We sometimes get questions here at X̱wi7x̱wa Library about our building’s architecture. For a brief overview of the Indigenous architectural inspiration for the library, see the “Our Building” tab on our website’s “About” page https://XX̱wi7x̱wa.library.ubc.ca/about/. The story of the design process behind the Longhouse and X̱wi7x̱wa Library might be of interest to some of you as well.
A brief history
The origins of X̱wi7x̱wa Library’s collection date back to 1970 with the creation of the Indian Education Resources Centre, a forerunner of NITEP (now the Indigenous Teacher Education Program). In 1987, the First Nations House of Learning (FNHL), which included the NITEP resource collection, was established. Under the visionary leadership of Verna Kirkness, FNHL’s major priority was to establish a permanent building on campus, what Kirkness described as “a home of our own.”
Beginning in the fall of 1988, Kirkness began meeting with groups of students, staff and Elders to hear their ideas about a longhouse on campus. When Jack Bell donated $1 million in 1989 to be put towards First Nations initiatives at UBC, the First Nations House of Learning Advisory Committee and the Native Indian Education Advisory Committee unanimously agreed that the money should be put towards the construction of a longhouse. To help spearhead the project, Kirkness established a building committee consisting of Elders, students, faculty and staff; Kirkness has noted the particularly important role that the Elders on this committee played in leading the building project. One of the building committee’s first tasks was to choose an architectural firm, with Larry McFarland Architects ultimately being selected given their previous experience on another longhouse project as well as their willingness to work collaboratively. The architects suggested moving forward with a series of workshops aimed at garnering input from the FNHL community about the placement, function and design of the new buildings.
The building committee and the broader FNHL community considered a range of locations but it was important to organizers that the site be close to the centre of campus. The site that was ultimately chosen was a former arboretum that had been populated with various tree species since the early days of the University. The building committee decided to place the library on the east side of the site closer to the heart of campus and the flow of traffic on West Mall as a purposeful act of reaching out to the broader University. The building committee and architects also made the decision to orient the buildings on an East-West axis in a manner that both minimized damage to the existing trees on site and that resisted the grid orientation of the original campus plan. The two trees that did need to be cut down for construction are now part of the waterfall feature next to X̱wi7x̱wa Library.
In April 1990 the building committee had an important meeting with the Musqueam Band Council. Following a presentation about the new buildings, the Council indicated their support for the project but also requested that the longhouse be built in the Musqueam shed style which the Committee agreed to. The architects and the building committee wanted to pay respect to traditional architectural style and building materials which meant that wood would be a prominent material. At the same time the team also embraced the fact that these would be modern buildings built using contemporary materials and design techniques. They therefore made the decision not to cover up or paint over non-traditional materials such as concrete and aluminum but rather kept them in their natural state as a symbol of the melding of the traditional with the contemporary. Working with the traditional shed design and the more practical program requirements, the architects presented a design for the longhouse building which featured a curved roof. Though the architects had not intended the metaphor when creating the design, Elders on the building committee saw in the curved roof the form of the outstretched wings of an eagle, tipping up at the ends. Copper was also chosen as a prominent roofing material given its traditional value to coastal peoples.
Throughout the design process, architects met regularly with the FNHL community to discuss the look, priorities and function of the buildings. Khot-La-Cha, Squamish Chief Simon Baker, who served as a member of the building committee, emphasized the importance of incorporating water into the design. Baker felt there was strong meaning in following the water towards these places of learning. This design direction can be seen in both the waterfall feature and the stones emanating from it that suggest a dry creek bed.
The library building itself was designed so that it was partially built into the ground as an homage to the Interior Salish earth-sheltered building style of a Kekuli or S7ístken (also known as a pit house in English). Both the tall timber frame of the Kekuli and the large windowed opening into the library space signal the presence of this Indigenous place of learning from the main road.
The longhouse and the library were officially opened on May 25, 1993. At the opening ceremony, Chief Simon Baker gifted the library with its name, X̱wi7x̱wa, which means “echo” in the Squamish language. In 1994 Larry McFarland Architects were recognized with a Governor General Award of Merit for the UBC Longhouse project which includes X̱wi7x̱wa Library. Thanks to the vision and hard work of the building committee as well as the broader FNHL community, X̱wi7x̱wa Library and the Longhouse have had the opportunity to welcome thousands of students, faculty and community members through their doors over the past decades.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Longhouse and X̱wi7x̱wa Library, please see Verna J Kirkness and Jo-Ann Archibald’s book The First Nations Longhouse : our home away from home, available through the UBC catalogue. Thanks also to Diane Archibald whose PhD thesis, Sites of cultural difference: the cultural production of space within a University construct provided some key insights for this blog post. You can access her thesis online for free through UBC Open Collections.