Douglas Cardinal Discusses the Importance of Indigenous Worldview in Architecture

Douglas Cardinal, Métis, Blackfoot/Kainai, German and Algonquin, approaches every building as a spiritual assignment. He designs spaces that reflect the natural landscape, often with curvilinear form, and rooted in aboriginal values and culture.

Douglas Cardinal

The renowned architect and philosopher recently lead the Indigenous Design Team that represented Turtle Island at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. The exhibit, UNCEDED: The Voices of the Land, explores indigeneity, resilience, sovereignty and colonization. Presented by Cardinal, and curated by Gerald McMaster and David Fortin, UNCEDED will be on view at the Arsenale in Venice through November 25, 2018.

Cardinal came to fame in the late 1960s when he designed St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Red Deer, Alberta. He is responsible for the design of numerous international landmarks, including the 1989 Museum of History in Ottawa and the conceptual design for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Cardinal’s contributions to the field of architecture have earned him several awards, including recognition as a “World Master of Contemporary Architecture” by the International Association of Architects.

Native Business Magazine™ spoke with Cardinal about UNCEDED and why indigenous perspective is vital to design and community planning.

NBM: How did the Indigenous Design Team represent indigenous culture at The Venice Biennale?

Cardinal: Our culture is matriarchal. …I went to the grandmothers to ask them for direction about how we should present ourselves. They believe that the soft power of love is much greater than the hard power of force.

I wanted to emphasize those values that I had been taught by the elders, and particularly the grandmothers—preservation of life, responsibility to respect nature, etc. The Canada Council for the Arts received more than 20 submissions, and they chose us to represent Canada at the Biennale in Venice based on those principles.

We wanted to present as Turtle Island, not as Canada, because Canada is a state that practices genocide and apartheid. We also had people from the United States. The border doesn’t define us.

We call the exhibit UNCEDED: Voices of the Land. We never did cede anything. We never ceded our land or our rights.

Indigenous peoples are resilient, and we have much to offer the world, because we have values; we have ideals. We have a culture worth embracing and introducing in all professions—particularly in architecture and planning. Our values are in harmony with each other, in harmony with our environment, and in harmony with nature.

NBM: How would you describe the viewer experience, engaging with the exhibit?

Cardinal: As you walk through the exhibit, you’re enveloped by large, curved screens that tell a story. We’re storytellers and we wanted it to be a rich experience.

We used all the latest audiovisual technology and sound—the sounds of our people, singers and drums, and the sounds of nature, water and the wind in the trees. We wanted them to hear the voices of the land.

NBM: Do you think the Indigenous Design Team exhibit at the Venice Biennale will create more opportunity for indigenous architects?

Cardinal: I was inspired by the younger architects—to see what they’re doing and how they are serving their communities. That was very inspiring to me.

Everything in Canada is very colonial in terms of planning and architectural planning. There is no relationship to the land. The architecture comes from outsiders. That’s why they have devastated the land and the waters and everything else, because their values are of exploitation, not caring.

I’ve learned so much from the communities that I’ve served and the elders that have taught me. It’s been very important to have that kind of perspective.

It’s important that we produce an environment that represents the kind of space people really want to live in and be in. It shouldn’t come from some bureaucrat in Ottawa; it should come from the community itself.

I feel that if you have an indigenous background, you have a different worldview. You have a symbiotic relationship with the world around you and that’s reflected in one’s values. That should be reflected in the design that you bring into the world.

Cardinal designed Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario (