From the Pacific Rim through Australia to South America and into the North in Canada, ancient building and design styles are a new architectural choice. This shift is partly due to the education and training of indigenous architects, who can insert elements of this tradition into modern spaces.
In cities where indigenous peoples were once ignored, the influence of native culture has been revived by making conversational spaces. In Australia, the art of aboriginal people has experienced a significant resurgence.
Melbourne Design week runs from March 16-24th and the final night is an open discussion entitled Does BLAK Design Matter? According to the event’s website, “from the interior and product design to landscape, architecture and town planning, this panel examines the practices of some outstanding Indigenous designers and interrogates how Indigenous design is defined, received, and made visible in Australia’s contemporary design environment.”
Across the globe, Canadian First Nations architect Ouri Scott (Tlicho originally from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories), is spearheading a move to incorporate native architecture in his design elements.
The mark of indigenous architecture is simple – live off the land and in tune with nature. But what do these characteristics look like? Use of logs as main supports, central meeting spaces in compounds or villages. As far as creative features, indigenous architecture makes use of sculptings, earth tone colours, pottery, petroglyphs. It is felt that nature should pass right through the space in a smooth, seamless transition.
At the start of the last Amerindian Heritage Month in Guyana, Minister of Indigenous People’s Affairs, Hon Syndey Allicock, told those present that because of the indigenous way of life, “the world is still able to breathe.”
The launch was held at the newly rebuilt Umana Yana, a conical palm thatched hut (called a benab in native language) that was erected for the Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference in Georgetown, Guyana in the 1970s. That first structure was built by Wai Wai tribesmen from the interior of Guyana using wallaba posts, thatched manicole and allibanna palm leaves, and lashed together with mukru, nibbi and turu vines.
This kind of architecture is cool, bright with natural sunlight and somewhat open to the elements.
Real Life magazine quoted Maurice Agar, a renowned Caribbean architect based in Dominica, who said, “The challenge for architects designing in today’s world with our increasing environmental concerns, is to find a way to incorporate the materials and values of the past into our current ‘mod-con’ lifestyles and structures. We need to design our buildings not just with the sustainability of materials at the forefront, but also with the end goal of making it part of our lifestyle. We build not just for ourselves, but with future generations in mind.”
There was a time when people built to fit their surroundings… a time when homes were transitory and when materials were all raw. While that sounds great, few people these days want to be replacing a roof every ten years and dragging dried leaves for miles for a home that will need to be replaced faster than we would like.
Edward Buckley, Senior Councillor of Parishara Village of Arawaks in Central Rupununi Savannah, says the process of creating a thatched roof doesn’t take very long. “After we get the leaves from the Ita Palm, we let them dry for about five days. As long as the structure is built, we can finish the roof in one day, depending on the size of the house.”
I got a close-up knowledge of the little known Amerindian part of my life on a visit to Parishara Village (which I then adopted) in Guyana. I entered a world where rules, as we know them, do not exist, life is run by the clock of the sun and health care and schooling are the main things that are urgent. Although concrete buildings dotted the landscape, many homes were still made from traditional leaves and timber.
The quietness and fresh air, termite mounds and free grazing animals were everywhere. Would we want termites for neighbours in a modern city? No way? So how can sustainable use of indigenous architecture thrive today? By making it into structural art and monuments!
The lasting symbolism does a lot to enrich the aesthetics and to add meaning to newly constructed facilities and adds a conversational piece. Construction is as much a science as it is social, and a good structure should resonate with the people who will be making use of it.
Only time will tell if indigenous architecture is simply a soon-forgotten trend or if it is a significant shift in an industry that is ever evolving.