By Joseph Hall
He was a superstar of Canadian architecture in the 1980s and early 1990s, creator of the iconic, curvilinear Canadian Museum of Civilization (now called the Canadian Museum of History) and a household name. Now 80, Douglas Cardinal is still creating, though the big commissions have dried up. In The Outsider: How Douglas Cardinal Draws Genius from Native Roots, Toronto Star feature writer Joe Hall provides an in-depth look at the peaks and valleys of the architect’s career and life. And he notes that Cardinal, who has been chosen to design a native healing centre on Toronto’s West Don Lands – his very first Toronto commission – is intent on creating beauty for years to come.
Single copies of Star Dispatches eReads can be purchased for $2.99 at starstore.ca or itunes.ca/stardispatches
The Outsider: How Douglas Cardinal Draws Genius from Native Roots
Amid the smell of burning sage and sweetgrass, the land is returned to its native Canadian keepers. It’s a scruffy piece of property at the corner of Front and Cherry Streets, just east of this room in a Distillery District theatre building where the thrum of rawhide drums is filling the air. Here, close to where the Don River flows into Lake Ontario, Huron-Wendat peoples hunted, farmed and fished for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. And here, on the one-hectare West Don Lands site, aboriginal architect Douglas Cardinal will take on the first Toronto project of his half-century career.
The plan calls for a new hub for Anishnawbe Health Toronto, along with aboriginal arts and heritage facilities. The complex — which has already received $1.48 million from Queen’s Park for planning and design — is expected to become the main cultural centre for some 27,000 native Canadians who call Toronto home. So Cardinal will be building on familiar native soil.
“I have a client (in Anishnawbe Health) that values the balance of harmony, and balance of nature and our own nature,” says Cardinal, who turned 80 in March and is widely considered to be one of Canada’s greatest architects. “And so I don’t have to preach to the converted — I have a client that would expect that of me.”
For Anishnawbe Health board president Jacques Huot, Cardinal — one of some 17 architects and firms to bid on the project — was an inspirational choice. “When Douglas presented his concept, it was, to me anyways, ‘Wow!’ ” says the finance specialist. “It was a shaky, hand-drafted, hand-sketched thing . . . but you could really feel it, you could really sense it.”
Huot, himself of Huron-Wendat decent, says he did not want a concrete-and-glass square, an architectural form that Cardinal has shunned his entire career. “It’s not just a function of a building, it’s a function of a home that means something to our clients,” he says. Cardinal, who has yet to begin technical work on the project, says he’d like to create a structure that can promote healing through a design bonded to the natural rhythms of his native sensibilities. “I think it’s a real opportunity to show the true beauty and value of the First Nations philosophy and to be able to express it in the design of the building . . . to show an alternative to (Anishnawbe Health Toronto’s current) buildings that I don’t feel really have an empathy for people at all.”
The centre, to be built when temporary facilities serving next year’s Pan Am Games vacate the property, will replace Anishnawbe Health’s current Queen St. E. facility near Moss Park and two others in the downtown area. The organization offers care based on both modern and traditional native healing practices.
In turning over the land at the late-March event in the Distillery District, a tearful Glen Murray, Ontario transportation and infrastructure minister, said the project will fundamentally alter the lives of native Canadians in Toronto and the scornful perception of their cultures held by many of their fellow residents. “This will be that magnificent platform in which people will launch better-found futures . . . We’re going to build the most beautiful building. It is going to be a place of enormous celebration of the most amazing community of people.”
As ever, Cardinal is more understated. “I am really looking forward to working on the Toronto project,” he says with all the enthusiasm his quiet voice can muster.Cardinal is one of Canada’s best-known architects, most famous for the Canadian Museum of Civilization (renamed the Canadian Museum of History late last year), which remains the most prominent example of his style, one rooted in the natural world and a distinctly native sensibility. But he has seen his career flourish and then recede significantly since the Gatineau, Que., museum opened in 1989.
A series of professional, financial and personal blows that came in its wake have reduced him to practising out of the basement of his rented cottage on the southern outskirts of Ottawa with a staff of five. In recent years, he has worked on smaller commissions, often linked to the native heritage he came to embrace in his youth.
Cardinal is notoriously uncompromising, and that no doubt has been a factor in his career difficulties. But Stephen Fai of Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism argues that most of Cardinal’s setbacks have resulted from his love of risk. “Doug took a lot more risks than most architects in Canada in the last 50 years, and as a result he had some failures. One can argue this, but I think sometimes Cardinal’s ambition and his sense of the ideal, or what he wants to achieve, is sometimes quite a ways ahead of the reality of the circumstances that he’s working in. If you get involved in highly curvilinear buildings, complex geometries, highly refined use of materials, detailing right down to the doorknobs and every light fixture, it costs a lot of money to do it right.”
University of Toronto architect Larry Richards has a different take. He thinks Cardinal may be out of sync with modern development culture, which is highly managed, has fast-track imperatives and, very often, bears the burden of political pressure. “He just wants to make beautiful buildings. He wants to be the artist’s architect.”
But then, Cardinal has always been an outsider.
Both his mother and father were of mixed European and native Canadian blood — he was one-quarter Blackfoot and she was of German and Métis ancestry. And while Joseph and Frances Cardinal suppressed their aboriginal roots, often to the point of denial, their native genetics were written clearly on their first child’s dark face.
Those handsome, movie-Indian features gave Cardinal a rough childhood ride in 1930s and ’40s Alberta, which had built what he calls “apartheid divides” between its aboriginal and European populations. “In many cases, if you’re mixed you don’t even belong in either society,” he says. “You’re ridiculed and humiliated every day.”
Richards, former dean of the U of T’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, says these early tribulations likely determined that Cardinal would be confined to the margins of both his profession and wider society — places inhabited by some of the top architects of the age.
“Just as Frank Gehry has acknowledged his own somewhat difficult childhood as a Jew in Toronto, as Daniel Libeskind discusses the impact of his parents being Holocaust survivors, and as Frank Lloyd Wright was the ‘country boy’ who was never entirely comfortable in cities, similarly I think Cardinal has existed, for better or worse, in this kind of marginalized realm. I think Douglas Cardinal is, by both life circumstances and choice, an outsider, and that this explains a lot about him.”