When it comes to designing a space, having it reflect an identity is important.
For Kelly Edzerza-Bapty, it’s a core element when working on a structure to bring together a community.
This month, Bapty was officially recognized as an architect into the Architectural Institute of BC (AIBC) at an Induction Ceremony in Vancouver, making her the second Indigenous and first Tahltan woman in the province to achieve this.
“Having somebody who is Indigenous is different [in architecture], it’s a bit of a perspective shift,” says Bapty. “It definitely helps to have someone who is part of that culture and understands that community to build buildings that reflect their society.”
Although Bapty grew up in Inuvik, N.W.T., she has Tahltan roots and spent a lot of time with her family in Telegraph Creek throughout her life.
Living in northern, remote communities, she says it was interesting to see how a single space can serve multiple purposes and how its design could affect the mood. As a child, she remembers being very conscious of how a room worked and the way it made her feel.
“The sensitivity to light and space, access to the indoors and outdoors, they were always things that felt kind of off to me,” she says.
In N.W.T., there was a specific building that always stood out to her when she’d pass by it. She later learned it was designed by an Indigenous architect.
“The way that it was laid out, it was really an entirely different space than all the other buildings… It had this central corridor and curving walls,” says Bapty. “[It was] the idea of taking modernist elements and refining tons of things, finessing and utilizing welcoming materials that were natural elements.”
Her mother took notice of her eye for design and encouraged her to pursue architecture but at school, she says their main focus was getting people into the trades instead so it took a bit longer to finally get into university. Bapty eventually attended the University of Alberta to receive a bachelor in design and then joined an architecture firm in Whitehorse, Yukon where she was exposed to a lot of First Nations’ projects and saw how she could be a “cultural maker”.
“The [new] cultural centre [in Whitehorse] acts as a conduit between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities which I think was a fairly pivotal shift in the downtown makeup and its waterfront,” she says. “You really start to see a trickle-down effect, the cultural revitalization and the language revitalization are definitely visible now.”
But when she began her master’s degree in architecture at UBC, there was not a lot of information on Indigenous designs and structure so she had to form her own architectural study project and forge a path.
With no developed Indigenous society in architecture to help her either, she had to do a lot of ground research trying to understand land and title policies, how different First Nations’ governance works and how traditional structures, such as log houses, are built using local raw materials. All these are vital components an architect is responsible for overseeing.
Through her studies, she also realized how disposable many of the buildings were in North America compared to other places in the world. Many of them are built with a short life span in mind, which she says is unsustainable for remote communities where construction and maintenance can be limited.
“It’s difficult to build things, especially when the seasons aren’t really complying, every 25 years,” Bapty says. “[We should] build them in a way that you have buildings that last for as long as Europe, but [since Canada is] a young country, it doesn’t think about that and I’d say we’re almost tied to the disposable perspective in architecture.”
She says having a quality structure is more than just passing the test of time, it’s being able to withhold the harsh elements that many First Nations are exposed to. Using sturdier material, like heavy timber, will increase a building’s chance of surviving a wildfire.
“We have great access [to timber] and if you’re building with metal roofs, they’re meant to withstand and bring more permanence since they’re more fire resistant,” she says. “And that was a big reason behind the structures lost [in Telegraph Creek], a lot of the shingled roof had the fire spread through them… a lot of the modular buildings are made using plastic… [it shouldn’t] be all drywall and vinyl-siding.”
Following last year’s devastating wildfires, Telegraph Creek lost 27 of its structures and is in the process of rebuilding.
As a Tahltan and an architect, Bapty says she feels a responsibility to do her part for her community. Come this July, she will be design consulting with the Tahltan Band Housing Projects.
“They suffered severe loss from the forest fires last year… it’s been a big impact on the community for housing, for people living there and a lot of families had to move away from the community with an already shrinking population,” she says.
“Right now, a lot of the efforts are focused on rebuilding housing [and there is also] a need for rebuilding cultural structures and community space.”
She adds that a public building has to be designed with many functions in mind, from hosting meetings and feasts to weddings and funerals.
Now that she is recognized by AIBC and has a few notable projects to her name, Bapty is eager to inspire more First Nations people to pursue architecture. She says there are currently two Tahltan women attending UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture program, which she believes will be a great benefit to remote communities.
Bapty says her dream is to eventually open her own architecture firm that will be entirely made up of First Nations’ women.
“Being female in the profession has its challenges, especially in the north,” she says. “[But] I think going forward, there’s a little bit more conversation about it so I really hope that kids see that and they don’t see it as a hurdle. They just know that it’s possible, and I’m always happy to provide guidance and mentorship.”