What does it mean to decolonize architecture, and who should ultimately benefit? We talked to Chris T. Cornelius, an architecture professor and citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, about how to frame the conversation around settler colonialism and how architects can start to consider the implications of designing structures on unceded land.
Cornelius founded his design and consulting practice, studio:indigenous, with the goal of serving Indigenous clients. Together with Antoine Predock, FAIA, Cornelius worked as a cultural consultant and design collaborator on the Indian Community School of Milwaukee, which won an AIA Design Excellence Award from the Committee on Architecture for Education in 2009. He received an Artist in Residence Fellowship from the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, and represented Canada in the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Cornelius is currently the Louis I. Kahn Visiting Assistant Professor at Yale University.
What does the act of decolonizing architecture look like to you?
There’s an article by Eve Tuck [and K. Wayne Yang] called “Decolonization is not a metaphor” that, I think, is the standard by which it should be understood—that it directly relates to dispossession of land from Indigenous Americans and Canadians. It shouldn’t be folded into the diversity, equity, and inclusion realm.
So for me, as an Indigenous person working in the discipline, how can I begin to think about what that means for me? Specifically, how do I think about whom architecture is serving? And how am I educating young architects?
I think we should be rethinking the curriculum because if we’re intervening in this landscape, we should know the history of it, and I don’t think we do. It’s not really taught.
What do you think can be done in the academy to help students better understand this country’s history of colonization?
I propose that every architecture student should take Indigenous history, especially in the U.S. and Canada.
Right now, I’m teaching an advanced graduate studio, so I have 10 very bright graduate students. We’re studying Indigenous housing in Canada, and I began to realize that I was spending a lot of time teaching them history and policy—how did this situation come about, and what can we do about it? And then, what things can we do as designers about political policy and understanding? I realized that it wasn’t their fault, not at all. Through their K–12 and their undergraduate educations, they never got that history.
As designers, if we’re intervening in the landscape, we should know the history of it. It’s not just a rural, prairie, or reservation sort of issue—it’s an urban issue, too, because most U.S. cities are founded on Indigenous settlements that pre-existed the cities themselves. A site analysis should include that history that didn’t just start with colonization.
Even in my own education, I hadn’t realized that I never saw any Indigenous architecture examples—that the history was never talked about. I had to go out and seek the information, because I wasn’t getting it in my architecture department.
What initially drew you to architecture as a profession?
I grew up in HUD housing on a reservation here in Wisconsin. It didn’t take long to realize that the built environment, meaning the homes that were built for Indigenous people, did not suit all of the ways people lived. As I began to think about it, there were no trees, no sidewalks—basic amenities. It seemed like there was a complete lack of care of how these homes were put in the landscape. They didn’t line up or follow any kind of a setback—things you would exist yet. Antoine was very good about understanding this Indigenous point of view and being able to translate it because it was similar to the way he thinks about architecture and nature and how to see the world. It was like a whole other graduate education working with him.
Neither of us wanted to make a building that looked like an animal. However, we talked about the building like it was an animal. I felt like we were all speaking a similar language between me, him, and the client.
I feel like the project itself is a sort of gift, in a way, because it has helped me understand that it is possible to make a contemporary space that is, in its very essence, Indigenous. Indigenous people see themselves in it, in things that resonate with them that are beyond the symbols and artifacts. I think that those things still, obviously, have a place, but to understand that the architecture can help support [them]—that was the thing that we tried to accomplish with this project.
What comes next when it comes to decolonizing architecture? What happens after the conversation?
I think it has to be followed up by action; I don’t think it can just be rhetoric. It can’t just be conceptual or theoretical. The most radical and extreme is that Indigenous lands are given back to Indigenous people, and that dispossession is basically acknowledged and taken care of. How are the ways that could be done? Could it be done through policy and legislation? For instance, are there opportunities in urban areas where we have vacant sites that nobody wants? What if you started to give back those lands to those people to put into a federal land trust, or larger swaths of land, or parts of federal parks or the land that land grant colleges possess, which are big parts and pieces of land where billions of dollars have been extracted in resources to benefit universities?
It’s [about] beginning to understand that these treaties weren’t honored; how do we make steps toward [honoring them]? That’s one part. The other part, for me, is that we have to have an honest discussion about the history of this country and its relationship to Indigenous people, along with other groups of people. That history must be honestly accepted and taught. We can’t just pretend these things didn’t happen—we can’t pretend that genocide didn’t happen, we can’t pretend that [Indigenous people] magically disappeared. We have to take honest steps forward together and start to ask, What does sovereignty look like for Indigenous people, and how can the design disciplines help foster that? There are certainly opportunities to do that.
We should be thinking about how we’re educating young architects, and there’s a time now to change it. I think the idea of decolonizing how Indigenous people fit into the picture is just one area. We should be thinking about social justice and how the discipline can expand itself, and how we can prepare young architects to be good citizens.