architecture social justice

The indigenous architecture of Centennial College

This week I was thinking about statues of slavers and how the built environment can exclude ethnic minorities. When architectural heritage reflects the imagery of empire and conquest, it sends powerful signals about who is valued and who is not, who the land belongs to and who is welcome.

Rather than deconstruct any familiar buildings or monuments, literally or metaphorically, I thought I’d write about how it can be different. So my building of the week is Centennial College in Ontario, Canada. It has commissioned a new building which ticks all the boxes I look for in sustainable architecture, and it also purposefully brings together western and indigenous cultures in its design.

“At Centennial we view sustainability, inclusivity and Indigeneity as wholly interconnected ideas” says the CEO Craig Stephenson. “We wanted a building that demonstrates that crucial relationship.”

The new college building will be mass timber, locking up thousands of tonnes of CO2 and making it a zero carbon build. The building envelope provides efficient insulation and prevents overheating in summer, and the building can partly power itself from the solar PV on the roof. It should acheive LEED gold status when completed in 2023.

Sometimes architecture looks to indigenous culture and ends up with some kind of pastiche, or it includes a token element to nod at indigenous art. To make sure it’s done well, the Centennial College extension was designed with indigenous architects. Among the partners on the project are Smoke Architecture, a practice owned and operated by architects from the Anishinaabeg First Nation.

That ensures that the design goes beyond the application of visual tropes, and incorporates the values of indigenous people into the structure. It includes sustainability and those zero carbon ambitions. It includes community, and the flow of people through the building has been planned as a convergence into common space. Plantings of native species and biophilic elements honour a strong connection to nature.

There are explicit references to indigenous culture too. The entrance is to the east, reflecting the local tradition of siting buildings to face the rising sun. The white patterned wrap around the building has been imagined as a wigwam covering lifted at the edge. Domed breakout rooms are inspired by Anishinaabe roundhouses.

In other words, there are visual cues that serve as reminders of Indigenous culture, but the values are also built in. This is a building that embodies the idea of interconnection between people and with nature. It seeks to understand the wisdom of the region’s first peoples and embed it in the build landscape – as it was and as it should be. And it does so while still looking to the future.

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