Science·What on Earth?

Why Indigenous architecture is 'a positive force that supports nature'

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the nature-based philosophy of Indigenous architecture and explore one of the Atlantic Ocean's big mysteries: 'the cold blob.'

Also: What is 'the cold blob'?

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Why Indigenous architecture is 'a positive force that supports nature'
  • The 'cold blob': A deeper dive into a strange corner of the Atlantic Ocean
  • What on Earth is now a radio show, too!

Why Indigenous architecture is 'a positive force that supports nature'

(DIALOG Architects)

In recent years, there has been a movement toward more environmentally conscious architecture. But Eladia Smoke, founder and principal of Hamilton, Ont.-based Smoke Architecture, has long subscribed to this philosophy. Anishinaabekwe from Obishikokaang/Lac Seul First Nation, Smoke creates designs inspired by the natural world and grounded in Indigenous teachings. The firm's current projects include the A-Block building expansion at Centennial College in Toronto with DIALOG Architects (photo above), and Smoke's past work includes a redevelopment of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network headquarters in Winnipeg with Prairie Architects. Andre Mayer spoke to Smoke about the connections between nature and the built environment.

Your work has a reverence for nature. Has the pandemic taken that a step further?

Absolutely. The thing about crisis is that crisis demands resilience. And nothing is more resilient than the principles that were developed on this continent during the course of many millennia prior to contact [with European settlers]. Those principles have to do with a diversity of life. 

Oftentimes, we view our built environment as different or separate from the natural environment. There is no reason that has to be the case. Millions of people lived on this continent before contact, but you barely even knew that they had lived here because the impact was so minimal. In fact, we've always viewed human life and our built environment as a positive force that supports nature. That's an Indigenous view of the built environment – it's actually regenerative.

What would be an example in your work?

For instance, at Centennial College, we were sure to always include Indigenous plantings around the building, including some of the plants that are representative of some of the most important plants to our historical uses. We're also very careful to create views from as many places in the building as possible, including even the lowest levels, to plants that we would recognize.

There's a strong nature element to the community centre and roundhouse project for Henvey Inlet First Nation in northern Ontario.

Henvey is in a process of change — they've just built a wind farm, and that's what's actually funding this project. They harvested some of the wood from the clearing that was required for the wind farm, and stockpiled it — we're hoping we can use it to build the roundhouse.

They're in a stage of transition, so instead of the static form that you see for roundhouses, which is very octagonal and very stable … this is a dynamic form. At each point of the roof there are these poles that support the roof – 13 of them. Thirteen is a very significant number for Anishinaabe. We understand 13 to be the number of moons in a year, the number of plates on a turtle's back, and we live on Turtle Island, 13 ribs on a woman, who represents the mother. Thirteen poles support that roof, and it connects back to the earth.… It's as though the change that is happening in Henvey Inlet grows from a deep understanding of the land.

How do you capture that connection to nature in urban settings?

It's so hard when you don't have any land around you to regenerate. [Laughs] That's tough.

The centre of the [APTN building] is a drum….  The drum was symbolic of APTN's broadcast to the nation. However, it was also that the drum is very important in Anishinaabe thought — it represents a realignment of one's own heart with the rhythms and cycles of nature.

The Centennial building also has a heart to the building. In the centre is the Indigenous Commons, and it's a dome-shaped space designed around the principles of the Niimii'idiwigamig, which is the Anishinaabe roundhouse, and that's a space for drum ceremonies. That drum and that space connect with many of the nature points of interest in the building. It connects with that interior courtyard, where we have those plantings. If you go out the door of the Indigenous Commons, you're right at this nature circulation corridor through the building, which has a mirror in an outdoor planted Indigenous garden.… That corridor mimics the topography of the garden outside, so you almost feel that physical connection.

Vegetation is key to your work. How do you feel about the recent trend among architects for condos overflowing with plants?

I love it. It gives me a huge hope for the future, because the first step is to start a narrative — a narrative where humans actually support the life around them.

What other changes have you seen in your field?

The most profound change I've seen in architecture, and it really is only in the last couple of years, is a realization on the part of mainstream Canadians that our built environment doesn't have any Indigenous presence in it. And this is starting to become a demand on the part of clients.

The client group for [the Centennial College project] was so passionate about integrating Indigenous principles — and not just artwork put on a surface after the building was built, but actually integrating it right into the bones of the building. This is an amazing shift, and I really hope we see more of it, because it's going to result in much richer environments for us all to enjoy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Reader feedback

Our piece on eating wild plants last week garnered some warnings from readers.

Anne Morgan wrote, "I am concerned about people who think it is OK to forage wild plants. Not only are they trampling natural areas, but they are destroying habitat. In Ontario, there are groups who think it is fine to gather wild leeks in the spring. Constantly removing these plants prevents the regeneration by both bulb and seed, and thus the reduction of wild garlic in some areas. Obviously, it is fine to gather invasives like garlic mustard … indeed, I don't know why it is not encouraged a lot more. But in general, wild foraging is not helping our natural environment."

Terry McDonald from Guelph, Ont., wrote, "I wish the media would get off the foraging bandwagon. Stop encouraging them! The too-few natural areas in and around urban centres are being ruined by people scurrying through the woods and meadows looking for their little natural gems. There are some who are very respectful, but from the evidence I've seen, the majority are not!

"In public places (conservation areas and parks), visitors are required to 'stay on the trails,' but foragers think it doesn't apply to them. This rule is in place to avoid habitat from being disturbed by too many feet. We are also asked 'do not pick the flowers,' which applies to all plants, for obvious reasons. Why do foragers think they are exempt? Whatever happened to 'take only pictures, leave only footsteps'? Leave the foraging for the wildlife!"

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: The cold blob

Global warming has had the quite predictable effect of warming our oceans, but one region of the Atlantic just south of Greenland has defied expectation. While global temperatures have risen by an average of 1 C in the past century, this area has cooled by nearly that much (or 0.9 C, to be more precise). So what's the story with the area that scientists refer to as "the cold blob?" Some research has posited that its coolness has to do with a weakening of ocean currents bringing heat up from the tropics. A new study in Nature Climate Change proposed other factors, including changes in ocean circulation at high latitudes and "more low-level clouds" in the area. The broader implication is that human-caused climate change is affecting our oceans in unpredictable ways.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

What on Earth is hitting the airwaves

(Ben Shannon/CBC)

It's life and death. It's an existential crisis. It crosses international borders and will test all of us eventually in one way or another.

This is not an article about the pandemic. It is about climate change and a first for the CBC — a new radio program dedicated entirely to investigating climate change, its impacts and potential solutions.

What on Earth the radio show launches this Sunday, July 5, and will be hosted by me, Laura Lynch. Every week, it will give listeners the opportunity to learn something surprising about the climate crisis.

Some scientists argue that climate change has made a pandemic more likely as habitats change, animals move and pathogens jump to new hosts — including humans.

"There are reasons to fear we will leap from the COVID frying pan into the climate fire," said Cameron Hepburn, one of the authors of a new U.K. study urging governments to use post-pandemic stimulus spending on projects that will push countries closer to a low-carbon future. Hepburn will also be a guest on the first episode of What on Earth

Indeed, that is the jumping-off point for our first program: how the pandemic has affected climate and how governments might shape change in the months and years to come.

In future programs, we will seize on different pieces of the climate change puzzle. We hope to talk about melting ice, fire and floods and the staggering effects on people who have lived in these conditions. 

We also intend to go in unexpected directions. We'll look at climate change through the lens of the arts — music, literature, photography — as well as business and race. Each week, we also want to highlight potential solutions, scrutinizing them to determine if they offer real hope or if they really only exist as a mirage in the desert. 

What on Earth comes to you from Vancouver. I was born and raised here and covered the environment in B.C. when I was a junior reporter many years ago. Since then, I've travelled the world reporting on conflict, war, natural disasters and national crises. 

I have also covered climate change and the environment from abroad. I have told stories about the destruction of a way of life on a river delta in Pakistan; the increasing numbers of baboons invading vineyards in Cape Town, South Africa, as their habitat shrinks; and a Danish island — Samso — that has become a global model for sustainable living after switching its power generation from oil and coal to wind and solar power, along with biomass. 

We are excited to bring this new program to you and we want you to think about what questions you have around climate change, since we hope to answer listener questions in a future episode. 

There is so much to explore. 

Laura Lynch

Listen to What on Earth every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m. in Newfoundland. You can also subscribe to What on Earth on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also listen anytime on CBC Listen.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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