Chris Cornelius (Onieda) was the Aboriginal consultant for Anthony Predock’s Indian School of Milwaukee. The building won American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee for Education’s Educational Facility Design Award. In designing this award-winning building, the architect and consultant both agreed on the approach: move away from standard iconographic imagery and attempt to translate cultural values into architecture. For the ‘big moves,’ the design team utilized: the landscape, the views and school ethics (namely, integrity). For the interior, Cornelius carefully wove the stories of the five major cultural groups.
While the form isn’t overt in its cultural iconography, and at times does not appear to cater to the young population of users, there is a powerful sensibility within the details. The floor patterns, carved in bronze, depict the seven animals, which represent the school’s core values: wisdom, bravery, love, humility, loyalty, respect and truth (Ibid. p. 98). Additional floor patterns denote the moon calendars of the five major cultural groupings of the region: Oneida, Ojibwa, Menominee, Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk. Also represented are “ceremonies and tribal activities like planting, fishing, and harvesting” (Ibid. p. 98). The theatre room, or ‘drum room’ as it is referred to, is an interpretation of the sky complete with an oculus skylight and star-like lights. The circulation is generous fostering formal and informal small-scale gatherings referred to as: “special connecting nodes, places for storytelling and teaching”(Ibid, p.95). Finally, materials, such as the wood columns and wood seating (designed by the aboriginal consultant to reflect the 4 sacred landforms of the southwest), are familiar to the locals and relate to the forested landscape outside.
The choice of an exterior devoid of cultural references may have been a designer’s way of reconciling five different cultural groups. But can architecture become too theoretical or intellectual, especially for a culture so rich in associations? The architects said they wanted to move away from cultural icons and instead create a building that was experiential “because ultimately, it does not have any resonance with the culture unless it’s experiential” (Ibid, p. 98). True. I guess it’s ultimately up to the students and teachers to make the final evaluation. Given that buildings are such a powerful medium to translate, teach and preserve cultural meaning, it would be a shame to miss an opportunity.
Architect: Anthony Predock
Copyright: the photographs belong to the above mentioned party; they are used here solely for the purposes of comment, teaching, scholarship, and/or research.