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America’s First Architects (Happy Thanksgiving!)

As we gather (perhaps virtually) around the table on this day of Thanksgiving, let us remember where our original thanks must go... to the Native Americans who lived and built on this land long before we learned how to harvest it.

Let us thank them in one of the ways that we know how: by highlighting and celebrating their architecture- both old and new.

Chris Cornelius of Studio:Indigenous is a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, focuses his research and practice on the architectural translation of culture; in particular, American Indian culture. He is the founding principal of studio:indigenous, a design and consulting practice serving American Indian clients.

Here, Cornelius discusses the utility of land acknowledgements, what native architecture can look like, and the recent infatuation with so-called “indigenous building practices.”


Inspired by the dwellings of the Miyaamia people indigenous to Indiana, Cornelius adorns a walkway leading to the church with a contemporary “wigwam” - wiikiaami in the Miyaamia language- constructed of rebar and metal scales. The swooping conical form is aligned both to the church’s iconic campanile and to mark the autumnal equinox. The copper scales, equally reminiscent of eagle feathers and textile designs, are perforated and patinated to make shifting patterns of sunlight and shade, creating a space for gathering as well as a gateway to Saarinen’s church.

Indian Community School

This 150,000 square-foot school differs from most schools in a number of ways. The schools initiative is to integrate cultural values into educating young people. This school is also as center of community for the American Indian population in Milwaukee.

The building form was carefully woven along a high ridge though a grove of ancient oak and shagbark hawthorn trees. Limestone blocks housing classrooms, a gymnasium and office spaces, anchor the building to the site and are, in turn, captured by prairie grass berms. A flying origami copper roof and a green grid of prairie grass provide shelter. Large, glass-enclosed gathering spaces seamlessly integrate interior and exterior spaces and the surrounding environment. A cross-pollination arises thorough the connection of learning spaces with the natural environment, allowing elements and phenomena outside to become a didactic influences within.

Douglas Cardinal

Douglas Joseph Cardinal of DJCarchitects is an Indigenous Canadian architect based in Ottawa, Ontario. His flowing architecture marked with smooth curvilinear forms is influenced by his Aboriginal heritage as well as European Expressionist architecture.

National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is a place that works because it attempts to reflect the cultures of those who first inhabited the Western Hemisphere. Located on the National Mall in Washington DC and operated by the Smithsonian Institution, the NMAI opened in 2004. There were many Native American architects affiliated with the project, initially lead by GBQC and Douglas Cardinal, Ltd. and included consultants representing various nations–Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot), Johnpaul Jones (Cherokee/Choctaw), Donna House (Diné/Oneida), and Ramona Sakiestewa (Hopi).

According to the NMAI website, before the design process began, “A series of themes emerged from the dialogues” with native communities and individuals, which resulted in a collaborative effort to create “a building and site rich with imagery, connections to the earth, and layers of meaning. The building is aligned perfectly to the cardinal directions and the center point of the Capitol dome, and filled with details, colors, and textures that reflect the Native universe.” The statement goes on to say, “Native people believe that the earth remembers the experiences of past generations. The National Museum of the American Indian recognizes the importance of indigenous peoples’ connection to the land; the grounds surrounding the building are considered an extension of the building and a vital part of the museum as a whole.”

The many organic, curved surfaces inside and outside the museum reflect Native Americans’ relationship with the natural environment. These curves and the natural materials used, combined with the landscaping, create an informal, relaxed atmosphere that supports considering the past, present, and future of the first Americans.


A Look Back in Time

The Pueblo Architecture of Northern New Mexico

Some of the oldest buildings accounted for on the planet are constructed of adobe. In fact, the oldest home in the United States is an adobe structure in Santa Fe, NM. The Native Americans of the Southwest used a mixture of sand, clay, straw, and water to build their villages. The envelope created by their thick walls and few windows served as a thermal mass, which stored the heat and released it back inside the space at night.

Adobe pueblos are Native American house complexes used by the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest. The pueblos are modular, multi-story houses made of adobe or of large stones cemented together with adobe. Each adobe unit is home to one family, like a modern apartment. The whole structure, which can contain dozens of units, was often home for an entire extended clan.

Ancient Native American Cliff Palace

The ancient Native American village of Mesa Verde, Colorado, features numerous ruins built by ancient Pueblo people known as the Anasazi. The Anasazi made this stone dwelling, Cliff Palace, their home in the 1200s.

The 150 rooms of Cliff Palace were constructed out of natural sandstone, wooden beams, and mortar. The mortar was made of soil, water, and ash. Tiny pieces of stone called chinking are also embedded in the mortar, to strengthen construction.

Ancestral Puebloans entered their cliff-dwelling apartments through wooden ladders. (The ladders in this beautiful photograph were reconstructed by the National Park Service.) Rooms in Cliff Palace were about 2 by 2.5 meters (6 by 8 feet). Families lived together, and historians say that two or three people often shared a room. Many rooms were originally plastered in bright colors—usually pink, brown, red, yellow, or white.

Smaller rooms near the back of the cliff were used for storing crops, such as beans, corn, and squash.

The unusual large, round rooms in Cliff Palace are called kivas. Kivas were used for rituals and ceremonies, although archaeologists and anthropologists are not sure how. Each clan or family probably had their own kiva in front of their dwelling and storage space.

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