How high-rise is “native”?

A new development in Canada showcases some stunning contemporary indigenous design and planning – and surfaces a lot of dubious assumptions about “indigeneity” and urban form. Plus, surprising facts about skyscrapers!

The Squamish First Nation, partnering with a private real-estate developer, are doing some big – really big – developments on their land in the heart of Vancouver. The development, Sen̓áḵw, can be really big (6,000 apartments on just over 4 hectares – high even for the famously “tall and sprawl” City of Glass) because it’s not city land, it’s Squamish Nation land, and Vancouver city’s zoning and planning controls don’t apply.

This article goes into depth and has some great pictures (Sen̓áḵw’s own website has more), but the article also highlights a truly jaw-dropping thread in the local opposition to the project, that’s beyond the normal “too high in my backyard”. The quotes in the article are something else, and the author speculates on why they’re bubbling up:

“The fact is, Canadians aren’t used to seeing Indigenous people occupy places that are socially, economically or geographically valuable, like Sen̓áḵw. After decades of marginalization, our absence seems natural, our presence somehow unnatural. Something like Sen̓áḵw is remarkable not just in terms of its scale and economic value (expected to generate billions in revenue for the Squamish Nation). It’s remarkable because it’s a restoration of our authority and presence in the heart of a Canadian city.

The opposition to the development surfaces some pretty remarkable notions of what “indigenous” architecture “should” look like. Overall, the project and those objections shake out thus:

What chafes critics, even those who might consider themselves progressive, is that they expect reconciliation to instead look like a kind of reversal, rewinding the tape of history to some museum-diorama past. […] In Sen̓áḵw’s case, it’s Indigenous by design, whatever it might look like to others. 

(Fundamentally, of course, one wonders if these (invariably non-indigenous) critics quoted in the article have any self-awareness, given that they’re saying publicly to Indigenous people “You’re doing it wrong, your development isn’t indigenous enough”.)

Idiots aside, this is a fascinating area of scholarship and design where indigenous people around the world are setting the terms of what “indigenous” architecture looks like, how it works for those living in it, and how it serves indigenous people, and others. And all this in a context where there’s an awful lot of historic (and ongoing) wrongs to be righted. See Further Reading for some great entry points into these topics.

Traditional, indigenous… high-rises?

While most TW readers would have more self-awareness than those quoted Canadian objectors, it’s probably safe to say there’s one thing we share. Namely: when most of us (Tangata Tiriti at least) think about “traditional indigenous settlements”, high-density, modern living is the last thing we imagine. And as for indigenous skyscrapers – well, it just feels… wrong, doesn’t it?

Hold up: the Yemeni would like a word.

In the ancient walled city of Shibam, they’ve been doing high-density and even skyscrapers long before many of our “major cities” were anything more than two-and-a-bit cows, four huts and a well.

Enjoy these great reads about Shibam, ancient and modern, from the BBC’s Ancient Engineering Marvels series and ArchDaily.

Does this reshape any ideas about “indigenous” architecture? Tell us in the comments!

Further reading:

Further watching: presentations from the Imagining Decolonised Cities symposium and design competition

Further listening: Indigenous Urbanism podcast – especially episodes on Imagining Decolonised Cities, Aria Apartments, and Tāmaki-Makaurau

Image credits:

  • Sen̓áḵw images: from its website
  • Shibam, Yemen’s ancient walled city of skyscrapers – Aiman Titi, Wikimedia Commons

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