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Thursday
Mar032016

Métis architecture

Métis Farmstead Buildings – See Burley, David, Gayel A. Horsfall, and John D. Brandon. 1992. Structural considerations of Métis ethnicity: an archaeological, architectural, and historical study. Vermillion: University of South Dakota Press. Used with permission by David Burley.

David Fortin is in an RAIC 2016 session, speaking about Métis architecture, his widely-funded research project at Laurentian University.  He is studying Métis and their design sensibility: how they build – his webpage banner shows the curved edge of a Cardinal building.  Pointing out that there is not universal agreement on who is considered Métis and there is little material architectural culture that points directly to a Métis architecture, Fortin’s project is framed as ‘a discussion about weaving together Métis history with contemporary topics linked to culture and identity’.

I’m going to do some summarising here from an essay on Fortin’s website because it is interesting how he has started this project.  He sees three conditions of Metis design: ‘1) a distinct responsiveness to the landscape, 2) an emphasis on egalitarian space, and 3) an informal approach to design’.  Informality refers to  ‘flexibility, adaptability, and imprintability’.  His process is to study what material culture there is, in the manner of Henry Glassie who read historical legacies of building details, mapping them to migration, emigration and immigration.  

I first discovered Glassie in the mid-1980s with his Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. I was teaching in the Eastern United States at the time; Glassie was my guide to the folklore and folk traditions of building. I amassed a huge archive of log construction that in my experience culminated with cabins built in the Smokey Mountains out of ancient poplars where a slice through the trunk might be 4’ wide: a wall took just two boards, and they were still jointed like a regular log cabin corner would be.  There is method, and there is material: whatever the method and however old it is, the material bends it to fit.  This is what is so exciting about vernacular building: its utterly expeditious adaptability.

At the same time, and here Glassie wasn’t a guide, I recorded the reconstructed villages of aboriginal peoples throughout the eastern States.  The US is good with this sort of thing: there are reconstructions galore, pamphlets and books that range from oral histories to academic research – I mean there were then, not sure about now.  Canada not so good at this sort of thing: reserves and Nations are more private, more defensive. One wonders if there is some kind of political obstruction to examining aboriginal material culture. Fortin cites Burley’s Structural Considerations of Métis Ethnicity: An Archaeological, Architectural, and Historical Study.  This was published by the University of South Dakota Press in 1992: why wasn’t it published in Canada?  Why isn’t it in every bookstore rather than on Google books with an unmarked cover?

There is a a lot of research on the Haida, the Coast Salish, the Glenbow museum has vast Blackfoot collections, but I’ve always found it a bit of a struggle to discover any sort of delight in walking around glass cases of the real thing, compared to walking around a reconstructed village that presents a holistic synthesis of construction, fabrics, food, pots, where the horses were, how big the fires were, how were pieces of wood joined together (pins? sinew? hide? trade nails? gravity?).  I realise such things are necessarily incomplete, we don’t know much about the unrecorded, but we can start to think, to hazard, to speculate based on human nature, how things might have worked –– this is the basis of scholarly pursuit. It shouldn't however, be just the preserve of the museum and the academy.

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