PSU students reflect on working with Indigenous architect and what it was like to set fire to a week’s worth of work

Australian architect Kevin O’Brien, the School of Architecture’s Distinguished Visiting Professor for Fall 2022, paid a weeklong visit to PSU earlier this term. An expert in Indigenous design practice, O’Brien shared his knowledge with students and faculty in architecture and Indigenous Nations Studies. His visit came as PSU is gearing up for a year of courses and programming centered on the restoration of a campus oak savanna and the design of a new building that will support the education and practice of Indigenous Traditional Ecological and Cultural Knowledge (ITECK).

Three students — undergrad Sofia Irvin and Master of Architecture students Athena Rilatos and Eric Giovannetti — shared their reflections on what they learned and what new perspectives they gained through the experience of working with O’Brien over the course of the week. 

Students in Sergio Palleroni’s class work on their models (Karen O’Donnell Stein).

The theme of Kevin’s visit was “Finding Country,” understanding the tension between the “City” — the built environment added by non-Indigenous peoples — and “Country” — which continues to exist and retain meaning regardless of whatever is built on top of it. What about this philosophy and process spoke to you?

Athena: As an Indigenous person this really resonated with me. “Oregon” is where my ancestors walked since time immemorial. Our stories come directly from this land and place. Our foods, medicines, and spirituality are directly tied to the environment that we have been in relation with for thousands of years. Today that environment looks much different. Our native plant and animal relatives are on the brink of extinction and replaced with others that are not from here. When I look at the urban environment, I don’t see the Indigenous people who stewarded this place reflected.

Kevin O’Brien challenged students to rethink their assumptions about architecture’s relationship to the land (Karen O’Donnell Stein).

Sofia: It’s compelling to realize how much of the environment we take for granted. When looking at the city as a layer imposed on the earth and the people around us, I began to better understand the processes that are impacting those native to this place. I enjoyed the readings that Mr. O’Brien included with his workshop from Aureli’s “Toward the Archipelago” which emphasized the idea of the city owning the landscape. Our cities are built as ways of controlling and owning the land rather than belonging to and nurturing the land.

What was your favorite part of the week?

Athena: My favorite part was burning the final project at the Oaks Savanna. It was especially powerful to put effort into a project and let go of it. Where we burned it was in the circle of trees that students and community put together in our efforts to restore the Oak Savanna. We saw a need for a place where people could come together and sit amongst each other. It has proven to be a good place for that and seeing all the students gathered around for a burn was pretty powerful. Controlled burns are a practice my ancestors have been doing to keep things in balance. So it was great to be able to mimic that in a small way.

Kevin O’Brien sets fire to the models as students and faculty look on (Karen O’Donnell Stein).

Sofia: It was fun to build and burn our models at the end of the week. It was cathartic to physically and metaphorically burn the layers of the city down to reveal the “country” that has been there all along. Building the models offered a more tactile way of understanding the idea of “country” that drawing on a grid could not offer. In a way, I felt more attached to my model work. I had a more robust experience peeling back and building different layers and playing with the tension between the city and country.

What excites you most about the oak savanna and ITECK Center project?

Athena: I’m most excited about bringing back the native plants that belong there and have a home for building community. It’s important to have a place where we can keep passing on to future generations how to care for the land. The ITECK Center is where we can share the culture and teachings. Indigenous Nations Studies is often where people find community and comfort within the institution. It’s definitely where I found my sense of grounding and belonging. It’s what kept me afloat through my bachelors degree. The ITECK Center will also be connected to other Indigenous communities around the world. That will be a powerful tool in our ability to learn from one another. We are always reminded to do things for seven generations from now and the Oak Savanna/ITECK Center will be that opportunity to do so.

Sofia: The collaboration, learning and nurture that will come out of it. Hearing about the hostility and tension between different communities over the Oak Savanna space was disheartening. But becoming a part of the process with others who share a similar passion for honoring the site is exciting. I am excited to see how the site transforms over time.

Eric: I am excited about this project because I am excited about the work that Judy [Bluehorse Skelton, assistant professor, Indigenous Nations Studies] has been doing and the goals for the center in supporting ITECK education. I am interested in the ways education relates to practice, and what I have learned of how the ITECK center will treat this is that education is praxis. I have struggled with education that does not connect to community and action in the world, and my involvement in this project has been motivating in that it gives me an opportunity to support real and important goals.

What are some takeaways from the week that you’ll bring into your courses and work around this project?

Athena: Some key takeaways from the week for me was to approach things in balance. My initial response to our prompt of removing 50% of what was on a city block was to ignore that and restore 100%. Kevin O’Brien pushed back on that and reminded me that we can’t do what was done to us as Indigenous people and we must accept a part of what is here now. But that also means that we should be able to share 50% of that. So I will keep trying to strive for balance.

From left, Sergio Palleroni, Kevin O’Brien, Judy Bluehorse Skelton, Laila Seewang and Athena Rilatos (Jeremy Chun Sajqui)

Sofia: The importance of recognizing what and who has been here before you. Honoring the place and people that you belong to. Mr. O’Brien shared his Blak Box pavilion at Friday’s @ 4 which showcased the essence of Indigeneity not through aesthetics, but through sound. It shows that honoring one’s place and people is a bodily experience as opposed to a visual layer of recognition. I want to bring that kind of investigation and synesthesia into my work.

Eric: My biggest takeaway was seeing the relation of what Judy has been sharing with us about the goals of the ITECK Center and how Kevin approaches architecture projects. They both said to me that they feel a kinship with each other in their approach and situations as Indigenous people. One of my main interests in supporting the ITECK Center project has been helping to connect Indigenous ways of knowing and conventional architectural knowledge. Kevin’s influence in hosting groups was profound—in each of the talks and meetings where it was feasible, he had everyone in the room introduce themselves. This quickly made conversations much deeper and more connected, as it created an environment of acknowledgement and respect. Approaching conversations this way is something I will carry through my career, as it seems to be of great importance to finding the key pieces of ‘country’ in Kevin’s framework.

Featured photo courtesy of Athena Rilatos