Mukwa Waakaa'igan, a cultural centre for the indigenous communities of Canada

Moriyama & Teshima Architects' Mukwa Waakaa'igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence is inspired by the site's past and is designed to celebrate the future.

by STIRworldPublished on : Aug 06, 2022

Learning from indigenous teachings, the design of Algoma University's Mukwa Waakaa'igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence by Moriyama & Teshima Architects in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, honours the site's long and tragic history by offering a safe place of healing for all communities. It also gives a stage for indigenous communities to interact with visitors from all over the world in order to share their knowledge, traditions, stories, and identity. The site's harrowing history began with Shingwauk Hall, a former residential school that took 184 children from First Nations tribes away from their parents, families, culture, and communities from 1875 until 1970. While known, it has become a prominent discussion, which even led to Pope Francis visiting Canada in July 2022, to ask for 'forgiveness in the name of the church' for the actions of such residential schools all across the country. The survivors of the incident, together with the Children of Shinhigwauk Alumni Association (CSAA), have been closely collaborating with Algoma University to heal the site of its horrors and rehabilitate it within the community as a place of healing rather than a memory of a nightmare. This was accomplished through the creation of a vision for a cross-cultural learning centre that also serves as a space for conversation, change, and transformation.

  • Mukwa protecting the visitors while they enjoy views of nature from the project’s interior | Mukwa Waakaa’igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence | Moriyama & Teshima Architects | STIRworld
    Mukwa protecting the visitors while they enjoy views of nature from the project’s interior Image: Courtesy of Moriyama & Teshima Architects
  • Presence of water as an element in the landscapes and views to the structure | Mukwa Waakaa’igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence | Moriyama & Teshima Architects | STIRworld
    Presence of water as an element in the landscapes and views to the structure Image: Courtesy of Moriyama & Teshima Architects

Indigenous teachings and beliefs inspired the design of the Mukwa Waakaa'igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence. This includes the structure’s architectural form, materials, and spatial organisation. The name, Mukwa Waakaa’igan, itself had its inception in the indigenous beliefs. Mukwa, or the Bear in the Anishinaabemowin language, is a protector and healer of the mind, body, and soul. Tikinagan, or the Baby Carrier, is a crucial aspect of indigenous baby rearing and depicts a space similar to a mother's womb, a place of protection and warmth. The two great lakes, Lake Superior and Lake Huron meet here at Baawitigong, or the region of rapids or water, which represents the origin of life. The element of water is a crucial component in terms of the building's serene vistas and landscape. The structure was given the name Mukwa Waakaa'igan, which translates to "Bear's Den" in the Anishinaabemowin language.

Mukwa Waakaa'igan rising from the land with three paths of past, present, and future woven together | Mukwa Waakaa’igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence | Moriyama & Teshima Architects | STIRworld
Mukwa Waakaa'igan rising from the land with three paths of past, present, and future woven together Image: Courtesy of Moriyama & Teshima Architects

The form of the building rises from the ground with three paths intertwined with each other, representing the past, present, and future like a sweet grass braid. The three timelines are woven together in this one-of-a-kind architectural form to reflect the community's common journey of healing and recovery from a colonial past to an empowered present to a future of sustainability and stability. All entrances to the structure are oriented along the seven cardinal directions taken from Anishinaabe culture's Medicinal Wheel, which bears spiritual significance to the community. The eastern entrance on the ground level leads to teaching spaces that are integrated with elements of nature to provide students with a new learning experience while also signifying rebirth. All levels, from the lowest floor to the upper two floors, have natural linkages to nature, giving users a unique experience of forest and lake in their everyday life through meditation areas, student lounges, café, and research and academic departments.

Exhibition area showcasing works of indigenous artists to initiate a dialogue of awareness of past | Mukwa Waakaa’igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence | Moriyama & Teshima Architects | STIRworld
Exhibition area showcasing works of indigenous artists to initiate a dialogue of awareness of past Image: Courtesy of Moriyama & Teshima Architects

While the Mukwa Waakaa'igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence is a healing space, it also serves as a reminder of the past through exhibitions and archives at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre's (SRSC) Library and Archives. These presentations and shows are centred around the works of indigenous artists and address the brutal reality and truth of Canada's residential schools. A dialogue of new awareness is initiated via art in order to empower communities.

Structure of mass timber blurring the lines between building and nature | Mukwa Waakaa’igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence | Moriyama & Teshima Architects | STIRworld
Structure of mass timber blurring the lines between building and nature Image: Courtesy of Moriyama & Teshima Architects

The project's materiality emphasises sustainability through the use of Mass Timber, a locally available renewable material that performs as an insulator against severe winter temperatures and a natural carbon sequester from the atmosphere. The entire structure integrates with nature via design, blurring the lines of distinctions between the building and nature, as well as the inside and outdoor. The spaces provide people with possibilities for learning and gathering while also providing an opportunity for interactions with history and the past. 

Mukwa Waakaa'igan Indigenous Centre of Cultural Excellence takes on an organic form inspired by the community's beliefs yet constructed with mass timber, showcasing a future that it symbolises. Many views were heard during the design process, including those of residential school survivors, student associates, staff members, and indigenous elders and advisers. Everyone's opinions, needs, aspirations, and emotions were heard and taken into account to decolonize the design approach for the community-focused cultural centre.

Project Details

Project Name: Algoma University
Net Program Area: 27,000 Sq feet
Gross Floor Area: 37,000 Sq feet
Team: Moriyama & Teshima Architects & Smoke Architecture, Carol Phillips, Eladia Smoke, Mahsa Majidan, Larissa Roque

(Text by Rashi Karkoon, intern at STIRworld)

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