A spotlight shines on Indigenous architecture in new documentary

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Some of the world’s most enigmatic and awe-inspiring structures were designed and built by Indigenous individuals, infused with the wisdom of the land.

From Earth to Sky is a new documentary exploring Indigenous architecture around the world and the Canadian individuals at the forefront of this effort to re-establish our connection to Mother Earth through construction. It premiered Monday, National Indigenous Peoples Day, and is available to stream anytime at tvo.org.

Eshewing box-like buildings that serve as little more than shelter, these architects have bent the traditional rules to match the land and people around them, often calling on community members to inform the designs. Great elliptical roofs reaching toward the sky like the wings of an eagle, open spaces inviting the forest in, feminine curves following rivers they look upon — beyond the complimentary aesthetic, these structures incorporate wisdom learned from the land and honour these natural connections.


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Many examples of Indigenous architecture — from Middle-eastern mosques to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples and the Coast Salish longhouses — stand from ancient eras when a connection to nature was essential for survival. Stories and lessons were worked into the community’s architecture where generations gathered and lived and learned.

Europeans colonizing North America brought with them architecture’s academic Beaux-Arts tradition, and the obvious detachment from the surrounding landscape is still seen in many of the buildings where we live and work today. But a shift has taken hold — the importance of recognizing and caring for our environment becoming more entrenched in countless approaches of contemporary life — and Indigenous individuals are breaking ground in the architectural arena as they infuse their work with deeper, more meaningful knowledge.

According to Wanda Dalla Costa, Canada’s first female Indigenous architect dubbed ‘The Teacher’ in the film, Indigenous communities have four categories of knowledge.

Wanda Dalla Costa admires a student project on a reservation near Arizona State University where she now teaches.
Wanda Dalla Costa admires a student project on a reservation near Arizona State University where she now teaches. Photo by Supplied /Postmedia

“Traditional knowledge comes from the stories handed down by people over time. Empirical knowledge is the knowledge that comes from land-based learning, from observation of a place over time. The revealed knowledge is something that you do personally, the meditative or visioning. And then, finally, there’s the contemporary knowledge, which is kind of what we think of as the schools and the universities,” she explains. “Those worldviews that are tightly connected to the landscape and to the ecology, and to the health and wellbeing of the people who live on those ecologies, are probably the most important learning lessons that will come from Indigenous people.”


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Edmonton connections

Dalla Costa is one of seven Canadian architects featured in the documentary, and one of two with significant ties to Edmonton, including Canada’s first Indigenous architect, 87-year-old Douglas Cardinal.

His father was of the Blackfoot Nation and Cardinal attended a residential school from the age of 7 to 15. After being accepted to UBC as a young man, he was told it would be impossible for him to be an architect. He turned his back on the racism and headed south to Frank Lloyd Wright’s School of Architecture at Taliesin where Cardinal’s relationship with nature, marked by an organic, curvilinear style, was encouraged.

His first major building project brought him home to design and construct St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Red Deer.

“It was very important for me to do that church because I really had issues with the church,” Cardinal explains in the film, insisting, “That laid the foundation for my whole career.”

Whether a student of architecture or not, most Edmontonians are familiar with his work. His portfolio includes St. Albert Place and the TELUS World of Science, along with globally-recognized projects like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and the Canadian Museum of History, which faces the Ottawa River and Parliament Hill on the far bank.

Dalla Costa grew up in Callingwood on Edmonton’s west end and her pursuit of architecture was a layered inspiration. She learned the values of respect for nature from her mother, Edith, who belonged to the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. Her father, Angelo Dalla Costa, came from the small village of Valla just north of Venice, Italy.


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“My dad was extremely handy in the house,” says Dalla Costa. “He was really old-school, and very handy with his hands. And so he made hammers and nails and all of the building tools, and he made it very familiar to me growing up.

In her 20s, Dalla Costa left to explore the world with a backpack, seeing almost 40 countries in seven and a half years.

“I realized I loved cities, and I loved the diversity of all of our cities, and I loved wandering through plazas and seeing the old architecture and I was fascinated by ancient architecture,” she says. “That’s where I fell in love with architecture.”

She earned a masters of architecture at the University of Calgary before studying at the renowned SCI-Arc school in Los Angeles. Her first Indigenous building project was the Squamish Lil’wat Culture Centre in Whistler, B.C., a collaboration with Alfred Waugh who is also featured in the film.

Giving back

Dalla Costa, 53, is now a professor at Arizona State University where she founded the Indigenous Design Collaborative.

“I want to give back. I have to transfer everything I’ve learned to the next generation, that’s sort of part of our goal, our unspoken laws in our communities,” says Dalla Costa, who also teaches an applied studio where students help tribal people with project work on a local reservation. “It’s a different process, you’re going to get different products, (Indigenous communities) have different logic behind why they want what they want.”


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While teaching, Dalla Costa still builds through her own firm, Tawaw (meaning hello or welcome in Cree) Architecture Collective, and 90 per cent of their projects are in Canada. The firm also has more Indigenous architects — a total of seven — than any other in North America. Despite the small portion of Indigenous professionals currently in the industry, the values passed along by Elders are resonating and gaining traction in the field.

“Being an art that serves wealthy people is very much ingrained in this profession. And so what purpose would people of colour, or diverse ethnicities have entering this profession,” she says of an attitude in architecture’s history that is slowly being eroded. “(Indigenous people) have something called a relational worldview, where we believe we are in direct relationship with nature. There’s almost a kinship relationship with nature. And I think that makes a huge difference. If we believe that rocks and plants and so forth are alive and are our kin, we’re going to react differently to their denigration.”

From Earth to Sky not only shows off some of the most spectacular, state-of-the-art buildings, but demonstrates the common values that guide their architects — sustainability, connection to the land and one another, and love as the thread that binds it all together.

From Earth to Sky is a Ron Chapman film available to stream for free anytime at tvo.org.



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