Studio: Indigenous founder Chris Cornelius decolonizing Architecture

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We talk to the architect and educator about how indigenous culture influences his work and how empathy can dismantle colonialist design approaches.

As a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, architect and educator Chris Cornelius has worked tirelessly to expand indigenous sovereignty in the area. He is the founding director of Studio: Indigenous, a design and consulting firm for indigenous customers, and teaches the De-Colonizing Indigenous Housing course at the Yale School of Architecture. Cornelius’ teaching and design career spans Canada and the United States and defies traditional notions of borders as borders.

Studio: Indigenous founder Chris Cornelius

Among his many awards, Cornelius was one of a group of indigenous architects representing Canada at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, and he was a design fellow at the Indian Community School of Milwaukee (ICS) which won the 2009 AIA Design Excellence Award from the. won the Committee of Architecture for Education. His 2019 presentation at the University of Arkansas, “Make Architecture Indigenous Again,” highlighted indigenous values ​​in contemporary architecture, drawing on his 2003 Artist in Residence Fellowship from the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC

Trickster (itsnotatipi) by Chris Cornelius, an installation in Wisconsin, consists of locally harvested wood and patinated copper mesh. In indigenous storytelling, the trickster is often in animal form and challenges us to decenter the human narrative.

Cornelius is known for works like Trickster (itsnotatipi), a temporary installation in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Wiikiaami in Columbus, Indiana, a piece inspired by the homes of the Indiana-based Miyaamia. For Cornelius, every structure begins with a story. His passion for drawing comes alive when he uses indigenous narratives to inspire physical spaces that honor heritage while respecting the natural landscape. As an architect and educator, Cornelius pushes the boundaries of what we consider architecture and increases the representation of the local population in this area.

How did you know that architecture is your calling?

Cornelius: I think I always knew that I wanted to become architecture even before I knew exactly what it was. I was fascinated by building. My father was a bricklayer and I was intrigued by the fact that there was someone out there who designed the things he built. I was particularly interested in the drawings. When I started high school I knew I wanted to be an architect and everything I did was moving towards that goal. I took every drawing class I could. When I was a senior, I even took part in professional drawing competitions at the local and state levels.

A first sketch by Wiikiaami by Chris Cornelius

Made of rebar and copper scales, Wiikiaami is a contemporary riff on the “wigwam” – “wiikiaami” in the Indian language of Myaamia. It was erected in front of the first Christian church by Eliel Saarinen in Columbus, Indiana.

Is drawing at the root of your design process?

Every project is unique, but most projects start with drawing ideas. I think it’s important to start drawing even before you know what it will be. I like to start with stories and find ways to draw the story – not illustrate it. There is so much content in indigenous stories, science, history, technology, architecture, ecology, etc. I believe architecture should have as much content and serve as a means of sharing these things with all living things as it is with our relatives.

They have been academics and practitioners for many years. How do you integrate ecology and indigenous history into architecture lessons?

Indigenous knowledge has always included ecology and history. I try to teach my non-indigenous students the same way. For my studio in Yale, I gave a series of readings to students on indigenous history, politics, ecology, storytelling, and research paradigms. It made me realize that the more I taught them about indigenousness, the more they realized what they didn’t know – and it wasn’t their fault. Their K-12, undergraduate, and partial graduate studies had taught them nothing about indigenous history in the United States and Canada. This was not a defect on their part, but a flaw in the system of colonized knowledge.

Because I tried to expose them to indigenous thought, I believe that our conversations about architecture were enriched by why it was important to think of our other living relatives or why Exercising indigenous sovereignty whenever possible is imperative.

The model of architecture education, which has existed for around 150 years, is very well suited to providing students with the What and the how of architecture. It has let the student down by no longer having that who and the why. As a teacher, I’m trying to change that.

What does it mean for you to look after young architects and designers and to look after indigenous customers through your studio?

Living room with deer, a work by Max Wirsing, a student at Cornelius’ Yale Studio.

Being a professor of architecture is a gift. The best students are the ones who seek mentoring and that has been an important part of my own maturation as a designer and educator. I enjoy watching students develop in my Yale studio, such as Max Wirsing and Ruike Liu.

I was also fortunate enough to get in touch with indigenous architecture students (most of them are in Canada) and advise them as best I can. I hope the workload for Studio: Indigenous will continue to increase. This is the only way I can take on some of these people as employees.

When I founded Studio: Indigenous in 2003, I didn’t see many indigenous designers serving indigenous clients. It wasn’t that there weren’t any, I just didn’t know them. I decided to start my practice to serve indigenous people because in my experience design had not served them well and I wanted to change that. That meant not specializing in any type of project, but rather finding the best way to translate the culture into an architectural experience.

Map of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation by Riuke Liu

What has to happen now in design and architecture in order to do justice to the realities of this time?

We need to start bringing different voices into the conversation. This has to be done from top to bottom – and from bottom to top. We need leaders from groups we have never seen before. We need people in the design disciplines from groups we normally haven’t heard of. We can’t just stay in a world of reading lists and resource guides. We need to promote people to leadership positions, faculty positions, company directors, government positions, policy makers, customer representatives, and so on. I think our students (and not just color students) are asking for this. The people who control the funding mechanisms must examine how they have always supported and / or promoted only white mechanisms. I think most did it unwittingly and inadvertently.

How does the built environment interact with indigenous history?

Moon rifle scope drawing by Chris Cornelius

The built environment is Indigenous history. This relationship is dirty and complex.

We begin by understanding that if we intervene in this landscape, we are encroaching on indigenous land.

Most US cities are built on indigenous settlements. This country was not a “wild frontier” when the European colonizers arrived. It was a complex network of civilizations that saw themselves as administrators of the land. This land has been administered, cared for and cared for like a relative in need of help. The built environment should not differ from the non-built environment. It’s all a sturdy family that we, as designers, facilitate the interaction between the key elements.

I believe that all design schools should require courses on indigenous history and politics. I think every design student should know the Dawes Act of 1887 as well as the US Constitution. Location analysis and history should not begin with when a place became a city or state, but with the people who are at home in this landscape.

Decolonization begins and ends with combating land expropriation by indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada. Colonial thinking would want us to build and perpetuate the differences between each of us in order to separate from one another. I believe true decolonization begins with realizing that colonization is driven by a lack of empathy.

We can start dismantling the colonization apparatus by incorporating empathy into the methods and strategies we use in design.

Related reading:

We may already have the technology to survive a climate crisis – we just ignored it

To fight wild forest fires, California draws on the knowledge of the Native Americans


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