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Building New on Indigenous Lands: Building New in Alma, Kansas // Eric Dernbach


LEFT: Architectural study model, studying the movement of the sun in relation to circular symbolism

RIGHT: The iconic tipi, form truly does follow function, many modern architects can learn from the simplicity of this structure - from Building New on Indigenous Lands

Architecture is a field that, at times, seems to be driven by ego. However, it is important to leave the ego aside and get down to the true essence of architecture—designing something that is meaningful. The idea of ‘designing new on indigenous lands’ is coming to light and gaining architectural significance. When most people think of new design on indigenous land, they presumably think of casinos or some other intrusion of Western culture. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, approaches housing on Native Lands with “boxes painted with horrendous pastel colors …. And they believe there is not a need for trees (Malnar, Vodvarka 2013).” This detrimental practice is damaging and reduces Native American cultural identity— there is a strong need for meaningful design that responds to the community. Western architects largely believe that spatial experience is primarily visual, but it is much more than that.


There is a new wave of architecture, primarily on tribal land, that promotes cohesion and social identity, much of which has been lost over the last couple centuries. The book ‘Building New on Indigenous Lands’ highlights positive design that is meaningful to tribes providing them with spaces that respond to cultural importance, sensory experience, and thoughtful design. The authors emphasize this point by stating, “This sort of architecture is also of tremendous value as instruction to a generation of contemporary Euro-American architects that the cultural meaning that has largely been lost in western design is something worth regaining (Malnar, Vodvarka 2013).”


Alfred Waugh, a practicing Chipewyan architect in British Columbia, was commissioned to design a Native Student Union that doubles as a First Nations cultural center. There is an important congregation space, whose design is influenced by hundreds of years of cultural significance. It includes an indoor fireplace that is encased in glass, references to the cardinal axes, and woven cedar walls that are designed to dampen acoustic reverberations from drumming. The overall design, according to the architect, relies on four principles: respect for culture, order and community, environment, and technology.



LEFT: Exterior of Native American Student Union + First Nations Cultural Center

RIGHT: Alfred Waugh's interior of First Nations Cultural Center - from Building New on Indigenous Lands

Architects can learn from traditional structures, like the tipi, to design a modern building. The iconic tipi is a simple structure that keeps moisture out and regulates temperature without effort from the dweller. Other tribal cultures designed structures and spaces around the idea a circle with emphasis on the center. This often represented a circular balance, process, and rebirth of life. Other Native American cultures used cedar in providing a sensory experience based on smell. These, along with many more aspects, are still important factors in Native American communities.


Designing something meaningful isn’t just important for Native American culture, it is also important for small towns. Alma, Kansas, population 840, and many other small towns across America, have their own deeply embedded culture. The iconic ‘small town America’ is still a way of life for hundreds of thousands of people. However, shifts are occurring, the United States is quickly becoming more urbanized—cities are becoming technology hubs and the new vision of iconic America. With all the focus on urbanism right now, design becomes even more important in small towns. It is important for the design not to mimic what is happening in the cities, but to emphasize the small town culture, it is becoming something beautiful in its own way as cities and small towns become more polarized.

Alma City Park + Pool

Designers should realize, whether it be in Alma or Native Land, that they are often the outsider and that their beliefs are the minority. Specific to Alma, and similar to Native American and First Nations culture, design should be implemented in a way that is not obtrusive. Simplicity is where the beauty lays. In Native culture, the structure often is derived from where the sun rises or sets. In small towns the design is often derived from surrounding context. Materiality should recognize what is used regionally and the design should directly serve a purpose.


In Alma, approaching design in a public space can raise the same set of questions and designing something meaningful is just as important. Small towns use a public park similar to a backyard barbeque, they become congregation spaces where everyone knows each other. It becomes the summer hangout spot for kids and adults alike. Any design within small public parks shouldn’t be ‘plopped down’ or designed with the most basic materials, it should reflect ideals and character of the locals. The community needs to associate with the design—the worst thing an architect can do is alienate people with an obscure design.

Proposed Pavilion - Alma City Park + Pool

A pavilion is used as a social gathering space, so the design should reflect something light and open, not overbearing and unwelcoming. The pavilion design proposed for Alma incorporates four steel columns, two steel beams, six steel tubes with a series of wood slats hanging from them providing park and pool goers with shade and a place where conversations amongst neighbors can occur. The space below is used in two programmatic ways, serving both the pool area and the open space to the south. Whether a project is a large structure or a small pavilion, this design should reflect the town’s needs.


Although a pavilion is much different than a tipi, the design of such an object can be approached in a similar way. Small towns and native lands have one distinct advantage over the rest of America—they seem to be locked in time, thus making something stationary, like architecture, hold cultural value and significance for long periods of time. As simplistic as a design may seem, whether it is built on indigenous land or the public park of Alma, it is important to realize that it serves more than just a visual purpose, it must be something meaningful, something that can be embedded in time.

Written by Eric Dernbach

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