top of page



Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre

Formline Architecture

Vancouver, Canada

April 2018


Alfred Waugh


Manny Trinca, Chris Phillips


University of British Columbia - Elizabeth Shaffer


Andrew Latreille


Project designer Alfred Waugh is a full status member of the Fond Du Lac Denesuline First Nation and the first Indigenous graduate of UBC’s architecture school in 1993. His mother carried a lifetime burden from her experience of a Northern Alberta residential school. This building’s unprecedented program and its careful siting in a vital setting drew on this knowledge, and its forms were developed in consort with Elders and Indigenous representatives from across the country, but also needed to conform to the university’s tight performance and budget criteria. Moreover, the design was required to not express any one cultural building tradition, but rather use more abstract means to express Indigenaity. Much smaller than the Brutalist and Collegiate Gothic campus buildings surrounding it, there was early agreement about a modesty of building scale and the use of wood as primary construction material. Space planning required interior and exterior spaces to be equally conducive to large gatherings and solitary moments of reflection, with a design emphasis on serenity and directness. The integration of natural light, a selection of culturally resonant finishes and details, and a close link with natural surroundings were all thought central to the healing process, so the flanking decks and garden are essential components of its conception. Confident in its scale and presence, IRSHDC carries this emotional burden with gracious and open-ness to all, the forms and textures of its disciplined architecture being central to the healing process.


Buildings promoting human rights tend towards being either monuments or library-archives. While it has elements of both of these, The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) at the heart of the UBC campus aspires to something more—the social act of reconciliation. Over the century they were operated by Christian churches, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and obliged to attend one of the 139 residential schools established across Canada, and as many as 6000 died while there, some interred in un-marked graves. A much-appreciated new oasis near the main libraries of a mega-university, the IRSHDC is a place of memory, repose and contemplation. The building’s lower level is largely devoted to a public gallery called the “Vault of Memories” with interactive wall displays where citizens—Indigenous and not—can call up photographs, videos and biographies of the students and the places they lived. The entire layout turns around this emotional process of confronting a difficult past, notably with a sunken garden with a natural wetland adjacent on the same level, the wrapping contours of its landscape tiers forming a displaced second elevation on its north side. Visitors can pass from displays to garden and back again as they wish. Upstairs are meeting rooms with support staff available for counselling and dialogue with visitors, and where programs to advance reconciliation are devised. IRSHDC’s urban design provides a quiet park for pauses by harried students, while bringing its mission of memory to the core of a contemporary institution.


In devising IRSHDC’s architecture, architect Alfred Waugh faced a difficult conundrum for the building’s symbolic expression. Because it was to serve all of the diverse range of Canada’s First Nations, there could be no specific cultural reference to any of their building traditions, be it igloo, pit-house, West Coast longhouse, teepee, wigwam, etc. Instead, symbols and materials were selected to evoke a pride of culture and further reconciliation, accessible to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal citizens alike. Walls and floors are constructed from spruce pine Cross Laminated Timber, while the roof structure in the same material has an asymmetrical butterfly wing shape, selected to provide clear spans, extensive overhangs, and a low roof profile at the highly visible campus core. Charred cedar planks double as markers of scarring, contrasting with a visually porous Douglas Fir glulam curtain wall, bringing north light throughout the interior. Rainwater is collected off this roof, then descends down along a glass and copper-lined scupper to the garden pond. Copper was a high status material for many Canadian First Nations and Canadian public buildings both, the rainwater being an analogue here for the tears shed in remembering. The main public stair features a garden view at one side and is brightened at top from sparkling clusters of ring LED lights, the inside wall lined with woven Western Red Cedar strips, an update of local Squamish traditional weaving. The presence and seriousness of IRSHDC gives it an impact unpredicted by its modest volumes and budget of but $3 million

bottom of page