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Building bridges

Laurentian architecture school partnership project connects students with local and professional communities.


Like many Canadians, Brook-Lynn Roy will be camping at a provincial park this summer.

But Ms. Roy’s weeklong visit will be a bit more rigorous than your typical marshmallows-around-a-campfire experience. The 23-year-old, who graduates this year with a master’s degree from Laurentian University’s McEwen School of Architecture, will be part of a team of about a dozen architecture students and recent grads building a pedestrian bridge at La Cloche Provincial Park, just south of Massey, Ont., and about 100 kilometres southwest of Sudbury.

The bridge marks the beginning of the Heaven’s Gate (Kitchitwaa Shkwaandem) Trail, a rugged, 40-kilometre backpacking route through the northeastern Ontario wilderness. The project is a partnership between the school, Ontario Parks, and Sagamok Anishnawbek, a First Nation on Lake Huron’s north shore. The project began in 2019, but ran into a series of pandemic-related delays. A silver lining however, is that several Laurentian cohorts have been able to work on the bridge, which grew from eight to 16 metres over the course of its design. The partners hope to open the bridge by summer’s end, coinciding with the architecture school’s 10th anniversary.

Randall Kober is a founding faculty member and master lecturer at the school of architecture. The Heaven’s Gate bridge, he said, incorporates several of the school’s key principles, including the centring of wood as a building material, incorporating Indigenous philosophies and typologies into the curriculum, sustainability, and community involvement.

Students have been keenly interested in the history of the area and incorporating traditional values and knowledge into the design, said Ross Assinewe, Sagamok Anishnawbek’s director of planning and infrastructure. For example, the cedar logs that will be used in the structure were felled by members of the First Nation on their land.

Hands-on learning

The Laurentian architecture program focuses on hands-on learning and design-build projects where students create structures — like wooden ice stations along Sudbury’s Ramsey Lake Skating Path — starting in their first year. It’s all related to connecting students with the professional and public communities they’ll interact with over the course of their careers, said Mr. Kober. This is the architecture school’s first large-scale student project, and he hopes there will be many more: “Several groups have approached us with an interest in working together.”

That practical focus is why she chose Laurentian, said Ms. Roy, who negotiated a later start date for her new job with an architecture firm to attend the design-build camp. “It takes architecture from the conceptual to a tactile experience,” she said.

As part of the La Cloche bridge team, for example, Ms. Roy worked with a Toronto engineering firm to tweak the design, as well as in Sagamok Anishnawbek to consult about the region’s history and traditional knowledge. Students created detailed, three-dimensional models of individual cedar logs used in the bridge’s construction using cutting-edge technologies such as photogrammetry. The project combines these highly sophisticated digital technologies with a focus on fundamental craft and construction, Mr. Kober said.

The bridge is the first of several opportunities for Sagamok Anishnawbek to work with Laurentian to further develop and upgrade the Heaven’s Gate Trail and strengthen local tourism, said Mr. Assinewe, whose community is negotiating with the province of Ontario on a land-claim settlement for Fort La Cloche. The partnership is also a chance to build connections between the community’s schools and the university, he said: “We’ve had nothing but great success in working with faculty and students at Laurentian.”

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