I think I know where I am: standing on a lawn at Humber College in the Etobicoke area of Toronto. But the area was known to Ojibwe people as Adoobiigok, which means “the place where the alders grow.” I’m reminded of this because the name is marked on a tall spire of steel in front of me, which also features alder branches carved in relief. It’s the first time I have seen that name, Adoobiigok, outside of a book.
And this is no accident. The sculptural weathering-steel object, one of eight in a group, is an Indigenous cultural marker – part of a new genre of buildings, landscape architecture and art objects designed to recall that all of Canada is Indigenous land.
They are known as Indigenous gathering places and Indigenous cultural markers. A trio of such projects for Humber College sets a strong example: marking a historic Indigenous presence, evoking traditions and making a contemporary artistic statement.
That evolution marks the work of the Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe architect Ryan Gorrie, who with this and other projects has become a leader in the effort of Indigenous place-making.
“We are in a state of cultural reclamation, rediscovering culture, rediscovering language and art,” says Gorrie, who leads the Indigenous Design Studio within the architecture and urban design firm Brook McIlroy. “As we’re looking and finding the pieces along the trail, putting them back together, at the same time we’re putting them into new forms.”
That’s an effort that raises some complex questions, not just about Canada’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, but also about how architecture and landscape architecture relate to place and community.
The Humber projects have multiple ambitions. One is to acknowledge the Indigenous history of the college campuses, in suburban Toronto. “As Indigenous people, we’ve been taught that our language is written on the land,” says Shelley Charles, Humber College’s dean of Indigenous Education and Engagement. The college’s set of Indigenous Cultural Markers “is a contemporary response to that, really creating a land acknowledgment in physical form.”
The eight sculptural pieces made of Cor-Ten steel symbolize eight stopping points within that great migration. The first evokes marsh reeds at the nearby mouth of the Humber River at Lake Ontario, or, as it is known in Ojibwe, Gabekanaang-ziibi. Another represents Ishpaadina (“high hill”), a point whose name survives in common usage as the Toronto street name Spadina.
Nearby, a series of drawings depicts the Anishinaabe story of migration from what is now the East Coast of Canada to Lake Superior, and the seven original clans of the Anishinaabe, each labelled in English and the Ojibwe language. “It provides a chance to translate the language,” Gorrie says. The works "are intertwined, and they can be experienced one at a time or collectively.”
Another sculptural installation, now under way at the college’s North Campus, will represent the Seven Fires of Creation, the Anishinaabe prophecy. “We wanted some ambiguity in the form,” Gorrie says from his Winnipeg office. “It was inspired by, say, a feather, but could be read in other ways.”
Such ambiguity is important: Places such as this, Gorrie believes, should be Indigenous-led but should not be only for Indigenous people. The studio recently collaborated on the Awen Indigenous Gathering Place in Collingwood, Ont., with elder Duke Redbird of the Saugeen First Nation.
Gorrie’s first project of this kind was the Spirit Garden on the downtown waterfront in Thunder Bay, completed in 2012. (Gorrie grew up in that region and is a member of the Sand Point First Nation.) It consists of garden and built components, including an 80-foot-wide pavilion known as the Gathering Circle. Its 20 structures are made of spruce, formed into a curved lattice using a wood-bending technique that draws on local Indigenous tradition.
Gorrie is pleased with the way that this place has become “incredibly well used, and it’s not just Indigenous people,” he says. “People have held weddings, people have held protests, people have had celebrations … people are using this in all sorts of ways, and I think that’s incredibly powerful.”
The Humber College projects reflect an effort by the institution to pursue recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Charles, in her role, has had a hand in curricular change and in community-building extracurricular activities, including a recent North American Indigenous Games. “We’re taking small steps, asking, What can we do as an institution and do it well?” Redefining students’ view of the place where they are studying is part of that.
Which is a task of Indigenous place-making; its tools are very much up for debate. “Some people want to have an idea that it’s only about past structures – the Plains tepee, for instance,” Gorrie says. “But I think you need to ask: Who is designing it? What is the process behind it?”
This model of Indigenous design as a living art suggests a certain variety and complexity. That was a subtext of Unceded, the exhibition of Indigenous design that represented Canada at the most recent Venice Architecture Biennale this year, which included the Humber College projects.
“It can be a delicate balance when you’re trying to push traditional forms,” Gorrie says. “That’s part of the tension of Indigenous design: we all have our own identities to recollect.”
In today’s architectural culture, representation is a fraught topic. Designs that depict an object or idea in explicit form are seen by architects as unsophisticated – many of them will explain their work in metaphorical terms, but the resulting forms are usually abstract. There is often, in this respect, a disconnect between architects and the people they work for.
Some Indigenous architects, by contrast, have chosen to represent more literal forms of representation that speak directly to community members. “Making a building that looks like a turtle – that’s absolutely relevant,” Gorrie says. “But at the same time, sometimes you want to abstract that, to capture the spirit of that but not to be limited in your language.” This is largely the approach his projects have taken, and very successfully so.
Yet, Gorrie argues that creative freedom belongs to him and to his colleagues. “As we” – Indigenous people – “pick up the pieces,” he says, “I refuse to be bound by what’s fashionable.”