditional dances, moving in the direction of the sun. There is movable seating for the chiefs and elders, and mask storage/change areas so the children can dance the stories and experience the space, naturally lit from above like the ancient longhouses of the Great Bear Rainforest.

Children enjoy the playful images of the moon cast in light on the floors and walls of their classroom. The architects chose the furnishings to echo the shapes in Nuxalk cosmology. Nuxalk After School Care and Dance Centre, Bella Coola Valley, B.C. by Mackin Architects Ltd. Photo credit: Nancy Mackin

Like the Tsawwassen First Nation, the Haisla, Tla’amin, and Nuxalk Nations come from lands that face the sea.

Chief Laura Cassidy of the TFN says, “Our traditions are deeply rooted to fishing and canoeing…today we are a modern and progressive Treaty Nation…developing our ambitious plans for the future.”

Mackin Architects create cultural forms, whether in the indoor spaces for counselling and tutoring as well as in music and language gathering spaces; gyms and weight rooms;  kitchens and storage spaces (preparing and serving traditional food); and in outdoor playgrounds and ethnobotanical gardens (harvesting food and medicine).

These are far-reaching, lit-from-above forms. From here, youth can reach for the sky.


 

1. Project: Tsawwassen First Nation Youth Centre

Completion: December 2021

Design: Mackin Architects Ltd.

Prizes: 2021 Architecture Foundation of BC Awards of Excellence: Equity Award, 2021 ‘Sustainable Architecture & Building’ Institutional Green Building Award, 2022 ‘Wood Design & Building’, 2023 B.C. Wood Council, Western Red Cedar Award

Size: 1115 m2

Mass Timber Installer: StructureCraft

Structural Engineer: Ennova Structural Engineers

Construction Manager: Converge Construction Ltd.

Pole & Beam Supplier: Durfeld Log & Timber

Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: MCW

Photography: Ema Peter

Carvers: Karl Morgan and Bryce Williams

 

 

2. Project: Haisla Youth Centre and Field House, Kitimaat Village, B.C.

Completion: 2022

Size: 700 m2

Prizes: long-listed as International Community Centre of the Year (archello)

Construction: Progressive Ventures

Structural and electrical engineering: McElhanney

Mechanical engineering: Rocky Point

Landscape design: Mackin Architects with Zhiwei Lu BCSLA

Haisla Artist: Paul Windsor

Photography: Andrew Latreille

 

 

3. Project: Tla’amin Youth Centre, Powell River, B.C.

Completion: 2023

Size: 1038.5 m2

General Contractor: Converge Construction

Structural Engineering: Ennova Structural Engineers

Mechanical and Electrical Engineering: MCW

Landscape design: Mackin Architects with Zhiwei Lu BCSLA

Photography: Andrew Latreille

Artist: Rhys Galligos Artist: Rhys Galligos

 

 

4. Project: Nuxalk After School Care and Dance Centre, Bella Coola Valley, B.C.

Design: Mackin Architects Ltd.

Completion: 2023

Size: 700 m2

Structural Engineering: WSB

Mechanical Engineering: Fraser Valley Refrigeration

Electrical Engineering: Jarvis and Associates

Landscape design: Mackin Architects with Zhiwei Lu BCSLA

General Contractor: Groen Construction

Photography: Andrew Latreille

Artists: Peter Snow and apprentices

 

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