Skip to main content

Modern architecture employs traditional designs

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Architect Lubor Trubka sits behind a rounded
table in his 12th floor office overlooking picturesque Coal Harbor and
Vancouver's bustling west end. Elaborate models of past projects hang on
walls throughout the office and lobby. Thin strips of balsam are
painstakingly glued together, forming realistic tiny houses, buildings and
communities. Colorful drawings and sketches of projects past and present
are scattered throughout the office, along with Native prints and carvings
given in thanks for designs of First Nations offices, school and community

Throughout Canada and the United States, traditional First Nations designs
are being incorporated into modern architecture with greater frequency.
Construction industry professionals on the west coast are realizing what
First Nations knew all along -- buildings covered in stucco and vinyl are
no match to those sided in cedar, and buildings with long, sloping roofs
withstand weather better than their flat-roofed counterparts.

One of the pioneers of this new architectural awareness, Trubka first
realized the importance of First Nations designs while working on the west
coast of Vancouver Island.

"In the late 1970s I realized there was a strong cultural renaissance
happening on the west coast of the island," said Trubka. "The
Nuu-chah-nulth had a tremendous ambition to revitalize their language,
songs and culture. They insisted that their buildings must not be a white
man's design. It had to incorporate traditional designs and materials,
especially cedar," he said. "That client-driven type of architectural
design and philosophy of sustainability was all new at the time, as was the
demand that the buildings blend with the natural surrounding of the site.
From all that emerged a new style of architecture."

Architect Patrick Stewart agrees the community-based model of determining
design is crucial, but disputes the notion that this style of architecture
is new.

"It's not new to me. It's been here for thousands of years," said Stewart,
one of only two First Nations architects in British Columbia, and one of
only a handful in Canada. "Traditional form is important in architecture,
and the recent interest in bringing First Nations traditional design into
modern architecture is a long-overdue acknowledgement of our traditional
knowledge," he said.

Recently elected president of the Architect Institute of British Columbia,
Stewart is from the Nisga'a Nation and is a founding partner of Minten &
Stewart in Chilliwack. "Traditional ecological knowledge is finally being
recognized as relevant, and a proper importance is being put on using local
design ideas and materials," he said, citing his past work on building the
Metlakatla Community Centre and Seabird Island Administration building, and
his proposed designs for the Xa:ytem Cultural Interpretive Centre in
Mission as examples.

Since his early days launching this style of architecture, Trubka has
designed 35 buildings throughout the province, won many awards, and had his
designs published in numerous architectural journals from around the world
"because they are so striking," he said.

On the west coast, the native of Prague and member of the Royal
Architecture Institute of Canada is currently working on the development of
the new Tseshaht Administration Centre in Port Alberni, and has enlisted
the help of famed artist Tim Paul to incorporate traditional art and
designs in the building.

"This is a very exciting area. There's no specific teaching on how to
design First Nations buildings, so each project is unique and original,"
said Trubka. "I don't get much out of designing a shopping mall or a
parking lot. This is an enriching experience, and I learn a lot of things
each time. That's why there's a lot more interest amongst designers and
architects to work on these types of projects," he said.

Both Trubka and Stewart spoke at length of the importance of community
involvement in the design process, having designed numerous First Nations'

"When I first start work on a project, I meet with community members for a
few days and listen to their design ideas," said Trubka. "Everything comes
out of these design meetings, and after the construction of the project is
complete there is virtually no problem with vandalism or anything like that
because everyone was involved in the project and has an affinity with the
building," he said.

In the beginning, Trubka's biggest battles were with Indian and Northern
Affairs Canada, which was responsible for the design, construction and
funding of First Nations schools, houses, and buildings. "They were only
willing to fund concrete boxes," he said.

But times have changed, according to Stewart. As First Nations throughout
Canada started standing up and demanding better building designs from INAC,
the federal department washed its hands of architectural plans and became
simply another funding source.

"The community has to be totally behind the project, since the approval
process is long and confusing," said Stewart. "Work in First Nations
communities is still small, and funding levels are still a struggle. We're
still so ruled by the Indian Act, but communities are now finding their
voices and standing up against it," he said. "But this is something
communities definitely want. They have to live with this building for 50 or
more years, so they want something that accurately reflects their
lifestyles and traditions."