For the past 50 years, Douglas Cardinal has been doing sweat lodge ceremonies to begin every week. They are healing practices for the Canadian architect due to the challenging environment of his profession.  

Reflecting on his 2016 presidential award for the Gordon Oaks Red Bear Student Center, he shares the moment an elder said to him, “I’ll meet you at the institute.”

The award is from the Saskatchewan Masonry Institute.  Built as a place that was inclusive for all students from different backgrounds, the centre was built with Mother Earth in mind. 

“I wanted a place where they could have their ceremonies,” Cardinal said.  The area he talks about has input from elders who helped create a sacred space by a heaven and earth philosophy.  Underneath, the ground was not excavated during construction, because,“it had to be sitting on Mother Earth.”

Profile DouglasCardinal BlackHorse 3Cardinal has an extensive career which has been receiving recognition in recent decades. The University of Saskatchewan honored him for creating an intercultural gathering place for students. Cardinal’s vision was about putting together a connection to ceremony for everyone. Photo: Douglas Cardinal Architect Inc.

Profile DouglasCardinal BlackHorse 5St. Mary’s Parish in Red Deer, Alta. was Cardinal’s first buildings he designed after university. He used a creative process which became a foundation for the creation of many of his other works. The construction of the parish was limited by a concave roofing system which was unplanned in the making. It wasn’t until the architect seen a spider building its web he considered using tension cables to hold the roof up. Photo courtesy Douglas Cardinal Architect Inc.

The project is just one example of the celebrated architect’s connection between Indigenous culture and his work.

Ever since he was a child, Cardinal has been learning about how to build something from the ground up.

The Calgary-born visionary, who now calls Ottawa home, acknowledges his Métis and Blackfoot upbringing for putting him on the right path. 

During a presentation in Calgary on June 13 as part of Redx Talks and D.Talks, co-presenters of the event, Cardinal said his mother initially pushed him to study architecture — but he soon realized his work had an important tie to his Indigenous culture.

Since studying architecture at the University of Texas, his career has included architectural achievements such as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. 

Cardinal’s first building after he finished his degree was St. Mary’s Parish in Red Deer, Alta. As part of this project, he used a creative process which became a foundation for the creation of many of his other works. The construction of the parish was limited by a concave roofing system. His solution was solved after seeing a spider building its web and he considered using tension cables.

“I have that opening to the sky which is so important,” he said.

For Cardinal, embedding an Indigenous worldview has been an important part of his work. His aim is to create harmony with the environment, giving his spaces a positive feeling for people. Focusing on the concept of the four directions, his interior designs reflect the universal wisdom from Indigenous communities.  

“You’re open to the four directions, heaven and earth so they could have their pipe ceremonies and their other ceremonies when they connect to the cosmos, you know, to the Creator,” he said.

In Calgary, the architect spoke about the importance of creating harmony with Mother Earth when building structures. He described his creative process as organic: the building designs itself in the end.  The philosophy is considering the relationships we have with our community, designing structures involves a lot of tension — and a successful design could be peaceful and harmonious to its surroundings, including nature.

“One has to begin the design process without any preconceived ideas,” he said.  “Einstein didn’t get E=MC2 from books, he got it from inside. We have that power of creativity within all of us.”

Cardinal’s philosophy on creating harmony with the environment also includes an aim to give back power to women, as traditional leaders on the land. 

“We have to bring the power of women back in our Indigenous communities,” he said.  “We need to bring the clan mother system back because that was eroded by the church and the state..”

Technology has also played a role in the philosopher’s career, as he was one of the first people to calculate projects using computer programs. His team realized the program was capable of putting together designs in a non-linear format. Because they were based on organic conceptions, the computers helped in measuring the curves of each structure he made.

Cardinal’s extensive career has received wide recognition, including the presidential award for creating an intercultural gathering place for students. 

Cardinal’s daughter, Nancy Cardinal, speaks highly of her father’s influence in her life.  

“I was exposed to a lot of really beautiful people and traditions and culture and everything and it really changed my views about life because our land is important, our environment, our people are important, and our people have been discounted for so long,” she said. “And he instilled in me a pride of who I am and that we have a lot to give and offer and we’re incredible, resilient people.”

Nancy describes her father’s work as being aligned with seasonal solstices: the sunrise, sunset and the medicine wheel.  Indigenous principles are embedded inside and out of centers he’s made, many whose interiors are equally astonishing.

“A lot of people just see the outside of the building and they don’t realize everything that he’s put into it, you know, like when the light comes up in the morning, what does the building look like,” she said. “In the Museum of History in Ottawa if you look at that one part of the building it looks like a face.”

After receiving many honours in his lengthy career, the indigenous activist hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned at the University of Texas, when he undertook studies in sociology and cultural anthropology to learn about human beings as he ventured into his major.

“I had this professor who actually got his PhD by living with Blackfoot people and understanding and doing a doctorate on amazing culture of the Blackfoot peoples,” he recalled.

“He felt that he wanted to show them a culture that was loving and caring and sharing and open and respectful of all people. And I felt really honored to have those teachings from the university.”

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