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12.00  Unknown Ground: The Case for Ambiguity in Indigenous Architecture

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What is indigenous architecture? Who is allowed to make indigenous buildings? What role do “traditional” forms play in the development of modern indigenous architecture? These questions, and many others framing the discourse of modern indigenous design are very difficult to pin down with a binary solution: there is no right/wrong, yes/no, black/white. Like many indigenous cultures, the answers are multi-faceted. They branch off, transform, or present themselves in different ways simultaneously. They are ambiguous. When confronted by the rigidity of modern western design—where buildings must be rigorously labeled and sorted into an appropriate category—the fluidity of indigenous culture confounds classification. Attempts to place indigenous design in its “proper box” often lead to gross oversimplifications of cultural forms and icons. Modern indigenous architecture is much more than steel teepees. 

This paper will explore the importance of ambiguity in indigenous heritage and design. Through the exploration of selected case studies (as well as a presentation of the author’s own work) the case will be made not for a “type” of building, but rather a tool for consideration when designing. It will explore how ambiguity can be used to leave space in indigenous design, creating room for groups to unpack their own cultural touchstones and truly make the architecture “their own.” By presenting the built environment as a loose framework for cultures to imprint with their own identity, instead of a final product that is parachuted in from a distance, it is hoped the case can be made for socially sustainable buildings which resonate with their community.

Brett MacIntyre


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