Many city workers would claim their building is a sweatshop, but how many can boast that they have a sweat lodge at the office? Employees and clients of the Native Child and Family Services of Toronto (NCFST) are getting used to their new building, exploring its motif-adorned corridors, checking out the beautiful longhouse meeting room and wandering around the rooftop garden, where they come across the aforementioned sweat lodge. But these unusual additions are more than design follies. They play a key role in the mandate of this family services agency, reconnecting First Nations aboriginals – native Canadians who are neither Inuit nor Métis – with their beliefs and cultural identity. The displacement of Canadian aboriginals began soon after European settlers began to colonise North America. As a result, where once family and community bonds were strong among these peoples, their dispersal across the land, and especially into urban areas, has weakened historical connections with nature and tradition.
The NCFST has long served First Nations people in the Toronto area, offering social and health services as well as bringing communities together, but until now it has worked from various disparate premises. Its new four-storey C$5.8m building brings the agency together and offers all manner of facilities, including a drop-in childcare centre, family, mental health and social services, as well as informal play and administration spaces. “It is essentially similar to other consolidated family support agencies. But then again, it isn’t,” says the architect behind the building, Levitt Goodman principal Dean Goodman. “NCFST employees are very aware this building and the work they do is vital to their people and their community. While they require all the safety, security and facilities of any modern social services institution, they are insistent that the building must not be seen as just that, institutionalised.” Located on a site surrounded by high-rises in downtown Toronto, the 2788sq m centre has risen from the bones of a 1980s office building. Its wider brief – to reconnect urban aboriginals with nature and their culture – has been achieved in a variety of ways, some of which involve education, but many of which are instigated or reinforced by architecture and interior design. The longhouse is the most immediately striking interpretation of native culture. The 12m x 4.3m structure is cocoon-shaped, hewn from strips of eastern white cedar, a timber indigenous to the province of Ontario. It is at odds with the orthogonal nature and materiality of the concrete-framed office building, and as such, presents a different perspective on the role of the agency. Users enter the longhouse through a black vestibule and oversized pivot door. “This entrance makes people stop for a second and consider the ceremonial nature of the space; this one and, traditionally, all longhouses,” says Goodman. The space is used for public assemblies and spiritual ceremonies; drumming and circle sessions; for counselling, meetings and as a play space. “It means a lot of things to a lot of people,” he continues, “and so our design is not a pastiche of a traditional longhouse but an urban iteration that hopefully provides an authentic native experience within a non-native environment.” Inside the longhouse, surrounded by the warm tones of the curved timber, the smell of wood and glowing lantern lights, a sense of calm is pervasive.
The NCFST executive director, Kenn Richard, says: “With the increasing migration of native peoples from reserves to large urban centres, it is important to have beacons to not only show the way but also to affirm and support the cultural and spiritual integrity of our communities. The longhouse is a foundation on which a new urbanised indigenous reality can emerge.” Similarly, the rooftop garden and sweat lodge are designed to a modern aesthetic, while fulfilling very traditional roles. Hot as a sauna, the sweat lodge is a powerful tool with which to transport users out of the inner-city to another dimension. Clad in Corten steel scales on the exterior and scented cedar inside, it uses a gas heat source rather than a log fire. The sweat lodge is central to the rooftop garden, an outdoor green space in the heart of Toronto. Here a natural idyll amid office towers and condominiums is created by lawned teaching hills; a campfire; a sacred medicine garden planted with sweet grass, cedar, sage and tobacco; and a three sisters garden sown with corn, beans and squash. The roof garden increases the usable space of the site by 642sq m. Its construction affords extra insulation to the building and reduces its contribution to the urban heat island effect. However, most importantly, this patch of vegetation is a sanctuary to many urban natives, a place of quiet contemplation and a link to their forefathers while all about them is the frenetic 21st century. “It’s an unexpected experience to find a ritual environment outdoors in the city,” says Goodman. “The space both adds culturally to the project and rebalances the building’s footprint on the land.”
Back inside the building, many spaces are organised as one would expect in a family services facility. However, here Levitt Goodman has sought to enliven the interior with graphic design. Working with First Nations art collective the Seventh Generation Image Makers, the architect’s graphic designer has translated culturally significant imagery into large-scale motifs that adorn the glazed partition walls of the cellular offices while aboriginal textiles inspired a stylised pattern on the ground floor, which acts as a giant welcome mat. “It’s amazing the sense of pride that is being so boldly displayed in this new building, with all of its images and metaphors,” says Richard. “I believe that the building will over time get better and better in its role as an authentic native experience in an otherwise non-native environment. It speaks of survival and this might be its greatest legacy.”