Douglas Cardinal’s architecture is informed by his upbringing in First Nations territory in southern Alberta. Now based in Canada’s capital, he finds solace navigating that city’s own bit of nature: the Ottawa River.
Douglas Cardinal is among Canada’s most celebrated architects and is known for a distinct brand of organic architecture that has been shaped by his heritage. Of the Anishinaabe people, Cardinal was born in 1934 and raised in Blackfoot First Nations territory in southern Alberta. His father would hunt deer and moose to feed his family. Relying on nature’s bounty taught the young Cardinal the lessons that come with taking a life: respect that which sustains you and waste nothing. “I always felt that my father’s values were so important to me; that we do not have dominion over nature, we are nature,” says Cardinal.
The 86-year-old architect navigates his boat along the Ottawa River, in the shadow of Parliament Hill, home of Canada’s government. “Coming from Alberta, how I related to nature was with my horse on the land,” he says. “But here the way I could relate to nature was by being out on the water.” It was a personal connection that prompted Cardinal to buy a boat to use on the river: on view along its banks is his magnum opus, the Canadian Museum of History. Originally named the Canadian Museum of Civilization, it opened in 1989 and is a rhythmic ripple of limestone that mirrors the river.
To Cardinal, modernism often resulted in buildings that are aloof from – or worse, exploitative of – their surroundings. As a student, Cardinal’s taste for organic architecture clashed with the University of British Columbia’s modernist ideals, as did his Indigenous identity in a country that sought to purge itself of the culture of its first peoples. But beginning in 1967, Cardinal began establishing himself in western Canada designing houses, churches and schools with sweeping curvilinear forms informed by nature.
At the urging of his elders, Cardinal entered and won, in 1983, the competition to design the Museum of Civilization. “When I came to Ottawa, I realised that the museum was on the banks of a very sacred site,” he says. “I felt that the building itself should be a sculpture that flowed like the river.”
Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister at the time, was a key advocate for the project. “[He] pushed very hard,” says Cardinal, who worked 16 hours a day for five years to ensure that the museum was a success. It was at this time that he bought a cabin cruiser. “My connection with the water helped me have the strength to get through the challenges I was facing,” he says. And during the design of the building, Trudeau, a keen canoeist, told Cardinal that this perspective also helped him to understand how the design would flow like water.
Cardinal still spends time on the river. It’s easier to navigate now than in the 1980s, when propellers could be damaged by the remnants of tall pines that had been felled years before for use as naval masts. He adds that artefacts found nearby predate the pyramids, that the river’s locks were built to defend Ottawa from American invaders and that First Nations were key to defending Canada in the War of 1812. “For me it is a real lesson in history to just cruise along the river,” says Cardinal.
That history includes his museum. “Indeed, it was a challenge,” he says. “But in the most challenging times, I knew I had to get out and connect with the powerful force of the water.”
1934 Born in Calgary, Alberta
1968 Designed his first building in Red Deer, Alberta
1989 The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa opens
1989 Awarded the Order of Canada
2004 The National Museum of the American Indian opens in Washington
2018 Led Canada’s contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale