Douglas Cardinal: Architect of the Future

Join us on for an intimate conversation with world-renowned architect, Douglas Cardinal. Hosted by Engineers Canada and the Canadian Urban Institute

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. Nature has an infinite variety of solutions

When designing, Douglas Cardinal finds inspiration by looking at each space as a cell within an organism and identifying connections that allow a specific plant or animal to thrive within that environment. His inspiration from nature goes beyond conceptual design and into problem-solving. For example, the design of St Mary’s Church was inspired by a spider web he found while out for walk, and admired its ability to support loads through tension. At the time, he was told the design would be impossible to construct. Utilizing the best engineers, computers and innovation, the unbuildable design materialized into the beautiful St Mary’s Church that stands today in Red Deer, Alberta. Although disciplines have many systems and processes, it is very important to look to nature, which as Douglas reminds us, “has an infinite variety of solutions” serving as inspiration to how we think about structure, mechanical and electrical design challenges.

2. Importance of listening to the people we design for

Douglas emphasized the importance of learning about different cultures. We often see one-way communication from the government telling Indigenous peoples what is best, but settler culture can also learn a lot from Indigenous knowledge. It is important to listen to the people we design cities for, so they can tell us what they need. Douglas shared a memory of coming across a government publication describing a house design and how to live in it. He recalls being concerned about the government’s attempt to solve peoples problem and says “it’s the new phase of Colonization 201, we already went through 101, a stage of having a bunch of intellects solve our problems for us, instead of asking us.” While there is value in awareness and design solutions, Douglas reiterated that many problems, such as the housing issue, “can’t be solved in Ottawa.” Those in power need to go to the communities and listen.

3. Planners and architects have a crucial role in reconciliation

Douglas compares our current city building practices to the cancer virus, often exploiting the planet and ignoring the health of our environment for the sake of development. However, we have also been gifted the power of creativity. He says, “We have to put our ego aside and the idea that we’re dominant over nature and understand that we are nature, that we evolved from all life on this planet.” The role of urban planners needs to focus on organic designs, learning to be in harmony with nature. In the documentary, Douglas Cardinal: Architect of the Future, Alex Janvier, an Indigenous artist who worked with Douglas, shares how they went to a highrise in 1962 and decided to change the world, using architecture and art as their medium. These ideas materialized in the Canadian History Hall, where a space that feels like water is used to tell the new Canadian story, highlighting not only the trauma but also the resurgence and strength of indigenous peoples. “We have this planet that needs to be preserve and save. And we have to start now,” warned Douglas.

4. Need for more diversity and women in architecture

Architecture remains a field dominated by males, lacking people of colour and female representation. It is important to stop creating architecture as monuments of patriarchal power over nature and create buildings as symbols of love and caring. Douglas says, “My elders taught me that the hard part of force is not as powerful as the soft power of loving and caring.” Douglas’s work follows the Indigenous tradition of honouring the female form and female values, in his matrilineal culture. He argues that we need more diversity in design fields that include maternal values that women have to offer. Douglas is very proud of how indigenous people value women and the gift economy they provide through creating life and nurturing it. Women also have a direct connection to the earth and the moon monthly, while indigenous men experience ceremonies to make sure they stay humbled to Mother Earth. Douglas says, “I thought that was fundamental in my education as an individual, and as an architect.” We can learn a lot from Anishinaabe people who have taken the course of balance with nature, making them incredibly resilient.

5. Importance of training beyond the classroom setting

Douglas is often called a genius by his peers due to his practice extending beyond the field of architecture. In an effort to design buildings holistically, he pursued an education in engineering. This knowledge allowed him to create revolutionary solutions in his buildings, learning about the latest softwares and computerizing his studio. His pursuit of creating a world where we all live together in love and caring took him beyond engineering and into spiritual quests. In his own training, he often returned to the elders in his community looking for moral guidance, understanding the importance of being a good person in his work. Douglas explains how he often felt happy and balanced in his community but became disturbed and ill within the cities where he wanted to make a contribution. Through leading by example, he reflects that “it’s very important to embrace the whole world and embrace both cultures and that it wasn’t all about living in one world or another, it was about living in a world where we all coexist together in a loving and caring way.”