The Image of the Indigene and Participatory Design, by Aamirah Nakhuda

October 16, 2020

[Reading List]

Pawns on the Chessboard

The characterization of the Indigene as the “Other” arises from the imperialist longing for an authentic identity rooted in the land, consequently bounding the Indigene within a semiotic field created by white signmakers. Terry Goldie compares these boundaries to a chessboard, where the cultures and practices of the Indigene fall under a static set of symbols, restricting movement to prescribed areas upon a single field of discourse, one created by British imperialists.1 White culture then chooses to either incorporate the Other through stereotypical adaptations and literature or reject the Other through alienation, by reframing the history of a nation to begin with the white man.2 These strategies are described by Avery Bell as “the settler appropriation of indigenous authenticity to give substance and distinctiveness to their own nationalist identity claims.”3 White indigenization is thus a method of appropriating the distinct native identity to ensure that any “othering” only occurs to the Indigenous population.

In describing cultural appropriation within the context of the design practice, acknowledging it as inherently an appropriation of an interpretation of culture reveals the tendency to default to stereotypical motifs and symbols when designing for non-whites. For the Indigene, this means subjection to an architecture of misrepresentation and simultaneous devaluation of their existence. Moreover, Indigenous architecture is deemed obscure, frozen in time to be studied only in the context of vernacular tradition.4 Relegation to the past prevents the Indigene presence from seeping into the design of the future. Lack of recognition for their true identity maintains the Indigene’s image as the Other even when it comes to creating spaces for serving the needs of their communities.

Humanitarian Design and the Saviour Complex

When vulnerable communities are placed on the sidelines, they are discredited and portrayed as incapable of imagining and enacting solutions to sustain themselves. Poverty-stricken regions fall victim to band-aid solutions, often due to assumptions of the experience of poverty rather than meaningful engagement with the affected populations. In some cases, the saviour complex emerges, whereby designers use disaster and poverty as opportunities to implement form-focused solutions with aesthetic appeal, achieving praise and distinction along the way for “tackling” such dire and complex social issues. In “Beyond Participation,” Gabriel Arboleda highlights the role of the starchitect in perpetuating the use of “normative tools of high architectural design” to address issues of poverty, but often failing to meet the objectives initially promoted.5 He lays the example of Shigeru Ban’s log houses, designed for Ecuadorians after the 2016 earthquake, but ultimately never coming to fruition.6 False promises abandon communities trusting external sources to deliver the resources necessary for their survival after facing hardship. At the same time, reliance upon the designer as the saviour feeds the existing hierarchal nature of the design industry, thus maintaining a separation of people into the Other. Similarly, innovation is attributed to Euro-American ideas, ignoring the layers of contributions made by non-whites to the history of architectural design and barring them from further influence. White ideas cannot translate into non-white contexts without the participation of the communities at stake. Otherwise, they risk stereotyping the practices of the people involved. Arboleda describes how Western depictions of Indigenous life in Guyana emphasize traditional materials such as thatched roofing. In reality, the Indigenous Guyanese population favours the use of more modern materials for their homes, namely zinc sheeting.Zinc sheeting provides clean surfaces for rainwater harvesting, a need discovered during community assessments, and which later became the focus of the housing development project in Guyana.8 Creating opportunities for community participation can drastically alter thoughtlessly conceived design objectives to build for the people rather than the ego.

What Does Participation Mean?

Participatory design in the traditional sense is understood as a shift from design “for” to design “with.” While this change is significant in dismantling the architect’s perceived authoritative presence, it continues to reinforce the designer as the translator, receiving input from the community and manipulating it to fit into the desired narrative and architectural design.9 According to Arboleda, the true meaning of participation can only be realized by a subsequent move to design “by.”10 The designer becomes both a facilitator and a participant, helping to materialize the community’s ideas. Networks that establish connections replace hierarchies and encourage active participation of communities in the public realm. This bottom-up approach addresses the high-design problem by empowering communities to invest in themselves.

Bruno Marques et al. outline four steps to actuating bottom-up design: understanding of place, relationship building, respectful facilitation, and empowered participation.11 The value of these steps begins within the titles, each of which evokes a collaborative practice that focuses on the beauty of the process rather than the beauty of the object.12 Prioritization of people over form is the key to effective participatory design.

The Designer as the Advocate for the Indigene

Additionally, bottom-up approaches recognize the Indigene as already possessing a participatory culture. While new to the imperialist, participatory design is not radical to the native, whose long-lasting tradition of intergenerational planning renders them experienced users of this social design strategy. Yet, the dominance of the design field by Euro-American ideals and methods edges out local practices and holistic planning integral to the structure and sustainability of Indigenous communities.13 As a participant of the design project, the designer must now become an advocate for the ideas of the community, negotiating with government officials for the resources and funding required to return to a mode of self-reliance.14

While society recognizes differences, co-design is about re-structuring the design process to consider those differences by understanding that catch-all solutions to address complex social issues do not exist, especially when the cultural contexts change. Participatory design can combat popular narratives fashioned by the imperialist to recognize the presence of distinct cultural identities, including those that history tried to erase.15 As Goldie writes, “absence is also negative presence.”16 If the true image of the Indigene is to persist, we must advocate for design practices that enable community empowerment and pursue thoughtful representations of diverse identities.

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Terry Goldie, “The Representation of the Indigene,” In Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1994), 232.

Ibid, 234.

Avril Bell, “Authenticity and the Project of Settler Identity in New Zealand,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Anthropology 43, no. 3 (November 1999): 122.

Theodore Jojola, “The People are Beautiful Already: Indigenous Design and Planning,” Cooper Hewitt, February 16, 2017,  https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2017/02/16/the-people-are-beautiful-already-indigenous-design-and-planning/.

Gabriel Arboleda, “Beyond Participation,” Journal of Architectural Education 74, no. 1 (March 2020): 16.

Ibid, 15.

Ibid, 18.

Ibid, 17.

Maria Rodgers, B. Marques, and J. McIntosh, “Connecting Maori Youth and Landscape Architecture Students through Participatory Design,” Architecture and Culture 1, no. 1 (June 2020): 4.

10 Arboleda, “Beyond Participation,” 19.

11 Bruno Marques, Greg Grabasch, and Jacqueline McIntosh. “Fostering Landscape Identity Through Participatory Design with Indigenous Cultures of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.” Space and Culture 2, no. 4 (June 2018): 11.

12 Arbodela, “Beyond Participation,” 23.

13 Jojola, “The People are Beautiful Already.”

14 Ibid.

15 Arboleda, “Beyond Participation,” 11.

16 Goldie, “The Representation of the Indigene,” 235.

6 responses to “The Image of the Indigene and Participatory Design, by Aamirah Nakhuda”

  1. Genna Kalvaitis says:

    Thank you, Christina and Aamirah for these thoughtful and critical readings. Arboleda and Goldie both presented a comprehensive critique of how Indigenous peoples are engaged with (or rather not) and seen/represented. Arboleda’s criticism of allowing high design to drive social architecture, prioritizing form over human needs is poignant and necessary. Outlining the shortcomings – structural issues, quality issues, and delivery issues – clearly highlights the multitude of ways that this top down approach is broken and only serving to let designers take poverty and treat it as a simple design challenge. Arboleda’s even more radical challenge of flipping the design approach to be bottom-up is a brilliant response to the failings of participatory design, which is often considered the solution to allow architects to impress their designs on communities ‘with their consent’. As Goldie states, “the Indigene is a semiotic pawn on a chess board under the control of the white signmaker”. There are pervasive, deep rooted, racist ideas about Indigenous peoples across the world that further propel designers to feel they need to/have the right to step in and play saviour. This ties back to our discussion a few weeks ago about the architectural profession and our roles, responsibilities, and obligations as design professionals. A tearing down of our collective racist stereotypes of the Indigene is urgent, along with the need to reframe our roles as designers to come from the bottom of the design process, serving those who choose to seek our guidance and harness our skills.

  2. Rachel Law says:

    Thank you Christina and Aamirah for such thought-provoking pieces!
    Goldie argues that “The problem is not the negative or positive aura associated with the image but rather the image itself…”. By nature, an image is static. The imperialist creation of the prehistoric image of Indigenous communities absolutely contributes to the strategic erasure of them from our society. This pervasive image that is relegated to the past, as Aamirah notes, affects the future presence (or lack thereof) of Indigenous communities in a contemporary world.
    I believe that designers have also fallen prey to this image – immediately taking on the role of savior without considerable effort to correct our preconceived notions. We tend to fall back on “participatory design” as a solution to many community design problems. However, communities are complex. They are not static, but freely living, and thus designers need to go beyond participation and embrace equal actors. We need to redefine “successful designs” to one that prioritizes the dignity of people over aesthetics.

  3. Olivera Neskovic says:

    Thank you Aamirah for such a succinct response to the rich readings you and Christina selected for this week.
    Architects are often very quick to compartmentalize architecture into typologies, much like the way indigenous peoples are stereotyped without any effort to understand their cultures more deeply. In doing so, we assume that through very basic research, we can harness all the knowledge needed to implement design solutions and impact lives directly. Implementing “design-fixes” inevitably fails when architects are ill- if at all informed about the real values shared by a community. Both readings speak to understanding people through a “bottom-up”, experience-based approach. The Euro-centric way of understanding the way people live through a carriage-window is archaic and leads to the imposition of cultural values and “solutions” that are neither sought after nor accepted by Indigenous people. In doing so, we continue to disempower BIPOC communities by leading ourselves and the communities we interact with to believe that they are unable to provide solutions for themselves.
    An architect’s only role in a social design project is to lend themselves as a tool to a community, much like white people should use their unequal power dynamics to create space and opportunity for Indigenous communities to define themselves. Can a more critical approach to “iconic” social design projects begin to dismantle the hierarchal and top-down approaches often assumed by the design community? Can an ignorance-based approach to design play an important role here as well? How can we bring to light successful, low-profile social design projects in order to learn from them, without idolizing them in the same way as problematic, high-profile projects?

  4. Jugal Patel says:

    I really liked reading the Arboleda’s ‘Beyond Participation’. The anthropological perspective that’s offered to design is powerful wrt how race is spatialized. Especially as this perspective brings into question power dynamics: saviour complex, positionality, and always lovely to see, imperialism.

    While I’ve been trying to think more in line with a design-oriented way of approaching these topics, I can’t help but to question if a designer can advocate or reposition his positionality. I think probably not, although I do appreciate much of what Arboleda is saying here.

  5. Michael Nugent says:

    Thank you Aamirah and Christina for the thought provoking readings and insightful essays. While reading Goldie’s piece on the representation of the Indigene as a legacy of colonial othering of local people, I found myself thinking back to Magda’s comments a few weeks back on how we use the term ‘diverse’ as a stand in for the non-white majority, while ‘diversity’ is reflects the backgrounds of individuals within the group. ‘Othering’ by its nature is to establish a binary between the majoritive/global colonial culture, conflates local communities/cultures into a singular ‘indigene’, and overlooking the diverse cultures which comprise the colonial idea of the ‘indigene’.
    I find myself thinking back to ‘The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Windom Matters in the Modern World (2009)” by anthropologist Wade Davis (UofT). He explores five native cultures (one from each continent) and their relationship to their local from the perspective of an anthropologist/outsider, with the meta-thesis that within the context of globalization, interculturalist, and assimilation, that with every culture and language that we loose, we loose another way of understanding and living with our environment. Upon reflection, this makes Goldie’s piece more profound and simultaneously frustrating because the notion of indigenization leads to a singular, conflated view of indigenous culture ‘the’ other, when really what we should be recognizing is that any specific culture is ‘an’ other, an alterative, and different way of understanding the world. As Davis’ says, once any one culture is lost to globalization/[colonization], humanity looses a way of understanding the world.

  6. Christopher Clarke says:

    Although many people have good intentions, it is extremely difficult to become one who is without preconceived notions of the way in which design should be. For many with an innate ability to design, even facilitating a design consultation, one may beging to steer the direction of the design subconsciously.
    In the case of Gabriel Arboleda, he is very critical or high design as being undesirable and often leading to disastrous outcomes for those building users in the future. Although this could be true in some instances, and likely more than one would prefer, his approach of design “by” them may not lead to the best design solutions either as described by the author. I am sure his intentions were good, but if we think about the concept of the indigene by Terry Goldie, could his preconceived ideas about a culture have driven the design subconsciously?
    It is difficult to know without speaking with the participants, but his idea of the indigene could have led to the design outcome. He seems to simplify the desires of the people of this culture, in that all they want is a house with better materials; the metal roof or the concrete block walls. It is likely the subjects would want a house constructed of more enduring materiality, but if they were to design a house that is about their culture, would this mundane and aesthetically unpleasing design be the outcome? I think not.
    Unfortunately, they may have accepted this because it was better than what they had. However, the chances are that the design outcome could have come from the designer’s subconscious perception of the indigene. We can ask questions such as what materials are desirable, or the number of rooms a building contains, or have the subject draw a “house”, but even the concepts and questions that are asked become leading, resulting in an architecture that may not be what either party desired. It may have been that it was just the perception that it is better than what they have, and thus becomes accepted by them on those grounds, not on the grounds of that culture’s ideals.
    I believe this was the case with Guyana Hinterland Housing Project. Even the name if the project has western and colonial connotations. I doubt these people think then are in a “hinterland”, and I question that the project was about the culture just because Arboleda thought he was “allowing” them to design it. What would have led to better results would have been him partnering equally with an architect form that culture, or relinquishing the project to them altogether.

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