We talk to the architect and educator about how Indigenous culture influences their work and how empathy can dismantle colonialist approaches to design.
A citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, architect and educator Chris Cornelius has worked tirelessly to extend Indigenous sovereignty on the land. He is the founding director of Studio: Indigenous, a design and consulting practice serving Indigenous clients, and teaches a course called “De-colonizing Indigenous Housing” at the Yale School of Architecture. Cornelius’ teaching and design career straddles both Canada and the United States, challenging traditional notions of borders as borders.
Among his many accolades, Cornelius was part of a group of Indigenous architects who represented Canada at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, and he was a design collaborator with the Indian Community School of Milwaukee (ICS) , which won the 2009 AIA Design Excellence award from the Commission on Architecture for Education. His 2019 lecture at the University of Arkansas, “Make Architecture Indigenous Again,” elevated Indigenous values in contemporary architecture and built on his 2003 Artist-in-Residence Fellowship from the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC
Cornelius is known for works such as trickster (itsnotatipi), a temporary facility in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Wikiaami in Columbus, Indiana, a piece inspired by the dwellings of the native Miyaamia people of Indiana. For Cornelius, every structure begins with a story. His passion for drawing comes to life when he uses Indigenous stories to inspire physical spaces that pay homage to heritage, while respecting the natural landscape. As an architect and educator, Cornelius pushes the boundaries of what we think of as architecture and increases the representation of indigenous people in the field.
How did you know that architecture was your vocation?
Crow: I think I always knew I wanted to do architecture, even before I knew exactly what it was. I was fascinated by the construction. My dad was a bricklayer and I was intrigued that there was someone who designed the things he built. In particular, I was interested in drawings. By the time I started high school, I knew I wanted to be an architect, and everything I did was going in that direction. I took all the drawing lessons I could. I even competed locally and nationally in professional drawing competitions when I was a senior.
Is drawing the root of your design process?
Every project is unique, but most projects start with sketching out ideas. I think it’s important to start drawing before you even know what it’s going to be. I like to start with stories and find ways to draw, not illustrate, through the story. There is so much content in Indigenous stories, science, history, technology, architecture, ecology, etc. I believe that architecture should have as much content and serve as a transport tool to share these things with all living beings, like our loved ones.
You have been an academic practitioner for many years. How do you integrate ecology and indigenous history into teaching architecture?
Indigenous knowledge has always contained ecology and history. I try to teach my non-native students the same way. For my studio at Yale, I gave students a series of readings on Indigenous history, politics, ecology, storytelling, and research paradigms. What I realized during this process was that the more I taught them about indigeneity, the more they realized what they didn’t know – and it wasn’t their fault. Their K-12, undergraduate and partial studies had taught them nothing about Indigenous history in the United States and Canada. It was not a loophole on their part, but a failure of the colonized knowledge system.
Because I tried to expose them to a more Indigenous thought, I believe our conversations about architecture have been enriched by Why it was important to think about our other living parents or Why the exercise of indigenous sovereignty, to the extent possible, is imperative.
The architectural teaching model that has been around for about 150 years is very effective in teaching students the What and the How? ‘Or’ What of architecture. He let the students down by not teaching more about the who and the Why. I’m trying to change that as an educator.
What did it mean to you to advise young architects and designers and to serve native clients through your studio?
Being a professor of architecture is a gift. The best students are the ones looking for mentorship, and this has been an important part of my own maturation as a designer and educator. I can watch the development of students in my Yale Studio, like Max Wirsing and Ruike Liu.
I have also been fortunate enough to get in touch with native architecture students (most of them in Canada) and try to advise them as much as possible. I hope the workload for Studio: Indigenous will continue to increase. This is the only way for me to hire some of these people as employees.
When I started Studio: Indigenous in 2003, I didn’t see a lot of Indigenous designers serving Indigenous clients. It’s not that there weren’t any, I just didn’t know about it. I decided to start my practice to serve indigenous people because in my experience the design had not served them well, and I wanted to change that. This meant not specializing in just any type of project, but finding the best way to translate culture into an architectural experience.
What must happen now in design and architecture to face the realities of this current moment?
We need to start including different voices in the conversation. It has to be done from top to bottom and from bottom to top. We need leaders of groups that we have never seen before. We need people in design disciplines from groups we usually haven’t heard of. We can’t just stay in a world of reading lists and resource guides. We need to elevate people into leadership roles, faculty positions, company directors, managerial positions, policy makers, customer representatives, etc. I think our students (and not just students of color) are asking for it. Those controlling the funding mechanisms need to examine the ways in which they have historically supported and / or encouraged white-only mechanisms. I think most did it unknowingly and unintentionally.
How does the built environment interact with Indigenous history?
The built environment is Native history. This relationship is sordid and complex.
We begin with the understanding that if we intervene in this landscape, we are intervening on the native lands.
Most American cities are founded on Native colonies. This land was not a “wild frontier” when the European colonizers arrived. It was a complex web of civilizations that saw themselves as stewards of the land. This land has been managed, maintained and cared for like a parent in need of help. The built environment should not be seen as different from the unbuilt environment. It is a robust family that we as designers facilitate the interplay between key elements.
I believe that all design schools should require courses in native history and politics. I think every design student should know the Dawes Law of 1887 as well as the US Constitution. The analysis and history of the site should not begin with when a place became a city or state, but with the indigenous peoples of that landscape.
Decolonization begins and ends with the dispossession of indigenous peoples’ lands in the United States and Canada. Colonized thought would have us build and continue the differences between each of us to separate ourselves. I believe that true decolonization begins with the realization that colonization is fueled by a lack of empathy.
We can begin to dismantle the colonization apparatus by incorporating empathy into the methods and strategies we use in the design.
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