Sustainability & Green Design

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Old Stories, New Ways

Old Stories, New Ways

Conversations About an Architecture Inspired by Indigenous Ways of Knowing
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

MEANDERINGS: THE DELTA

The sharing of knowledge amongst Indigenous people is through the telling of stories—stories that are connected to the land and stories that connect people. This is my story, the story about the transformation of an architectural practice in Canada. That transformation occurred over several decades in part because of my commitment to community-based design, the subject of my MBA at the University of Alberta, but also because of my Northern experiences. Many of my early projects, undertaken with Richard Isaac, were in northern Canadian Inuit and Inuvialuit communities, which were committed to Indigenous ways of knowing and being. Through working with these communities on various health, educational and cultural projects, Richard and I became convinced that a new way of architectural practice was not only possible but also desirable. It would be a practice that was sustainable, community based and, at least spiritually, community owned.

So we established Manasc Isaac in 1997. Already convinced that community engagement and sustainable design were keys to good design and successful projects, we continued our practice with the Indigenous communities of the North. Over the years, our partnership grew into a practice of over fifty people in three offices in Edmonton, Calgary and Bucharest. We believe that the success of our practice has been its continued commitment to community-based design focused on people and their earth, water and sky. We have also been very aware of the importance of harnessing the sun, particularly in the North!

With that knowledge, and persuaded that sustainable architecture was the future, we launched the first Sustainable Building Symposium in Edmonton in 1997. This focus on sustainable architecture gave our practice a truly national mission. As president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in the early 2000s, I was also able to continue to spread the word about the benefits of greening our profession, and I was involved in the founding of the Canada Green Building Council, serving on its founding board for seven years.

I also saw that more people in northern communities and in remote areas of Canada would benefit from finding a pathway to the profession, so I worked with Athabasca University to achieve that goal. It was another way of giving back to the North that had taught me so much.

I have been given so many stories over the years, and storytelling is also part of who I am. I’ve learned from Indigenous traditions of storytelling and add them to my own traditions of Jewish storytelling. I begin with some reflections of my very first year in Canada because when I hear of Cree people who grew up being told to hide who they are, so they can fit in, I am reminded of this story.

MY FIRST WINTER IN MONTREAL

“These people must be crazy—they could get themselves killed,” remarked my mother in her elegant German, as we walked around our new neighbourhood that first winter in Canada. We were exploring the streets of St. Laurent, our new home in a newly developing suburb in Montreal. We had just arrived, truly fresh off the boat, a few months earlier.

The day we arrived on the SS Arcadia in the port of Montreal, my cousin, Simon Gartenberg, an architect in Montreal, came to the dock to pick us up in his red convertible. This introduction made our new country feel exciting and glamorous. We had, after all, never had a car of our own, much less a red convertible. It was the early 1960s, and the magic of cars was all around.

Two weeks later, school started, and there I was without a word of English. By December I had English figured out—but not much else about the still-strange world around me.

In every other window, or so it seemed that winter evening, was an electric menorah with candle-shaped light bulbs. Turns out, this was the Jewish festival of lights, or Chanukah. To my six-year-old eyes, these sparkling lights looked innocent enough—not unlike the coloured lights sparkling on all the other houses. I knew nothing of being Jewish, or being a Holocaust survivor, but sensing my mother’s worry, I asked what made these lights dangerous. Catching herself, my mother tried to explain why people in some places could be killed for making their unique culture visible. She said something about that not being the case here, and something about being tolerant. That’s all I remember, but the story stuck.

At home, we had candles too—not electric ones, just small, colourful, twirly wax candles that were placed carefully in the menorah after the curtains were drawn. We lit candles and recited Hebrew prayers. Our Chanukah candles, lit night after night in our modern metal menorah, were a bit like the ones in the windows. But they weren’t in the window. And they weren’t electric. Here in Canada, “modern” families seemed to do things differently. Maybe my parents and grandparents were just old-fashioned, I reasoned, coming as we did from an old country.

Years later, the story made more sense. Being Jewish could be dangerous. It was something to be kept hidden behind curtains, in the privacy of our own home. Jewish people had been killed for just being. We were survivors of some unspeakable things—we were the lucky ones. So we had to keep some things secret. In Canada, people didn’t seem to understand that they had to be careful. But we knew.

Outside of home, we were supposed to look “normal,” “modern” and Canadian. Once in a while, we were invited to friends’ homes and got a peek into their English-speaking world of stay-home moms, daytime TV and after-school cookies. At home, we had our own ways, our secret candle-lighting ways. At home, we spoke German and Romanian and French, languages that were yet another secret, or so it seemed.

Maybe every family has secrets—maybe every family has an inside world and an outside world—it’s hard to say.

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Rebuilding Earth

Rebuilding Earth

Designing Ecoconscious Habitats for Humans
edition:Paperback
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Neighbourhood

Neighbourhood

Designing a Liveable Community
edition:eBook
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A Place in Mind

A Place in Mind

Designing Cities for the 21st Century, Revised Edition
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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