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Inuit Culture Revived Through Architecture

Inuit Culture Revived Through Architecture

Posted by Bruce McDougall on August 06, 2014

The territory of Canada that extends farthest into the Arctic is called Nunavut. Larger than Mexico, Nunavut is the only geo-political region of Canada that is not connected to the rest of North America by a highway.

Considering that daily temperatures in winter hover around minus 30 degrees Celsius, you would expect the 33,000 inhabitants of Nunavut to lead rather unique lives, especially since most of them are Inuit, who have lived as nomads for thousands of years. Instead, the Inuit have been forced into settlements and structures that would not look out of place in a small town in mid-western Ohio: rectangular, gas-heated houses with a few small windows, a chimney stack and a front door to the left of a parking pad.

Architects call this conformity to North American cookie-cutter suburban design “universalizing modernity”. Other people might call it yet another symptom of narrow-minded imperialist domination of a vanquished race that ignores the dynamics of an indigenous culture. Few modern kitchens, for example, are configured to accommodate the butchering of a seal.

The cultural invasion of Nunavut has a shameful, more sobering side. Like indigenous people throughout the world, Inuit suffer from chronic depression, widespread substance abuse, sexual abuse, incidents of explosive violence, post-traumatic stress and transgenerational trauma. The suicide rate in Nunavut ranks among the highest in the world.  

“Modernity was introduced fairy forcibly,” says Lola Sheppard.

A partner in an architectural firm called Lateral Office, in Toronto, Sheppard sees hope for the Inuit in their geography, climate and remoteness, which present “interesting hybrid conditions,” she says.

“There is an innovative young Inuit society that is very strategic and tactical about following traditions while tapping into the tools of modernity and globalization. For example, you have youth who still go hunting on the land with their parents, but then go home and post about it on Facebook.”

To capture the indomitable spirit of Inuit culture while informing it with useful contemporary achievements, a project led by Sheppard and her partners at Lateral Office applies architectural theory to northern health, recreation, housing, education and arts. Teams of architects, designers and Nunavut craftsmen have combined their talents to merge the traditional and the contemporary in support of a modern, evolving Inuit culture.

“In Nunavut, you have tiny communities and no roads, in an expanded territory with extreme climate and geography,” says Sheppard. Under these conditions, the idea of a network offers a multitude of possibilities.

Sheppard’s firm developed the idea of the Arctic Food Network, for example, to address the threats of health, poverty, and loss of culture by integrating Inuit communities along existing skidoo trails. The trails form an Arctic snow highway that links hunting cabins, Arctic farms and camp hubs. Never farther than 160 km apart, the hubs enable Inuit in the region to harvest food not only for themselves but possibly for export, as well.

Designed and built collaboratively by students at the University of Toronto and Arctic College, the territory’s university and community college, cabin structures along the network combine prefabricated joinery with traditional Inuit construction. When disassembled, the cabins can be transported by traditional Quamutik (sled), and erected on-site in three to four days by a skilled assembly team.

Another network would address Nunavut’s critical mental-health issues by locating healing centres throughout the territory, near existing communities and traditionally significant land-sites. “These significant sites [have traditional Inuit names] and provide a valuable connection between people in need of healing and the land, which has been central to the survival of the Inuit for so many generations,” says Geoff Cox, a student at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture in Vancouver, who developed the concept of the Paarniq Nukkisauti Healing Network with his fellow student, Neil Aspinall.

Models of their network form part of an exhibition currently attracting attention in Venice, Italy, at the Biennale Architettura 2014, the largest tourist event in Italy. Called Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15, the exhibition has been staged by Lateral Office and will tour galleries in Canada over the next two years.

“Architecture in the North has [focused on] expediency and efficiency,” Sheppard says. “We want to put architecture back on the table as an important force in helping reinforce cultural identity.” 

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