If architecture suffers a chronic crisis of public relevance, spare a thought for architectural theory. Designers may bemoan a lack of civic presence, but their work, at least, forms part of the evolving built fabric — if not the cultural landscape. And while most of our country’s 41 million residents would likely struggle to name a single practicing Canadian architect, the discipline’s academics and theorists are even further removed from the public eye. David Fortin is an exception.

A Professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture and a practicing architect, David Fortin is also a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and among the small but growing number of Indigenous practitioners in Canada. In 2018, he was also a co-curator of UNCEDED: Voices of the Land, a landmark exhibition — selected as Canada’s entry to the Venice Biennale of Architecture — exploring both the legacies of colonialism and the revival of Indigenous design across Turtle Island. Five years later, he returned to the Biennale as part of the Architects Against Housing Alienation collective, which advocates for a bold amalgam of radical solutions to the housing crisis, ranging from returning stolen land into Indigenous stewardship to creating a public fund for cohousing and community land trusts.

David Fortin

David Fortin.

In Venice and across Turtle Island, Fortin’s civic advocacy has highlighted the links between architectural practice and urgent — and inter-related — social issues like housing affordability and post-colonial reconciliation. As a theorist, Fortin brings clarity of mind and purpose to a field that seldom feels culturally legible or politically urgent. In 2022, Fortin challenged the primacy of the design studio as the locus of architectural education, publishing an essay on the succinct yet provocative notion of the “design lodge.” And last year, he delivered a series of talks on his nascent theory of “critical relationalism.” It’s a thoughtful reconsideration of critical regionalism — and one that gets at a bigger question: Are we thinking about architecture all wrong?

Before we can understand critical relationalism, we need to understand critical regionalism. It’s a concept that’s often invoked in Canadian architecture, but I wonder how well we really collectively understand it. Why was this idea a useful departure point?

David Fortin

In many ways critical regionalism emerged as a reaction to the uniformity of classical 20th century modernism, and particularly the International Style: You could repeat a universal architectural strategy — and a system of values — across the world, regardless of place. And it wasn’t just a way of thinking — it was also translated to a material reality and a particular way of working. For example, you’d get European architects like Le Corbusier designing houses and estates in Brazil or India, often without ever actually visiting the sites.

At the same time, it was also a critique of emergent postmodernism. Critics like Liane Lefaivre, Alexander Tzonis, and Kenneth Frampton — who prominently championed critical regionalism —  regarded postmodern architecture as rootless and indulgent, with no relation to its context. And these critiques are not ill founded. If you look at something like Charles Moore’s Piazza D’Italia in New Orleans, for example, you can ask what that has to do with Louisiana? And whether it’s Beaux-Arts design or its postmodernism, it’s still a strategy of leaving a colonial fingerprint on the landscape.

But critical regionalism was rooted in understanding how an architectural sensibility should land in relation to geography — its weather, materiality, and the specifics of its location. And critical regionalist thinkers still tended to celebrate architects that implemented a contemporary design approach — rather than early 20th century modernism — but in a way that responded to the places they were designing in. It celebrated a site-specific response, in opposition to a perceived modernist universality and the flattening force of globalization.

Even when critical regionalism isn’t explicitly evoked per se, its tenets are foundational of the vocabulary of contemporary Canadian design. When I listen to architects talk, or look at what gets published in magazines and wins awards, much of it coalesces around a language (visual and spoken) of polite, elegantly deferential and contextually sensitive modernism. Of buildings as “good neighbours” that don’t overwhelm their surroundings, and that adopt a site-specific design strategy, meld with the local landscape, and so on. If there’s a prevailing consensus on what constitutes “good Canadian architecture,” I’d say that’s as close as it gets. What does it leave out?

Yeah, I’d agree with that. And first of all, to add to it, I think there are also principles like accessibility, universal design, and sustainability that are obviously becoming more and more a part of everyday practice. But unless you’re really a hardcore minimalist, you’re also incorporating some elements of critical regionalism in your thinking. I think most practices today basically agree with the core principles. Even before critical regionalism was really formalized as a framework, there were late modernist architects who started doing more contextually specific work. The various schools of tropical modernism that emerged across Latin America, West Africa, and South Asia, are all good examples. So it can be read as part of a broader shift in thought.

As for what it leaves out? I’d say that critical regionalism still allows the architect to view the land and the geography as a sort of neutral space, and primarily as a terrain through which to exercise one’s design agency. In other words, what’s missing in critical regionalism — and in mainstream design culture across Turtle Island — is an understanding of one’s political and cultural relationship to the land. It’s not acknowledging the people and cultures and stories there. And there are material realities that define these spaces. I think that what Frampton was suggesting is that’s a sort of recipe of critical regionalist thinking that you can follow to create a nice, sensitive project wherever you go. I believe that design is not a universal product — and it’s not a universal process.

It’s not just a matter of “Capital A” architecture. In your recent talk on “Critical Relationality in Housing Design,” you applied the critique to post-war housing the Canadian government built on Indigenous reserves. They basically replicated the same suburban bungalows that were ubiquitous across North America — and that more or less succeeded in settler communities. While we could critique reserve housing on regionalist grounds — it imposed the same forms across different geographies and climates — the more fundamental failures rest on cultural and political terrain. For starters, the interiors imposed spatial programs organized around post-war nuclear families, not Indigenous communities. As you’ve also pointed out, settler houses were also designed around cars, roads, clean running water, sewer systems — with maintenance facilitated by trips to Home Depot. Little of this infrastructure existed on reserves. It’s a failure rooted in political economy, which architects seldom really understand. How can we change that?

As designers we’re sort of trained to have blinders on.  It’s tempting to look at a place and think, “I could design a really cool house for that setting.” So even the architectural response to looking at reserves, for example, tends to be much the same. But it doesn’t really matter whether the house looks like a log cabin or a white box or a multi-coloured postmodernist thing. It’s not the form of it, it’s the understanding that you’re working with a specific system of production. And sometimes you’re not even fully conscious of the constraints of the system that you’re designing — and you’re not always conscious of the fact that you’re even working with a system to begin with.

It reminds me of James Corner’s analysis of mapping as an expression of agency and ideology: We might perceive our “map” — our understanding of the landscape — to be objective or scientific, but it actually derives from our epistemology; from the cultural context that informs our theory of design. Not the other way around. If you think of architecture as the built expression of culture, then we have to consider: What kind of epistemology is the basis of that expression?

I don’t know how we can get back to this point, but I think of the Two Row Wampum Belt of Haudenosaunee people [a living treaty between the Haudenosaunee and European settlers dating to 1613, which signified mutual respect and continued co-existence without cultural assimilation, and one considered the basis for all subsequent treaties between the Haudenosaunee and European governments]. It expressed a vision of Canada with two epistemologies, and two separate ways of seeing the world. And the idea is that both epistemologies are valid — both can exist and thrive equally. It doesn’t mean that one consumes the other.

I use the “Iceberg of Indigenous Culture” and my explorations of Indigenous design through Midjourney [an artificial intelligence computer program, which Fortin fed prompts to create “Indigenous,” “Cree,” “Inuit,” and “Māori” architecture] as an example. It’s pretty easy to look at regalia and aesthetic motifs — and geography — and then aestheticize an architectural response. But that’s just cosmetic. There aren’t synergies between the design and the way of life — it’s alienated from the epistemology it’s supposed to represent. A lot of the work I’ve been doing with Adrian Blackwell [Fortin and Blackwell are both part of Architects Against Housing alienation] is about trying to tease out what alienation means. It’s when the world that you’re living in — or that you’re designing in — is detached from a value system you believe in. There’s a disconnect. And it’s not only felt in Indigenous communities.

David Fortin used Midjourney to create instant examples of "Indigenous" architecture in a variety of contexts.

Fortin used Midjourney to create instant examples of “Indigenous” architecture in a variety of contexts.

It feels surprisingly difficult to connect architecture to the values it represents. Living in downtown Toronto, for example, much of our civic and political culture is oriented around celebrating multiculturalism and diversity. Conversely, contemporary architecture doesn’t really engage with these values through built form. So much of “good design” is still a blue-glass curtain wall hiding behind a restored Victorian façade. It’s architecture that apologizes for its own existence. To my mind, it doesn’t reflect the reality of living in this fast-growing, dynamic, assertive place. Maybe that’s a symptom of a broader divergence between civic values and design culture?

One thing that I’m always careful of, and I’m sure you are too — given your role, and the way you think and respond to architecture — is that there’s often a tendency to simplify architecture into the publicly visible side of art.

It reminds me of how postmodernist theory, for example, adopted the notion of a “postmodern man.” He traveled everywhere, lived all around the world, never had a fixed address. This also made him completely multicultural. You can see how postmodern art and architecture reflected this kind of condition, mixing together symbols and references from different cultures and geographies and eras. At the same time, I remember reading a book about 20th century Britain during the height of the postmodern movement — and it made the point that the overwhelming majority of people never lived more than maybe a dozen miles from where they were born.

And to your point, the kind of work that other architects (and our media and professional discourse) tend to become attracted to is what emerges from an established international lexicon of good design. So a lot of the projects I see in publications like yours, for example, I couldn’t really guess where in the world that building is. They share material qualities and spatial approaches — a language and a vocabulary. I’m not saying they aren’t beautiful or worthwhile — they absolutely are —  just that there’s still very much an international style. A lot of architecture is primarily about responding to and reflecting that lexicon. The critical regionalists definitely had a point.

We’re now recognizing and celebrating more contextually specific work from around the world. But if you look at the type of projects that get published and win awards, they still tend to be legible within an international lexicon of good design. If you look at the work of Francis Keré or MASS Design Group, for example, it clearly reflects local site conditions, vernacular traditions and material realities in Africa — yet it also has aesthetic qualities that we can more or less immediately situate within the lexicon. It gives us an “in” to understanding these places. It’s work that’s interesting to other architects, and it’s easy to adopt into the discourse. And it’s wonderful that we’ve started to recognize it.

At the same time, we’re still leaving a lot out. There are architects that are designing very traditional buildings — and doing really culturally important work — but it’s not interesting to other architects. So it’s a matter of fostering cultural exchange in architecture. And from an Indigenous perspective, it’s a matter of relating to our communities. I’m learning a lot from people like Patrick Stewart and many other Indigenous practitioners. The very first building that we did, for example, the Gabriel Dumont Institute in Saskatchewan [an organization that promotes the development and renewal of Métis culture], the Métis community wanted to put a Red River cart above the door. And as an architect you’re trained not to do that, to dismiss it as kitsch.

But for the Métis people of Sasktachewan, the first time you drive by that building, they say “Oh my God, that’s a Red River cart. That’s a Métis building.” Their heart might skip a beat. Now I can’t imagine what architecture critics or the international design community might think. But I guess what I’m saying is that — if you really design it with an epistemological awareness  — this type of gesture really isn’t cosmetic or kitsch.

A red river cart fronts the Gabriel Dumont Institute in Saskatchewan.

A red river cart fronts the Gabriel Dumont Institute in Saskatchewan. PHOTO: Jason Surkan.

As a writer and editor, I’m increasingly thinking about our profession’s role in curating the politics of the architectural canon. In Azure’s current issue, for example, we published a feature on the Métis Crossing complex in Alberta by Tiffany Shaw and Reimagine Architects. We published it because it’s a meaningful project that serves the community — and a wonderful, deeply thoughtful design. At the same time, it’s kind of a challenge because it looks pretty different than other stuff in the magazine — and we recognized that its aesthetic quality resides within a different values system, which we may not have fluency with.

It’s just the tip of the iceberg. I remember stepping into the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. When I walked in there, I remember thinking “I want to read every single author in here.” I grasped that what I experienced was just the entry point into a deeper language and culture.

Architecture shouldn’t be so simple that you just look at it on ArchDaily or Dezeen and think “I get what this is.” And then you’re done with it. It didn’t fulfill you. It didn’t challenge you. It didn’t make you think about the world through a different lens.

Completed in late 2023, the misatimosimôwin mîhkowâp (Horse Dance Lodge) is a transitional housing project in Regina designed by David Fortin.

Completed in late 2023, the misatimosimôwin mîhkowâp (Horse Dance Lodge) is a transitional housing project in Regina designed by David Fortin. PHOTO: Big Block Construction

Where do you see Canadian architecture going? Obviously, Indigenous design is now a part of our procurement bureaucracy — and our cultural discourse (superficial as it often is). I get the sense that young practitioners are thinking differently about design, and emphasizing open, collaborative ways of working.

I was really happy to see that Murray Sinclair won the RAIC Gold Medal — even though there was some pushback on that. I think there’s progress in our discourse. And we’re finally starting to move away from a reverence of a 1950s cultural enlightenment and the sort of romantic vision of mid-century Canadian architecture policy, the Massey Commission, and the Centennial projects. For decades there was all this talk of “Who’s Canada?” and creating a Canadian identity. And First Nations people have been saying “We’ve been here for thousands of years.” We’re starting to understand the spirit of the place that’s always been there.

And there’s architects today doing really interesting, culturally responsive work. In Calgary, Moda are designing a Japanese Cultural Centre, and it really expresses a cultural specificity. And I was really impressed by the library that Eladia Smoke is designing now with Perkins & Will in Toronto — as well as the work that LGA Architects are doing with Indigenous communities. We’re also seeing really interesting work around the world, like the Neo-Andean sci-fi stuff by Freddy Mamani. (And aesthetically, you know, some of that stuff looks kind of postmodern.)

I also think that the emphasis on collaboration is probably a good thing overall. But then I also think about how the corporatization of architecture is changing practice, and all of these firms that used to be named for individuals are becoming DIALOG or Revery Architecture. And maybe that’s mostly a good thing too, but it also entails a form of erasure. Roland Barthes wrote about the “death of the author,” and this is sort of the death of the architect. 50 years from now, students are going to study this work, but will they be able to trace the individual design thinking behind it? I also look at amazing architects like Two Row, and I wonder — are they always going to have to partner with these large institutional firms? To some degree, our collaborative culture reflects a new, corporate mode of production.

It’s an interesting conversation without a simple answer. Either way, it’s definitely impacting the architectural landscape in the long term, especially for niche, boutique firms. I think about Douglas Cardinal. Douglas would often say: “I never want to be Tonto. I want to be the Lone Ranger.” What he meant is that he always wanted to lead the design on everything that he did. But something like the Canadian Museum of History would be very different if it was built today. He’d essentially be playing a subservient role. Maybe they’d let him design a couple of rooms. It wouldn’t be designed by Douglas Cardinal — but by Douglas Cardinal partnered with Stantec, partnered with Perkins & Will, partnered with ERA.

The post We Have Never Been Postmodern: A Conversation with David Fortin appeared first on Azure Magazine.