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New student centre features the distinctive curves of architect Douglas Cardinal

University of Saskatchewan is the latest institution to boast a building designed by the world-renowned architect.

An architectural rendering of the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre.

When architect douglas cardinal first unveiled his plans for the University of Saskatchewan’s new aboriginal student centre, in May 2012, the elders responded with … silence. Mr. Cardinal and his Saskatoon partner, architect Paul Blaser, thought their plan was fabulous: a sloping courtyard that would connect the new building, to be named the Gordon Oakes Redbear Student Centre, with the existing campus tunnel system. How inclusive, they thought, with thousands of students flowing through every day!

“I fully expected we would be cheered as heroes,” says Mr. Blaser of RBM Architecture in Saskatoon. But, “it was completely quiet. Then one of the elders started talking and it was a story about how her father would say, ‘Never go more than a shovelful into the ground when you’re building your fire.’

“Each of the six or so elders there told a story in turn, every one a version of the first … building on one another until they had made a clear point that it is not the right thing to dig into the ground and have a lower level. But they never said that, they only told stories.”

Mr. Blaser was baffled not only by their reaction, but also by Mr. Cardinal’s. The world-renowned architect, of aboriginal heritage and an advocate for aboriginal causes, was just as calm and silent as the elders.

“I have come to realize that, if he had defended it,” says Mr. Blaser, “the elders probably would have all said, ‘OK that’s fine,’ and then walked away saying, ‘They got it wrong.’”

The building would have fractured the stories and symbols it was intended to embrace, thereby disconnecting it from the very people it was designed for. Mr. Cardinal and Mr. Blaser redesigned the whole building.

Unreasonable? “Reason is not the way that truth gets built,” says Mr. Blaser. “The point is, what the ancestors say is the right way to inhabit the place.”

Aboriginal students must feel at home here, Mr. Blaser continues. “If you are from northern Saskatchewan, or down near Cypress Hills and you say, ‘I think I want to go to university,’ we want the elders in the community to say, ‘Yes, that’s a good thing. This is a place that understands and respects indigenous knowledge and it’s a good thing for you to go there.’”

With the new centre now nearing completion (an official opening date has not yet been set), Mr. Cardinal and Mr. Blaser have gone to great lengths to make that happen. The new centre’s circular structure faces south, with a curved wall reminiscent of a blanket warding off the cold north winds. Says Mr. Cardinal: “The northern Cree face their buildings to the south, which is the migratory life flow – geese and everything, going north-south – and it is bright, particularly in the winter.”

The centerpiece of the 1,880-square-metre building is the performance area in the middle, intended for ceremonies, speakers and dances. A ground- level platform about 4.5 metres across rises from the basement level, filled like a drum with soil from the building site so that ceremonies can stay connected with the earth. The open space above the drum soars up two storeys, past a mezzanine to a light-filled “chimney stack.” The skylight above has a star blanket pattern.

Around the stack is an intricate ventilation system that will allow the smoke to dissipate properly from daily pipe and smudging ceremonies, which burn tobacco and other dried plants. The need for extra ventilation became clear at an early design meeting as the architects and elders participated in a smudge. “Within 20 minutes, occupational health and safety showed up,” says Mr. Blaser. “Somebody had smelled something and they were right there.”

So the team developed a mechanical exhaust system that collects smudge and pipe smoke from the building, brings it to the centre where it rises and parts to the four directions (east, west, north and south), then escapes to the sky. Sprinkler systems and smoke alarms are still installed where necessary. The building also has a full complement of offices, lounges, a computer resource centre and a hospitality area.

The University of Saskatchewan has had an existing aboriginal student centre for some time but it can accommodate only 60 people. It offers upwards of 200 activities over the school year to the more than 2,200 aboriginal students.

Graeme Joseph, team leader of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Student Success at the university, says the Gordon Oakes Redbear Student Centre will add a welcoming note to existing campus architecture. “It’s a beautiful campus, with that old Gothic architecture. But some people have spoken about how that can be a barrier. It could have this feeling of being like residential school – very imposing, very colonial – and people may feel very intimidated by that.”

Mr. Cardinal designed this $17-million project as he does all others, working from the people and their vision of the building. He asks all his clients a list of 16 questions about how they feel in a building, how they interact, what natural light should come into a room. “When people speak,” he says, “my mind translates everything into images and pictures.”

Mr. Cardinal believes that the shape of a person’s environment in turn shapes the person. Mr. Blaser agrees. He sees a sense of the divine in Mr. Cardinal’s work: “It’s not just about shape and form. It’s actually got significant symbolic meaning. I find that to be a great way of understanding the way that Douglas does buildings.

“There are layers and layers of stories, and those stories are critical to an indigenous worldview… The reason you explain the truth using stories is that stories are a way of building consensus. Instead of saying what you think ought to happen, which leads to conflict, stories provide multiple on-ramps for consensus.”

Even the mason in charge of the project took a special pride in it. Luc Durette, of Scorpio Masonry in Saskatoon, oversaw the job of “wrapping” Tyndall stone four inches thick around all the flowing curves that are a hallmark of Mr. Cardinal’s designs. “Quite a few years ago, I said I wanted to do a Douglas Cardinal building, and now I have done one – and one of the fancier ones. I like to walk away from the building and look back, and say, ‘This is what we can do, totally different from anything we have done before.’”

The centre is named for Gordon Oakes, also known as Redbear, a well-respected Saskatchewan elder who died in 2002. Redbear never went to school and he and his Nekaneet band stayed on their small reserve in the Cypress Hills, shunning mainstream society. Despite this, his influence stretched across Western Canada. His daughter, Irene Oakes, said the family was hesitant at first about allowing the building to bear her father’s name, and stipulated that it would have to accommodate all the ceremonies and dances that her father held dear. She now teaches at the university.

Ms. Oakes says her upbringing was different than that of her First Nations peers. “The norm [for me] was the ceremonies. Cree was spoken, teaching of our elders was practised,” she says. As a student at the University of Regina, she says her fellow First Nations students, who had lost their traditions, were taken aback when she mentioned that her weekends included aboriginal dancing and sweats.

Her brother Larry Oakes says their father felt education and spirituality should be like a team of horses pulling together. Too often, indigenous people with advanced education lose contact with their traditions, he says, while people who stay on the land are wary of educational institutions.

Mr. Cardinal, 81, was born in Alberta to parents of mixed European and aboriginal heritage. His father, who was a forest ranger, was part Blackfoot. His mother, a nurse, was of German and Métis ancestry. The family of 10 was often short of funds and when his mother fell ill, he and two of his brothers had to attend residential school.

Mr. Cardinal, now living and working in Ottawa, is perhaps best known for designing the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. But he has done many smaller projects over the past 40 years, including at least 25 primary and secondary schools. He calls his vision of education “a drum in one hand and a computer in the other.” He adds: “I don’t think children should be in a cells-and-bells system. Why do they warehouse children in such crap? For 12 years of their lives they should be surrounded by beauty and architecture, for heaven’s sake.”

Mr. Cardinal’s projects also include at least two postsecondary education institutions, including First Nations University of Canada in Regina, completed in 2003. Mr. Cardinal worked with elders to develop not just a design but an overall master plan for the university.

The other is Grande Prairie Regional College in Grande Prairie, Alberta, opened in 1974. Mr. Cardinal recounts the story of math teacher Dan Crystal, who wanted his classroom to be round with a light above. All the walls were chalkboards, so the students got out of their seats and did their math on their feet. “That’s how he loved to teach, standing in the centre,” says Mr. Cardinal. “Everybody liked that room. They called it the Crystal Palace. It was unique.”

One of Mr. Cardinal’s earliest projects was Diamond Jenness Secondary School in Hay River, Northwest Territories. Like most of Mr. Cardinal’s projects, it has the distinctive rounded edges. But this one is clad in bright-purple metal. The school board’s budget could not accommodate stone, and the students and community did not want a steel-grey building in such a cold, forbidding landscape. They wanted color, and voted on purple.

One day, all the students who had attended the school came to Mr. Cardinal’s office in Edmonton. “They thanked our whole office for the beautiful experience,” he says.

“I think that when you put your heart and soul into what you’re doing, the space emanates that – like the Museum of Man (a previous name for today’s Museum of History in Ottawa). I put everything I had into that museum. People feel it when they go into the building.”



Jenny Green
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