Noted architect finds balance in unified vision
OTTAWA -- After confronting imperial designs in two capitals, Canadian
architect Douglas Cardinal has returned home to the work of building Native
communities. His recent breakthroughs in village design could well turn out
to be among his most significant achievements.
This is no trivial statement for the 76-year-old Cardinal, Blackfoot/Metis,
who has been called the most significant Canadian architect by no less an
authority than Philip Johnson, widely regarded as one of the most
significant U.S. architects. Cardinal has left his mark in both Ottawa and
Washington, D.C., as the designer of each capital's museum of Native
But colleagues say these projects fail to tell the complete story of an
illustrious and vibrant career, one that includes a passion for planning
Native communities. Since he returned full-time to this work, his results
are drawing praise for their startling combination of indigenous spirit and
innovative technology. One Cree village named Ouje'-Bougoumou was designed
and built in the early 1990s and has received international recognition.
Plans for another village for the Kamloops Indian Band were recently
approved by the tribal council. Both reflect a vision of a modern
settlement based on traditional Native life.
"Our communities could end up as leaders for the future," Cardinal told
Indian Country Today.
According to one collaborator, Cardinal's vision has found its least
compromised expression in the recently completed plans for the Kamloops
Indian Band village, although the plans resulted from intensive
consultation with village members. Here as in earlier projects, Cardinal
said, he answers directly to First Nations communities, not to the federal
government. "Our First Nations have always been ordered about by architects
and government bureaucrats," he said, "but our own thinking about
architecture has provided survival for thousands of years on the land, in a
symbiotic relation with nature."
Cardinal designed the Kamloops settlement in a circle, with a circular
cluster of houses for each extended family. Each cluster centers on a small
park and play area, where children and elders can interact. The community
center is just that: in the center of the community. Cars are banished to
the outer ring. Children can walk to school on a greenway without having to
cross a road.
This design is highly traditional in purpose but was only made possible
when Cardinal located an advanced technology that freed him from the limits
of modern city planning.
"Cities are all designed around sewage systems," he said. "Most sewage runs
in straight lines." Cities, he said, are locked into a mid-19th century
sewage disposal technology that actually dates back to the Romans. To break
free, he needed a more flexible system that could accommodate his circular
layout. Providentially, he found one in his home city of Ottawa, developed
by a small but growing engineering firm named Clearford Industries.
Clearford President Bruce Linton spoke with awe about Cardinal's trademark
curvilinear style. "Douglas doesn't even own a ruler, I don't think," he
The find saved Cardinal from the compromises he had to make in an earlier
community project, a new village named Ouje'-Bougoumou he designed in the
early '90s for a St. James Bay Cree band on Lake Opemiska, about 400 miles
north of Quebec City. The village is considered a great success story,
receiving U.N. awards in 1995. But Cardinal said he could not give the
residents as much space between houses as they wanted because of the cost
of laying the sewer lines.
Still, the Ouje'-Bougoumou project set the pattern Cardinal now follows
with Native communities. "I went to the people themselves," he said. In
open meetings with a large portion of the 650 villagers, he said, "Each got
up and gave his vision for the future of the community."
Cardinal wrote down the ideas and went back to Ottawa to produce a design.
Then he went back. As he recounts it: "This is my idea for your community.
But what does a Blackfoot educated in Texas know about the St. James Bay
Cree? To impose this would be a colonial act." He asked for their
"At first they were quiet," he said. But with some urging they started to
speak. "They tore it to shreds," he said.
"All I did was sit down and list all the things that could be changed. I
went home and redrafted it." When he returned, 500 people attended the
"I went through seven iterations," Cardinal said. On the final
presentation, "the chief said, 'Doug wants your criticism.' The room was
silent. The chief turned to me and said, 'Doug, that's your village.'"
The result, said Cardinal, is a "lovely village," well-tended with 100
percent employment. "It shows what happens when people get the right and
responsibility of self-determination."
The success of projects such as Ouje'-Bougoumou do not come easy, said
Larry McDermott, an Algonquin from Sharbot Mishagma and the mayor of Lanark
Highlands, a rural municipality west of Ottawa. "Cardinal is challenging
the entrenched way the federal government distributes resources to
aboriginal peoples in a condescending manner that smothers local aboriginal
creative processes," said McDermott. "Part of his brilliance is not only
design and his methodology of consulting with aboriginal peoples, but his
dedication and willingness to endure limitations in order to promote
These projects came well after Cardinal made his international reputation
in 1989 with the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec. With its
undulating expanse of limestone, it is considered one of the country's most
famous buildings. In the mid-'90s, he devoted years to the commission for
the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in
Washington, D.C. That project ended in bitter dispute and was completed by
another firm, but it bears Cardinal's unmistakable inspiration and
He describes both buildings as an aboriginal rebuke to the "imperial
spirit" of the dominant architecture in each country's capital, the
Victorian Gothic of Ottawa and the Greco-Roman of Washington, D.C. The site
of the NMAI building right in front of the U.S. Capitol, he said, makes the
point that "we are still here and we aren't going to go away."
But from Cardinal's current perspective, these large buildings look almost
like a diversion from his main love: working directly with Native
communities. He recalled that he began his career in the 1960s in Alberta
in the company of activists advocating Indian control of education. He
helped draft a master plan for Indian education with Alberta's 52 chiefs
and designed a series of school and college buildings.
On his return to Ottawa, he became associated with famed Algonquin elder
William Commanda, now 92. He has designed an indigenous culture center that
Commanda hopes to locate on the traditional Algonquin meeting place on
Victoria Island in Ottawa. Commanda, he said, helped him work through the
intense emotions of the break with the NMAI.
"After Washington, I got very angry," Cardinal said. "Working with William
on this project [the Victoria Island center], he made me see that I had to
forgive. I learned about humility."
"I learned a lot from William," he continued. "I'm learning so much about
balance, and a symbiotic relation with nature." These insights, he said,
helped him understand his community planning with more depth. "It has to do
with the interconnectedness of all of us," he said. "We are totally
connected with nature."
"We have to take responsibility," he said. "People don't do things out of
malice or evil intent, just lack of knowledge and thoughtlessness. If you
have that knowledge and wisdom, you have the responsibility to do something