Laurentian University Architecture ice fishing huts project

Ice fishing huts designed by Laurentian Architecture students. \ Photo from @LU_Architecture on Twitter.

Within today’s instantaneously disposable culture, buildings are often thoughtlessly constructed using mass-produced curtain wall and structural systems while capitalizing on consumers’ fleeting needs for ephemerality and ambiguity of space and place. Given the demands of the marketplace, how and why would anyone ever design an architectural program based on localized understandings of site, materials, climate and cultures, let alone with a stated focus on wood construction in particular? It's an utterly preposterous proposition – or is it?

A recent letter to the editor in the Toronto Star rallied against a glowing critique of the new Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre in Toronto. The author “lamented” Toronto’s longstanding disregard for its architectural heritage and focused on the author’s distaste for the Toronto Star’s Architectural Critic, Christopher Hume, and his recent praise for the neo-late modernist Aga Khan complex. The author rattled off a number of significant Toronto buildings that had been scrapped along with their collective embedded energies, building traditions and untapped potential for adaptive re-use, including such modernist classics as John Parkin’s former Bata Shoe Company headquarters as evidence.

This debate highlights some important questions about the current state of architecture: What role can tradition and history play in architectural education today? How can sustainability, as a larger cultural construct, be considered in architectural education?

Sudbury’s Laurentian University has thoughtfully and carefully considered each of these problems and forged a unique and innovative architecture program. The program enters key debates about sustainable design as a cultural construct head on and offers very practical solutions. Laurentian’s new School of Architecture is the first in Canada in more than forty years. It is also the first school of its kind in Northern Ontario. Faculty searches are now under way, more students are signing on and new facilities gleaned through urban reclamation in downtown Sudbury are bringing life back to Sudbury’s downtown.

Sudbury’s architecture program “highlights design and culture for the north – particularly northern Ontario – with an emphasis in developing expertise in wood.” Design studio courses focus on “practical building solutions for our northern climate, taking into account cultural sensitivities, diverse histories and community profiles” as a strategic and ideological focus. “An appreciation for the integration of indigenous and natural materials in building and site design, as well as an understanding of the importance of collaboration and interaction with other students, faculty and community groups” is a hallmark of a Sudbury’s pedagogical model. As the Sudbury Star reported last September, Laurentian University's School of Architecture “represents a new direction for the profession in Canada,” according to the president of the Ontario Association of Architects, Bill Birdsell.

First year courses in “sacred geography” are coupled with courses in “design thinking” to capture both tradition and innovation simultaneously while students explore making, problem solving and issues of “place” in their first year architectural design studios. Ontario Francophone, First Nations, Métis and Inuit traditions are all tangible components in programs and pedagogy. Access to Elders-in-residence and the spectacular and challenging Northern Ontario landscape form a core for contextualizing the program in space and place. A new facility made up of four buildings forming a courtyard offers unique teaching opportunities and is a result of the creative adaptive re-use of a number of buildings including the CP Telegraph Building (1914) for faculty offices and the CP Rail Shed (circa 1905) for the design studio and classroom.

Student projects include local experiences such as building ice-fishing huts and making birch bark canoes in first and second year. Enrolment is capped at a reasonable size to ensure a quality student experience and to maintain a logical supply of architects trained to work effectively and sensitively in Canada’s North.

Laurentian is confronting sustainable architecture from a much more three-dimensional point of view than is normally approached in architecture schools. Many schools excel in the technical aspects of sustainable design and innovation, but stop short of addressing the social and cultural elements that are even more important. Sustainable design and innovation has little to do with tossing around some solar panels and advocating the use of bamboo flooring. It is as much about discovering new technologies, materials and methods of fabrication as it is about understanding localized contexts, climates and material traditions.

Laurentian University’s architecture program has truly and sincerely sited its program within the culture, climate, history and beauty of the north. A new generation of sustainable design savvy architects will be able to view sustainable design from a broader point of view, practice in a way that will honour the needs of the north and will soon be practicing using their deep wisdom, rather than just their knowledge, if this project is successful.

The deadline to register for the OCAD University Sustainable Design Awards is coming up on May 1st! The SDAs are open to Ontario post-secondary students and recent grads from all backgrounds, and inter-disciplinary work is encouraged. Categories for projects include social innovation, cityscape, shelter, products & tools, digital technology and an open category.

Eric Nay is an architect, designer, artist and a professor at OCAD University. His blog, Made in Canada, profiles examples of Canadian design innovation, including sustainable buildings and design, craft practices and innovative businesses across the country.

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