How this Indigenous architect designs buildings with Indigenous history and spirituality in mind

When Alfred Waugh attended university to study architecture, he never imagined he would one day design buildings on those same campuses. His facilities mean to help integrate Indigeous peoples, traditions and histories into Canada’s universities.

Alfred Waugh’s designs for Canadian campuses help establish a sense of identity for Indigenous people.

Alfred Waugh and the interior rendition of his design for the Indigenous House at the University of Toronto, Scarborough campus. (Submitted by Alfred Waugh)

Alfred Waugh is designing buildings he never had access to in university. 

Waugh grew up in Yellowknife, so moving to Lethbridge, Alta. and then Vancouver for post-secondary education was a huge culture shock. He arrived feeling divorced from his culture and the land he grew up on.

Today the Chipewyan architect is the president and founder of Formline Architecture. His projects include First People's House at the University of Victoria, the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia. 

Waugh's latest project is the Indigenous House at the University of Toronto, Scarborough campus — a building designed not just for students, but for Indigenous peoples in Toronto-at-large.

Waugh spoke with Tapestry's Mary Hynes about what it takes to design buildings that reflect Indigenous peoples and their histories. 

Tell me about Indigenous House at U of T Scarborough. What are the goals for what you're creating?

It's an interesting project. Some universities across Canada are developing First Nations facilities to retain Indigenous students, share culture, and address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to provide equal opportunity for Indigenous students.

When I was a student I came from Yellowknife to study at university, and there weren't any facilities like this.

'We kind of took this landscape bowl, and just blended it into the building:' Alfred Waugh

1 year ago
Duration 2:21
Indigenous architect Alfred Waugh on designing Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Center at the University of British Columbia. 2:21

Did you have to contend with many stereotypes at the time being an Indigenous student from the north?

Oh my goodness, yes! When I started architecture school they had us do a two-week camping trip as part of an urban design project. We were camping on a beach in this little resort community on Vancouver Island. We had visiting professors, and every night there would be a theme dinner.

One night they had an Indigenous-themed dinner. People were like "woo"-ing and hitting their pots and doing all kinds of weird stuff. And I didn't feel comfortable, right? So I didn't participate in the dinner. At that time, I was quite young, and something inside me said, "this isn't right."

The next morning, the professor from Jerusalem gets up and says, "I understand we insulted someone," you know, "we didn't mean anything," and so forth.

Then I found myself standing in front of 45 people – I didn't know anybody, and I was nervous and shy. My voice was shaking. And I said, "It's just not right. You're stereotyping Indigenous people. There are all different kinds of Indigenous people across this country." So I made my statement. And then after that I gained, I guess, a bit of respect from everybody.

It was not something I planned. But it helped mold my journey as an architect. It helped me consider how my work can establish a sense of identity for Indigenous people. That was one of those moments that gave me some passion to keep going and finish this and prove myself.

So when our project was under construction at UBC, I was thinking, 'I'm actually doing something for my people on a national scale.'- Alfred Waugh

You now design buildings for campuses across the country – do you feel a bit vindicated?

 I feel proud. It's an interesting feeling to go to UBC where, from the architecture studio where I used to study, you can now see the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Center that I designed. So that gives me a good feeling, a sense of pride that I've actually accomplished something. Because my mom's life ended tragically in 1999 and she's the one who forced me to go to university. I was working on an oil rig in the 80s. I was making lots of money, and I had a girlfriend and all those kinds of things. But my mom said, "You got to go to university, and you got to do something for your people." 

Indigenous House at the University of Toronto, Scarborough campus. (Formline Architecture)

Those were your mom's words?

Yeah, she'd say, "You're too smart to waste your life away up here." I guess that stuck in my head. So when our project was under construction at UBC, I was thinking, "I'm actually doing something for my people on a national scale." And yeah, that's a good feeling.

Your project at UBC was the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Center. Why was it important to have so much natural light?

UBC is on unceded territory of the Musqueam people. We had some engagement sessions with the Musqueam Nation. I asked them, "What's one of the most important things this building should achieve?" And they said because it's a conduit to the Truth and Reconciliation records – photos, writings, and testimonials from residential school survivors – the building may spur an emotional response for some people. So it's really important to us that no matter where you are in this building, you're able to turn and see the landscape and experience its calming effects.

Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Center at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. (Formline Architecture)

I'm so interested in how a constructed space can convey things that are maybe intangible qualities, like resilience, or a sense of freedom, and you do that through physical objects like wood, copper or glass. How do you do that? 

For the UBC project we were told: the building has to feel Indigenous, but it can't represent any one nation. So the connection to the landscape is one thing, blurring the boundaries between inside and out. The materiality comes into focus. I was looking at Salish longhouses. In the past, to keep the draft out, they would weave bullrush mats and put them in the back of the longhouse. So as you descend down the wall at the UBC, you're walking past woven cedar, and it turned out really nice. That's where the seeds of inspiration came.

First Peoples House at the University of Victoria, B.C. (Nic LeHoux)

And the other aspect is out on the West Coast here with the Musqueam, the Salish, the Tsleil-Waututh, and a lot of the other Salish-speaking nations, cedar was used for everything – basket weaving, canoes, all kinds of things. An elder told me, "cedar's the blood of our culture." And there's a Japanese form of treating wood that makes it more inert, more resilient. So we treated the cedar to make it resilient too.

And the roof of the building – it had to sit low, it had to have a green roof. But I warned that it could look buried, which is how people had felt over history. So I suggested we use copper because it's a symbol of dignity for many people in the north. So we used copper and glass, and created a glass waterfall on the roof for rainwater to flow down. I saw that as a symbol of the tears of people who'd been in residential schools.

What would it have meant to you if there had been a building on campus like the Indigenous House?

I think it would have maintained my cultural connections more. One of my favourite buildings is the First Peoples House I designed at the University of Victoria. We designed an Elders' Lounge so elders can come in and see how the kids are doing in school, have a cup of tea, and maybe do some counselling of students so that they have someone to talk to. That would have been really cool if that were around when I was going to school because it maintains those cultural ties.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Written by Kate Adach. Produced by Arman Aghbali.