The December lecture features architect Sam Olbekson
In the Anishinaabe language, there is no word for “architecture” or even “art” because they believe that art, beauty, function are not separate concepts but interwoven into daily life. In other words, everything is related.
Sam Olbekson is Principal of Native American Design at the national architectural firm Cunningham Group and founder of Full Circle Indigenous Planning. He has spent more than 20 years working with Native American clients on culturally significant planning and design. Sam brings the perspective of a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe who grew up in Native communities. The Anishinaabe are a culturally related indigenous people and the Ojibwe are a specific Anishinaabe nation.
As a youth with a strong interest in art and social issues, Olbekson’s Native American mentor encouraged him to consider architecture, believing it may be a way to contribute to Native culture and community building. An Ojibwe language teacher gave him the Ojibwe phrase to describe his profession that translates to, “I draw the houses, the ones that will be built, for my work.”
Olbekson often reconciles dualities. For example, he was the lead architect for the $110 million casino and hotel in the Cherokee River Valley that will have a lasting impression of the region on millions of visitors for years to come. A typical casino with Native looking symbols doesn’t honor anything so Olbekson tried to find form and aesthetics in deeper cultural places. He connected the mountain landscape and sense of place with the excitement a casino is meant to evoke, while honoring the Cherokee culture. His goal is to help Native communities in their economic development projects to ensure design and planning is done in a culturally appropriate way.
Olbekson has worked on many economic growth and community building projects. Among them is the decade-long ongoing development of the American Indian Cultural Corridor that has transformed a decaying neighborhood into a safe and vibrant cultural destination with Native housing, stores, eateries and art galleries. Take Migizi Communications, a 40-year-old nonprofit organization that nurtures the development of Native American youth and is full of the energy, hope and spirit of the community’s future. Olbekson was a graduate of the program himself. The organization recently purchased and renovated a small building after a long capital campaign. Olbekson “was honored to design the space as a pro bono effort to say thank you for the personal impact they had on me as a youth.”
Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the building that was located a block from the 3rd Precinct police station during the protests and ensuing destruction over George Floyd’s death. It was a sad and devastating loss, but the community is determined to rebuild.
As they and other businesses in the Twin Cities rebuild, what should be on the forefront as architects and designers reimagine their communities? How can buildings and neighborhoods be designed to encourage equity, celebrate cultural identity, honor diversity while challenging divisive structural systems? Perhaps the word “placemaker” fits here. A placemaker works on the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to the health and well-being of the community. This architect sees his role as placemaker with a vision for an equitable and just future.
Reserve your tickets online, or by calling 612-870-3000.