Providing the Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective with a much-needed place to call home, the project revitalizes a vacant City owned building, on a prominent corner in the Boyle Street neighbourhood in downtown Edmonton. Working collaboratively with the Collective, RPK Architects sought to facilitate the group’s vision by adapting the existing structure. As RPK’s first project with an Indigenous client we sought to listen openly and understand the group’s needs and aspirations. Our goal was to be the best “pencil” we could be in responding to Ociciwan’s mandate. We are excited by the outcome, believing it to be a truly joint creative effort.
The most visible manifestation of the collaborative process is the building’s multifaceted mirrored façade. Challenged by Ociciwan to reflect both the natural and urban environments, a design was developed that creates ever-changing reflections; fragmenting ones perspective. This is seen as a literal commentary on how the building and the art within can lead to shifting contemporary dialogues breaking normative expectations. Further adding to temporal and performative aspect of the facade are strips of lighting inserted between panels, altering the reading of the building at night. Following the centre’s opening, a mural by Métis artist Kenneth Lavallee was added, further animating the facade and streetscape.
Interior alterations focused on creating flexible and fully accessible spaces that can suit many types of art installations and programing. Where possible, natural materials echo a sense of authenticity with their simplicity and sophistication. Below grade, a black box type space is calibrated for audio-visual installations and presentations. Existing graffiti in the stairwell has been retained, by AJA Louden, acknowledging the building’s past as a not-for-profit art center for marginalized youth. All three floors were made accessible via the addition of a limited use lift.
One of the other key programmatic elements was the creation of a kitchen and adjacent community space on the second floor. As the communal cooking and the sharing of food are a key pillar of Indigenous culture, it was important that the building could properly accommodate future gatherings of the greater community. As the building’s owner, the City of Edmonton’s relatively minimal capital investment saw immediate returns in animating the street, as the centre becomes a destination for visitors beyond the city’s boundaries as well as a good neighbour to a neighborhood in transition.
Ociciwan Contemporary Art Centre’s adaptation of an existing underwhelming structure is truly the manifestation of the Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective vision to create dedicated space for contemporary Indigenous art. Its members, as artists, curators and designers, worked together with RPK to create a space that is entirely its own; it simultaneously breaks new ground on what contemporary Indigenous placemaking looks like in an urban context while also respecting local history and context.