Twenty + Change: dk Architecture, North Vancouver, British Columbia

“It’s about people seeing themselves and being proud of who they are.”

A member of Xaxli’p First Nation in the British Columbia interior, Dave Kitazaki is committed to using his profession to help Indigenous people across B.C. take back and celebrate their cultures—all while adding structures to house needed services and enhance economic development. “It’s about people seeing themselves and being proud of who they are,” says the North Vancouver-based principal of dk Architecture, founded in 2014.

he recently opened Yaqan Nukiy Health and Administration office, in Creston, B.C., is shaped like a traditional sturgeon-nosed canoe. Photo by Martin Knowles

The new administration and health office for Yaqan Nukiy in Creston, B.C., is shaped like a sturgeon-nosed canoe (also known as a Kootenai Canoe), and, at the request of the chief, includes a central meeting room that resembles a sweat lodge. The resemblance is in basic form only—rather than a dark, smoky space, the room soars upwards to a spectacular oculus. When it opened this summer, the Lower Kootenay Band got more than an administrative building—they’re being welcomed into a living space that reflects and elevates the community’s traditions.

The design of its central meeting room is inspired by a sweat lodge. Photo by Martin Knowles

In most places, a health and social services complex would be considered a standard building, but in a First Nations context, it may double as an informal community centre. “A medical building isn’t just a doctor’s office,” says Kitazaki. “It can also be the main hub, a gathering place—so it carries much more meaning.” To illustrate, he points to the Skeetchestn Health Centre, outside Kamloops, B.C. Located at the core of Skeetchestn First Nation’s new business development area, it’s a health facility first and foremost. But after medical staff have left for the day, the building’s central room becomes a community meeting space where people can hang out, adding an indoor equivalent to its large sheltered outdoor area. Inside, the wooden ceiling plane is lifted on clerestory glazing, creating a single continuous plane with the wooden canopy outside, to striking effect.

A soaring canopy provides a warm welcome and a sheltered gathering place for visitors to the Skeetchestn Health Centre, outside Kamloops, B.C. Photo by Martin Knowles

To achieve results that enhance collective well-being, Kitazaki underscores the importance of understanding that First Nations are not monolithic. “All First Nations are unique, and each has its own culture, ceremonies and history,” he says. What’s more, the process—from feasibility study to design and construction—is different from working with non-Indigenous clients. With First Nations, the client is a larger stakeholder group: it includes band council and, depending on the Nation’s structure and traditions, Elders and hereditary Chiefs. There are also cultural considerations to take into account, such as whether site blessings need to occur prior to construction, and if the building needs to accommodate smudging ceremonies. “You really need a deeper level of input from the people who will be using the building.”

A continuous strip of clerestory glazing allows the canopy to visually extend from outside to inside. Photo by Martin Knowles

This social responsibility goes hand-in-hand with environmental stewardship. “All First Nations believe we are part of the land, so sustainability is fundamental,” says Kitazaki. He adds that many communities operate with limited maintenance budgets, so energy-efficient design is also essential on a practical level.

“My goal is to design buildings that proudly represent my clients,” says Kitazaki. He’s currently looking forward to the grand opening of the Haisla Health Centre in Kitimat, B.C. Resembling a traditional longhouse, the front third of the building is a traditional post-and-beam structure with two log columns and a log beam framing the entrance. Facing the street, eight wide columns are painted to express the eight Haisla clans, and a central carving was completed by Haisla artist Sammy Robinson.

As handsome as the longhouse is, Kitazaki comes back to the idea that, ultimately, his work is not just about the building. “It’s about the people using the building—that’s what makes it successful.”

This profile is part of our August 2021 feature story, Twenty + Change: Emerging Talent