Photo Essay

Architecture of Hope Revisited

BC saw a flowering of innovative First Nations school design. What grows there now?

By Adele Weder 27 Feb 2009 | TheTyee.ca

This article is part of Adele Weder's Tyee series on B.C. architecture. Many thanks to the Practitioners, Critics and Curators of Architecture grant programme of the Canada Council of the Arts, which is sponsoring this series. Adele Weder can be reached at aweder@qcislands.net.

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Chief Matthews School in Haida Gwaii.

Can architecture help kids learn better? Or at the very least, can it make them not hate school?

That question burns most intensely in places where architecture historically has been the enemy, the nation's aboriginal reserves, isolated and shadowed by the dark legacy of residential schools.

It's been 20 years since an architect and civil servant named Marie-Odile Marceau challenged the way First Nations schools were designed and delivered in this province.

As a new hire of the provincial government, Marceau rejected the cookie-cutter schools trucked in from afar, and brought in the best B.C. architects to work with local bands. The thesis: aboriginal kids and kin would find inspiration and empowerment in the architecture informed by their own culture and input.

After generating 10 schools and a flurry of positive reviews from 1986 to 1994, Marceau left government for private practice and the program quietly folded. These days, no one talks about how well these new schools have fared. That's partly because they're mostly in far-flung pockets of the province that are difficult to visit, let alone evaluate. So I gave it shot. Travelling by car, plane and ferry, I dropped in on five of the 10 schools, talked to the teachers, principals and children, sought their views and observed their interaction with the architecture.

Here's what I learned in those schools.

Taking flight: Seabird Island School

The most famously celebrated of the 10 is Seabird Island Community School designed by Patkau Architects and built on the Agassiz reserve, a two-hour drive east of Vancouver.

The building itself suggests a huge bird poised to take flight. What better metaphor for children learning, or for a challenged community?

Seabird's golden cedar shingles have silvered, and its interior has the patina of a 17-year-old structure. Yet it remains overwhelmingly beautiful. Its angled planes do seem to unfold like a bird's wings as you walk around it.

When I arrive at the school, the sun is shining and the children are at the end of a lunch hour, playing in the schoolyard. They eagerly gather around and interrupt each other to make sure I write down what they have to say. "It's like a bird!" says one. The comments, during my afternoon visit, are pretty much universal: they love their school.

A girl and a boy describe how they make a schoolyard game of spotting creatures in the shapes and angles of the buildings -- a version of the old prairie game of lying on the grass and looking for animals in the clouds. Without my asking, one of them mentions he'd rather be at the school than on holiday because he likes the building so much.

Several other kids chime in with "yeah."

Another boy offers an impromptu tribute with calm precociousness. The school he was at before Seabird was square and boxy and "really, really white." (He means the walls.) He loves Seabird's sloping ceilings. "If I'm in a flat room, I feel like I'm going to get squashed and so I don't feel like I can focus," he explains.

Has the school had any discernable impact on student performance? Possibly, replies a teacher. But, the teacher adds, the kids' academic performance is nonetheless one or two grade levels below the provincial average. Why? Not sure; no comment, she replies, a little nervously.

Before I leave, I'm told that anything for attribution must be written out and vetted by the band for approval. I decide to record all the observations and comments, here and elsewhere, anonymously.

In the course of my research, more than one principal attributes the ongoing failure to bring kids' academic levels to urban standards on parental indifference. "Nobody cares," sighs one, after first making sure we were out of earshot of everyone else. "They do care about the building, but nobody learns. It's safe to live here, there's no vandalism in the school, but there's no progress."

But in each case they quickly added that they could never attach their name to such a comment if they wanted to keep their jobs.

Which brings me to the wistful realization that a series of day trips and steno-pad scribbling can't possibly achieve a meaningful evaluation of these schools. A vast educational industry has yet to untangle the many variables that contribute to school success. For that matter, we may have to define what we mean by "success" in the first place. Making the kids happy? Engaging them in a positive way? If so, then Seabird Island Community School seems to be a great success indeed.

Sculpted pride: Chief Matthews School

In Haida Gwaii, a region where I live for part of every year, Acton Johnson Ostry's 1995 Chief Matthews School in Old Massett seems to me the subject of ongoing local pride. Designed and built in collaboration with the local Haida community, the building evokes a longhouse and is imbued with elegant, locally sculpted Haida iconography. That pride hasn't prevented the occasional nasty bout of vandalism, despite a popular theory that nice schools are vandal-proof by nature. A senior school official told me it's a few of the older kids in the neighbourhood, not the elementary pupils, who are inclined to break the odd lamplight or windowpane of the school.

Another non-utopian fact is that the local high school, into which the school feeds, remains one of the lowest-achieving secondary schools in the province in terms of the Foundation Skills Assessment tests, for whatever that's worth. So you can't say it's been enough to give local kids the head start that will carry them through the daunting years of high school.

What you can say, however, is that if you drive around the village of Old Massett, Chief Matthews School undeniably reinforces the strong visual presence of Haida culture on the street.

'Raise the expectations': Red Stone School

Red Stone School, a longhouse-inspired post-and-beamer in the Chilcotins, designed by Larry MacFarland Architects and built in the Red Stone reserve in Alexis Creek, about a 100 kilometres from Williams Lake, is holding up well. Its soft lighting and heavy timber beams imbue the school atmosphere with a warmth that counterpoints the surrounding stark countryside.

Red Stone principal Arthur MacDonald is pretty much the only person I interviewed who doesn't mind going on the record, perhaps because when I interviewed him last year, he was already planning his imminent retirement. He had already worked at other rural native schools in Northern Ontario before Red Stone, and noticed the positive difference immediately after moving here.

"My first impression of this school was, 'Hey, it's intact -- windows and all!'" smiled MacDonald. "This school is in excellent shape, almost pristine, compared with schools where I taught in Northern Ontario," says Macdonald. He admired the open plan, the sunken reading circle, the heavy beams, the lack of boarded-up windows.

And then he shook his head slowly and added: "Education is not such a big thing here. I don't think the building itself makes a drop of difference to these kids. Not one drop." A young girl that I had just been talking to -- a girl I took to be the brightest of her group -- is working at two levels below grade, he tells me.

So, what would make a difference?

He paused to think, and finally answered: "I don't know. The computers are here. The gym is here. The teachers are here. You can dress up the box all you want, but if they don't want to learn, I don't know what you can do." He blames what he calls "the system" -- that's all of us, he means; our collective way of assigning values and obligations to parents, kids, teachers -- everything. "What we have removed from the system," says MacDonald, "is the responsibility of kids to want to learn."

Still, as architect Larry McFarland pointed out in a recent interview, the importance of schools like Red Stone is that they allow the community a chance to be listened to. "Architecture can't possibly solve all the problems," said McFarland, "but it sure can raise the expectations of people -- native or non-native." "The local community doesn't look at the architecture to solve anything," adds Marie-Odile Marceau, who has recently joined McFarland's firm. "They traditionally haven't had the experience of building upkeep, and they didn't need to. If the building returned to the forest, that was what it was supposed to do."

Pushing it to the limit: Stone School

"Is there anything left of it?" That was architect Peter Cardew's first question, when I told him I had visited his award-winning Stone School, built way out in the Chilcotin countryside in 1996. He's asking because the only news he's had of it, since the design's initial burst of acclaim in the early 1990s, is when the local band telephoned him a year after its construction. They wanted to find the original contractor, they told him, so that they could ask him to saw it apart.

Located not far from Red Stone School, accessible by way of an off-highway road with numerous switchbacks, the Stone School serves a severely isolated, impoverished community. Compared with some other historically resource-rich nations like the Haida, Chilcotin communities have long struggled to make a good life in a harsh region, even before the artificially induced horrors of residential schools.

Designed by Cardew with input from the local Stone band, it is premised on the pre-contact design traditions of the Chilcotin peoples. That means little or no decoration -- hence the gesture of a simple, unadorned base of nude concrete.

As for the shape, the community's historic architectural tradition includes the pit house. Cardew took the concept of the pit house -- where native children of the Chilcotins would learn by hearing stories told by their elders -- and abstracted it to create a sunken circular lounge in its main interior space, above which a skylight rises poetically into a conical cap for the school. Around the skylight cone, the roof would be topped with a carpet of grass to help insulate the school by way of the same principle that Chilcotin aboriginal communities insulated their own dwellings, long ago.

This much is true: the Stone School is theoretically brilliant, culturally informed architecture. It fully deserved its 1991 Progressive Architecture award for its then-unbuilt design scheme.

This also is true: a lot of people of the community seem to hate it.

These days, its original naked-concrete base is painted a lurid blue and decorated with eagle figures reminiscent of a Robert Bateman reproduction. Its rooftop carpet of grass is now a square of parched grey earth with a scattering of yellowing tufts. The green carpet lasted, I'm told, until the third year after construction. Then the community stopped caring enough to maintain it.

Cardew's iconic skylight-cone is still there, but the community's erstwhile threat to decapitate it seems to hang over it like an invisible sword of Damocles. Why do some people hate that critically acclaimed skylight so much? Simple, say the people I ask (a teacher, a principal and two boys wandering around outside). It reminds them of a prison surveillance tower -- especially with the school's concrete base and the later, safety-minded addition of a chain link fence on the roof.

Painting that bare concrete base made a tremendously positive difference, a teacher comments.

Inside, Stone School looks more poetically serene than its modified, maligned-looking exterior. In the sunken circle at the base of the pit house gesture, two happy-looking children cavort. The teacher I'm speaking with says the circle pit is well-loved -- the kids find it cozy, a good spot to gather and sit for story-telling.

Many of the adults, though, resent the high winter heating bills, which they think are caused by the heat getting devoured by the soaring conical skylight. And many resent the perception that the extra cost of the pit house gesture might have had something to do with why Stone School had no capital budget for a gymnasium -- an unconscionable omission in a tiny isolated community with next to no other amenities nearby. "It was a trade-off," sighed one teacher. If so, it seems a cruelly Solomonic compromise for the government bean counters to inflict on a deprived, isolated community.

But still. A lovely, bright-looking girl, who gives her name as Shenita, tells me with a beatific smile that she likes the school. She pointedly adds that her dad helped design it. Her dad, as it happens, is Chief Ivor Myers of the Stone Band.

Elsewhere, the principal mentions, almost as an aside, that the RCMP told him that this particular community has the least problems with vandalism.

Over coffee recently near his Granville Island studio, Cardew shrugged philosophically. Architecture in general, and Stone School in particular, can never be a panacea but rather one tool among many that the Chilcotin people could use to reconnect to their brutally assaulted culture. "I can give you the finest shovel in the world," says Cardew, "but it doesn't guarantee you'll get a good crop."

Other elements -- excellent teachers, healthy home environments, good local employment possibilities and so forth -- are also needed to thrive.

If locals see a prison tower rather than a pit house, perhaps the damage of the recent past is a roadblock to the reconnection of some communities with their own traditions.

And if high-school dropout rates are still unacceptably high, can we really conclude that the architecture -- or even the school on the whole -- is ineffective? As Malcolm Gladwell reported in his latest book, The Outliers, maybe the school isn't the villain; maybe it's other aspects of life that impede learning, after school and during the months of summer vacation.

How about we leave it to Gladwell and others to poke around in that can of worms. A proper evaluation of these schools would take years of research and busloads of researchers. But even my cursory visits and chit-chats suggest a couple of inescapable conclusions:

First, architecture is like fire: if it's created in a vacuum, it won't take. It needs the oxygen of job opportunities, social resources and happy family environments to succeed. (And you can extrapolate that to apply to all the big one-off remedies flung at trouble spots.)

Second, it's a stretch to expect native communities to always respond intuitively and positively to representations keying off of their cultural tradition before it was interrupted.

But if we could consider this series of schools as a starting point -- if we could consider which ones worked and which ones aren't doing so well, and why -- then perhaps we could advance farther in our understanding of both education and aboriginal cultures.

If we could treat Marceau's bold and generously ambitious project as sorely needed research and development, the kids and the communities will be much better off than if we ignore or condemn it as a lost crapshoot.

"This all happened during the rise of the era of listening," noted Marceau in a recent interview, "this realization that the architect wasn't the emissary of the gods." Or the devil, I'd add. Of the schools already built, most of them seem to prompt at least a bit of spring in the kids' steps, a small enticement to come to school in the morning, a constant background reminder that somebody somewhere thought their environment deserved consideration.

My sense is that all of them -- even Stone School -- have made the kids' school days a little more interesting.

It's hard to prove. But probably it is worth it.

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