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The Impossibility of Architecture in Post-Colonial Canada

by Daniel Karpinski
18 May 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Im-possible Derrida [8] | Article


I would like to talk about the impossibility of architecture in a post-colonial country, such as Canada. I should add that the word “architecture” in my notion will be used as a general term describing buildings and other structures erected with some purpose, for example: “architecture of dwellings”. Architecture not only satisfies the basic need to dwell and responds to this function, but also fulfils, gratifies and nurtures other needs, such as social need for aesthetics. The term “Canadian” architecture will be used to describe a site where it appears, the architecture that was erected in the territory known today as Canada. It is not related to a certain nation. I cannot imagine that the term could be used in the same way as “French” or “English” architecture. The difficulty related to this term appears mostly because “Canadians” are in constant search for a definition of their nation. So, I would like to talk about architecture in (what is called) Canada.

Looking at the mosaic of Canadian architecture, one can wonder why it is so simplistic, minimalistic in an economical way, spread apart and out of context (or not creating any context), out of scale, but showing a lack of aesthetic values or just simply being ugly. What happened to the architecture of others, and who are the others – the hosts, indigenous people or the colonizers? When the other’s architecture is not any more the others’? How could the trauma of colonization be inscribed in architecture, more importantly, in contemporary architecture? What are characteristics of contemporary architecture in Canada? Can “national” (local) architecture survive movements like the international style, globalization and multiculturalism? Is it necessary that architecture create a social context in the form of urbanism, a community or local solidarity? And finally: Whose architecture? Does architecture in a post contact country belong – like language – to the metropolitan master or the colonist?

Chronologically “Canadian architecture” could be very simply organized as:

  • “before contact”
  • “post-contact” (or “colonial”) and
  • “post-colonial”

Before contact

The pre-contact architecture or first nations, indigenous or aboriginal architecture was well described by Jesuits coming to (what is now known as) Canada with the first colonization assault.[1] Generally this architecture could be grouped into four categories, based on the typology of the dwelling.

First, Nomadic architecture of the Prairies is represented by a portable structure called “tipi”. The word “tipi” originated in the Lakota language, “thipi” which combines “thi” – to dwell, with “pi” – they dwell. If used as a noun it means “house”.[2] Even if the “tipis” were erected temporarily and moved to another place in the rhythm of travelling from one hunting place to another, they were richly decorated with painted symbols. The fact that they were decorated on the outside somehow indicates care for communication with the outside, whatever the addressee could be: nature, spirits, neighbours.

Second, Semi-nomadic architecture of the peoples of the Maritimes, Quebec, and Northern Ontario is represented by wigwams. This word in many languages means “their house”.[3] In this category we can put as well igloos of the North.


Native wigwam (source: Wikipedia)

Third, Semi-permanent structures of western parts (today’s British Columbia) know as “quiggly” holes, which in Chinook jargon means “beneath” or “under” and describes pit houses.[4] The two above groups were organized in some forms of villages representing or reflecting the social structure.

Finally, Permanent structures called “long house” can be found in (what is now) Southern Ontario and Quebec.[5] The long houses had some elements like totem poles or wooden carvings incorporated into their structure. Functionally, they provided dwelling for a number of families as though creating an instant community.

This indigenous architecture was established as a response to the local climate and was using local materials. It has some aesthetic value and symbolism that was enjoyed and understood by inhabitants. Pre-contact architecture was almost exclusively residential. Individual structures or dwellings were organized in organic groups which were forming an urban typology of the settlements.

“Post contact” (or “colonial”) Architecture

One of the first settlements (1604) fully constructed by the colonizers was built on Saint Croix Island (originally called “Muttoneguis” and populated by the Nation of Passamaquoddy). All materials, layouts of the buildings and even the urban plan were transported and transplanted to the new land from France. The arrogance of the colonists, a neglect (or simply lack of knowledge) of the local climate and of the ability to survive in a new land, in the first winter cost life of almost half of the colonists.

Croix Island

St. Croix Island settlement in 1613 (source: Wikipedia)

Next generations of the settlements were better adjusted to the local weather (mostly winters) and erected structures that were more secured, appearing almost like forts and indicating a “danger outside”. However, at the beginning of colonization some “trading posts” between the colonizers and the indigenous people were established, suggesting some sort of reciprocity in their relationships. Even if the posts were just points of exchange of goods, the initial respect to others could be exhibited. This state of coexistence could be attributed to a relatively small number of colonists. When the colonists were replaced by settlers, the issue of property was introduced. It took almost one and a half century to remove native people from their land and to locate them in so called “Indian Reserves”.

At the same time, architecture as a part of indigenous culture was replaced by an (impossible) Gift of colonizers’ culture. This Gift through (impossible) Hospitality turned into genocide, which still awaits (impossible) Forgiveness and Mourning.[6] Is this why the impossible (postcolonial) architecture cannot appear in Canada? Could we ask if the reflecting on the above four aporias may bring us closer to understanding the problem named in the title of this text?

1. An impossible gift

If a genuine gift must be placed outside of the realm of giving and taking, outside of the space of trading, as Derrida suggests in his text Given Time, it should also be outside of self-interest or calculative reasoning.[7] A gift is also something that cannot appear as such, as it is destroyed by anything that proposes equivalence or recompense, by anything that even proposes to know of, or acknowledge it.[8] Anything which acknowledges the existence of a gift and also encourages some form of equivalence with that gift, can be seen to annul the initial gift.[9]

For Derrida, a genuine gift is from an anonymous giver who cannot receive a benefit of giving. The lack of recognition for the giver will prevent a potential reabsorbing of the gift. In this sense the logic of a genuine gift demands that self and other have no obligations or claims upon each other and that self and other are radically different. But tout autre est tout autre, and in this sense, the impossibility of the gift is not related to the giver and receiver but to the impossibility of the character of this act.

For the genuine gift there should be neither an apprehension of a good deed, nor the recognition. But an absolute altruism can never be reached, and never fulfilled. The condition of the possibility of the gift is closely associated with its impossibility.

Ironically, we can talk about two “gifts”. The first is colonisation. The gift of a new culture and ways of living by dominating the locals, by imposing on them new rules in the name of helping, “civilizing” the “savage”. But isn’t the civilization more a form of oppression rather than a gift? At the same time, another, second gift was created. Indigenous people with their understanding and the idea of possession, property, role of nature, by sharing the land with the colonists, shifted themselves from the others to self. In a sense, two gifts were given to two groups of “others” to each other.

When the indigenous others disappear in the Indian Reserves, another “other” was created. The “master” was associated with the Crown, the metropolitan center, while the colonist with the other on the periphery of Europe. It is quite visible in the post contact history of Canadian architecture. Before and after the independence of Canada, the most important work was done by British or French architects (in some cases first generation immigrants from the old continent) and the validation if this architecture as “good or bad” was based on its proximity to the original inspiration (from the old continent mostly). Even in some cases when the architect was inspired by some other objects, not belonging to the colonist architecture, the intentions and results were well camouflaged. One of the examples of such objects could be St. Andrew Presbyterian church in Toronto (1875), where the Masonic symbols and architectural references were dressed up (or expressed) in neo-Romanesque style, associated in historic reviews with the cathedral in Kirkwall, Scotland. In reality, the main inspiration was the King Solomon Temple and Masonic rituals related to the Temple.[10] The architect William Storm, a British immigrant, was “wrapping” his gift of Masonic teachings in a disguise of colonial architecture, at the same time shifting the issue of the giver (and potential benefactor of the gift) from the master (colonizer) to the Master mason.

b. An impossible Hospitality

Talking about genuine hospitality, Derrida insists that its whole idea depends upon such an altruistic concept as to contemplate giving up everything that we seek to possess and call our own. The notion of hospitality, however, requires one to be the ‘master’ of the house, country or nation (one must have the power to host). In this sense hospitality is related to property ownership or ownership in general, as well as a form of self-identity. Moreover, the host must have some kind of control over the people who are being hosted. If the guests take over the house through force, then the host is no longer in control of the situation. Demanding some kind of mastery of the house, country or nation, there is a sense in which the notion of hospitality demands a welcoming of whoever is in need of that hospitality. Hospitality also requires non-mastery, and the abandoning of all claims to property, or ownership. But there is no possibility of hosting anyone if there is no ownership or control.

In Canada, the colonizers taking control of the land became masters and had removed the possibility of hosting anyone or even contemplating such a possibility. Indigenous peoples were not only moved to the Indian Reserves, but also subjected to the system of state founded Residential Schools for aboriginal children. In the schools the health conditions were criminal, bordering on genocidal, which could lead to a disappearance of native peoples.[11] In 1907 the average death rate in the schools was 40% while in 1919 it rose to 75%. Moreover, in 1928 the Sexual Sterilization Act was passed in Alberta, allowing any inmate of a native residential school to be sterilized upon the approval of the school principal. At least 3,500 Indian women were sterilized under this law. In 1933 an identical Sexual Sterilization Act was passed in British Columbia.

One can ask if that is typical of any colonization – not only a removal of traditional places of dwellings, a repossession of the land by the colonizers but also a genocide. The impossibility of hosting settlers and stopping colonization opened an unimaginable abyss of destruction.

Is there any chance for forgiveness after such crime?

c. An impossible Forgiveness

In his text On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Derrida suggests that genuine forgiving must involve the impossible, an ‘unforgivable’ transgression.[12] The forgiveness must position itself outside of the political and juridical rationality. The ‘forgiveness’ prevents the necessity of an apology or repentance by the guilty side. However, in conditional forgiveness some apologies are actually demanded. But even in such a situation, forgiving can never be finished, but it stays open, like a wound that cannot heal.

The “genuine forgiveness must engage two singularities: the guilty and the victim. As soon as a third party intervenes, one can again speak of amnesty, reconciliation, reparation, etc., but certainly not of forgiveness in the strict sense”.[13] Radical forgiveness engages in a singular confrontation between two categories – self and other. Even if the self knows anything about the other or understands the motives of the others, there is no forgiveness. Is this so because the other is not any more the other, and their “otherness” is compromised? The other should stay in the process of forgiving as the other.

This thought opens another venue. Sometimes the others are left with nothing but forgiveness. The situation of “nothing – but” demands, creates a pressure on the other to forgive. Being left with nothing and being pressed for forgiveness can be, and it is in many cases, one of the reasons for a refusal, a rejection, a withholding of forgiveness. The other is exercising the only right, not to forgive. This is another aspect of the impossibility in forgiveness. And if the forgiveness will not happen – don’t we know something about the other? Isn’t the initial tension between the self and the other altered now? Is the other still the other without any understanding of the other’s otherness? It shows that there is a space for understanding and compassion for the other, when the (impossible) forgiveness is not and will not be given.

d. An impossible Mourning

After talking about three aporias in which the tension between the self and the other is substantial and well defined, one can ask about the role of this pair.

In Memoires: for Paul de Man, Derrida suggests that the mourning of the deceased other actually fails because the other becomes a part of us, and in this interiorisation their genuine alterity is no longer respected. On the other hand, a failure to mourn the other’s death paradoxically appears to succeed, because the presence of the other person in their exteriority is prolonged.[14] As Derrida suggests, there is a sense in which “an aborted interiorisation is at the same time a respect for the other as other”.[15]

In another text, he explains difference between introjection, which is love for the other in me, and incorporation, which involves retaining the other as a pocket, or a foreign body within one’s own body.[16] The successful mourning is primarily about the introjection of the other. The preservation of a discrete and separate other person inside the self (psychologically speaking), as is the case in incorporation, is considered to be where mourning ceases to be a ‘normal’ response and instead becomes pathological. Derrida’s point hence seems to be that in mourning, the ‘otherness of the other’ person resists both the process of incorporation as well as the process of introjection. The other can neither be preserved as a foreign entity, nor introjected fully within.


What is typical of most of post-colonial architecture in Canada can be described as architecture dominated by capitalism. The economic system shapes architecture in the same way as society: separation and alienation remove the context while the economic demand “explains” lack of higher social values (like aesthetic) and reductions of higher needs. However, there is still some architecture which pretends to be a part of culture. Is this architecture taking care of the post-colonial trauma? Surprisingly enough, looking at “higher” contemporary Canadian architecture, one can notice four streams as well:

First, Gift architecture – Canadian born or educated celebrities returning to their places of origin with their own mannerist design, supposedly local (Daniel Libeskind, Frank Ghery, Moshe Safdie). Of course, one can say that the giver is not anonymous, and there is no lack of benefit for the giver (if the giver is an architect). But the gift- the object – is anonymous. In such cases as the extension of the Royal Ontario Museum (2002-2007) by Daniel Libeskind, the design is not only not original but also repetitive in respect to his earlier museum work, and can appear in any other city, on any other site. Frank Ghery’s renovation project of the Art Gallery of Ontario (2008), again, exploits some typical forms and materials of many buildings around the world designed by this architect. What is interesting (and positive) though in both cases is post factum contextualization, re-contextualization, putting the objects into a new discourse. This attempt to make the above structures “local”, suitable or justified for the particular location involves some local values. In Libeskind’s case the form of his addition, a crystal, is supposed to relate to a collection of crystals in the museum. Ghery’s design was contextualized as a skate (referring to a popular sport in Canada), a fish (referring to a fish market a couple blocks away from the site) and, finally, by using Canadian lumber structural elements to the local trees (and further to Canadian nature). The process of contextualization engages the local population in a discourse which downplays the politics of the economy (the taxpayers’ money paid for the renovation to boost the local real estate market) and shift the interest towards aesthetics, issues of belonging and a potentially rich pool of cultural inspirations and references.


Frank Ghery, renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (2008)

Second, (Cultural) Hospitality architecture – non-Canadian celebrities invited to contribute to a local (architectural) culture, and creating (like in the previous group) a cultural neo-colonisation, which is leading to globalization (Will Alsop, Santiago Calatrava, earlier James Stirling, Ed Jones and Viljo Revell). I would like to use an example of the Ontario College of Art extension designed by British architect Will Alsop and finished in 2004. A minimalistic box suspended above the ground, touching the site only by its shadow and structural legs, makes an impression of being something that refuses to be there, to be landed, to be grounded, to belong to the site. But, as a design it is again very typical of the architect, who constructed similar structures in other parts of the world.


The Ontario College of Art, Toronto, designed by British architect Will Alsop (2004)

Third, Architecture of Forgiveness – indigenous architects contributing to the national (not ethnic only) culture Douglas Joseph Cardinal. Cardinal was born of Métis and Blackfoot background. Being a half Métis, Douglas Cardinal carries in his blood the memory of the potential and paradoxical coexistence between self and other as the Métis population in Canada descends from mixed parentage of indigenous people and Europeans. Cardinal’s well known, award winning and celebrated architecture is influenced by aboriginal heritage which is reflected in his sensitivity towards nature, as well as in natural, non oppressive forms in his design. His buildings feature layers of curvilinear shapes, resembling topographic levels, allegorically reconstructing the land. One can see in his architecture a metaphor of healing the land (layers of bandages covering raped landscape), healing the wound that cannot be healed. In a sense, his design is showing a potential development of indigenous architecture if the rapture of colonization would not have happened.


The Carlton University Library, architect Douglas Cardinal (2004)

Finally, Architecture of Mourning – non indigenous architects recalling the indigenous culture and past and being inspired by indigenous architecture, in order to contribute to the national culture (John and Patricia Patkau). Without arguing about the borders between an inspiration and a cultural exploitation of indigenous culture in Canada, the growing interest in indigenous architecture could be related to the ecological consciousness, to preserving local resources and sustainability, different from western European ways of constructing, in general to a rising awareness of protecting the environment and well being. One of the Canadian practices being inspired by Native architecture is the office of John and Patricia Patkau.[17] In a number of projects they manage to show how to harmonize the site with the appropriate construction techniques and local resources. Sometimes their work shows an artistic inspiration drawn from Native forms, though rejecting their incorporation or introjection.


John and Patricia Patkau, Hut Poster (2011)

Towards the conclusion

All culture is originally colonial.[18] Post-colonial architecture is part of a post- cultural world, where the post-colonial architecture is in constant process of over-layering new influences to blur even the potential interpretation of its origin (of a local or imported architecture). As a medium of politics and the economy, Canadian architecture nowadays translates cultural issues into propaganda, dematerializing its own work (products). In many cases, structures that are out of an urban context make themselves invisible or non-existant. Architecture as a temporal commodity is reduced to economic value and technical solution, to the impossibility of architecture.


1. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610—1791 THE ORIGINAL FRENCH, LATIN, AND ITALIAN TEXTS, WITH ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS AND NOTES; ILLUSTRATED BY PORTRAITS, MAPS, AND FACSIMILES EDITED BY Reuben Gold Thwaites, Secretary of the State historical Society of Wisconsin, COMPUTERIZED TRANSCRIPTION BY Thom Mentrak, Historical Interpreter at Ste. Marie Among The Iroquois. [↑]

2. [↑]

3. [↑]

4. [↑]

5. [↑]

6. I drew these concepts from: Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. Wills, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995; Jacques Derrida The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, trans. Kamuf, ed. McDonald, New York: Schocken Books, 1985; Jacques Derrida, On the Name (inc. “Passions”), ed. Dutoit, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995. [↑]

7. Jacques Derrida, Given Time: i. Counterfeit Money, trans. Kamuf, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992 (p. 30). [↑]

8. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. Wills, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995 (1991) (p. 29). [↑]

9. Jacques Derrida, Memoires: for Paul de Man, trans. Lindsay, Culler, Cadava, & Kamuf, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989 (p. 149). [↑]

10. Daniel Karpinski, Ontario Places, Perspectives, OAA, 1995 vol. 3, 2, (p.20). [↑]

11. [↑]

12. Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, London: Routledge, 2001 (p. 32) [↑]

13. Ibid (p. 42) [↑]

14. Jacques Derrida, Memoires: for Paul de Man, trans. Lindsay, Culler, Cadava, & Kamuf, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989 (p. 6) [↑]

15. Ibid (p. 35) [↑]

16. Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, trans. Kamuf, ed. McDonald, New York: Schocken Books, 1985 (p. 57) [↑]

17. [↑]

18. Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other or the Prosthesis of Origin, Stanford University Press, 1998 p.22 [↑]

Daniel is an architect, writer, educator and artist. He has a Ph. D. in Architecture. His architectural work has won numerous awards (e.g.: 1st International Biennale in Krakow for a redevelopment of Jewish Town in Krakow, and Governor General Award for Emery Yard, North York, with Julian Jacobs). His design has been extensively published, including AD Architectural Design and the Canadian Architect. His xperimental architecture has been exhibited widely in galleries, including the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, and the Aedes Gallery, Berlin. He has published 3 books and 40 papers in such magazines as The Canadian Architect, Perspectives and numerous European professional magazines.
All posts by: Daniel Karpinski | Email | Website

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