This is where the conversation begins with Chris Cornelius and studio:indigenous.
Chris Cornelius of the Wolf Clan and People of the Standing Stone, a member of the Oneida, grew up on the Oneida Indian Reservation in Wisconsin.
His home was designed and built by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to house Indigenous people who were forcibly removed and relocated to reservations from their ancestral lands.
Although much attention has been paid to the policy and funding mechanisms for Indigenous housing, implementation of quality design and construction that meet the material and cultural needs of these communities remains virtually absent.
“Housing for the Indigenous people of the United States and Canada has been an instrument of colonization since the governments of these two countries decided to assimilate the Indigenous people and strip them of their culture. It has, and continues to limit, educational, economic, and cultural advancement.”
To address these deficiencies, studio:indigenous designed a structure that considers the ways that traditional housing models, especially those from HUD, can be improved for Indigenous people.
Having such a deep, personal connection to the land and traditions of his own tribe, Cornelius then set out to understand the Indigenous people of Northwest Arkansas.
His research into the Osage, Quapaw, Caddo, and Cherokee people ultimately reinforced the idea that he too, is a visitor to the land of Northwest Arkansas.
His approach became more universal as he explored the ways traditional housing models can be improved for Indigenous people throughout the US.
Creating sketches and computer renderings allowed Chris to work through his design process. He developed a prototype that combines flexible spaces with important elements for Indigenous ways of living.
In this structure, titled Not my H.U.D. House, Chris reflected on Gottfried Semper’s, The Four Elements of Architecture (1851), which include a hearth, roof, enclosure, and mound. These concepts parallel Indigenous notions of dwelling.
For example, the hearth, a place of coming together and counsel for Indigenous people is represented by a towering structure of open steel that reaches toward the sky in a gesture of connection to the cosmos.
Visitors are also invited to enter the home through the east, a traditional way of entering the home by greeting the sun.
Chris also responds to the European idea of compartmentalized rooms by creating a structure composed of flexible modules.
Flexibility is a principle that has always existed in Indigenous housing. For example, a living room can be a place to relax or a place of ceremony. This idea that something can be two things at once reflects the spiritual side of many Indigenous cultures and creates a foundation for merging the needs of Indigenous people with present-day housing.
The white pine tree plays a major role in the creation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (“People of the Longhouse”). It consists of six tribes: the Cayuga, the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Seneca, and the Tuscarora.
Credit is given to the Dekanawidah (the Peacemaker) who was sent by the Creator to persuade Aionwatha (commonly known as Hiawatha) to advance “peace, civil authority, righteousness, and the great law” among the Chiefs of each Nation.
Dekanawidah planted a white pine tree in the Onondaga community and named it the Great Tree of Peace.
Here, all the Chiefs come together to discuss issues concerning the confederacy.
The Haudenosaunee are considered the world’s oldest participatory democracy and thought to have influenced the framers of the US Constitution.
In 2003, Chris Cornelius started his practice, studio:indigenous, as a way to serve Indigenous people using innovative design to translate the culture into an architectural experience.
Cornelius pulls from the rich content that is found in Indigenous stories to begin the conversation between architecture, the land, and the needs of his clients.
Cornelius has been a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and at Yale University. He is currently the Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of New Mexico.
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