Toronto Trailblazers 2020: Eladia Smoke embeds Indigenous design principles in Centennial College

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Does Canadian architecture have an identity? What distinguishes Toronto’s landscape beyond condos and offices towering over the city while compartmentalizing people into tiny and isolated corners?

“Canadian identity has always been this nebulous creature,” says architect Eladia Smoke, who is Anishinaabekwe from the Lac Seul First Nation. She explains that our architecture’s characteristics have all been borrowed from elsewhere. Hence, we have a hard time figuring out how to shape our own identity on our spaces.

“Part of the reason we’re having such trouble with that is because our Indigenous identities, those identities that come from this place, have never been explored from an architectural perspective. So there’s a small community of us who are wrestling with this very exciting question.”

Smoke has worked on spaces like the Makoonsag Intergenerational Children’s Centre and APTN’s newsroom, both in Winnipeg. The latter is a redevelopment of two buildings meant to symbolize the decolonization of space. Not only does she introduce spaces ideal­ for drum circles in her projects, taking the traditions and land-based teachings from Elders and merging it with modern architectural design, but she also teaches this new craft to her students at Laurentian University’s McEwen School of Architecture.

Toronto will have an idea of what Indigenous design looks like in 2023, when a new building at Centennial College’s Scarborough campus, designed by Smoke and DIALOG, is complete.

Smoke consulted with Centennial College’s Indigenous faculty. When they looked at the initial concepts for a common area that had individual rooms for meetings and offices. Smoke recalls how they scrapped all that noise: “They said: ‘Oh no, no, no. Take away all those walls. We just want a big, open space that feels like grandma’s living room.”

The wooden dome-shaped space designed on the principles of the Nimii-idiwigamig (Anishinaabe roundhouse) with sunlight flowing in from above has since become a space where people can sit, talk and even cook and eat together in a full kitchen.

Building community and staying in touch with nature are pivotal to the new wing on the campus stretched along Highland Creek. The main corridor rises through the building representing seed, growth, culmination and balance. And within the building are cultural signposts,  like a viewing garden connecting directly to Shkagamik-Kwe (Mother Earth) and ceiling panels that tell the story of creation in both Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee traditions. In the northwest corner (representing adulthood and elders) is a balance centrestone imprinted with Haudenosaunee wampum, the original agreements governing inhabitation of this territory. That part of the building also curves around to a road that leads towards Highland Creek.

“We’re starting from this place of potential,” says Smoke. “We’re climbing up the building under the representations of millennia-old teaching and we’re reaching adulthood – the point of responsibility and wisdom – that leads us to the creek, the point of balance between built environments and nature.”

Smoke hopes to see more buildings like it. And more Indigenous architects to expand the tiny existing pool and realize a dream: “Make Canadian space Indigenous again!”

Read more 2020 Toronto Trailblazers profiles

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Radheyan’s first assignment for NOW was reviewing the Ice Cube heist comedy First Sunday. That was back in January 2008. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Scarborough, Rad currently lives in Leslieville with his wife and two adorable kids.

Read more by Radheyan Simonpillai

June 11, 2020

10:02 AM