Incorporating Culture into Design: How Lessons Learned from Tribal Clients Shaped the Architecture of the Choctaw Nation Headquarters | Features
The new headquarters building for the Oklahoma-based Choctaw Nation was designed by New Fire Native Design Group. Image courtesy of New Fire Native.
As architects, we are tasked with creating spaces that not only meet the functional needs of our clients, but also exhibit an aesthetic that embodies who the client is and what matters to them. When determining this aesthetic, a client’s culture often becomes a key consideration. And while it may be tempting these days to rely on Google searches for the history of a certain heritage to save time, the most successful designers who embrace culture with respect and artistry take the time to listen and to learn directly from their clients as they begin each new project.
As a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and President and Founder of New Fire Native, my experience working closely with tribal clients has made me realize that the values, history, societal roles, beliefs , language and traditions all play a role in culture. There is a complexity partly because culture is not something that can be explained succinctly. It is deeply ingrained as we grow. It’s all those things around us that affect how we see the world. Although my personal and professional experience is closely tied to the sovereign tribes of North America, the overarching lessons I have learned are applicable when working with any client who wishes to enrich their construction and design projects by incorporating and honoring elements of its unique culture.
Culture is not just iconography.
Integrating culture into design is not just about choosing a symbol; it is a small part of the culture.
When working with a client whose culture is at the heart of the project, it is essential that architects and interior designers work to understand and carefully consider how to integrate many cultural aspects into their work and understand the meaning depth of shapes, symbols and words.
For a period of American history beginning in the 1700s and extending into the early 1900s, the suppression of the culture of native tribes was a real federal policy.
For a period of American history beginning in the 1700s and extending into the early 1900s, the suppression of the culture of native tribes was a real federal policy. From the illegality of traditional religious ceremonies to the requirement for Native American children to attend boarding schools where they were forced to assimilate and abandon their identities, languages and beliefs, tribes had to take their culture into the hiding or seeing it disappear. The fact that the tribes had to fight so hard to maintain who they are naturally ties them strongly to their unique cultures. The same can be said for many other historically enslaved and oppressed people who have endured cultural erasure.
Immersion inspires meaningful design.
To appropriately incorporate a client’s culture into a project, many designers and architects first spend time researching all possible information about the client. While this context can be helpful, it’s important to remember that much of the information available is presented through the lens of someone outside of that culture. Prioritizing materials developed by sources within the culture when possible is a good thing. Even better is having a visioning session with the client’s management and asking which aspects of the culture need to be expressed in the design of the building. But in my experience – in addition to growing up in a culture – immersion is the perfect way to truly understand your client’s history, values and beliefs and how these have expressed themselves over time at through symbols, music, art and language. It is also essential to remember how their cultural roots have shaped their modern way of life as well as their goals and vision for the future of their community.
The most successful designers who embrace culture with respect and artistry take the time to listen and learn directly from their clients as they begin each new project.
In the preliminary stages of work on the design of the Choctaw Nation Headquarters Building which opened in June 2018, the tribe went above and beyond to immerse the architectural design team in Choctaw history, art, clothing and meaningful symbolism, hosting a day-long program for the company. This experience was invaluable and what we learned that day was reflected throughout the project.
Choctaw Headquarters Design Statement:
Our design goal is to celebrate and reflect on the culture and values of the Choctaw Nation by telling the story of the past, present and future through the use of symbolism, geometries and nature.
When developing the designs, we kept coming back to the symbols, patterns, and colors that we discovered on the cultural immersion day and what they mean to the Choctaw people. They stuck to our design when we were selecting finishes, designing floor patterns, selecting wall coverings.
The Choctaw tribe’s reverence for nature led the team to develop five color schemes – Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Sun. Each level of the headquarters building has a different scheme, and the designers selected different patterns and textures to match each. In some cases we used the symbols in bolder and more obvious expressions, and in other cases the shapes were used in a more subdued way. For example, on the sun level ceiling, the Choctaw Nation seal is backlit in the center with outward radiating wooden panels creating a sun pattern.
The diamond symbolizes the diamond-backed serpent, which is held in high esteem by the Choctaws because if respected the serpent will behave peacefully, but when threatened it will strike.
As I walk through the completed building, I am still proud of the many subtle incorporations of the diamond shape throughout the design. The diamond symbolizes the diamond-backed serpent, which is held in high esteem by the Choctaws because if respected the serpent will behave peacefully, but when threatened it will strike.
Taking inspiration from the design statement, we wanted to incorporate the diamond in a way that would help tell the story of the tribe’s past, present and future. With that in mind, we took the very traditional row of diamond borders you see on Choctaw dresses and incorporated it into the front of the building. To represent the future, we used a contemporary diamond pattern in the design of the water wall.
Certain cultural themes depicted in elements of the Choctaw headquarters design carry multiple layers of meaning for the tribe, such as the theme of family. From afar in the history of the tribe, the family is at the center of societal traditions – a Choctaw motto is “Faith, Family, Culture”. Even today, people with Choctaw heritage travel to Durant, Oklahoma to meet with genealogy experts and discover or better understand their family roots. In the design of the headquarters, the theme of family is incorporated in multiple ways, from depictions of a tree representing family in the design of the café to more nuanced references in the symbolism of fire throughout the structure. Fire has long been synonymous with family for the Choctaw tribe, recalling the days when family units gathered around a campfire.
Immersion is the perfect way to truly understand your client’s history, values and beliefs and how these have been expressed over time through symbols, music, art and language.
My team and I use these lessons and this immersion process in our work today. Even when working with my own tribe on the new Muscogee Creek Nation Courthouse, for example, it’s important for my team and for me to hear from community leaders how they experience the culture and their ideas about most important elements to share with the outside world.
I will never forget the many conversations we had with members of the Choctaw Nation after the completion of their headquarters. They were words of respect, pride and gratitude for integrating their culture in an elegant and thoughtful way.
While some tribes have intersecting histories and overlapping symbolism, every tribe is different, and for each project, we pride ourselves on our willingness to learn first in order to design projects that have unique meaning for the customer’s culture.
My favorite feedback to receive from our customers is simple: “You listened.”
As experts in our field, it’s often our instinct to lead with design ideas that we believe fit the needs of the client, and in some cases this tactic works well. However, when it comes to working with clients who ask us to incorporate deeply rooted cultural aspects into their projects, it is best to first come to the table with an open mind, ready to listen and learn.