Designs to take pride in: The architecture of Douglas Cardinal

Carleton University’s Forum Lecture Series started 2015 off on a high note, introducing architect Douglas Cardinal to the stage this past Monday evening at the National Gallery of Canada. The lecture focused on anecdotes and stories behind key projects in Cardinal’s career, followed by a conversation with Maria Cook from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC). Cardinal was a delightful speaker and inspired the audience with his many tales on life as an architect in Canada.

Throughout the first part of the evening it quickly became evident that the theme of the evening, and projects presented, would be centered around Cardinal’s opposition to the design practices of “the box.” As is quite clear from his own architectural portfolio, Cardinal favours a more organic and free form structure than the boxy architecture so prolific in today’s built environment.

However, in Monday’s lecture he left little to the imagination as he stated, “I became an architect because of organic forms. The only place for people in a box is in a coffin, six feet under.” Cardinal made it clear throughout the lecture that organic forms that were in harmony with the environment and captured the passion of the client were, in his opinion, the most important factors in great design.

Throughout the lecture Cardinal told an array of stories on the trials and tribulations of working with various clients in his over 50 years of practice. However, it was his story of the design of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec (formerly the Museum of Civilization) that really captured the evening.

Cardinal sent bouts of laughter throughout the auditorium with his vivid tales describing the work on the museum alongside Prime Minister Trudeau, and brought to life the urgency of Trudeau’s vision for a Capital project. It was the first museum Cardinal had ever designed and he openly admitted that he had no idea what the collection even held at the time of the competition.

However, he was inspired by the belief and power of Trudeau in the vision for the project, and what it would mean to the Nation’s Capital. Cardinal then noted that he tried to reason with the Prime Minister and bring the reality of the project into focus, but Trudeau was insistent that construction for the museum start immediately, despite not even owning the land at the time. Such was the urgency of Trudeau’s plan, and this was then justly met by Cardinal who in describing the project stated: “when you make a commitment, you make it happen!”

Cardinal’s lecture focused on positive statements and the importance of power in your own beliefs. He discussed his founding principle that architecture should be a respect for people and the environment – a statement that he hopes comes across in all of his work ­– and his final advice to other architects was to remember that architecture should be delightful.

In describing his multitude of other projects, such as the Grand Prairie Regional College in Alberta, the Cardinal Residence in Stony Plain, Alberta and the new Aboriginal Student Centre at Carleton University, he strongly reminded us that all architecture should be art, and that architecture should be somewhere we want to be and want to look at; it should be good for the soul.

Concluding the night Cardinal discussed his design for a new museum and cultural centre on Victoria Island in Ottawa. In his opinion it is essential that this site stay a public space and be given back to the First Nations so that they may feel properly represented in the Capital. Cardinal’s comments referenced the current project being proposed by developers on Chaudiere Island; were they are planning to construct a new mixed-use community in the heart of the Capital Region. Cardinal stated that a design such as his would respect the sacredness of the Victoria Island site, while giving all communities involved a place to convene and publically enjoy the island and Ottawa River.

The final section of the night was an interview led by the RAIC’s Maria Cook. The conversation focused on Cardinal’s contemporary projects, including his efforts with the Victoria Island development. The interview allowed the audience to get a little more personal with Cardinal and once again identified his passion for creating organic, public spaces that respect the local people and the environment.

Story: Brynne Campbell

Image: Dwight Williams