15 July 2008

Yellowknife, NWT

local culture and northern architecture
Kayhan Nadji
The architectural expression of this house grows out of an appreciation for local culture and environment.
This four-bedroom 450 m2 house, designed for a family of five, is in Yellowknife, the capital city of the Northwest Territories and the homeland of Weledeh Yellowknife Dene. Based on tipi and igloo architecture, the indigenous dwellings of this area, it reflects an increasing awareness of the way architecture affects, and is affected by both the environment and culture, plus emergent characteristics in contemporary architecture.
For aboriginal people, the circle is a significant symbol, representing the continuity of life. Almost all aboriginal shelters feature a circular plan in which is held some basic physical and psychological concepts: a circle makes everyone equal, the circular plan encourages concentric use of space with attention focused on the centre with its fire pit at the base and smoke vent at the top. Circular dwellings are non-directional, aside from the entrance, and let in daylight from all angles.
Also, a circular shape is the most efficient for enclosing volume, minimising the use of materials and presenting the least possible surface area for heat gain and loss. A circular plan directs the earth forces naturally around the building, and wind turbulence is minimal. It encloses a given area with less wall, and energy consumption is dramatically reduced.
This site, on high ground, has one of the best views in the city of the river and bays the aboriginal people call Weledeh (Yellowknife River). To maximize this, there are many windows and two levels of walkout decks. The environmentally sensitive site determined both the extent of glazing used in the building and the transparent deck railings. Within constraints, the aim was to produce a building with a sense of tranquility and harmony with a beautiful location that reflected the environment and culture of aboriginal peoples with a strong visual presence

The Round/Tipi house, which stands out in high contrast to the sky, sits back on a long rocky site; behind are birch and spruce trees. The site is bounded on the east by Yellowknife River and on the west by Niven Lake. The overall design vocabulary abstracts the form of native dwellings of the surrounding area. The ground floor contains a rotunda entry hall, living, dining, family room, kitchen and bathroom. The second floor contains bedrooms and bathrooms; a study room is located on the third floor. The basement contains an office and an art studio. The house has a cast-in-place reinforced concrete foundation and floor poured onto bedrock. A layer of 19-cm rigid insulation and a vapour barrier under the slab prevent frost penetration and improve thermal performance. The house places an emphasis on the expression of simple frame construction (wood frame, steel post and beam, concrete foundation) and was built, nailed and shaped with ordinary tools.
Natural materials are central to the philosophy of the design; Douglas Fir #1 joists sit on a circle of steel beams and columns. Torched-on membrane material was used for the roof. A woodstove is placed at the centre, and its chimney pierces a conical 10 by 16 foot skylight: the Dene tipi shape creates a spiritual power that represents relationship between man and God. The woodstove is located at the geometric centre, radiating heat efficiently inside the house. A four-storey void extends the full height of the house, wrapped by a continuous stair which spirals up from the basement. Light plays very important role — a generous use of glass in the skylight pulls daylight into the stairwell.
Windows placed high in each room capture winter sun: the amount of daylight in the house changes colour and space with the hours and seasons. Six roof windows frame the landscape outside in a vast panorama. Colours use rich saturated hues of natural materials and the purple-gray stucco fa├žade harmonises with the surrounding rocks and trees.
The house celebrates the natural beauty of surroundings: landscape, architecture and culture are as close we can make them to what one would find in this native land. Design concepts work to create a more friendly relationship between the people inside and the natural surroundings, opening the house to the mysticism of the land and its cultures. The house is set into the natural landscape to blend rather than to dominate it. Respecting northern weather and economy, local material such as rock and gravel in combination with birch, spruce trees, mountain Avens and a small amount of grass has been used for landscaping.

By studying the aboriginal architecture, we see that complex structures are not always superior. Aboriginal architecture possesses a high degree of sophistication, performance, relevance to needs and respect for the environment.
When we look into aboriginal ways of living, we find their houses were not only sympathetic with nature, but celebrated nature as the source of life. We find that they illustrate sophisticated rules about how to design and construct — rules that had a lot of respect not only for the elements of nature, but also for people.
This house has tried to articulate, through its form, a northern architecture through its relationship to indigenous culture, landscape and the northern sky.

Nadji, Kayhan. 'Local culture'
On Site review, no. 18 Fall/Winter 2007/2008
© Kayhan Nadji and On Site review

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