Anishnawbe Health’s services are scattered across several Victorian and institutional buildings in downtown Toronto. After years of searching for a space more in tune with Ontario’s diverse Indigenous culture, it’s soon to break ground on a purpose-built hub.
The complex in Toronto’s redeveloping West Don Lands will feature Indigenous design and house all the health services, as well as child services and an Aboriginal job-training centre, along with retail and 400 condominium and rental units.
Interest in Indigenous design has been growing as a response to globalization and a search for architectural styles that convey a sense of place. And it’s surged in the wake of Canada’s 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, says David Fortin, director of the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University, who is Métis.
“The teachings Indigenous people have valued for many centuries – green architecture, natural materials, sustainability and connection with the earth – are aligned with trends in mainstream architecture.”
A notable example of Indigenous design is the Thunderbird House, a First Nations community centre in Winnipeg, whose roof is shaped to resemble an enormous copper eagle. It’s the work of well-known Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal, whose other projects include the flowing Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
In many cases, though, Indigenous architectural features work within otherwise contemporary buildings. “I don’t think many Indigenous people are interested in trying to create a glass teepee or longhouse,” Mr. Fortin says. Because there are only 16 Indigenous architects in Canada – fewer than 1 percent of the total – projects are generally co-designed with non-Indigenous architects.
“It always requires meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities. When you’re talking about cultures that have been here for thousands of years, you can’t cover that in just two hours of consultation with an elder. It’s very much about slowing down and really listening and being humble,” Mr. Fortin says.
Wide-ranging consultations for the Anishnawbe Health hub were held with the community and social agencies, as well as architects and engineers, to plan-welcoming and functional spaces that incorporate forms found in nature and traditional designs.
“We didn’t want an exercise where we just hang our culture on the walls,” says Joe Hester, the group’s executive director.
References include water and streams because the site along the Don River is a historical nexus of Ontario’s Indigenous cultures. That means rounded spaces, which present a challenge in terms of fitting them into modern structures that are primarily square, Mr. Hester says.
For instance, the balconies of the residential tower will be tapered and rounded rather than conventional rectangles, says Jason Lester, vice-chair of development for Dream Unlimited Corp., which is co-developing the block along with Kilmer Group and Tricon Capital Group. The curved features create some additional costs, “but we decided the benefits far outweigh the costs. It will create attractive elements that people can recognize even when they are just walking by,” Mr. Lester says.
A goal is to bring as much natural daylight into the building. The ground floor will be curtain-wall glazed with accents of naturally textured Corten steel. The building’s exterior will appear wrapped in a three-storey-high patterned band of perforated metal representing a fringed shawl, which evokes the idea of protection, says Matthew P. J. Hickey, a Mohawk architect from the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation. He’s senior project architect of Two Row Architect in Toronto, a consultant to lead architect Stantec on the project. The masterplan for the full site was developed by Quadrangle in consultation with Two Row.
The multistorey atrium faces east toward the rising sun, and features Indigenous designs and animal imagery. The 3,848-square-metre health centre contains doctors’ offices, social-worker services, a cedar-clad outdoor community courtyard with a gas-heated sweat lodge, counselling space for sharing circles and a kitchen to teach healthy cooking skills.
The Indigenous designs extend through the entire 2.4-acre block. Adjacent to parcels of former industrial land that were redeveloped for the 2015 Pan American Games, the site was deeded to Anishnawbe Health by the Ontario government.
To the north of the health centre will be a four-storey, glass-clad building, designed by Quadrangle Architects in collaboration with Two Row, to house a variety of Indigenous organizations.
Miziwe Biik, an Indigenous employment and training organization, will occupy the ground floor; the Indigenous Child and Family Centre, and classrooms and offices for Indspire, an Indigenous charity, will occupy the upper floors.
A designated heritage building at the corner of Cherry and Front streets will be restored, with planning by ERA Architects. It housed one of Toronto’s first schools and later the Canary Restaurant, and will be repurposed for retail.
Anishnawbe Health is $3.5-million away from the project’s $10-million fundraising goal. The largest donors so far are Alexandra and Brad Krawczyk, who pledged $2-million to the campaign. Alexandra’s father, the late Barry Sherman, was the head of the multinational pharmaceutical firm Apotex. Other funders include the Sanatan Mandir Cultural Centre, the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Diocese of Toronto and Cherie Brant, a Toronto lawyer who is an Anishnawbe Health client and member of the fundraising board.
To be sustainable, operating costs will be defrayed by the residential component of 200 condominiums and 200 rental units on 99-year leases.
“We want to create the feeling that this is a home rather than an institution, and we want it be a welcoming place to encourage the community to visit and see what this is all about,” Mr. Hester says.
SENECA COLLEGE BUILDS ON INDIGENOUS DNA
Seneca College brought together a broad spectrum of the Indigenous community to consult on the design of its newly opened $80-million Centre for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship, says Andrew Frontini, principal at Perkins and Will architects.
This project was one of several that were funded through the Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund for higher education institutions, which included a requirement that the projects integrate Indigenous design or program elements.
“Many of those projects, if you visit them today and look for the Indigenous components, they are either not evident or something that appears grafted on,” Mr. Frontini says. However, “Seneca’s president David Agnew was specific that the Indigenous component was going to be fundamentally woven into the DNA of this project and have an authentic integration of elements of Indigenous culture within a high-tech building.”
A series of extensive consultations with representatives from Indigenous student and community organizations looked at how to integrate teachings and history into the building’s design. “We paired themes like the internet, space exploration and coding with Indigenous knowledge spanning seven generations,” Mr. Frontini says.
Notable features are a series of eight large-scale graphics by Toronto-based Bruce Mau Design on how keeping the Indigenous world view in mind can help inspire sustainable modern technology.
The centrepiece is a 10-metre diameter medallion in vividly coloured terrazzo in the floor of the main atrium, designed by Indigenous artist Joseph Sagaj. The inspiration is proving to work both ways, Mr. Frontini says.
“The Circle of Indigenous Knowledge is a place where Indigenous events and drum circles happen regularly, and that introduces visitors to the entrepreneurship centre, which is right next door.”