Searching for a Nunavut architecture


Last week’s news that Iqaluit City Council had voted to reject the proposed design of a 48-unit apartment building came with a sense of relief.

However, this joy had nothing to do with the building itself. The issue of taking pride in one’s surroundings and that pride weighing in more than the sheer volumetric will of the developer is what brought the relief.

Finally we were saying that, yes, we do need housing, office space, and to densify our city, stopping the spread deeper into the surrounding tundra, but that this must coincide with the beauty of our community.

For years, since the start of the urbanization of Iqaluit, we have seen what I call an architecture of fear. Our fear of the weather created a knee-jerk architecture that stifled a yawning hole we had created in the first place. The hulks of Inuksuk and Nakasuk schools are a testament to this: Fibreglass mounds with bullet-hole windows designed to hold out the environment, at the expense of sunlight, fresh air and consequently students’ health. Houses were made compact and culturally useless with materials that are alien to the landscape.

None of this mattered though, for it was perceived that the developers and distant governments were doing the best thing. They were providing a humanitarian service: housing and schooling. In the absence of anything else and the publicity nightmare of homelessness and English illiteracy, any solution southern architects and contractors could offer was accepted.

Our fear of the cost of building created a substandard use of materials 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 still built seemingly in just that way.

Over the years things began to change. In part due to the development of better building materials, but also, to a lesser degree, due to the fact that people began to want more.

Local people began to travel south more and see what they were missing in the way of architecture and others began to move here expecting to have what they had before.

Thus was born the second phase of the architecture of fear: the fear of being here. Denial.

Houses, primarily, were copies of those from non-descript subdivisions in non-descript cities south of 60. Contractors and prospective homeowners plagiarized the designs found in magazines, adapting them to suit piles, no basements and domestic water and sewer tanks. No thought went into how they sat on the site apart from a possible view out the bay. None engaged the landscape or created a “dialogue” with their surroundings with more regard for set-backs than wind patterns, vegetation or daylighting.

It was as if the inhabitants of these houses did not want to admit they were in the North. They felt a need for a place to retreat from the world around them and leave the Arctic behind.

From this fear blossomed yet another: the contractor’s fear of trying anything different.

Anything that was not a box or had an angle other than 45 or 90 degrees or used a different material that was commonly accepted was perceived to immediately add 25 per cent to the building cost. To compound this problem, the trades, when forced to abide by the will of the designer or owner, were ill-equipped to handle deviation from the norm.

Piles went in wrong locations, designs changed overnight without consent from designer or owner and corners were cut.

Recently things have started to change. There are builders who are willing to try something different or have developed an appreciation for designs that challenge the norm. Governments have begun to expect more from their designers and are demanding innovative solutions to their projects. The aesthetics of a project have come more to the forefront and the quality of the space provided is actually being discussed.

The Nunavut legislature, and Government of Canada buildings and some more challenging house designs have spurred an appreciation for design. We are at last developing a local form. A Nunavut architecture.

Buildings still do not engage the landscape as they should, striding over it with complete abandon. There is little attention to the streetscape, to exterior place-making, to lighting, to the human experience of the building. Our communities are full of buildings that most of us will never enter but nonetheless experience every day. This relationship has to be recognized.

A building is not a wall behind which people retreat to work or play. A building is a part of the street, neighbourhood and the community. It must respect its surroundings just as a person should. It is not an island.

It is true that city councils should not be the ones to set guidelines for form and function.

However, council represents the people and therefore has a role in speaking out on their behalf. The responsibility lies with the developer, contractor, owner and general public to recognize the full role of a building in a community.

We must take pride and responsibility for what we build. There is no excuse for subsistence architecture where supply and demand are the only mitigating factors.

Bylaws are minimums of acceptance that have little to do with civic pride. Any building that only strives to meet these criteria is bound to fail on a far more meaningful level.

Iqaluit is not, as has been voiced, “closed for business” in its decision to demand higher standards of design, but finally shedding its fear and opening the doors to innovation, energy and the vitality that comes from helping to create a more dynamic and beautiful community.

Robert Billard

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