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From the Design Quarterly: Bridging cultures to create buildings for unique populations

June 18, 2018

By Percy “Rebel” Roberts and Vlad Bortnowski

Lessons in navigating cultural differences in the design process from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara

As a global design practice, Stantec works with native communities in Canada, the United States, and around the world. When designing for populations with such unique and vibrant ways of life, preserving and celebrating local and regional culture takes center stage.

This experience can inform our design practice more broadly, demonstrating how cultural considerations can contribute to a successful project. We asked our designers and architects to share the following thoughts and experience in approaching design that crosses cultural boundaries.

The Iqaluit Airport in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

How important is communication in these culturally-sensitive projects?

Harriet: The lesson I have learned working with indigenous populations is to speak simply, frankly, and from the heart, not using architectural lingo or professional jargon. If one doesn’t know the culture, one should state that in the introduction and note that you are aware of your lack of knowledge. When listening to a community group you should also let them know they have been listened to by giving back examples, references or ideas that build on what you have heard.

All great design is fundamentally about listening. It’s important to come with some degree of humility and willingness to understand even though you may not share a tradition.

Speak simply, frankly, and from the heart, not using architectural lingo or professional jargon.

Vlad: The main challenge in terms of understanding our clients and the ultimate users of those facilities is to be aware of the two different worldviews. Our Western worldview is very hierarchical. Traditional cultures are more based on consensus. They’re horizontal. You have to hear the stories of each member of the community that wants to speak and listen to even the smallest details. That patience pays off and things often fall in their place naturally.

Likewise, when you visit a sweat lodge, for example, you have to speak from your heart and be aware of the deep meaning of your presence, of your actions, of your designs, of your thoughts.

Bruce: With the indigenous community, storytelling is important. There is a story or a message behind what they want to say. You have to give them time to say that. A family that might seem shy initially, might want to take time to introduce themselves, really share who they are, what they do, and why this is important.

Piqqusilirivvik: Inuit Cultural Learning Facility in Clyde River, Nunavut.

What have you learned about approaching projects for indigenous communities?

Bruce: We tend to make assumptions about what we’ve heard or what we might know of the culture. A typical example is smudging. Any healthcare project that wants to pay respect to First Nations say “Oh, we need to have space for smudging.” But, it turns out, that it’s not something that every First Nations community does; it can even vary from family to family. If you have a little bit of knowledge, don’t assume you have all the knowledge.

How important is partnering to project success?

Vlad: For us, on Sioux Lookout, we had a chance to work with Douglas Cardinal (a prominent aboriginal architect in Canada). Through working with him, I think we managed to understand and reflect and respond to the culture of those communities.

Rebel: We are aligned with a wonderful local architect named Mariam Kamaro for our project in Niger. We are working with University of Chicago Paleontologist Paul Sereno to learn more about the culture in Niger, by traveling to experience things first-hand and through clinic sessions. We meet and exchange ideas with advocacy groups such as a women’s group that was instrumental in ending the Tuareg revolution. Who you partner with is important.

Meno Ya Win Health Centre in Sioux Lookout, Ontario.

How does the climate or cultural view of the land influence these places?

Vlad: We learned a lot about the Anishnawbe people’s relationship with the land and nature and used that in the design of their Community Health Centre in Toronto. The approach draws the landscape through the building into a central communal space, recognizing the lasting connection between nature and wellness. What we build is informed by the stories of the elders and—to truly reflect Indigenous values—must be resilient for seven future generations.

Rebel: Climate is influential. In Agadez, Niger, they have incredible sand and wind storms. So, a building in Agadez is going to look like a building in Agadez, because it is shaped by those environmental conditions. To some degree, it’s up to us to fit our hand in that glove.

Harriet: Many projects have failed due to inattention to climate, local conditions, or misinterpretation of local culture and traditions. For example, Inuit people like to see the weather. Traditionally they were constantly adjusting their thoughts and plans to respond to local weather patterns. In buildings, they like to see outside. Schools were built in the Arctic with limited windows intended to focus inward, conserve energy, and protect the people from the harsh winter conditions. The designers of those projects failed to understand that the environment and the land is fundamental to who the Arctic people are—they love to see the vistas and views.

Another example occurred from the late ’60s to the late ’90s. Buildings in Canada’s far north were often designed with slab-on-grade foundations, and the grade was permafrost. Heat loss from the interior of the building through the slab caused the permafrost to melt and, ultimately, the building floors to sink. We have found the installation of thermosyphons effective in keeping the ground frozen underneath buildings when large concrete slabs are required on grade in the Arctic. Thermosyphons were used on projects such as Iqaluit Airport, St. Jude’s Cathedral, Iqaluit RCMP Building, and the Inuvik Hospital.

North Island Hospitals in Courtenay and Campbell River, British Columbia.

How can these buildings blend tradition with modernity?

Rebel: The idea is to acknowledge the local and vernacular building practices and build on those technologies in a way that’s going to honor culture but move it forward in a way. People, material, climates are among the elements that we look to in making the project authentic to a place. Fundamentally, it’s about placemaking.

Do these kinds of projects carry extra significance in their communities?

Rebel: Places such as the new museum in Agadez will be places people want to go largely because of the architecture. These will be new symbols of a society that is progressing. That’s the goal. Projects like this want to be iconic.

Bruce: A new $250 million hospital, like the North Island Hospitals, is likely the most significant building that will ever be built in a community like Campbell River or Comox Valley. We have a responsibility to honor the culture, tradition, history, and the people of the community who will use these facilities and be impacted by it in their daily lives. Designed and approached thoughtfully, these projects enrich culture, contribute to culture, and build community legacy.

  • Percy “Rebel” Roberts
  • Vlad Bortnowski

    With over 30 years of experience, Vlad has led design and healthcare planning teams for several major facilities in Ontario.

    Contact Vlad
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