31 October 2008


rejecting an architecture of fearRobert Billard
Planning departments and elected officials of small Canadian communities constantly struggle with what form growth should take: is it the preservation of history or the need to foster a vision consistent with the needs of today’s society? Is it a struggle to find any sort of coherent vision out of a history of seemingly haphazard development? This last one is Nunavut.
From decades of federal government initiatives to maintain sovereignty in the north, communities were built on the sites of seasonal hunting or fishing destinations. Within a general commitment to all Canadians, the government invested in infrastructure for these new settlements. To say that the same care was taken with northern communities as with those in the south would be a gross error.
These new settlements were approached in the same manner as setting up a military or mining camp — in many cases those that worked on the architecture and planning were those that supplied services for the military or industry. Expediency and cost, overriding factors that shaped the architecture of the north, continue to direct built form, fostering a vision that could be described as an architecture of fear – that plagues community governments and inhabitants.
City councils should not be the ones to set guidelines for form and function, although councils have a role in speaking out on people’s behalf. Responsibility lies with the architect, developer, contractor, owner and general public, whether local or visiting, to understand the land and culture they are about to impact. There is no excuse for subsistence architecture where expediency and cost are the only mitigating factors. Striving only to meet these criteria is bound to fail on a far more meaningful level. Submitting to fear, whichever form it takes, stunts the positive growth of a community. While design should pay attention to cost and the entrenched views of local populations, these fears should not steer architecture.
Fear of the Environment
Fear of weather created a knee-jerk architecture that stuffed a yawning hole we had created in the first place. The hulks of Inuksuk and Nakasuk schools are a testament to this: fibreglas mounds with bullet-hole windows designed to keep out the environment at the expense of sunlight, fresh air and consequently students’ health. Houses were made small and culturally useless with materials that are alien to the landscape. Despite this, it was perceived by southern populations and those that knew nothing different in the north, that developers and distant governments were doing the best thing – providing a humanitarian service: housing and schooling. In the absence of anything else and the publicity nightmare of northern homelessness and English illiteracy, any solution southern architects and contractors could offer was accepted.
Fear of the cost of building in the north fostered a use of substandard materials and an inappropriate use of others, and a complete abandonment of the idea of actually making buildings look and feel good. While the south had long abandoned the frontier mentality, the Arctic was built seemingly in just that way.
Things have begun to change, in part due to the development of better building materials, and, to a lesser degree, the fact that Nunavummiut began to ask for more. Local people began to travel south and saw what they were missing in the way of architecture and sustainable, healthy communities and people from the south began to move north expecting to have what they had before. Thus was born the second phase of the architecture of fear: the fear of simply being here.

Fear of Place
Northern houses often copy nondescript subdivisions south of 60° or, even more distressing, resemble First Nations’ reserves of the 1970s. Northern contractors and prospective homeowners plagiarise plan magazines, adapting them to suit steel-piled foundations, no basements and tanked domestic water and sewage.
Rarely does much thought go into how any kind of house might sit on its site apart from a possible view of the bay. Few engage the landscape or create a dialogue with their surroundings; there is more regard for set backs than wind, plants or daylight. It is as if southerners do not want to acknowledg the north; they retreat from the world around them and leave the Arctic behind.
Social housing has atrophied from a complete lack of understanding of local culture and environment. To combat this, local jurisdictions and social housing organisations have solicited the help of southern architects and planners to develop prototype housing for all of Nunavut. This will only perpetuate the problem by forcing yet another stifling blanket of homogeneity coloured by a limited understanding of the culture and landscape.
When buildings do not engage the landscape, there is little attention to the streetscape, to exterior place-making, or to the human experience of the building. Communities are full of buildings that most of us will never enter but nonetheless experience everyday. This relationship has to be recognised. Many Arctic communities suffer from a complete lack of a sense of architectural place. Expediency and fiscal restraint, repeated designs and a cookie-cutter mentality peppers the north with identical air terminals, health centres, schools and arenas. If it weren’t for the differences in landscape, it would be difficult to tell which community you were actually in.
From this fear blossoms yet another: the fear of trying anything different.

Fear of Change
Anything not a box, or with an angle other than 45 or 90 degrees, or that uses a different material than commonly accepted is perceived to immediately add 25% to the building cost. To compound this problem, the trades, when forced to abide by the will of the designer or owner, can be ill-equipped to handle deviations from the norm. Piles go in wrong locations, designs change over night without consent from designer or owner and corners are cut.
Recently things have started to change. Recognising they must compete with southern contractors now moving into the northern market, there are some builders who are willing to try different things, developing an appreciation of challenges to the norm. Local governments have begun to expect more from their designers and are demanding innovative solutions to their projects. Federal projects, required to meet LEED™ Silver sustainability levels, have raised the bar on architectural problem-solving. The aesthetics of a project are more in the forefront and quality of space is actually being discussed.
The Nunavut Legislature and Government of Canada buildings in Iqaluit, the Kugaaruk High School in Kugaaruk, the Killiniq High School in Cambridge Bay and some more challenging house designs by Full Circle Architecture and others have spurred an appreciation for design and are developing local form: a Nunavut architecture that fights its fears.
Billard, Robert. 'Nunavut: an architecture of fear' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Robert Billard and On Site review

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