Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal believes buildings must grow out of nature

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Douglas Cardinal about why he feels it's important for the buildings to be part of nature and be in harmony with nature and the human beings.

by Vladimir Belogolovsky Published on : Jul 31, 2020

The architect behind the unusual and celebrated buildings such as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC (2004) and the Museum of History in Ottawa (1989), as well as dozens of schools, theaters, museums, cultural centers, churches, hospitals, and houses across Canada is Douglas Cardinal. For these original projects the architect was awarded the 1999 Gold Medal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Douglas Cardinal was born in 1934 in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. His visionary practice is based in the nation’s capital, Ottawa. He started his architectural studies in 1953 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, but was forced to leave two years later due to his reluctance to accept rigid principles of the Bauhaus and International Style, which were favoured by his professors.

First building built by Douglas Cardinal, St. Mary’s Parish, Alberta, Canada (1968) | Douglas Cardinal | Douglas Cardinal Architect | STIRworld
First building built by Douglas Cardinal, St. Mary’s Parish, Alberta, Canada (1968) Image Credit: Courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect

Being influenced by his father, a Blackfoot Indian, a forest ranger and hunter, as well as his mother, who imagined for her son to become an architect since he was just seven and encouraged him to study painting and music, Cardinal wanted to create buildings that would respond to nature and the organic rhythm of life. He transferred to the University of Texas in Austin and graduated with a degree in Architecture in 1963, starting his own practice a year later.

  • Douglas Cardinal at St. Mary’s Parish Dome | Douglas Cardinal | Douglas Cardinal Architect | STIRworld
    Douglas Cardinal at St. Mary’s Parish Dome Image Credit: Courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect
  • The entrance hall of St. Mary’s Parish by Douglas Cardinal of Douglas Cardinal Architect | STIRworld
    The entrance hall of St. Mary’s Parish Image Credit: Courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect

Cardinal’s first major project, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in his hometown, became a fine answer to Le Corbusier’s most unusual built work, Ronchamp in France. St. Mary’s has become Cardinal’s manifesto and gained him national fame, establishing his unique indigenous style, characterised by organic forms with smooth curves. The building is referred to as the most sensuous work of architecture in Canada. Naturally, Cardinal started relying on computer assisted design to calculate complex unconventional forms as early as 1960s. By the late 1970s his office became the first architectural practice to be entirely computerised. We spoke over the phone about Cardinal’s unique architecture and its origins, his professional path, and key milestones.  

Douglas Cardinal’s own residence built in 1982| Douglas Cardinal | Douglas Cardinal Architect | STIRworld
Douglas Cardinal’s own residence built in 1982 Image Credit: Courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): When you were studying architecture in early 1950s you had trouble with your professors at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver because you felt that boxy buildings were taking art out of architecture. What inspired you to pursue a different kind of architecture?

Douglas Cardinal (DC): I thought those buildings were completely dismissive of the environment and isolated from nature. But I was always convinced that nature is a special gift and must be protected. Nature is beautiful and should be an inspiration to architects. Architecture should be an integral part of nature. Here in Canada there was a Group of Seven. It was a group of Canadian landscape painters in 1920s-30s. They expressed beautiful forms of nature and were inspired by the Canadian landscape. They believed that a distinct Canadian art could be developed through direct contact with nature. I met one of them – Lawren Harris. His abstracted representation of nature was very powerful. When I saw his paintings, I remember saying – why can’t my forms come out of nature? And, of course, when I started studying history of architecture, all the earliest works – from Egyptian temples and classical temples to Gothic cathedrals and Art Nouveau – came out of nature. So, I thought – what am I doing – playing with abstract geometric forms that are made of cold concrete and totally devoid of feelings and relation to the land?! They were so stark and imposing. So, I felt that my buildings should grow out of nature and be in harmony with nature and us, human beings.

Interior swimming pool at Douglas Cardinal’s own residence built in 1982 | Douglas Cardinal | Douglas Cardinal Architect | STIRworld
Interior swimming pool at Douglas Cardinal’s own residence built in 1982 Image Credit: Courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect

VB: So, you couldn’t identify with the Bauhaus style design approach and you even said that after 1930 architecture stopped being architecture. And in addition to what you just mentioned you also said, “I couldn’t identify with rigid boxes that opposed nature. It was not inspirational”. Were these your thoughts when you entered the University in Vancouver?

DC: Yes. My professors were not happy with me because I was very outspoken about my views. They were blindly following Le Corbusier’s early projects, but to me his best work was his magical chapel in Ronchamp. That was a true expression of a natural form. But my professors would say that Le Corbusier lost his rational mind and was a senile old man, and that’s why he was moving away from his own principles. And I said, “But that’s his best work!” It was his irrationality that inspired me (laughs). So, I was totally opposed to how I was taught architecture and they told me, “Of course, you would because you don’t have the right background to be a real architect.” So that was the end of that education. It was intolerable, so I finally left in 1953 and I decided to study architecture elsewhere. I worked for about a year in my hometown. Then I traveled through Mexico and was moved by the ancient ruins of the Aztecs and the Maya. Then I decided to go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s school in Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona because I always liked his organic approach to architecture. But I ended up going to the University of Texas in Austin, while working for the top architectural office in Austin at the time, Jessen Jessen Millhouse & Greeven (now Jessen Associates Inc.). They did drawings in ink on linen. Every drawing they did was a work of art. I ended up staying there for seven years until I graduated.

Canadian Museum Construction Corporation (1989), Canadian Museum of Civilization and Public Works Canada (1999) | Douglas Cardinal | Douglas Cardinal Architect | STIRworld
Canadian Museum Construction Corporation (1989), Canadian Museum of Civilization and Public Works Canada (1999) Image Credit: Courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect

VB: What was your thesis project like?

DC: I did an analysis on humanist architecture starting from the Renaissance and particularly focusing on Borromini. I love baroque architecture. Then I studied Art Nouveau. I like that a lot. That was architecture. That was art. So, you can understand my resistance to accept the Bauhaus and International Style. And as far as my thesis project I did a hotel in Banff near Calgary. The idea was to show how I could develop a project that would relate to the mountains and land. I graduated in 1963 and opened my own firm in 1964 in Canada.

St Mary’s Parish inspired from the Ronchamp cathedral built by Le Corbusier in France | Douglas Cardinal | Douglas Cardinal Architect | STIRworld
St Mary’s Parish inspired from the Ronchamp cathedral built by Le Corbusier in France Image Credit: Courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect

VB: St. Mary’s at your hometown became your first major project, right?

DC: It was a very important project for me. The design was started from the altar, from inside out, and that’s how it grew into this abstract spatial invention, a hybrid of art and architecture, a sculptural space, but most importantly, a great worshiping room for people to gather. And the alter was designed in such a way that it would be seen immediately upon entering the space – all attention was drawn to it and the whole space would emanate from the altar outwards in all directions with the cannon of light directly above, while the post tensioned concrete roof serves as a baldacchino, a canopy that seemingly floats without any obvious means of support.

National Museum of The American Indian, Washington, DC (2004) | Douglas Cardinal | Douglas Cardinal Architect | STIRworld
National Museum of The American Indian, Washington DC (2004) Image Credit: Courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect

I have to say that throughout my career I was really blessed with good clients. They all wanted me to do a very special project for them. That was the reason they approached me in the first place. They appreciated my organic architecture and ability to think outside of the box in the most creative ways possible. And I never design my work on my own. I always discuss my ideas with people, particularly students, as I did many educational facilities. I try to make all my buildings spiritual, not just churches. All buildings should inspire people.

Canadian Museum of History - Curatorial Wing | Douglas Cardinal | Douglas Cardinal Architect | STIRworld
Canadian Museum of History - Curatorial Wing Image Credit: Courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect

VB: Could you touch on your design process and how do you typically start a project?

DC: I design my buildings around their functions and use topography to start shaping the space from inside out. My buildings are like seashells or sea creatures. I try to develop buildings into sculptural formations that have something to say. In (Washington) DC the idea was to have the Museum sculpted by nature. Many of my structures are either male or female buildings, and some are composed of combinations of both. The whole idea is that we are not separate from nature; we are a part of nature. But as far as the design process it is always the same. That’s right, the answers are already in the community. So, I always seek opportunities to talk to leaders and elders in the communities where I work on projects. We go through what I call vision sessions. Every person’s opinion is respected. I go back and forth multiple times. In the end I come up with my interpretation. In every place where I am invited as an architect, I tell people, “I have no answers, I am just interpreting your vision”.

St. Mary’s Parish’s Confessionals | Douglas Cardinal | Douglas Cardinal Architect | STIRworld
St. Mary’s Parish’s Confessionals Image Credit: Courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect

VB: What words would you choose to describe your work or the kind of architecture that you try to achieve?

DC: Organic architecture. I would not call my work indigenous architecture because that would typify me too narrowly. My sources of inspiration are very broad – from nature to architecture of such great masters as Antoni Gaudi, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolf Steiner, and other architects that fit this description – organic architecture. I would also choose the word people because that’s another key origin of how my work evolves. Also, commitment and, of course, passion.

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About Author

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Belogolovsky is an American curator, critic, and a columnist with STIR. He graduated from the Cooper Union School of Architecture (1996) and after practicing architecture for 12 years, founded New York-based Curatorial Project for curating architectural exhibitions. He has written nine books, including Conversations with Architects, curated over 50 international exhibitions and has lectured in more than 30 countries.

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