Douglas Cardinal is a Canadian architect, whose flowing architecture marked with smooth curvilinear forms is influenced by his Aboriginal heritage as well as European Expressionist architecture. Join me in discovering some of his most striking buildings, and how he became the architect he is today.
Douglas Cardinal’s Early Life
His father was of Siksika (Blackfoot), French and Ojibwe heritage, while his mother was of German, French and Mohawk/Métis descent. His mother worked as a nurse and was well educated. Cardinal’s parents met in 1926, and in the first half of the 20th century women had very little status and rights. The patriarchal society did not recognize educated women like Frances Cardinal. However, his father’s tribe’s societal norms accepted a matrilineal culture, where women are very respected and admired. These cultural ideas shaped Cardinal’s upbringing and affected his worldview and relationship with his heritage. He has recalled that his mother told him at a young age, “You’re going to be an architect.”
Cardinal grew up a couple of miles outside the small city of Red Deer, Alberta. Cardinal was educated at St. Joseph’s Convent Catholic, a boarding school for children who lived in the country and wanted to go beyond the 8th grade, which was all that most one-room country schools offered. Cardinal finished high school there. The much-loved Daughters of Wisdom who ran the boarding school taught both Catholic and Protestant children there, and like many other boarders, Cardinal was taught about arts and culture by the Sisters. He has said that this religious school influenced him immensely. Living a few miles away from the rest of his family made him focus on his academic achievements. Traditional sacred architecture and its role in culture made him want to create spaces as powerful and inspirational as churches and basilicas. It also ignited in him a passion for architecture in those early years.
In 1953, he started studying architecture at the University of British Columbia (UBC) but was forced to leave two years later due to his radical ideas. His different approach toward architecture did not align with the ideas of modernism at the time. He wanted to create buildings responding to nature and the organic rhythm of life, which was unprecedented in the 1950s. In his third year of studies, he was told by the director of UBC that he had “a wrong background” for the program and the profession. After he left Vancouver and returned to Red Deer to start working at local architectural firms as a draftsman. His ejection from UBC made it impossible for him to apply to Canadian universities again. Cardinal also wanted a change of scenery due to racism towards Indigenous people in his home country so decided to head south, stopping in Arizona and Mexico, and later settling in Texas. Eventually, he attended the University of Texas at Austin, from which he graduated with a degree in Architecture in 1963.
In university, he also studied cultural anthropology, due to his cultural heritage and philosophy based on the sacredness of life and nature. He wanted to study people and did not feel that the buildings around him were designed around people. His philosophy was inspired by architect Rudolph Steiner, with whom Douglas studied at University of Texas. Steiner’s work led Douglas to study anthropomorphism, which he applied to his work. The idea of anthropomorphism and its concept of responding to human behavior, natural cycles of life and the beauty of sacred land and tectonics aligned with Cardinal’s cultural heritage. Another inspiration for Cardinal were works of Frank Lloyd Wright. He appreciated his organic way of responding to the landscape with the use of natural materials, such as stone and brick. In Texas, he accepted his Indigenous heritage and one of his professors even encouraged him to learn more about his background.
Douglas Cardinal’s Career
Cardinal opened his private practice in 1964, and the same year he was commissioned to design St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer, Alberta. Construction was completed in 1968, and it has since been recognized as a prominent example in the history of Canadian architecture. In 2007, the church was featured on a Canada Post stamp series featuring four Canadian architects to commemorate the centennial of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC).
Beginning with his work on St. Mary’s, Cardinal was one of the first North American architects to use computers to assist in the design process. His curvilinear designs reflect the landscape around them, so that people making use of the building can retain a sense of the surrounding land. He found that the use of computerized design would fit best for his unusual designs and the use of shapes. He also found 3D programs very useful for laying out the exact dimensions of buildings. In 1993, he was hired by the Smithsonian Institution as the Primary Design Architect for the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The NMAI is currently situated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and is directly across from the Capitol of the United States of America. After contractual disputes, Cardinal was removed from the project in 1998 before it was completed, but he continued to provide input into the building’s design.
In 2008, his firm was hired by the Kirkland Foundation to design a museum/convention center in Union City, Tenn. The Discovery Park of America was to be a unique structure housing a multi level museum with artifacts from across the nation as well as provide a place for large conventions/meetings for the community. Early in 2009 the firm’s contract was terminated with the owner, and all construction activity was halted, due to undisclosed differences between the two parties.Throughout his early years, Douglas Cardinal was dealing with racism and societal ideas of conformity for both his lifestyle and architecture. Only in his years in Texas he started to fully embrace his indigenous heritage and learn more about it. In 1970s Cardinal developed his trademark architectural style with organic curvilinear forms. In those years he started wearing native clothes and necklaces, as well as becoming an advocate for indigenous rights. This spiritual connection with his native culture affected and influenced his work and unique architectural approach. Many philosophical ideas of indigenous history include its respect and sensibility towards nature, humans’ inseparable relationship with the environment and land. These concepts resulted in his use of natural materials, organic shapes, soil and sun studies, as well as creating spaces that move people spiritually and make them appreciative of their surroundings. The native philosophy is also very contrasting from the Western civilization worldview due to its use of time. It is appreciative of resilience of nature and its ability to withstand hard conditions. Therefore, its architecture aims to last for seven generations, as opposed to the economically driven and efficient approach of the patriachial society.
In recognition of such work, Douglas Cardinal has received many national and international awards including: 20 Honorary Doctorates, Gold Medals of Architecture in Canada and Russia, and an award from United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO) for best sustainable village. He was also titled an Officer of the Order of Canada, one of the most prestigious awards given to a Canadian, and he was awarded the declaration of being “World Master of Contemporary Architecture” by the International Association of Architects. Cardinal is one of the visionaries of a new world; a world where beauty, balance and harmony thrive, where client, architect, and stakeholder build together with a common vision.
Douglas Cardinal 10 Most Iconic Buildings
1. St Mary’s Church
With the Vatican Concilium II in 1963, the Catholic Church went through a radical modernization. In these exciting times, Father Merx had a vision of a church that could carry the very abstraction of the Spirit of the Church, past present and future. He hired Architect Douglas Cardinal and together while listening to Bach’s organ music they designed a church around the new liturgy.
The church thus stands as a monument to spirituality. Based on the ideas of the first Christian gatherings before the cruciform basilica plan was created, Father Merx environed a design centered in the Eucharist, the symbol of Christ’s Living. An oculus to the altar and the tabernacle directs natural light as a symbol of divine light. The amorphous ceiling, a technical feat of the times, creates the acoustics to carry the Word of Christ without microphones. Even the confessional’s unique design using tempered glass to allow in the light of the altar inspires deep spiritual reconciliation.
Archbishop Jordan consecrated the church as a Cathedral in 1968. The aesthetical and technical innovations of this church awarded immediate national and international recognition to Douglas Cardinal’s career. St. Mary’s church is a masterpiece that conveys deep reconciliation and introspection as allows close gathering of a community.
2. National Museum of the American Indian — National Mall
The National Museum of the American Indian was established in 1989 by an Act of Congress championed by Senator Inouye and Congressman Nighthorse Campbell. As part of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, the Museum gives a strong presence to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Smithsonian recognized Douglas Cardinal’s experience in building the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and his intimate knowledge in aboriginal values and culture, and selected him as architect in partnership with Philadelphia firm GBQC.
The museum is a majestic curvilinear form that represents the nurturing female forms of Mother Earth, and complements the facing National Gal-lery by IM Pei An inviting, cavern-like threshold opens into the large Potomac – a gathering space for Native Americans to celebrate and share their rich culture with all visitors. In order to stimulate the imaginations of all decision makers, a Vision Session was held and involved the participation of official stakeholders, Elders of North and South American tribes, and many political and cultural icons and private funders such as the Rockefeller family. This sort of collaboration resulted in a building with sweeping curves, rich symbolism, and warm stone that truly welcomes and inspires Americans and the world about Indigenous cultures.
3. Cardinal Residence
In the natural landscape of Stony Plain, Alberta, the Cardinal Studio and Residence uses simple construction methods and forms to create a sculptural dialogue with the land. Retaining walls act as natural elements in the landscape, as they give shape to the dwelling. The symbolic freestanding elements in the vicinity of the Cardinal children and elders symbolize the learning that is shared between them in a natural setting.
4. Alberta Government Services Building
When the government of Alberta with Premier Peter Louheed decided in a politics of decentralizing government services, a major building was sought at Ponoka. Public Works of Alberta and the Alberta Opportunity Company contacted Douglas Cardinal to design an innovative building that would inspire and became iconic as the vision for Alberta business opportunities.
Mr. Cardinal created a curvilinear design to dispel the rigidity associated with Government. The vision was to provide a building that would accommodate both Government and community use space. The flowing and open public spaces were to give an atmosphere of better promoting client services, with heart and vitality. The four storey building includes an enclosed atrium with year-round landscaping that help bridge the gap between the harsh Alberta and the need for green spaces.
The building enclosed Alberta Opportunity Company, and a Court House with Attorney General Chambers and Treasury branch. The Alberta Government Services Building in Ponoka had a grand opening by Premier Peter Louheed himself in 1976 and since it has became an architectural landmark for the community of Ponoka and the surrounding areas. The building is so efficient and beautiful that it received the Achievement Award for Excellence from the Province of Alberta.
5. Canadian Museum of History
Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau had a dream to raise Canada as a world leader. As part of this vision, he actuated a national competition to design world-class museums. Douglas Cardinal Architect was selected as the architect for the then-called “Museum of Man.”
Douglas Cardinal’s innovative solution to separate curatorial from exhibition spaces into two wings help to harmonize the museum with both its urban and natural settings. In the curatorial wing, offices around the perimeter allow natural light for staff while protecting the collections in the interior. In the exhibitions wing, large permanent exhibits interface with large areas for temporary exhibits. Two theatres for performing arts, and a Imax Omnimax complete the world-class national museum. The ambitious complex used the latest technologies of the time, including using water from the adjacent Ottawa River to heat and cool the museum, and fibre optic wiring throughout the museum to broadcast a virtual museum all over the world.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization is rich in symbolism, and eloquent curves. It is the most visited building in Canada, with more than one million visitors each year. It is consistently chosen as a stage to host world leaders visiting the Nation’s Capital on official business.
6. TELUS World of Science Edmonton
The Edmonton Space Sciences Foundation was created by a young group of visionaries as a private non-profit organization to promote a new planetarium and science centre for Edmonton- Led by John Hault, they contacted Douglas Cardinal to design them a thrilling and uplifting new science centre to bring space to life.
The City of Edmonton selected the Edmonton Space Sciences Centre as the City’s Flagship project to commemorate the Province of Alberta’s 75th Anniversary. The project captured the imaginations of Provincial and Federal funders, as well as many private donors who purchased stars as part of their fundraising efforts. State of the art technologies were used for the building, including the best optics of the world from East Germany in the planetarium.
After its opening in 1984, the Edmonton Space Sciences Centre immediately became one of Northern Alberta’s premiere attractions. It offers visitors from around the world an incredible space and science centre experience. In 1992 a major addition was also commissioned to add much needed square footage on two floors. On July 1st 2009, the Centre underwent another expansion and was renamed the Telus World of Science: Edmonton as it celebrated 25 years of discovery.
7. Grand Prairie Regional College in Alberta
Completed in 1976, Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC), designed by Douglas Cardinal, FRAIC, was an early embodiment of many of the architect’s principles of design. From its poetic, ribbon-like masonry exterior to its carefully laid-out plan, the architecture of GPRC embodies Cardinal’s understanding of both organic forms and user-focused design. The college appeared in The Canadian Architect in February 1978, in an article written by the late Edmonton architect Peter Hemingway. As Cardinal reflects on the project almost 40 years later, it is clear that he intended the twin themes of people and nature to be GPRC’s legacy. The idea that buildings need to serve people and work with their community was first and foremost in Cardinal’s mind. For GPRC, this meant extensive consultation with the college’s dean, faculty, students and surrounding residents. According to Cardinal, “My concern from the very beginning was: what were the needs of the college itself, what was their vision, and what were the ideas that come from the students themselves? Because they were the ones the college was to serve, providing a meaningful environment for their education.”
This bottom-up planning, Cardinal says, was not the norm within educational design in the mid-1970s. Most designers did not ask what was being taught in spaces, or how the design of classrooms could influence teaching methods. Nor was it common practice to consult the future user during the design process of such facilities. Rather, standards from the Department of Education often acted as established guidelines for projects at the time. Yet the desire to meet the actual—rather than perceived—needs of the user was behind Cardinal’s characteristic organic forms, most notable in the lack of orthogonal lines in plan. “When you are designing a building around the needs of people, it’s not only that you design functional layouts,” Cardinal says. “There is nothing boxy about any living being…including our own natural bodies.”
8. York Region Administrative Centre
The York Administrative Centre has the same signature wavy stonework effect as many of Cardinal’s buildings. It is accentuated by two towers at the front with large clocks on the front. York Region is backing a proposal from Newmarket to declare its current headquarters a heritage building. Regional councillors expressed support Feb. 10 for the town’s plans to dedicate the York Region Administrative Centre at 17150 Yonge St. as a heritage site. Newmarket council is expected to consider a report on the idea within the next several weeks after efforts by the town’s heritage committee. Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said it is a worthy building to be recognized, noting its unique design by Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal.
9. Gordon Oakes Redbear Student Center
The University of Saskatchewan has embraced the rapid increase in enrollment of Indigenous students as an opportunity to revitalize the future of their institution. The building is envisioned to provide necessary amenities and resources for Indigenous students, while simultaneously developing an understanding of Indigenous culture.
The building has three major programs: the Aboriginal Students Centre, the Indigenous Student Council and the Native Studies Department. These programs are focused on a central gathering space for formal ceremonies, lectures and social gatherings. The plan of the building is based on the simple notion that the circle is the symbolic base for healing, knowledge, and equality, as well as the foundation for all Indigenous ceremonies. The central gathering space is both the symbolic and systemic base for the building’s plan, as each department is anchored to it. This acts as a reminder to Indigenous people and an introduction to non-indigenous peoples to their worldviews.
In accordance with LEED Gold strategies, the building will not only benefit the Indigenous community on campus, but will also provide the University with state-of-the-art facilities for lectures, celebrations and presentations.
10. Aanischaaukamikq Cree Cultural Institute
Following the success of the Ouje-Bougoumou Village, the community and larger Cree nations of northern Quebec envisioned a centre of identity. The Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute was proposed, to be built close to the village core of Ouje-Bougoumou on a sloping site overlooking the cultural and ceremonial grounds at the center of the village.
The building’s unique design is composed of a dramatic sloping roof starting close to the earth. This not only creates a human character and scale to the building, but also articulates a response to the natural environment that the Cree people so desired. The sloping roof intersects with another roof emulating the traditional “shaptwam” building form. This form, with its high sloped ceilings and an array clerestories, allows main public spaces to blend with administrative, support, and service spaces in a very organic and efficient manner.
Architecturally, the Cree Cultural Institute integrates the principles set forth in the original village master plan created by Douglas Cardinal and the Cree community. This plan expresses the Indigenous character of the inhabitants while establishing a state of the art facility to house, express and cultivate Cree culture for all of the James Bay Cree people and visitors of non-Indigenous descent.
Douglas Cardinal’s unique approach to architecture roots his work in a connection to nature, he has built some incredibly beautiful and interesting buildings across Canada and the United States.