Writing

“One of the lasting gifts of the {native} Indian to the white man has been this perception of the place of man in nature, a gift more readily understood by a twentieth century student, than an eighteenth century university president”.
– Washburn 1975

The Haida Plankhouse
– An inspriation for Modern Archetecture

Recently I was asked to come up with a unique idea to design an interior in New York City. A client wanting an original idea was not surprising since one wants to stand out from the rest and designers are constantly looking for new and original ideas for interiors.  I chose the architecture of the Haida, a tribe that I am a member of to formulate inspiration for the project. (See fig. 1)

Figure 1

Figure 1

It was my interest in Bill Reid (1920-1998), a world renowned Haida sculptor from the Queen Charlotte Islands, an archipelago located off the shores of British Columbia, Canada, which led me to this idea. The Islands are located about 100 miles south of the Alaskan panhandle, and is now commonly known as “Haida Gwaii”. (Stokestad) Haida Gwaii is known for producing some of the greatest wood and argillite carvers in the Pacific Northwest (argillite is a rare carve-able slate found in Haida Gwaii). I chose the Haida not only because of the their art, but because of the”progress these people have made in architecture” (Ames) (Nabokov) in Haida Gwaii).

I chose the Haida not only because of the their art, but because of the “progress these people have made in architecture” (Ames) (Nabokov).In my analysis I discovered the beauty and brilliance of the Haida people and their architecture. In this paper I will describe how the Haida created a successful dwelling through architecture, art, spirituality and the organic. French explorer Etienne Marchaud arrived in the Queen Charlotte Islands, (which will be referred to as Haida Gwaii), in 1792 and was amazed at the sophistication of the architecture he discovered there. “What instinct or, rather genius”, he said in regards to the natives ability to “conceive and execute, solidly”, the heavy timbers of construction.The timbers were approximately “50 feet long” and “eleven in elevation”. The house Mr. Marchaud was referring to was the longhouse, or the “plank house” which was most popular and distinctive to the southern Haida. (See fig. 2) (Macdonald).

Figure 2

Figure 2

The plankhouse was of mortise and tenon design measuring approximately 30 wide and 20 25 deep and was made predominantly of Western Red Cedar (Ostrowitz). Mortise and tenon is a form of joinery, which means: joined or united by means of a mortise, a carved out slot, and tenon, a tongue, which inserts. The house was “defined by its edges and its angles not by its surfaces and masses” which created a pleasing to the eye image but the construction was “only as strong as its connectors” (Acland). Haida Gwaii is lush in vegetation which gave way to the growth of the red and yellow cedar. Red and yellow cedar were once categorized with pine, and was known to grow up to a monumental 230 feet (70m) tall and lived up to 1000 years. The western red cedar and yellow cedar was also called giant cedar, British Columbia cedar, giant arborvitae and canoe cedar. Surprisingly it does not belong to the cedar (cedrus) family, which have no existence in North America. The actual correct name for Red Cedar is “Abor-vitae” (Stewart).

Figure 3

Figure 3

The Haida used predominantly red cedar because of its ability to repel weather and its ability to preserve itself against pestilence. Cedar is also strong, solid and splits well (Hart) . The Haida are “feasting” people and participated in a celebration known as the “potlatch”. A potlatch is a feast, which sometimes would last for three, or four days where the host gave to all the guests, gifts of food and artifacts. The host would have to be wealthy enough to have acquired an abundance of material objects like dugout wooden canoes and artifacts but also he would give away songs, dances andnames (uwgb).For this they needed a large, warm and dry interior space for feasting away from the tepid and wet west coast weather hence the development of the “plankhouse”. The plankhouse was built when a chief had accumulated enough trading wealth for the purpose of trading for labor, he would gather a party together in groups of thirty or forty.  The chief of the house would gather a party together in groups of thirty or forty. Seeking out a cedar forest nearby, the men, five to six per canoe, would paddle together in time singing traditional Haida songs headed by the man in the stern of the canoe (Macdonald). They would harvest the cedar tree by stripping planks off the side of the cedar tree and logs into planks using tools of stone (see fig.4).

Figure 4

Figure 4

After acquiring and preparing timbers the first piece of construction would be the frontal pole, a totem pole that would have been carved by artist of the opposite clan of the chief whose house was being constructed, prior to construction. The “totem pole” would be carved with the genealogy of the people who are to live in the house, which would be the ancestral crests and clans of the family.

The pole would be buried and mounted into the ground and raised up by the use of twisted and braided, inner cedar bark ropes and long support poles. Then the corner posts are placed into the ground about 2 meters (app. 6 ft.). The two centre columns are placed 3 to 4 feet apart with carved out lap joints and stood up in the center between the corner posts (see fig. 5).

Figure 5

Figure 5

Then the gable (fascia) beams are inserted into the corner posts and “swung” over into the lap joint of the centre columns (Macdonald). The gable beams were most meticulously chosen, most likely because they must support six large purlins or more. The gable beam also became thicker in elevation towards the apex for increased support and strength (Nabokov). Next the sills were placed on the ground defining the perimeter of the house; this would be like runner in contemporary construction.These sills were neatly slotted in preparation for the wallboards. Then the purlinsare hoisted up over the corner posts and onto the gable (fascia) beams and slid into place. The beams were equally spaced and extended farther beyond the front facade than that of the back (Macdonald) (Nabokov). Approximately in the centre of the house is the chimney or rather the “smoke hole” . The cross beams for the smoke hole were installed next and were placed between the middle two purlins, they then supported the two sections of the ridge beam which runs from the smoke hole to the gable peak.

The roofing begins with the laying of the floor. The planks run from the hearth, the fire pit, to the walls, flat on the ground or sometimes with gravel underneath (Hart). The roof planking, used like shingles and overlapped, are held down with rocks. Next the wallboards were slotted into the bottom ridge of the purlin, which is farthest from the center and lifted onto the bottom sill. The wallboards were lined up side by side as tightly as possible by steam bending and “forced” into place to create a climate resistant seal (Nabokov).Sometimes the wallboards were removed to create an opening for dancers during feasting or the removal of the deceased. All the wallboards were individually made for each house so if there was any excess lumber, benches would be made creating furniture for the house (Macdonald).

Other furniture appears in photos to be European wouldhave been acquired by means of trading. The rich chiefs owned the large houses and the interiors would have an excavated floors. The more powerful the chief was, the deeper the excavation. The exposed earthly depths were surrounded by a raised plank floor, which extends to the wall, which were used for sleeping and living (See fig. 6).Segmented sleeping areas were created by wood cubicles, which were arranged loosely for easy removal for feasting and other busy proceedings. The highest standing chief would have two or more levels to live on and would occupy the back middle section. The rest of the families were located around according to their status. (Stewart) An underground cellar existed in some houses and was used for unusually cold weather. Covering the smoke hole was either a framework of planks or lightly placed planks, which were strategically moved continually to prevent the smoke from staying or weather coming inside (Nabokov). The entrance to the house was noted by Marchaud, “{imitates} the form of a gaping human mouth, or rather that of a beast…to monstrous face”.

Figure 6

Figure 6

The Haida used the symbolism of animals in their environment to represent their clans and genealogy on their frontal poles and sometimes used the posts as the entrance to the house. The visitor would enter into the house though the frontal pole, through the mouth of the bottom symbol or crest (See fig. 7). 

Figure 7

Figure 7

This looked to be representative of entering into the stomach of the symbol but to the Haida this represented going into the land of the ancestor. In some other houses you would leave from the symbol of a reproducing woman and immerge from the ancestral world to the world of reality. Macdonald says, “entering into it marked a clear transition from the profane world to the spiritual world” The tools the Haida used to harvest the cedar were made of stone, particularly nephrite which is commonly known as B. C. jade (See fig.8).

Figure 8

Figure 8

This stone would keep a sharp edge and was used to carve out “neat” grooves for sill beams. Hand mauls were used for hammering and splitting cedar. For the carving of large timbers and canoes the “adze” tool was used and is one style of traditional tools still used by the Haida today (see fig. 9) (Stewart).

Figure 9

Figure 9

My analysis also looks at how Haida architecture reflects the “golden section”. The golden section is a mathematical system of proportioning, discovered by the Greek, and used unconsciously by many.

The golden section was used to create the “Parthenon” in Athens Greece (see fig. 10). The diagram in figure 11 describes to us that “D” to “C” equals 61.835% which reflects the measurement from ones feet to ones hips and 38.165% is from “C” to “F”, which represents ones hips to ones head.

Figure 10

Figure 10


Figure 11

Figure 11

When analyzing the Haida Plankhouse, the calculations show that the height of the facade divides to the golden section from the top of the house to the outer tips of the gable (fascia) beam and “x” lines up with the top of the roof line where it meets the corner posts.  In length of the facade, (See fig. 13), the center column lines up with “C”, and goes both ways because of its symmetry, and “X” lines up with the end of the first purlin from the center. These calculations suggest to one, that if one lives so closely to nature than unsurprisingly it could be expressed in architecture created.

Figure 13

Figure 13

Another structure (figure 14) was designed and completed by Mcfarland Architects in 1988 in Prince Rupert, B. C.  The inspiration was taken from longhouse designs from local villages in this region.

Figure 14

Figure 14

“The theory was that it represents a village” Larry McFarland says. It is appropriately named “Chatham Village”. What the First Nations people have taught McFarland is that there is a “spiritual and cultural side” to a building.

McFarland has a successful architectural business in the Vancouver area specializing in institutional design with first nations influence. His building here is an example of modern longhouse design with references to local villages but the main part of the structure is inspired by the Haida Plankhouse, complete with slotted corner posts and purlins the use of golden section geometry was not used in the development of this project.