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A Convergence of Expression: Inuit Knowing and Educational Architecture in Northern Canada

Institutional facility design benefits from the input of the many stakeholders who will use a building and its environs. Whether a school, a healthcare facility, a lab, or a carceral institution, staff, visitors, patients, students, and other users can give valuable insights to designers. Yet, for Indigenous communities in Canada, schools and other institutional facilities represent a colonizing presence in their communities. Through our experience in building schools in the north and health and correctional facilities across the country, we have gained invaluable insights into the communities with which we have worked. We have come to understand that any architectural intervention in an Indigenous community needs to be a living entity that will work in unity with all the forces that come in contact with the project.

In this two-part blog series, we explore how modern design principles and improved construction materials can converge to create an architectural expression that aims to respect and reflect the understanding of peoples who inhabited the land before the arrival of colonizers. The communities with which we have worked have helped to educate us as to how the built form can live in harmony with both the physical and non-physical elements that define the land and the peoples who walk upon its surface.

Educational Architecture in Northern Canada

In Canada’s Arctic, schools take on a much broader meaning within the community they serve. They serve a dual purpose as not only a place to learn but also as cultural resourcesplaces in which to congregate, where stories are told and where the community unites.

Parkin Architects Principal, Robert Boraks, teaches a Carleton University School of Architecture MA course that focuses on architectural interventions in Inuit and First Nations communities. He explains, “As with any public space built in northern Canada, the design and construction of a school needs to preserve, promote, and be in harmony with Inuit values, culture, and laws. We cannot assume that our settler understanding of space and process is appropriate for a culture that has been shaped by an environment in which few of us could survive.”

The Importance of IQ—Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit

One of the most important guiding concepts is the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), which means “that which Inuit have always known to be true.” IQ embraces all aspects of traditional Inuit culture. 

“By understanding and integrating IQ principles into our designs, architects can design buildings that reflect, honour, and celebrate the Inuit culture,” says Boraks.  He adds, “Parkin’s northern work has focused on ensuring that these principles are respected and celebrated using appropriate materials and sensitive placement. This experience now informs our other work as well. The continual application of the grounded and universal principles of IQ have increasingly become manifest in Parkin’s southern work. We have much to learn from the Inuit.”

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) consists of eight guiding principles that influence all aspects of life, including the creation of spaces. Within the guiding principles are four fundamental or core natural laws, called maligait—things that must be followed. These govern how the Inuit connect to one another and the environment. The maligait are:

1. Working for the common good.

2. Respecting all living things.

3. Maintaining harmony and balance.

4. Continually planning and preparing for the future.

Our design work in northern Canada reflects and respects these fundamental laws. We work closely with the community to capture current and future requirements of the schools, taking into consideration the environment, climate change, seasons, and the role of sunlight, while being guided by the IQ principles. 

Schools in Northern Canada

In 2016, Parkin participated in the completion of Tuugaalik High School which is located on a hillside of exposed rock. It features a gymnasium, day-care space, and an atrium that is welcoming and serves the entire community. It was designed to provide a multifunctional, flexible, and adaptable facility that would function primarily as a school for 210 students and 24 day-care spaces. Importantly, the school adheres to the eight IQ principles that influence all aspects of Inuit life while also meeting the challenges of the Arctic environment and site conditions. 

In the past, building materials that were used in northern schools were meant to keep the natural elements out. This meant educational architecture lacked natural light and important IQ principles such as Tunnganarniqfostering good spirit by being open, welcoming, and inclusive. A “kiva” space is one-way northern schools can promote community involvement and inclusion. Common in Nunavut, they are gathering spaces where community members interact with and educate students through traditional informal lessons      and storytelling.

At Tuugaalik High School, the kiva is the first space students and the community encounter when they enter the school. The kiva is welcoming, well-lit, and serves a dual purpose as a throughway to the classrooms, gymnasium, and day-care. Interstitial nodes feature bench-like seating with stairs and ramps that allow for community gatherings or teaching. The kiva is oriented so that it descends toward the Arctic Ocean and captures the first natural light that streams after the winter solstice. The colours chosen for the exterior and interior spaces are inspired by the natural environment in which the school is located to reinforce positive connections with the outside. Natural wood details, punctuated with vibrant colour details in this two-storey space, also reflect the natural environment. 

“The kiva welcomes community members to become part of the sharing environment,” says Boraks. “Tuugaluuk is more than just a school—it is a place of learning.”

Since opening, Tuugaalik High School has received recognition for its outstanding design from Learning By Design magazine, and American School & University.

Another example of how Parkin incorporates IQ principles into our designs in the north is Igloolik High School, opened in 2018.  Although Igloolik is a small community located on an island in the Northwest Passage, well north of the Arctic Circle, it is a growing community. Built around the maligait concept to always plan and prepare for the future, the new high school was built at the edge of the community; however, as the population grows, the school will eventually be in the centre of town. With this in mind, Parkin oriented the school such that, together with the middle school and the community centre, a town square is created. The built environment, therefore, does not create borders between the school and the community. The shared space is now a focal point for the people who live, work, and go to school in Igloolik.

The school accommodates 230 students and includes specialty classrooms for learning trades, science, and computers. in addition to serving student activities, the gymnasium can be used by the whole community.

Through careful listening and adapting to the specific needs of the north, the design teams worked closely with the people who would use the facilities and incorporated Inuit knowing into the decision and design process. Together, they created vital social hubs that serve their communities but also belong in and to their environments. 

Creating Better Educational Environments With Parkin

As an employee-owned, award-winning architectural firm serving Canadian and international clients, Parkin Architects Limited prides itself on its specialized design that creates functional, rich, and meaningful environments. Every project we undertake receives nothing less than the closest attention to detail and direct involvement of Directors and Principals. 

By integrating cultural and architectural principles in educational architecture, we can create environments that positively impact lives. Book a consultation at our Toronto, Ottawa, or Vancouver offices to discuss your next project today.


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