Architect named to shape new Indigenous space

Debora Van Brenk // Western News

Architect Wanda Dalla Costa of Saddle Creek Cree Nation has been chosen to lead repurposing of Western’s former Althouse College Library into an Indigenous Learning Space. 

Canada’s first female First Nations architect has been enlisted to help the Western community shape a new Indigenous space on campus.

Redquill Architecture, led by Wanda Dalla Costa, specializes in Indigenous architecture, planning and design. A member of the Saddle Creek Cree Nation in northern Alberta, she will be leading consultations and design for Western’s repurposing of the iconic, round Althouse College library into an Indigenous Learning Space.

Renovation and construction are set to start early in 2020.

Before that, though, Dalla Costa and the Indigenous Space Advisory Council will lead public consultations with elders and Western’s community from 5-7 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Education Library, John George Althouse Building, 1137 Western Rd. RSVPs are due by Sept. 27.

With 20 years in the field, Dalla Costa was the first Indigenous woman – one of fewer than 10 in the country even today – to be certified as an architect.

“We’re really blessed to have someone with this record,” said Candace Brunette-Debassige, Special Advisor to the Provost (Indigenous Initiatives).

Dalla Costa also teaches architecture, specifically Indigenous architecture, as a professor at the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering at Arizona State University.

Her projects have included the Niitsitapi Learning Centre in Calgary; several buildings at Red Crow Community College in Cardston, Alta.; and, with 17 other Indigenous architects, was part of the Douglas-Cardinal-led UNCEDED architectural project at the 2018 Venice Biennale and then at the Canadian Museum of History.

To design or repurpose spaces, Dalla Costa uses a four-part Indigenous framework: led by community; driven by reciprocal relationships; focused on inclusion; and underpinned with understanding of the locale.

Said Dalla Costa, “It is very much (focused) on doing the work of the place, in the place where it is based, with the people where it’s based.”

She holds a Master of Design Research and a Master of Architecture (University of Calgary) and her work emphasizes structures that have strong connections to the environment, land and culture.

The soon-to-be-redesigned Western building is easily identifiable by its domed roof and rounded walls. Its circular patterns echo Indigenous precepts of equity and the interconnection of everything in creation.

More than 10,000 square feet of interior space over three levels will include a gathering area, mezzanine and teaching/classroom spaces. Outdoors, it will also feature a classroom, relocated Indigenous food and medicine garden and ceremonial space.

Dalla Costa loves it already and sees its design and structural possibilities. “The building is fantastic. I feel like it’s a really conducive space for gathering,” she said.

Brunette-Debasigge said a lot of consultation has already taken place, but the open house will be an opportunity to offer new, different and more refined ideas of how the building and its environs should be configured.

About a year ago, Brunette-Debassige began a consultation that took an inventory of spaces and programming needs as Western strives to meet the aims of its Indigenous Strategic Plan.

This redesigned space will be a home where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can gather to learn and practise Indigenous ways of knowing.

Western’s Indigenous Services, part of the Student Experience portfolio, will continue to have a home in the Student Services Building where it has offered a gathering space, student lounge, computer lab and elders’ office.