Seine River First Nation Cultural Centre, Seine River First Nation, Ontario

The new Seine River First Nation Cultural Centre is rich with cultural references, including a floor pattern that recalls traditional woven baskets. Photo by Jerry Grajewski

Step inside the Seine River First Nation Cultural Centre and you wouldn’t be wrong to feel surrounded by nature. Designed by Cohlmeyer Architecture, the building embraces the shapes and textures of local landscapes. At one end is a ceremonial space where you literally walk on a bed of flowers—medicinal plants, folded into the floor, that have long been used by the Ojibwe. Look out from the main hall toward the Seine River and your eyes meander along a billowing canopy of red pines, common in this part of northwestern Ontario. Even the structure’s cladding echoes the milieu, riffing off the patterns of nearby trees.

Nature as a driving force behind the design seems, well, natural, given the boreal riverside setting. But the cultural centre didn’t start this way. A few years ago, the First Nation had been advised to purchase a Lindal prefab timber house to use as its cultural centre. The kit home was assembled, but the resulting building didn’t provide the mix of open spaces needed—larger areas for band members to gather and share traditional knowledge, including basket weaving, medicinal plant collection and wild rice cultivation, and smaller rooms for band council staff and meetings. Then, Cohlmeyer Architecture was brought onboard to reimagine kit and caboodle.

Photo by Jerry Grajewski

“The band council decided to tear the existing kit down,” says Stephen Cohlmeyer, principal and project lead. During the research phase, in addition to understanding the client’s needs, his team also had to figure out how to salvage as much as possible from the teardown. “We created a catalogue of the materials,” says David Weber, the project director. The list included glulam columns and beams, studs and windows. Even some of the slab could be reused. The big challenge was how to reuse those parts in a different configuration, so Weber built a model to see how they could fit together. “It was good, old-fashioned architecture,” says Cohlmeyer.

Photo by Jerry Grajewski

The resulting new building has an interior that flows river-like from the entrance through the main hall, past a number of smaller rooms. At the deepest end, the flow widens into a circular ceremonial space with the floral-studded clay, sand and linseed-oil floor. Along this meander, a striking floor ties the spaces together—made of contrasting woods, the pattern recalls traditional woven baskets. Facing the river, the main hall overlooks a terrace shaded by an arched canopy of tree trunks selected by the community’s Elders. “As for the siding,” says Weber, “we went to the forest and picked birchbark samples. The pattern on the siding is like the one you see on birch trees.”

“The design is our interpretation of Seine River First Nation’s culture and traditions,” says Cohlmeyer. “The floor pattern, the birchbark patterns, they’re collective ideas from the architects. But those ideas came from listening to, having a dialogue with and getting feedback from the band council.” While the architects succeeded in salvaging 85 percent of the old kit, their project of retention and enhancement also extends to the cultural realm: they’ve helped create a home where the First Nation can strengthen its ways of being and knowing.

Susan Nerberg is a writer and editor based in Montreal.