How to Design Contemporary Structures in Indigenous Zones

Lucia R

National Museum of the American Indian   View this Block

Building in indigenous zones can be very sensitive. Sometimes in trying to honor an ancient culture, you end up mangling their heritage, and making a wrong decision that could enrage a whole community; and by ignoring them completely, can lead to a big disservice to the whole culture. Making sure you're melding both their culture and your interpretation of it in the best way possible is critical in this kind of project. Below are a few pointers to address this difficult topic:

Immerse yourself in their culture
If you're going to build in an area historically inhabited by a certain group of indigenous people, make sure you learn everything you can about them; you need to do all the research you can on the indigenous people in the area, and make sure you learn to recognize one group from the other- even if they're very similar, their world vision could vary immensely. Study their relationship with nature, the way they inhabit spaces, if they have any rituals related to physical space, if they hold a certain material sacred. By doing so, you'll make sure you won't accidentally use, for example, a material they hold sacred.

The "Casa Ruca" social housing project, by Undurraga Deves, in Chile, is a good example; this project pretends to give a contemporary twist to the mapuche traditional home. On one hand, it completely disregards the way the Mapuche people inhabit their spaces, making the project look like a series of generic contemporary homes, albeit built with regional materials. On the other hand, the project succeeds on translating the traditional home's lack of windows, using a series of shutters to tame the light and create the illusion of a hermetical space, which leads us to the next topic.

Addressing the design
After doing your research, you'll have to decide on how to address the design of the project. You should avoid recreating images or structures to the letter, which can do more harm than good when designing something indigenous-related: you could end up with a caricature of an indigenous building, a stereotype, thus damaging the seriousness and the spirit of the project, and disrespecting the group of people you're trying to represent. A way to approach the delicate matter of iconic representation of indigenous people through architecture could be to design by abstracting them, taking the ideas behind the cultural or architectural icons you want to include in your project. Find a way to turn their tangible cultural elements into architecture, without turning architecture into a literal object. You could also opt for working around an evocative piece of their vernacular architecture- maybe an interior layout, a building method, an architectural feature- and give it a twist, whilst still letting it be clearly recognizable.

A good example would be "The Cloak", a multifunctional building at Auckland's International airport, designed by Fearon Hay Architects, in New Zealand. They worked around an evocative piece, the Maori woven roofs, and gave it a contemporary twist; they used different materials to make the weave, still keeping it recognizable and added a green roof on top of the weave to blend with the landscape.

Sometimes even intangible ideas can be translated into architecture; it could be music, language or legends. You can find a graphic example of how beliefs and intangible things can shape architecture in Chinese architecture, more specifically on the roofs of pagodas: ghosts were believed to travel in straight lines only, so they devised several ways to ward their buildings from them; one of those ways included adding a slight curvature to the roof, giving birth to one of the most recognizable shapes in Chinese architecture.

What are your thoughts on addressing indigenous related design? Do you have any pointers or experiences you'd like to share? Leave your thoughts.

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Answers (1)

James X, Designer • Jan 5

Very Cool. I learned a lot.