Black and white photos of Indigenous architecture residents Chris Cornelius (Oneida), Anjelica S. Gallegos (Santa Ana Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache), Charelle Brown (Kewa Pueblo), and Summer Sutton (Lumbee).
(From left to right) Chris Cornelius (Oneida), Anjelica S. Gallegos (Santa Ana Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache), Charelle Brown (Kewa Pueblo), and Summer Sutton (Lumbee). Courtesy Thatcher Keats and ByDesign

Two New Residencies Offer Indigenous Voices a Platform for Design Innovation

Architects Chris T. Cornelius and Anjelica S. Gallegos discuss their experiences as inaugural fellows at two New York–based programs.

A wave of change prevails for the country’s Indigenous architects. While the visibility of Native voices across the field is brutally low, two new Indigenous-focused residencies recently helped two architects advance their research and practice. Chris T. Cornelius of studio: indigenous was awarded a fellowship at Taghkanic, New York’s Forge Project and Anjelica S. Gallegos, co-founder of the Indigenous Scholars of Architecture, Planning and Design (ISAPD) collective was the inaugural fellow at the New York’s Center for Architecture Lab alongside partners Charelle Brown and Summer Sutton.

Gallegos, who recently received her MArch, notes, “It is necessary to expand the realm of acceptable architecture as the ecological, climate, and social factors architecture interacts with—and at times solves—becomes increasingly complex.” 

Different forms of knowledge through dreams, visions, and hallucinations change how we experience space.

Chris Cornelius, studio:indigenous
An installation view of an Indigenous architecture exhibition
Making Space for Resistance-Past, Present, Future exhibition installation, 2019. Courtesy ISAPD.

Given Indigenous cultures’ bond with storytelling and mythology, seeing beyond pragmatism can be fundamental in community-conscious design. “What about the subjective thinking in architecture?” Cornelius asks. “Different forms of knowledge through dreams, visions, and hallucinations change how we experience space.” In “building contemporary artifacts of culture,” he considers all sorts of knowledge as critical.

“Indigenous architectures’ relation to land and ecological services in a spiritual and physical way is inclusive of climate change challenges,” says Gallegos. “The pandemic and climate change make clear the need to consider architecture as part of a shared system and continuum of time.”

Cornelius spent a month in Hudson Valley along with other creatives in filmmaking, ecology, and linguistics. The Oneida Nation Wisconsin-based architect considers his participation in the Canadian Pavilion’s UNCEDED: Voices of the Land in 2018’s Venice Architecture Biennale a critical moment towards visibility. The fellowship and upstate New York’s spectacular sunsets gave him time to contemplate without the pressure of a deliverable. “I am at a point where focusing on thinking is a luxury between all logistical work,” he says.

A rendering of a concept of a Lenape Center showing a contemporary curvilinear building amidst a forest in autumn.
Lenape Center Concept Design. Courtesy BKSK

Dwelling at the residency’s Ai Weiwei building—the only house the artist and activist made in the United States—was an unexpected joy. The main center and a guest house sit on the ancestral land of Muh-he-con-ne-ok, also known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. “The land is living and breathing with a history that is older than Forge—and there is significance in that,” says director of education, Heather Bruegl, who is Oneida/Stockbridge-Munsee. 

According to the executive director Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish First Nation), the program, which awards each resident $25,000, “gives the platform to work within an artist-designed space that is clearly sensitive to its footprint on the land, its relationship to light, and the natural ecosystem of which it is a part.”

Cornelius sees the buildings as two animals that respect each other and one’s space. A similar land-centric approach to architecture is inherent in his own practice. “Indigenous value of relationality and relation to the mother earth,” are the tools he thinks are most needed in sustainable design. “Capitalism made us estranged from our mother and abuse her, and now it’s time to reconcile with its irreversible realities of climate change,” he says. For example, the architect thinks solutions to prevent or diminish the effects of flooding can be found in traditional Indigenous practices of forestry.  

A large school sitting in a field with blue skies.
Indian Community School of Milwaukee by studio:indigenous. Courtesy Tim Hursley

Generalization under the broad and often-times lacking umbrella of “Indigenous architecture” is common, but, he says, “When I design for other tribes, I search to translate that culture through a mutual spatial experientially.” The division he finds crucial is between Indigenous architecture and architecture for Indigenous people: “We need design conceived by the Native people through their unique way of understating the universe and expressed in that language.”      

Gallegos (Santa Ana Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache) believes education and participation will lead towards a nuanced distinction in Indigenous architecture. “The current categorization aligns with political boundaries, and yet it is pertinent to be aware and recognize each group has their own histories, identities, and architectures that relate and do not relate to the current singular umbrella,” she says. “As more knowledge is shared and observed within architecture, the further distinction will assist in academia pushing beyond historic or regional reference and perhaps into subjects of sustainability, sacral space, and case studies to learn from and carry forward into practice.”

As part of the Lab’s strategy to make its email archive, digital correspondences, and social media platforms accessible to the residents, Gallegos wrote the Center for Architecture’s newsletter, conducted K-12 Architecture at Home Workshop, and created the Self-Guided Tour of New York with Urban Archive. Gallegos and her partners Summer Sutton and Charelle Brown, who also took part in the residency, interpreted ISAPD’s previous projects to highlight a group of Indigenous leaders through academic writing with personal interviews, podcasts, and virtual speaking events.

A topographical drawing showing a bridge and a design for an american indian monument.
Four Waters Formative, located on the site of Fort Wadsworth, SI. Courtesy Anjelica Gallegos

Lab Advisory Committee at the Center for Architecture selected the collective’s submission, titled Indigenous Futurism, for their inaugural fellowship program. Their proposal, according to executive director Benjamin Prosky, proved “their voices and material had been underrepresented at the Center and in the profession at large.”

The pandemic and the climate crisis have drastically prompted Gallegos to think about design that services the heavily-impacted Indigenous communities. “Both crises have impacted me to design at an urban scale and to model productive change which ultimately influences lifestyle,” she explains. 628,000 tribal households in Indian Country lack broadband, a rate more than four times of the general population. The architect highlights the impacts of inaccessibility on the youth’s education and specifically to consider a potential career in architecture. “These challenges strengthen my work to boost architecture as a solution-based, creative profession for Indigenous peoples to join academically and to continue legacies of architecture which have thrived for time immemorial.”

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