CONVERSATIONS: Christopher Clarke

Christopher C. Clarke, Architect NWTAA, M.Arch.,B.Sc., LEEDap, MRAIC (Image source)

It took only 3 years for Douglas Cardinal to become a hero for a Northwest Territories youngster named Chris Clarke, following his visit to one of Cardinal’s most bold and colorful projects, the Diamond Jenness High School in Hay River, NWT. Clarke recalls his first impressions of the school as having a lasting impact, especially when he later learned as a teenager that it was designed by the only known indigenous architect in Canada. Though he admired the purple northern icon, becoming an architect was not a typical career pursuit for students like Clarke, whose family moved throughout the NWT, with brief stints in Alberta and Ontario, before finally settling back into Yellowknife. Upon graduation he was guided towards the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology to study architectural technology, before realizing his passion for architecture was more oriented towards the professional path, leading him to first pursue a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science followed by a Master of Architecture at the University of Calgary. Following internships with Zeidler and then Diamond Schmidt Architects in Toronto, Clarke returned to Yellowknife where he now works as a Facility Planner with the Department of Health and Social Services.

Diamond Jenness Secondary School, Hay River, NWT. Design by Douglas Cardinal Architect. (Image Source)

Diamond Jenness Secondary School, Hay River, NWT. Designed by Douglas Cardinal Architect. (Image Source)

Despite identifying and being registered with the Taltsonot’ine First Nation, Clarke’s mixed heritage plays an essential role in his identity, as well as his approach to design. As he explains,

I am a very proud Dene person, Taltsonot’ine (Yellowknife Chipewyan) and Miq Maq in decent, and I am proud to have Scottish and Irish blood, which ultimately makes me Metis. Not in the Red River sense, but in the fact that I am both Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal, which has given me the ability to see many different aspects of things, which I may not if I was only one or the other.

His connections to his indigenous heritage include his grandmother’s experiences at residential school, which have had generational impact, his extended family’s relationship with the landscape and dog sledding, and a northern Canadian diet including caribou, moose, buffalo, duck, and berries. These have all informed Clarke’s approach to architecture, which strives towards better integration between humans and the land, and for him, it is also imperative that one be “on” the land in order to respectfully design for it. Furthermore, for Clarke, seeing the world from two different world views (indigenous and non-indigenous), offers a unique way of thinking spatially and materially. This, however, clearly does not equate to a uniform “Métis worldview”.

Everyone thinks differently, and everyone’s thought processes are affected by the world in which they live. Living as a Métis person from the NWT might be very different than one who has grown up in Toronto. For me specifically, I have had the great fortune of understanding what our land and environment do for us, and how we are intertwined with it…We are all an assemblage of the places that we have come from and our respective heritage.

For Clarke, research into sustainable architecture and aboriginal design “go hand in hand” due to their mutual emphasis on the central role of the land and respect for the environment. He won a national award from the Canadian Centre for Architecture to study there for a summer, during which time he completed his LEED credentials. He then decided to design a Northwest Territories Métis Nation Legislative Assembly building in Fort Smith, NWT, for his thesis project, an endeavour earning him and co-designer Matthew Hickey the Alberta Association of Architects Gold Medal for Best Thesis. The duo’s thesis asked many questions essential to this current research project. For instance, in their introduction they ask “…in what manner can Aboriginal Nations manifest their respective cultures in architecture, as specifically applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation?” [1] Their project invested deep consideration into important cultural themes such as spirituality, symbolism (noting, for instance, the Chipewyan belief that the aurora borealis was the incarnation of the deity of the caribou), historic forms and associations (teepee), ceremonial spaces, and the role of land and its integral role in the experience of the building.

Design work. Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary.

Design work. Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. J. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary. (Image used with permission by Christopher Clarke)

A ramp plays a central role in the building design, reflecting many ideas, “including a physical connection to the earth and a spiritual connection to existence.” [2] Circulation through the building was similarly designed in a very specific way, with paths crossing on a regular basis to increase interaction. As Clarke and Hickey write,

The concept of interconnectedness is of primary importance to Aboriginal Nations of North America. As such, this idea is promoted through the path imbedded in the building, with each position along the path providing an activity or occurrence, essence, the path and personal interaction becomes the guide for the route. Structuring the circulation through the building and around each other in a linear manner provides the most effective means for promoting interaction, thus, strengthening the understanding of their relationship with the occupants and the building. If the concept of interconnectedness is continued, then one would add that the building develops a relationship with the user. Thus, the building provides a relationship to its occupant that binds them both to the same realm of existence, place and time. This is accomplished through the idea of interconnectedness and non-competitiveness…The promotion of community becomes more important than the individual, providing relationships that are based in survival of all…[3]

Model of ramp. Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary.

Model of ramp. Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. J. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary. (Image used with permission by Christopher Clarke)

Furthermore, the material culture of the NWT Métis became a source of specific cultural inspiration, with reflections on artefacts such as the dog sled, clothing, snares, landforms, and the drum all informing a study model. From this, the cultural artefacts were crossed with architectural notions of place and path to make two further constructions that would guide the design process.

Material culture interpretations (left to right: drum, land forms, snare, clothing, dog sled). Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary.

Material culture interpretations (left to right: drum, land forms, snare, clothing, dog sled). Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. J. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary. (Image used with permission by Christopher Clarke)

Conceptual construct. Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary.

Conceptual construct. Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. J. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary. (Image used with permission by Christopher Clarke)

Although the building has not been realized for various reasons, it is Clarke’s hope that it still might be one day.  He currently is studying for Evidence-based Design Accreditation while researching for an Aboriginal Wellness Centre, all consistent with his guiding principles and passions for architecture.

Model. Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary.

Model. Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. J. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary. (Image used with permission by Christopher Clarke)

Clarke’s mixed heritage identity largely inspired him to return home and reconnect to the landscape he and his ancestors have walked on for generations. As recently as 40 years ago his grandparents were traveling across that landscape by dog team, selling their furs to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Now he is in search of an architecture that respects that culture and the landscape that formed it. Though he is Dene First Nation, Clarke’s mixed heritage is worth acknowledging in relation to a discussion of Métis design as it urges us to question the specificities of Métis-ness across the country.

References

[1] Clarke, C. C. & Hickey, M. P. J. 2006. Cultural paths: A critical stance on contemporary Aboriginal architecture applied to the Northwest Territory Métis Nation Legislative Assembly. Masters thesis: University of Calgary. p. 1.

[2] Ibid. p.7

[3] Ibid. p. 8

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