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Role of Architecture and Design in Modern Society

Info: 3058 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 3rd Dec 2020 in Architecture

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Persuasive Research Paper

Architecture and design play an integral role in modern society. It is something that society experiences on a daily basis, however, just because we live with it, doesn’t mean that it nourishes our lives and the communities who use it. There are many marginalized populations who do not get the benefit of a rewarding piece of architecture; one such marginalized group that I will be focusing on are Indigenous communities within Canada. Despite the overwhelming lack of social justice for these populations, architects, some of whom are Indigenous architects, are working on a solution to get justice for an underserved group that has a history as having one of the lowest-impact ways of living. Through the case studies in this paper, I will be looking at how architecture and design in the built landscape can bring equality to areas such as, the housing crisis, renewing cultural growth and lack of sufficient educational facilities to marginalized Indigenous communities.

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To write about social justice and how it can help marginalized communities that it seeks to serve, we must look at what exactly the motivation behind the movement is. Social justice “focuses our attention on the relative position of different members of our society and on examining the disparities that might exist, the root causes of these disparities, and the opportunities for eliminating them” (Province of Manitoba, 2017). It is linked to the concept of equity – the treatment of individuals in their own social context to meet their needs, and also linked to equality – that society is socially just and made for everyone. Essentially, social justice makes us question if ‘society is just’. The British Columbia Ministry of Education defines social justice as “the full participation and inclusion of all people in society, together with the promotion and protection of their legal, civil and human rights” (Province of Manitoba, 2017). Centering on Indigenous populations in Canada, the act of social justice with these groups has had a tumultuous relationship with the government. “Although Canada has embraced multiculturalism as a national identity, Aboriginal Peoples have remained largely outside of the multiculturalism discourse and inclusion policies” (Moore, Maxwell, Anderson, 2019).

The following case study is an evident indication of how social justice has been attained through the built environment. As many Canadians are aware, residential schools which were enacted through the Indian Act of 1876, mandated that Indigenous children attend schools which were carried out by churches that had little objective of educating Aboriginal children but more so of indoctrinating them into the Christian and Euro-centric way of living in mainstream Canadian society. This school system saw their belongings and siblings taken away and it was here that they were forced to speak English. These buildings were generally “badly constructed, poorly maintained, overcrowded, unsanitary fire traps” (Moore, Maxwell, Anderson, 2019). Though it took until 1996 for the last residential school to close; the case study we will be examining was built between 1988-1991 in the community of Aggasiz, British Columbia. Commissioned by the Seabird Island Band, the Seabird Community School was designed by the architecture firm Patkau who were, and still are, based out of Vancouver. The intent of the school was to provide equal learning opportunities for children and young adults while upholding the aboriginal culture of the Salish people and incorporating a school curriculum informed by the community as well as provincial guidelines. Patkau’s research carefully examined the potential site and nearby community to inform their final design of the shell. By observing weather conditions, as well as the landscape, a design mimicking the nearby vista was formed. Not only did the school serve its purpose as an educational facility that would facilitate Indigenous culture, but it responded to the environment which adheres to a key Indigenous design principle. By orienting the roof into steep peaks, the extreme wind from the mountains and rivers is diverted away from the site; the exterior is also a testament to the community it was commissioned for as it resembles a sculptural element reminiscent of Coast Salish art. Taking culturally significant elements from Indigenous culture and incorporating them through the built environment helped start the path to reconciliation by acknowledging that Aboriginal heritage has a place in the Canadian education system. As of 2016, the province of British Columbia made changes to the school curriculum that includes lessons on the history and culture of Indigenous populations. B.C.'s Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad said, “the classes will give students a more complete understanding of the province's history with its Aboriginal Peoples and strengthen reconciliation efforts” (Meissner, 2018). The materials used in the design also adhered to the standards of Indigenous design by sourcing local wood throughout the entire project helping the site have a sense of place and emphasizing its vernacular qualities. Now 20 years later, the community still appreciates what the school has done for them; in 2014 when the school needed a new roof and were considering replacement options, the architect they were conferring with was “firm in his belief that the cedar aesthetics be maintained as part of the design. The cultural significance of cedar to [the] community led Seabird to agree with the architect and commit to replacing the shingles with new cedar ones” (Seabird Island Band, 2017). Stacy McNeil, who is the councillor for education in Aggasiz says, “the school has been a huge part of our community for a long time and we’re proud of it. I’m glad that we’re able to take care of it” (Seabird Island Band, 2017). It is clear that architecture built with purpose can provide a mutually beneficial relationship with its users, that will last decades to come. 

In 1951, Albert Einstein once said, “look deep, deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better” (A.S.L & Associates, n.d.). Indigenous cultures embrace a deep connection with nature which translates into a symbiotic relationship; this relationship is applied to all areas of their lives, including architecture. The Nk’ Mip Desert Cultural Centre is one such building that masters this balanced tie between the land and people. One of the ways marginalization impacts Indigenous communities is through the invalidation of Aboriginal culture. The centre, constructed in Osoyoos, British Columbia in 2006 by the firm DIALOG showcases the largest rammed earth wall in North America as one of its sustainable features for the building. Inspired by the Band’s “harmonious interactions with the desert and their conservation efforts for its animals, [DIALOG] used design and materials that speak to these relationships. The team wanted to design a building that would one day make a beautiful ruin” (DIALOG, n.d.). One of the most important qualities of the building site is that is sits on a remnant of the Great Basin Desert which is an unusual ancient Canadian desert found in the Okanagan Valley. Over 1,600 acres are being preserved by the Osoyoos Indian Band that manages the facility. The Nk’ Mip Cultural Centre was the first aboriginal centre as part of the social justice movement to explore architecture as a way to convey the rich Indigenous culture and act as a way to improve relations within these populations and the government. As the result of a BC premier, “aboriginal relations have resulted in changes to the treaty process—as well as a shift in the regulatory environment governing the types of buildings permitted on reserve land” (Valenzuela, 2014). The site features indoor and outdoor exhibitions celebrating the band, and their stewardship of the land. Activities include hikes, animal exhibits, a pit house, demonstrations, pond/animal habitat, and lecture and performance areas. The programming is made possible due to the design of the building which is partially sunken beneath the earth which helps mitigate the extreme temperatures in the valley. The orientation is specific and includes minimal glazing to keep internal temperatures even while the roof is level with the landscape allowing it to stay habitable for flora and fauna. Materials used were local, including blue pine which was donated by the forest industry. “Local experts informed [DIALOG] about materials and building methods that would protect the sensitive desert ecosystem” (DIALOG, n.d.), which helped the overall aesthetic and followed Indigenous design principles needed for the preservation of their culture seven generations into the future. “The architectural expression pushes the boundaries of First Nation’s architecture. Far too often Aboriginal design is visually inferred by times past, while Nk’Mip deliberately celebrates a culture’s present” (Nk’ Mip Desert Cultural Centre, 2020).

In Canada alone, 1.6 million Indigenous people live in egregious conditions; in fact, currently, “in southern Manitoba's Sandy Bay First Nation—a place where winter temperatures often dip below negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit—people are living in rat-infested homes without heat or reliable electricity. Rampant mold in northern Ontario's Cat Lake First Nation is seriously damaging people's health. In Attawapiskat, some people live in uninsulated sheds. Neskantaga First Nation has had a boil-water advisory for 25 years. In Nunavut, tuberculosis infection rates among Inuit are 26 times the national average due to overcrowded housing. Most people can't afford to do better; 80 percent of reserves have median incomes below Canada's poverty line” (Lindeman, 2019). Seamus O’Regan, the federal Indigenous services minister, said “We need to do better…we don’t want children living like this anywhere in the country” (Mercer, 2019). The social issues surrounding designing and building for the housing crisis has been a serious challenge for decades, remarkably, it is “being tackled collectively through a pilot project; a duplex designed as a prototype of sustainable housing that could be built throughout Nunavik” (Atkins, 2018). Nunavik, a region that comprises a third of the north of Quebec and is the homeland of the Inuit, has been in dire needs of adequate housing that respects their culture and way of living. Nearly 12,000 Nunavimmuit live in villages along the Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay. The pilot project which was worked on through the act of co-design - a collaborative design process between Indigenous communities and architects, made sure to incorporate the values of Inuit culture into the initial prototype design. Parties such as “the Société d’habitation du Québec (SHQ), Quebec’s housing agency, has the responsibility to fund social housing across Quebec. The SHQ works collaboratively with the Kativik Regional Government (KRG), the Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau (KMHB), and the Construction Division of the Makivik Corporation” (Atkins, 2018). The goal was to create a culturally responsive design that would be better adapted to the cold climate as well as be highly energy efficient and as close to a passive house standard as it could get. Once the prototype was built it acted as a standard for additional development through its numerous test residents. The architect commissioned was Alain Fournier of EVOQ Architecture which has locations in Ontario and Quebec; since he and the assembled parties had a long and trusted working relationship it’s been said that, “Alain knows the North. He has designed all the social housing for Makivik. As an expert in housing architecture, Alain comes with ideas and innovative solutions that are a good balance – not luxurious or elaborate, but practical, to code and keep tenants safe” (Atkins, 2018). As part of the innovative design, the duplex considered requirements of greater insulation, better quality doors and windows, and treated the sun as a source of energy; by using a reversible entryway, the homes living spaces are always able to face the sun. Using a technique rarely seen in Quebec was the addition of placing the duplex’s on piles driven deep into the ground; this approach is able to preserve the permafrost. “The Venturi effect of the wind clears the snow from around the piles and through the open exterior steps. The entryway to each house includes a cold porch for storing gear and butchered game and a warm porch for coats and boots, with a lockup for hunting rifles and ammunition. The houses have a low-elevated floor system to run the heating pipes and ventilation ducts to address the problem of cold floors” (Atkins, 2018). The interior design accounted for cultural gatherings such as ‘country food feasts’ where people sit on the floor; by utilizing a moveable kitchen island to help enlarge the living and dining area and access to better lighting conditions, multiple activities such as helping women have an easier time sewing can be achieved. Researcher Rudy Riedelsperger returned 11 months after two families had moved into the prototype houses; her findings presented exciting data. On one half, a young family was grateful to have their own home instead of sharing an overcrowded space with multiple families, additionally, the man appreciated having a cold storage for hunted meat and a lock-up space for his guns. On the other side, a mother and daughter were enjoying how warm and sunny the home was; the well thought out design allowed for a bright place to sew their sealskin boots. This trial of supporting the users by embracing their cultural needs allows for not only sustainable living that has low impact on the environment, but it empowers Indigenous people for a better path to the future.

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This paper supports the link between architecture and design as a tool for justice in marginalized populations. The decision to focus on Indigenous groups across Canada meant that I could present an in-depth commentary on the various aspects of Aboriginal lives that have been affected by social injustice. Examining topics such as education, culture, and dwellings, shows how dedication to researching the user and their needs is evident through the presented social justice case studies, making it clear that justice can be accomplished through the act of meaningful architecture and design to fulfill many areas in peoples lives. 

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