Chris Cornelius Translates Culture into Contemporary Architectural Design

Through studio:indigenous, the Oneida architect delivers a fresh way of thinking about buildings and space

Cultural traditions and history are expressed in the structures, shapes and spaces he creates for schools, transportation hubs, cultural centers, installations and more.

“In the oral tradition, you learn life lessons through stories, but the stories don’t just outright tell you to do or not to do things,” said Cornelius, founder of Milwaukee-based studio:indigenous. When working for a tribal client, he considers their creation stories. “Those explain a lot about how that particular group of people see the world, and how they inhabit the Earth,” he said.

Cornelius’ design is about more than images and iconography — it’s about how an individual or group experiences a space. “There are a number of buildings that look like turtles or bear paws or thunderbirds. That kind of imagery, while it’s important to the culture, it doesn’t go beyond the superficial,” he said. “What I try to do is figure out what the cultural values are and translate those into space.”

While he may find inspiration in indigenous dwellings, Cornelius wouldn’t make a building that looks like a teepee or a Hogan. “What I would do is figure out why those dwellings came about and how the original people who made them thought about them,” Cornelius said. Similarly, he looks to patterns and artwork, whether its beadwork or basket-weaving, and asks himself how those things reflect the way a culture sees the world.

“Wiikiaami" by Chris Cornelius

Cornelius recently won the J. Irwin & Xenia S. Miller Prize for his installation, Wiikiaami, a contemporary interpretation of the indigenous dwelling, wiikiaami or wigwam. The elegant sculpture will be designed, fabricated and installed in front of the entrance to the First Christian Church by Saarinen & Saarinen in Columbus, Indiana, in late August 2017. Cornelius accepts the award along with other celebrated architects, the designers behind IKD, Plan B Architecture & Urbanism, Oyler Wu, and Aranda\Lasch. The five winners will each design and build temporary installations at one of five Miller Prize sites, all Columbus icons, including the First Christian Church, Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, Irwin Conference Center, Cummins Corporate Office Building, and Mill Race Park. Deemed “Exhibit Columbus,” the initiative aims to encourage visitors “to explore the design legacy of the City of Columbus while re-energizing the community around the potential to realize new designs in Columbus,” said Richard McCoy, director of Landmark Columbus.

Each entry was selected for its formal/spatial relationship to the site, its ability to activate the space, its innovation in the use of materials, and its ability to stimulate a dialogue with the context of the site. Through his Wiikiaami installation, Cornelius reflected on the people who would have been indigenous to that area of Southern Indiana.

Cornelius created his Wiikiaami model with a 3D-printed form, a laser level, copper mesh panels, and later adding “regalia” to the structure.

Cornelius formed studio:indigenous in 2003 after joining the design team for the Indian Community School (ICS) of Milwaukee. Well-known architect Antoine Predock was hired to design the project, but the school board sought a Native designer and cultural consultant to add to the team to ensure the culture of the 11 tribal nations represented in the student body were reflected in the design of the school, which also serves as a cultural center for the community. ICS won the 2009 AIA Design Excellence award from the Committee on Architecture for Education. Cornelius continues to design furniture and other projects for the ICS campus.

To Cornelius, it’s important that the materiality of his designs support and help communicate his concept. “I like to use materials that are creating buildings that are going to be around in a hundred years that are from the Earth, that aren’t too highly fabricated: stone, concrete, wood. Or if it’s metal, copper, as copper comes from the Earth.”

His taste for natural material is particularly evident in his Sweatlodge Changing Room at the Indian Community School. The stones used in sweat lodge ceremony form the structure of the geometrical building that merges seamlessly with its surroundings.

Sweatlodge Changing Room at Indian Community School of Milwaukee

Cornelius additionally shares his passion for design with students as a tenured professor at the School of Architecture & Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

Through sharing his processes for commissioned work, Cornelius gives students an insider’s perspective at how the methodologies, strategies and skills they learn in school can be employed in the real world. He demonstrates how projects can be realized, “or how clients might receive them, how the work gets disseminated, or how you talk about it even,” he said.

Cornelius, who grew up on the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin, realized from a young age, 13 or 14, that he wanted to be an architect. “That’s how I wanted to express myself and put my thumbprint on the world,” he said. “It wasn’t until later that I started to realize that by doing that I could also help convey my own culture.”

Cornelius bikes in his studio:indigenous gear.

When Cornelius isn’t dreaming up design, he’s often cycling — solo, with his wife, or with a group of people. In 2016 alone, he biked 5,286 miles; rode across Wisconsin (178mi), and rode a century at an average speed of 20.6 miles per hour. “It’s not only a hobby of mine but an outlet,” he said. “I find it to be meditative to be honest. I mentally work through creative ideas while doing it.”

Cornelius hopes to be recognized as the leading expert in conveying Native culture in design. His ultimate goal is that whenever the next big project, akin to the notoriety of the National Museum of the American Indian, is discussed, the potential client would say to themselves: “We need studio:indigenous to design this project.”

“What I bring to the table is a way of thinking and a methodology that is different,” Cornelius said. “I see culture and its impact on architecture differently.”

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