The Indigenous Design Process: an Interview with Bill Semple

Culture cannot be relegated to the margins of sustainable development policy. When I last went to the International Conference on Sustainable Development[1], the latest edition of which will take place this September in New York, it was therefore a pleasant surprise to meet Bill, who was checking in for his session on “Indigenous Approaches to Sustainable Development”. A brief conversation about his work as an architect in indigenous community contexts was enough to spark my interest, so I wandered up during my break to listen to him speak.

I was not disappointed. In a space so often awash with technical, not to say technocratic discussions, here was someone who did not hesitate to include a slide that simply said  ”We are the Air. We are the Water. We are the Land” or read quotes like ”Knowledge is seen as belonging to the cosmos of which we are a part, and where researchers are only the interpreters of this knowledge”. Being a social scientist at heart, well-versed in the social constructivist method and its core concept of reflexivity (researchers must always be attentive to their own subjectivity and biases, and take responsibility for holding the power of interpretation), this was all music to my ears. Much later the following year, I got in touch with Bill to learn more about his work as an architect, and what practising his profession in and with indigenous communities entails.[2]

Bill’s involvement with non-western communities began in Dharamshala, India, where he worked with the Tibetan community on a project that would form the basis for his master’s thesis in architecture, the design of a Buddhist nuns’ institute. Like many a western volunteer, he arrived on site having carried out extensive research, expecting to get right to work, only to find his questions about potential projects being gently brushed off or politely ignored. Wisely taking a step back, he spent time in the community, meeting lamas, shopkeepers and passerbys, simply talking with them, listening and learning. So things went until about three weeks into his stay, when someone approached him. A project was suggested. A meeting was arranged. Discussions ensued and the work finally began. It became clear to Bill that while he learned about the community, they too had been observing him. It was what he has come to call ‘being the observer and the observed’. Had he pressed on and tried to force the process, it is likely that no ideas for real, impactful work would ever have been offered:

”They really needed to understand me first. They needed to develop a relationship in order to see how I’d fit in, and whether I’d fit in … It is interesting that, in the work that I have done as an architect in India, no one has ever asked me to see a design. No one has asked to see my portfolio. It is not relevant. What is relevant is your relationship with people, your experience as a person. People hear about it, who you are, what you’ve done, and then they want to check you out themselves, to develop their own relationship with you.”

In India, the significance of relationships was made clear, as was the use of intermediaries to trust-building. When Bill was finally asked to work on a project, the request came through a mutual acquaintance. This not only allowed him to decide on what level he could offer his generosity, but also permitted his Tibetan friends to calmly consider whether they could trust an outsider who had yet to develop relationships in the community. The entire process allowed all the possibility to save face in the case of rejection. These principles have informed Bill’s work with indigenous groups since:

”When I went to work with communities in the [Canadian] North, I didn’t assume that I could just arrive and get a project right away. I assumed that what I had to do was meet people, develop an understanding of what was going on, build some relationships and allow them to develop an understanding of who I was and what I was about. I learned that in India. I took that to the North. It worked, and I was not surprised.”

The Canadian North suffers from a chronic undersupply of quality housing. Building materials have to travel long distances to poorly serviced areas, then withstand the unrelenting assaults of a severely cold climate. Heating bills run into the thousands of dollars per year. There is no real housing market to speak of as, once built, houses drop in value to a mere 30-60% of their construction costs, making unwise investments impossible to recover. Efforts to palliate this problem have repeatedly fallen short, raising serious concerns for the wellbeing of vulnerable communities. When Bill took on a job at Canada’s Mortgage and Housing Corporation, he realised the issue needed to be tackled differently.

”What I saw was fifty years of absolute failure. From my perspective and experience I felt that a significant reason for that was because projects kept happening over and over again without involving local people, without working within the local cultural context and without working within the environmental context.”

The aboriginal peoples of Canada have long been marginalised and brutalised. I was shocked to discover that an abusive system of assimilation, epitomized by the so-called residential school system, was active until the final years of the 20th century, only closing down for good in 1996. Tens of thousands of young natives were taken from their homes to these ”schools”. State-funded and church-run, these establishments dislocated families, broke, abused and killed the children placed in their care. Banning the practise of their own culture, the system also denied the survivors any chance at a decent education. They forcibly stripped generations of their voices and identities. Justice Murray Sinclair, on conluding his inquiry as chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, spoke of cultural genocide.

The traumatic effects of this history are still felt in many aspects of indigenous lives. More than any other group in modern Canada, natives face economic vulnerability, low educational attainment, lower life expectancies, joblessness and violence. The issue of ‘missing women’ is a particularly raw issue: although aboriginal women and girls represent only 3% of the female population, they were victims in 1 in 10 of murders of women between 2000 and 2008.

Working with such marginalised communities requires a more empathetic, open approach. Outsiders, however well-intentioned, keep acting in ways incompatible with the cultural context and the historical reality of colonisation. As Westeners – or ‘southerners’ in this case – steeped in the traditions of the enlightenment, we are caught up in a worldview where rationality is prized and the scientific method dominates, often to the detriment of alternative perspectives. The indigenous people of Canada value subjectivity, much like the Buddhist exiles of Dharamshala, recognising that ”each of us brings so much of who we are into a process, that there is no objectivity”. It can never be forgotten how often science has been used against traditional values and viewpoints, so much so that, as Bill reminds us: ”the process is distrusted, the idea of objectivity is distrusted.” We all too often fail to listen, and to give control and dignity to those from whom it has been taken. Is it any wonder that current projects fail to reach communities?

The solution is to see the indigenous design process not simply as a means to an end, building homes, but as a healing process. When Bill organises a design ‘charrette’ in an isolated community, the many stakeholders are brought together, and everything is done to ensure all are given the space to outline their expectations and be heard. In the Canadian North, this also entails touching on the cultural needs of prospective inhabitants, whether this may be a kitchen large enough to accommodate the traditional eating of game meat, which is done on the floor rather than at the table, or a separate ”cool room” for the working on animal skins. If the space is too cold, the skins freezes and is too hard for the women to sew. Make it too warm, and the fur begins to fall out and smells become overpowering. Through a process of inclusion, common goals and strategies can be devised, and bought-into. Community members are then much more likely to give their consent to a project, and to take ownership of it. Bill cannot empasise this point enough: ”ownership in a collective context is a very different concept than individual, material ownership, and we have not grasped that, we have not utilised that”. Architects who have meaningful consultation with communities find that a greater sense of ‘community ownership’ is achieved for the schools, clinics or houses they build. In the best of cases, they can also become a cause for celebration. Those who fail to put in this time find their projects are uncared for, even vandalised.

The good news is that the outcome can be imperfect. There are real constraints to building in the Arctic, so that mistakes can be considered a part of the process. High material costs and low temperatures conspire against success, as do the lack of trained workers and, in winter, short daylight hours. Failure is a real possibility, so the bar has to be realistic. Reach too far and fail, and your project will be tagged as yet another too-clever southern idea that doesn’t work:

”The approach that I and others take, recognising how challenging these designs are, is not to try and do it all in one project, ever. I see it as a process of moving stage by stage, creating successes, celebrating them, and then moving on to the next one.”

Time and effort are needed for the wounds of past abuse to heal and communities to overcome the challenges they face, but these shared successes offer a path to redemption and reconciliation for all involved. It is Bill’s hope that he will one day no longer be needed for his skills as an architect, but that his engagement will be maintained through the friendships and relationships he and others have built through understanding and respect. More than that, the whole indigenous design process offers opportunities for mutual learning:

”We often talk about how there’s a need for a paradigm shift in our society. When I hear that, I find myself thinking that the paradigm shift exists already within the philosophy of indigenous people, who see themselves as having a relationship with the land and coming from a place that they’re not separate from. That philosophy and that approach I think we need to learn more from”

To inscribe a cultural component in all sustainability work opens new avenues for change. It became clear to me that Bill’s awareness of local needs and alternative modes of thought should become a guiding principle in all interactions with indigenous communities, wherever they may be.


[1] The ICSD is organised every year by staff of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, where I was employed between March 2015 and July 2017.

[2] This article is a brief overview of our conversation on his work. You can learn more by reading his work, or listening to him speak at the First Nations Conference on Sustainable Buildings and Communities back in 2013.