How an Indigenous Architect Came Out of His Shell
This article is part of our Design special section on how the recent push for diversity is changing the way the world looks.
Growing up in federal public housing on the Oneida Indian reservation five miles west of Green Bay, Wis., Chris Cornelius did not envision a future as an architect. He was surrounded by poverty. The only hot meal he received was the free lunch at his off-reservation school. And yet sleeping in the living room of his family’s ranch home near a wood-burning stove turned out to be a formative experience.
“In our neighborhood, there were no trees or sidewalks,” Mr. Cornelius said. “When I saw how different life was off the reservation, I began to think about how I could make an impact on my environment.”
Since September 2021, he has been the chairman of the school of architecture and planning at the University of New Mexico while running studio: Indigenous, a design firm he founded with a focus on architecture and Indigenous culture.
The son of a brick mason, Mr. Cornelius excelled in drawing and architectural drafting, but higher education wasn’t his plan until a guidance counselor — a fellow Oneida — directed him to federal grants programs for native people to attend college. It led him to major in architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he connected with Indigenous students and started thinking about what Indigenous architecture could be.
“There were a lot of buildings in our culture that made simple symbolic references like animals or traditional longhouses and wigwams,” Mr. Cornelius said. “Turtles are very important to Oneida, but the turtle-shaped school on the reservation didn’t have an impact on people. I wanted to think critically about what was being built, what stories were being told, and how people would experience it.”
He began designing small projects for the Oneida, as well as teaching at the university in Milwaukee and doing his own speculative designs. After attending graduate school at the University of Virginia, he was invited in 2003 to collaborate with the architect Antoine Predock, who had just won a competition to design the Indian Community School in Franklin, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb.
Mr. Predock and Mr. Cornelius proposed a sustainable, nature-integrated building that manifested Oneida traditions of caring for the land. “Chris understood us and asked the right questions,” said Carmen Flores, the school’s board chairman.
Cradled in a hillside among old-growth trees, the school is made of wood, copper and local limestone. It connects indoors and outdoors with large windows and expansive outside learning areas, including ponds, wetlands and an open-air lab. “We designed these varied learning environments to be as noninstitutional as possible in order to rethink how Indigenous students can learn in noncolonial settings,” Mr. Cornelius said.
In the two-story building, younger students are on the lower floor, in classrooms named for plants and other terrestrial things, while older students occupy the upper floor, where the rooms evoke birds and the sky. All of Indian Country — the totality of land under tribal jurisdiction — is represented in a communal gathering area at the center of the school that is shaped like an abstract map of the United States. Plantings signify the various landscapes, and custom-built wood seating represents the territories’ plains and mesas.
Completed in 2007, the Indian Community School is popular with its students, teachers and parents, although Ms. Flores said that more storage would be ideal and that the gym could be bigger. Others, preferring more straightforward, recognizable patterns and vivid colors, have been critical of the design, saying the architecture isn’t Indigenous enough and should include motifs and shapes such as turtles or eagles.
Among the community events held on the grounds was the Bear Moon Pow Wow, in January. Leaders of the Kamehameha Schools, a private school system in Hawaii, took inspiration from the use of this space and have incorporated similar outdoor gathering spaces into their own buildings, Ms. Flores said.
“He is a very mellow, thoughtful young man. I don’t know if I ever saw him get upset during the whole process, and now we consult him on everything we build, even things like little storage sheds,” Ms. Flores said of Mr. Cornelius.
His big independent break came in 2017, when he won the J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize in Columbus, Ind., a town that was developed as a center of modern architecture. As part of the Exhibit Columbus show, he built Wiikiaami, a pavilion that acknowledged the Delaware, Kickapoo, Miami and Shawnee Nations who lived on the land long before it was studded by masterpieces of architects like Eliel Saarinen. (The pavilion was erected on the grounds of Saarinen’s First Christian Church, built in 1942.) The structure is made of translucent steel “feathers” draped over a bent steel structure. “I wanted to replicate the process of making a wigwam, not make an actual wigwam,” Mr. Cornelius said.
The project caught the attention of Deborah Berke, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, who later invited Mr. Cornelius to teach a design studio class at Yale on housing.
“Chris brought a voice to our students that they hadn’t heard before,” Ms. Berke said. “He is expanding the canon of what architecture can be. This also resonated with many of our international students, since there is Indigenous architecture around the world.”
His voice has infiltrated the art world, as well. A prototype called “Not My HUD House” was shown last year in Arkansas at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art exhibition “Architecture at Home.” The compact unit proposes an alternative model of public housing for a new Indigenous culture, offering features notably missing from Department of Housing and Urban Development structures: porches, fireplaces, sky views, and places for animals to live.
“The government housing on the reservation was a tool of colonialism and assimilation. It didn’t have anything to do with our culture,” Mr. Cornelius said. “We had basketball courts because that is what HUD was building in urban housing projects.”
At the University of New Mexico, Mr. Cornelius is continuing a legacy. The school hosts the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute and offers a certificate in Indigenous planning.
He leads conversations about the lessons of Indigenous architects from the past: how to design domestic environments with more communal and flexible spaces, and how to use materials that are more appropriate to a local climate or culture. There is much to be learned from the practice of not taking more than we need and being good neighbors to plants and animals, he said.
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