Douglas Cardinal may have a memory like an elephant, but his detailed recollection of Hay River’s famous purple school, one of his first major projects as an architect, makes it clear that he still holds Diamond Jenness Secondary School (DJSS) dear to his heart.
“It’s my job to make other people’s visions,” he told The Hub in an early-morning phone call from his office in Ottawa. “They’re the ones who have to live with it.”
DJSS is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, as well as a grand re-opening after extensive renovations.
Cardinal was the original architect of the school and recalls his time in Hay River with great fondness, despite having gone on to headline such prestigious projects as the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
To a large extent, Cardinal’s professional ethos was what made DJSS the standout building it is, even today.
The architect said his main goal was to listen to the students and teachers, and create a building in which they would want to function. From the layout to the admittedly psychedelic colours inside and out, staff and student input was key.
“Nobody asks the actual user to be involved,” said Cardinal, now a world-renowned Metis architect. “In Hay River, the community was really involved and was all about respect and honouring the children.”
The architect worked with teachers to design a floor plan that would allow for more communal teaching and student involvement, eschewing the “cells and bells” school of institutional construction. Instead, wide-open classrooms with movable partitions were created with a big open central space.
Cardinal explained the most formidable challenge he faced at the time was convincing the head architect for the NWT that this was indeed what the community wanted in a school.
“The school didn’t fit with his standards,” Cardinal said. “It went against his traditional British taste.”
In the end, Cardinal and the community got their way and, although it would go on to become more closed off as teachers realized reining in recalcitrant students was much harder in wide-open spaces, the school was built in the new style.
As for the iconic colour, Cardinal explained that there was an imminently practical reason the mauve panelling came about.
“We had less money to work with,” he said. “For the Grande Prairie College, we had more money and used masonry for the outside of the building. We couldn’t for DJSS, so instead, to keep with the curvilinear design, we had to use metal.”
When faced with the possibility of a steel grey school in a landscape that remains a study in grey and white for much of the year, the students insisted more colour be injected into the design. A vote was held, purple was picked, and an icon was born.
As DJSS and all of Hay River gear up for homecoming festivities and the grand re-opening of the school at the end of the month, Cardinal said, had he been given the chance, he would have liked to have been the architect for the remodelling.
“I know things always change,” he said. “But it’s too bad they didn’t ask me, I would have loved to come back to Hay River.”
— Sarah Ladik