Unreserved

Architect Douglas Cardinal on building in harmony with nature 

Douglas Cardinal is considered one of the most important Indigenous architects on Turtle Island. He designed his first building more than 50 years ago. Since then, he’s received just about every award for his work.
"Architecture is a very powerful art," said Cardinal. (djcarchitect.com)

Douglas Cardinal is considered one of the most important Indigenous architects on Turtle Island.

He designed his first building more than 50 years ago. Since then, he's received just about every award for his work, from being titled an Officer of the Order of Canada to being named "World Master of Contemporary Architecture" by the International Association of Architects. 

He's designed iconic buildings like the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., the First Nations University in Regina, Sask., and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. 

Douglas spoke to Unreserved about his life's work and how his childhood has influenced his architecture. This interview was recorded before the pandemic at the Canadian Museum of History, a building that Cardinal calls a second home. 

'We are part of nature'

Cardinal's designs incorporate nature in unique ways. The organic form of the Canadian History Museum takes inspiration from the Rocky Mountains, "the backbone of Turtle Island," explained Cardinal. 

"I wanted to have the building feel like it was … in harmony with Turtle Island," he said. "I wanted to have this feeling of a rock formation that was carved by nature." 

Cardinal hoped the structure would remind people of their place in the natural world, too — "to remind us that we are part of nature." 

"I always objected to the idea that we were dominion over nature," he said.

The Kichi Sibi, the Algonquin word and the original name for the Ottawa River, runs alongside the museum. And across the river from the Canadian Museum of History is Parliament Hill.

An archive photo of Cardinal from 1989, at the opening of the Canadian Museum of History. (The National/CBC Archives)

When envisioning the museum, Cardinal thought about how Parliament is situated on the river but appears disconnected from it. "Parliament turns its back on the river," explained Cardinal. He wanted the museum to feel like it was in relationship to the Kichi Sibi. 

"I thought that this building should address the river in a very powerful way. And, so, the whole building relates to the river."

The Porcupine Hills

Cardinal's approach to architecture, of being influenced by nature, is something that he learnt in childhood. 

Cardinal reflected on growing up in the Porcupine Hills, in Alberta, and living in a log cabin built by his father. The cabin didn't have electricity or running water. 

"It was really living in nature," he recalled. 

I still remember how important it was to work in harmony with nature.-Douglas Cardinal

Cardinal's father taught him to hunt and to appreciate "the animals that gave us life and food, because they were our life givers," he explained. 

"He had amazing respect for all life," Cardinal said of his father.

"I still remember how important it was to work in harmony with nature, and understand nature and be a part of nature." 

'I never thought of expressing myself as an Indigenous architect'

Cardinal's work is sometimes referred to as "Indigenous architecture." But that isn't how Cardinal describes his designs. 

"I never thought of expressing myself as an Indigenous architect. I thought of expressing myself as an organic architect that emphasized the beauty and vitality and richness of nature." 

Architect Douglas Cardinal at 'UNCEDED - Voices of the Land' at the Canadian Museum of History. UNCEDED was a collaborative effort from many Indigenous architects in Canada. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

Organic architecture, a term coined by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, usually refers to buildings whose shapes mimic nature.

Internationally, Cardinal explained, his work is looked at as organic architecture. But in Canada Cardinal's work is often seen as "Indigenous architecture." 

"Because I do things differently, and because of my own Indigenous roots, then people class my architecture here in Canada as Indigenous." 

The power of architecture 

Architecture can impact how people relate to their environments, and to themselves, said Cardinal. Buildings can make people feel at home, they can inspire, or they can make people feel small and disconnected, he explained.

"Architecture is a very powerful art," said Cardinal. "It's not just mere shelter." 

"Not only do you view it as a piece of sculpture, but you walk in it. It envelops your whole environment, it totally surrounds you, and therefore it can be very powerful in influencing you."  

People shape environments, but environments also shape people, Cardinal explained. He worries about the "brutal way" that some buildings and cities affect people. 

"We need to have our environments affect us in a very caring way. And I think that we should have more beauty and balance and nurturing in our environments."

Designing with those principles in mind can have positive influences on society, explained Cardinal. 

"If we design cities with those values, what amazing cities we could design and what amazing places they could be."

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