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Nk'Mip Centre Shimmers in Desert

Osoyoos Band offers new way to imagine 'breathtaking' buildings amidst the financial crash.

By Adele Weder, 22 Oct 2008, TheTyee.ca

Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre

Award-winning Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre, designed by Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden. Photo by Nic Lehoux.

In post-meltdown North America, it won't be long now before the starchitecture phenomenon hits the economic slagheap. How many corporate benefactors will be left to bankroll such cultural braggadocio as Daniel Libeskind's giant crystal barnacle in Toronto, or Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project mishmash in Seattle?

The stark reality is that starchitecture is predicated on money and branding, neither of which are as reliable as we thought. So what kind of architecture can we turn to?

Far, far away from the turbulent urban centres, a First Nations cultural project is offering an architectural antidote for these times. In the heart of the Okanagan, the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre near Osoyoos is the best of the recent spate of B.C.'s First Nations cultural buildings. Distinguished by its striking 80-metre-long rammed-earth façade, the Osoyoos Band's Desert Cultural Centre is a rare point of beauty amid the Okanagan's trashy new townscapes.

On Thursday, Oct. 16 the centre and its designers, Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden (HBBH), received a Governor-General's Medal for Architecture. It's notable that the other two B.C. projects nabbing a GG last week are similarly subdued: West Vancouver's Gleneagles Community Centre by Patkau Architects, and the ROAR one condominium project in Point Grey, by Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture in partnership with HBBH. They all serve to remind us that architecture -- let's extend this to Canadian culture in general -- is not best represented by lavish, glittering, oversized baubles.

'We wanted something breathtaking'

But of this triumvirate of GG winners, the Desert Cultural Centre is the most groundbreaking. Beyond its visual distinction -- it really is more eye-stopping than any of the other winners -- it offers a new paradigm for the emerging field of aboriginal tourism. Instead of braying loudly in your face, the Desert Cultural Centre is literally submerged, partly, into the earth, with its green roof receding into the slope of the hillside that cradles it.

The rammed-earth wall is not a literal replication of erstwhile First Nations architecture. (Fans of that format can turn to Skidegate's new Haida Heritage Centre. The Desert Cultural Centre offers a more abstracted, forward-looking response.

"We wanted something breathtaking, but with very little footprint on the land," recalls Brenda Baptiste, an Osoyoos band member who grew up in the area and was the centre's general manager when the project was conceived. The centre transcends its immediate purpose as a repository for exhibits and didactic panels and souvenirs, and becomes, as Baptiste puts it, "our stage for the world."

These days, Baptiste lives in Vancouver where she serves as chair for the B.C. Aboriginal Cultural Tourism Association. She's acutely aware of the potential for growth in the First Nations tourism sector, from roughly $35 million last year to a projected $50 million in annual revenues anticipated for 2012. And of the 200 or so current aboriginal tourism businesses, more than half are in cultural tourism, according to the ABTC. "The Great Wall," as Baptiste laughingly refers to it, is the sort of First Nations architecture that embodies the best of the modern aboriginal spirit.

Mixing tradition with progressiveness

Cultural and interpretive centres are not money-makers; they're attractions that draw visitors in to spend money on souvenirs, wine and accommodation elsewhere in the area. The architecture, then, is all more critical in distilling and expressing the culture that visitors wish to brush up against. In the case of the entrepreneurially successful Osoyoos Band, the essential culture, honestly expressed, is a mixture of First Nations traditions and contemporary progressiveness. Hence its façade: the local dirt, mixed with modern concrete, and hand-tamped with iron-oxide pigment to create red-tinged striations that evoke the nearby sandbanks.

The centre is naturally ecological, too: the thick earthen wall keeps out the scalding Okanagan heat far better than most of the architecture in the region. Inside, at the Centre's core, is a small round theatre that plays films about the Osoyoos band's past and contemporary culture in an architectural format evocative of the band's traditional pit house. Could there be any better reflection of the Nk'Mip's fusion of traditional and contemporary mores?

"Our goal was to present the Osyoos band's long tenure on the land, and their future," says the project's principal architect, Bruce Haden. "To me, First Nations' culture so often gets ghettoized as historical. The Desert Cultural Centre is about the permanence of the Osoyoos culture -- and permanence is about the past, the present, and the future."

Okanagan as theme park

Weirdly, the iconic rammed-earth wall is barely shown on the Desert Cultural Centre's own website, whose imagery is dominated by shots of tourists savouring the desert. (The architecture is a springboard to the Centre's 1,600-acre desert conservation area behind it.

Sadly, the architecture surrounding the Centre does not come anywhere near to matching it in serenity or propriety: the adjacent Nk'Mip Cellars and Spirit Ridge Resort are designed more along the standard lines of the Okanagan Disney-kitsch, with little apparent connection to the subtle beauty of the Osyoos land and tradition. Those structures were designed by different architects, at a different time from Baptiste's mandate. To be sure, however much it pains to say it, they probably draw that certain sector of tourists that require architectural MSG with their First Nations experience.

And what is the prognosis for tourism in the post-meltdown age? Will it obliterate the future visitorship to the Nk'Mip Resort and Desert Cultural Centre? "For aboriginal tourism, it's an opportunity," says Baptiste, "because people are going to stay closer to home."

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