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Groundbreaking indigenous architect signs on to ASU faculty

February 28, 2018

Wanda Dalla Costa, an architect who has spent nearly two decades working with indigenous communities in North America, has joined the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University as its fifth Institute Professor. A member of the Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta, Dalla Costa was the first First Nations woman to become an architect in Canada.

Herberger Institute Professor Wanda Dalla Costa stands in front of a shade structure she built in Gila River Indian Community, as part of a dialogue with GRIC around traditional building, design and materials. Photo by Selina Martinez

Dalla Costa was originally inspired to pursue architecture after spending seven years backpacking around the world. What began as a six-month adventure ended up taking her to almost 40 countries.

Dalla Costa said she “fell in love with walking around in cities and the vitality of the indigenous architecture overseas; … ‘indigenous’ means everyone who’s trying to maintain their ancestral environment. For me it’s a broad definition … about built environments nurturing our cultural connections.”

When she returned to North America, she applied for a master's degree in architecture at the University of Calgary.

The question that drove her, she said, was this: “Why are we living in these boxes in the landscape that have no relation to our culture? The reservation is so divergent from the way we were traditionally so connected to our environment and to the land.”

“My mom grew up on the reservation,” Dalla Costa said. “She was very tied into her culture growing up. We spent a lot of time on the rez. For me there’s a clear disconnect — when I got to architecture school, nobody was teaching (indigenous architecture); nobody understood it.”

In addition to teaching and mentoring students at ASU, Dalla Costa is acting as an adviser on issues of creative placemaking and as an adviser on the Herberger Institute’s Projecting All Voices initiative.

“Wanda is an architect who thinks deeply about the social and cultural aspects of place,” said Herberger Institute Dean Steven J. Tepper. “She has developed a practice that fully engages community partners and honors local knowledge and traditions.”

“As an Institute Professor, Wanda will help us build nationally funded projects around creative placemaking and indigenous culture, and she will help us extend and deepen relationships with the tribal nations in our region.”

Jason Schupbach, director of The Design School at ASU, said that Dalla Costa will be “a key partner in bringing new voices and ideas to the design school, creating a school that is collaborative, relevant and equitable.”

Dalla Costa is one of the nation’s leading authorities on indigenous architecture, with expertise in culturally responsive design, sustainable-affordable housing, climatic resiliency in architecture, and built environments as a teaching tool for traditional knowledge. She joins four other Institute Professors already teaching at the university: creative placemaking expert Maria Rosario Jackson, dance legend Liz Lerman, composer and multi-disciplinary collaborator Daniel Bernard Roumain and theater artist and civic innovator Michael Rohd.  

Dalla Costa's position at ASU is a cross-appointment between The Design School and the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. She held the Eminent Visiting Scholar position in the Del E. Webb School of Construction for two years prior to joining the Herberger Institute.

“We are thrilled to have this opportunity to partner with the Herberger Institute,” said Edd Gibson, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment in the Fulton Schools. “Our built environment increasingly requires thinking about the intersections of technology, construction, design and culture. Wanda’s position helps us build those ties.”

Dalla Costa’s first priority, she says, is mentoring students. To that end, she hopes to start an indigenous design collaborative at ASU.

“I do a lot of projects with tribal communities,” Dalla Costa said. “In the courses I teach, I bring students out to the reservation, and the students design or plan or build something for a tribal client. I think it’s a powerful way to teach.”

Ideally, she said, “there would be a system or a mechanism in place that could help think through a best approach, a best practice for each project we’re embarking on. It would be a resource center, and it would be a center of mentorship for those up and coming in this field, creating the support system for this work to come alive at ASU.”

Dalla Costa holds a Master of Design Research (City Design, Planning and Policy) from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and a Master of Architecture from the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary. She is the owner of Redquill Architecture, and is also one of a team of 18 indigenous architects representing Canada at the Venice Architecture Biennale, which opens in May.

Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts