Douglas Cardinal

Douglas Cardinal

BORN: Red Deer, Alberta • 7 March 1934

Ever since 1943, when Ayn Rand made an individualistic, independent architect the hero of her novel The Fountainhead, the creators of plans for great buildings have enjoyed the status of stormy petrels. Most architects are ordinary individuals producing ordinary designs in ordinary ways, but there are those who rage against their critics and battle for the purity of designs and concepts.

Douglas Cardinal might have sprung full blown from the mind of Ayn Rand.A Metis, the son of a game warden and forest ranger, Cardinal received his architectural training in Texas after he fell out with the University of British Columbia, but returned to Alberta to apprentice.

Soon he was on his own in Edmonton, and his first commissions established his original approach. Elis designs were unusual in the way they blended organi¬ cally into the landscape—so unconventional that contractors claimed they could not build his “soaring curves, serpentine walls, strata-like masses and irreg¬ ular plans.” His “geology, not geometry” designs frequently ran into opposition from government clients, not least when cost overruns arose.

Cardinal’s aboriginal heritage is usually cited as the explanation for his organic approach. But Cardinal himself has observed that his artistic vision antedated his involvement with native causes. His 1968 swirling St Mary’s Church at Red Deer with its arresting suspended roof, the first of his designs to attract national attention, was completed well before his renewed consciousness of traditional native culture.

“I built the church in Red Deer,” Cardinal said, “because I did not realize it was impossible to do.” Only by pioneering the use of computers in design was he able to work out the technical problems posed by his fluid concepts.Cardinal insists on the integrity of design in his buildings and will fight to preserve it.

He was furious when his 1974 Grande Prairie Regional College, northwest of Edmonton, was dramatically changed by a $54 million renovation that attached a graceless large addition to his design and gutted the original structure. “It’s just not my work,” he said, denouncing the college’s board of governors for its illegal act” of disfigurement.

“I always thought that if a building has merit, the public will protect it,” he said, with a certain naivety. When St Mary’s planned renovations in the late 1980s without consulting him, he dissuaded the church by threat of a suit.His best-known building in Canada is the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, across the river from the Parliament Buildings.

Instantly recognizable, it is one of the masterworks of Canadian architecture. The 1985 design obliged him to deal with government, both politicians with cronies to reward and stuffy bureaucrats. But as costs skyrocketed to $250 million, the pressure for change was understandable.

Begun under the Trudeau government and completed under Mulroney, Cardinal’s plan had its critics. “When the Tories came on board,” he recalled, “there was a sort of campaign to modify the design and degrade all the materials…There was always someone with another product, another agenda, coming up.

I wouldn’t accept that.” For years Cardinal fought for his concept, and he prevailed. The museum is one of the national capital’s great structures.Cardinal’s most recent works include the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and village buildings and housing for the Cree of Ouje-Bougamou in Quebec.

His northern town features energy-efficient houses dominated by their roof line, with light and open space shaping the interiors. The village is circular, with a meeting place in the centre and community buildings in an interior ring. There are no boxes, no imposing walls, and traditional Cree culture is reflected in every line.

No architect has ever interpreted aboriginal ideas better in his work to both natives and all Canadians.Cardinal’s triumph in the north and in Ottawa-Hull has led to what is potentially his greatest commission—the $110 million, 250,000-square-foot National Museum of the American Indian on Washington’s National Mall, scheduled to open in 2002.

“For all my life,” Cardinal said, “my Indian background has been used against me. Here’s an opportunity for it to be used as a benefit, for it to work for me.” The Americans, he adds, are easy to deal with, straight up, and they don’t mess with the figures. “I don’t have to play Horatio at the bridge like I did in Ottawa.” In Washington, he rumi¬ nates bitterly, “it’s okay to be an Indian. In Canada, it isn’t.”