A Design of Mythic Proportions

    Western houses don’t work in the North. But what kind of modern structure does? A U of A researcher reaches across disciplines and cultures to come up with the answer

    By Lisa Cook on November 30, 2012

    Western houses don’t work in the North. But what kind of modern structure does? A Canada Research Chair reaches across disciplines and cultures to come up with the answer.

    In the days before time began, a giant lay down in the earth in the southern Northwest Territories, and created the indentation that became Trout Lake, or Sambaa K’e in the local Dene language.

    It is this origin myth that is driving Gavin Renwick’s design for a community centre in the area. But it is his history of reaching across disciplines and cultures that is making his work truly unique.

    Renwick is the current 2012 Canada Research Chair in Design Studies but his habit of cutting across disciplines began long before he came to the University of Alberta two years ago. As an undergraduate, Renwick studied Interior Design at Napier College in Edinburgh, Scotland. He completed a master’s in architecture at the Royal College of Art in London, then moved on to receive a PhD in fine arts from the University of Dundee. His thesis examined “Spatial Determination in the Canadian North.”

    His recent exhibition at the FAB gallery in the fine arts building was also a chance to reach out across disciplines. For weeks this fall he worked in the front window of the gallery, designing the Sambaa K’e community centre, which he hopes will evoke ideas of that giant of old. The walls behind him were filled with his studies of how traditional Western homes have failed to meet the needs of northern Aboriginal people for whom being closed off from the outdoors is the antithesis of their tradition.

    “These houses, their interior planning, are houses that you and I would understand … but are very much designed for a Southern, Western lifestyle, and they fundamentally fail to work for hunters,” he says.

    See how Renwick came to understand what kind of home works for a northern lifestyle, and how that’s driving his design for the community centre.

    Find more stories about the University of Alberta’s northern research in the Winter 2012/13 issue of New Trail magazine.