Inspiration – Kwakiutl Architecture

Kwakiutl Design

I have always had a visual fascination with a lot of the designs and animal forms produced by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. Most of this has been centered on seeing relationships to my own work. Heavily graphic, full of color, and built on connected intermixes of imagery, I am always in awe of the graphic nature of the work.

I have been spending some time lately reading a bit about the cultures of 2 tribes in particular – the Tlingit and the Kwakiutl. It’s been enough reading to know I am interested in learning more.

Here are 4 Points I found particularly interesting.

Kwakiutl Design architecture

1. Totem poles are of course of particular interest. Although at one time they were thought by westerners to represent gods and deities, and therefore were removed and discouraged to advance Christianity. The truth is they are more about symbols of family and function similarly to a family crest. They interweave certain animals with the family – becoming  a kind of history of the family or clan told through animals and their stories.

I love the idea of the extended metaphorical family history, and the household sculptural monument. I try to imagine all homes in the town I live having large poles in their front lawns telling of their family history and story. Where they came from, what they have accomplished, and what they have overcome.

I imagine this as a physical marker for why someone should care and respect the other in their town or anywhere. I wonder what they effect would be on our community if we suddenly inserted totem poles into our culture.


2. The living house and the devouring mouth.
On many of the plank houses of various nations, the front wall and door is painted with large symbolic paintings of animals. Often this is the form of a devouring mouth of a bird. In part it is a show of wealth and prominence within a village, but it is also a symbolic way of showing that only certain people should enter a building.

To pass through the mouth of one of these creatures, I suppose you would want to be on it’s good side.

I find the idea of painting symbolic imagery, rather than a single flat color, all across the exterior of the home to be inspiring. Similar to the totems, I love the idea of being able to tell a story, and talk about the nature of the home and its inhabitants.

Kwakiutl Design

Beyond just the painting, the elaborately carved and designed entrances are fascinating. I’ve read that the idea of giving the entrance a face and making the door to be a kind of mouth is about reflecting the idea that the house itself is alive – a real creature in existence to be respected and recognized.

This is an idea I really enjoy and find comforting – similar to the Japanese notion of Kami inhabiting and being all things. The idea also appeals to me from the perspective of how we exist in and interact with our homes. So much memory is situated in the walls, the scratches, dents, remnants of interaction with a home that to see it as alive seems easily understandable.

The entrance to spaces, the boundaries between one another, and the divisions we perceive between 2 spaces is a real source for inspiration for me. So any kind of ornamentation or enlivening of the act of entering to create focus on that change is really compelling. To be swallowed by a building, to enter its body, and become a part of it – this is the kind of thing that sends my mind into fits of thought.

I begin to imagine possible changes for our own home, and even the rooms of our house – re-exploring the potential of entrances and divisions between one space and another.

Kwakiutl Design architecture

3. The last point of interest I have read about recently is the potlatch. This ceremony has all the hallmarks of long elaborate feasts throughout many cultures, with the real exception being the focus on giving for all the participants.

In potlatch societies, one proves their wealth and their status by giving profusely. The more one gives the more wealth and higher the status they are perceived to have. In many cultures these events maintain harmony among people and ensure a way of life without one group amassing too many material possessions. To do so would risk diminishing their cultural and spiritual power.

Wikipedia offers the following: “The status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources. The hosts demonstrate their wealth and prominence through giving away goods.”

Of course, that Wikipedia article is quick (as are many other sources) to point out that the practice of the potlatch was rather diverse. Each nation that engaged in the ceremony was doing so in ways unique to their own customs and beliefs.

What fascinates me is the potential of the potlatch as an idea, as a potential disruption to our own cultural practice. I like thinking of flipping our culture’s predominant view of wealth being rooted in accumulation. If instead we focused on how much one can give away, or how well one can serve others, that seems like a wonderfully positive disruption of the current state of things.

I’m not one for lavish parties or ceremonies, but adhering to a culture of giving that is absolute seems to me a wildly interesting pursuit.

My reading continues. I expect to see more and more ideas from these cultures popping up in my own work – if they haven’t already. I also think it’s time to indulge my desire to visit the Pacific Northwest.

Kwakiutl Design building