May 24 – 27: SSAC Conference ~ Layered Histories

On May 24th to the 27th, the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada held their 43rd Annual Conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario at the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre. The chosen theme of the event focused on the impact and the role that architecture has made in a historical and contemporary context.

Throughout the duration of the conference over 55 different speakers were invited to share their research findings with everyone in attendance; including professors, researchers, and practitioners alike. Presentations included work from a number of different topics, most notably, however, was the session ‘Colonial Entanglements and Decolonizing Strategies’ which promoted a discussion surrounding the presence of non-Western architecture within Canada.

Tammy Gaber, an assistant professor at the McEwen School of Architecture in Sudbury, presented her body of work entitled ‘A Century of Mosques Spaces in Canada’. Not only did her research focus on documenting of mosques all over Canada, her analyses also include the use and organization of gendered space. Specifically, her research explores the Architectural dilemma of exclusivity through building typology with regards to gender separation as well as the potential roles of the architect and the community/patron in creating inclusive spaces for women in mosques.


View of women’s area with glass railing above men’s area, in the Masjid al Salaam in Burnaby, British Columbia, designed by architect Sharif Senbel in 2008. Photo by Tammy Gaber.


Masjid al Salaam; view from the women’s mezzanine area.


Masjid al Salaam; view of the main prayer space.

Another noteworthy addition was a presentation made by students Amina Lalor, Samuel Ganton and Paniz Moayeri from the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo. Their topic ‘Treaty Lands, Global Stories: Designing an Inclusive Curriculum’, explored their student-led initiative to bring to light the importance of ‘cultural literacy’ and the shift away from Eurocentric perspectives within the curriculum at Waterloo. Within their presentation they outlined the development of potential methodologies after having researched current strategies implemented by other institutions throughout Canada, providing a thorough and thought provoking analysis.

“Our vision and our hope in this discussion is not to “uproot” this school from its own history and its connection to Rome and the foundation of cultural literacy that is so integral to its pedagogy. In fact, we want the school to become more rooted in this place by acknowledging and delving into Canadian cultural and architectural heritage, both indigenous and settler. And from here, and growing out of the trajectory of covering western cultural history, to look more broadly at the diversity of world cultural history, and welcome the voices of people from inside and outside the school who can help teach us more.”                                                                                             History Here is The Story of Somewhere Else, by Samuel Ganton [1]

The students also mentioned the possibility of collaborating with other universities in the future as well as sharing resources and expertise between different schools of architecture. The purpose of their research intends to change (incrementally) the way and means by which students are taught within Architecture schools in Canada. The students further affirmed that; ‘Architecture schools in Canada must begin to dismantle the colonial structures that bind us. Only then can we redefine the future of architectural practice’.

Presentations were followed with a paneled discussion in which the audience could ask questions to the presenters about their research. These often included heated discussions surrounding the paternalistic role architecture has played throughout history and subsequently what architects and architectural institutions can do to ‘re-Indigenize’ their practice and/or curriculum through decolonizing strategies.

Our team also had the great pleasure of being able to present our most recent research topic. The presentation documented the findings of a recent paper David Fortin, Jason Surkan and myself co-authored, entitled; ‘Métis Domestic Thresholds and the Politics of Imposed Privacy’. Our thesis dissects the public/private dichotomy within Métis culture, stating that formality and privacy are not encountered within the home but rather there exists a ‘lack of boundedness’ expressed within the range of activities occurring in the space through the lack of physical barriers and the existence of metaphorical ones.  


A Lively Metis dance at Pembina, in an engraving published in Harper’s Monthly, 1860. Glenbow Museum. NA 1406-23.

Elements analysed within our research include the Métis open floor plan, government subsidized housing initiatives, the history of dividing land with regards to the dominion grid, as well as contributing elements such as; kinship, socio-cultural needs, culturally specific behaviours and lifestyle. 


Diagram 1-Recovered-Recovered

Subsidized housing initiative from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; differences in spatial program

The location for the conference as described by the SSAC website identifies the area as having been ‘long inhabited’ by indigenous people and recognized as one of the first settlements established in Upper Canada. Near the pumphouse site lies a military post, Fort George, which played a pivotal role in the War of 1812 and was since designated in 2003 as a National Historic Site of Canada. What better place to redresses the legacy of Canada’s colonial past? Ultimately the conference led to a number of important and necessary discussions regarding indigenous issues and communities, social relations,   architectural practice,  methodology,  decolonization, and pedagogy. If there is one thing that this event has shown is the increasing benefits in exploring Canadian architectural history and complex historic sites from a postcolonial context; assisting in decolonizing the fields of architecture, history, and theory for a more inclusive future.


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