Expressing Heritage: Katherine Hamilton interviews architect Calvin Brook

Fire Circle. IMAGE/ Brook McIlroy

Expressing Heritage: Katherine Hamilton interviews architect Calvin Brook

Katherine Hamilton interviews architect Calvin Brook on his firm’s multi–award-winning Thunder Bay project, Prince Arthur’s Landing.


Prince Arthur’s Landing is an ambitious waterfront project recently built in Thunder Bay. It incorporates buildings, landscapes, and integrated public art that collectively embrace the deep cultural roots of indigenous peoples and their legacy of ten millennia of settlement along the Lake Superior shoreline. The firm Brook McIlroy has received more than twenty awards for the project. Katherine Hamilton recently spoke with Calvin Brook, founder and a principal of the firm Brook McIlroy, about the project.

Katherine Hamilton (KH): I understand that Brook McIlroy has designed and created revitalization plans for a number of waterfront projects. What makes Prince Arthur’s Landing unique?

Calvin Brook (CB): This particular location is home to one of Canada’s most historically significant sites. The north shore of Lake Superior is the spot where water-based transportation routes from the Atlantic Ocean transferred to land-based routes, which led to the depths of North America. Prince Arthur’s Landing is the site of the historical port that became the hinge point for these travellers. Notably, John A. Macdonald‘s troops travelled through this port on their way to Rupert’s Land [Manitoba] to quell the Red River Rebellion. The site was also well-used during the fur trade years.

The vastness of the Great Lake Superior, the view of the iconic Sleeping Giant (Nanibij-jou), the mountainous skyline, the rugged shoreline, and cultural history together create a rich sense of place that resonated with us. Many of the sites we design have some sort of a history, but this particular site was deeply steeped in Canadian history and cultural significance. Indigenous place-making became the driving force for the design.

KH: How did the design process evolve?

CB: The consultation process for this project was very intense and controversial. The vision the City of Thunder Bay had, prior to Brook McIlroy being awarded the project, was that of mixed-use eclectic, with a blend of tourism, business, and industry — basically revitalizing the mixed-use site that was already in existence. There was significant resistance by the community to reintroducing commercial and residential uses to the park space within the waterfront area. In order to introduce this change, a rich values-based process was employed to create a place that was uniquely about the history of Thunder Bay, where the resources unique to this community could be utilized. Both sides eventually came together, and the project has become an expression of the combined history of the people of Thunder Bay and the Aboriginal peoples’ imprint on the region.

KH: Who was consulted during the planning and design process?

CB: The architecture, public art, and landscapes that define the waterfront evolved from a series of workshops hosted by the City of Thunder Bay. These workshops drew together representatives from the Fort William First Nation, communities of the Robinson- Superior Treaty, and the Red Sky Metis. JP Gladu, President & CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, facilitated the Aboriginal engagement process, and our firm was the lead architect and landscape architect on the project. We were subsequently able to form a collaborative team with Aboriginal designer Ryan Gorrie.

KH: What are some of the design features that resulted from the engagement processes.

CB: Throughout the project, indigenous cultural practices and sustainable practices have been followed. The two principal buildings are LEED certified and the public art installations, Aboriginal Gardens, Inclusive Circle, and the Spirit Garden are all grounded in the local people and their history. The project has developed into a celebration of Aboriginal culture. The installations were designed and created using the collective vision that emerged from the workshops. The design motifs are subtle and unassuming and blend seamlessly with the natural surroundings. Poetry and prose honouring Aboriginal history, using circles to represent inclusiveness, employing local materials, and leveraging the expertise of artists are methods we employed to create a waterfront park that is inclusive to all. The gathering circle at the end of Pier 2 employs all these methods in one installation — the 24-metre-diameter circular wall is engraved with the poem Round Dance, composed by Aboriginal writer Sarain Stump: Don’t break this circle/ Before the song is over/Because all of our people/Even the ones long gone/Are holding hands.

The waterfront at Prince Arthur’s Landing has become an iconic gathering place for the community and is used all year long. One of the most notable elements of the project is the Sprit Garden, which typifies an Aboriginal bentwood building technique and employs sustainable building practices through the use of the wooden members. The supports for the structure were hand built by George Price, who was originally from the local Fort William First Nation.

KH: Are there further plans for the Prince Arthur’s Landing waterfront development in Thunder Bay?

CB: A second phase is planned for the project, and one of the key recommendations of the Phase 2 plan is to name this segment of the waterfront Wiingash (Sweet Grass) Park. This next phase will continue the narrative of acknowledging the founding peoples and will continue to celebrate the richness of the Native culture and express it within a public space. Though the theme is much the same as Phase 1, the character will be much more natural, incorporating more outdoor activities and fewer structures.

KH: Your firm’s direction and leadership for this project has been an outstanding and progressive example of reconciliation that is both relevant and timely. Can you tell us in your own words what belonging looks like to you?

CB: If nothing of your culture, history, language or art is visible within the public spaces of your town or city — how can you ever feel welcome there? There is a deep history of indigenous place-making at the scale of communities, structures, and landscapes that we can draw on for inspiration. Places that can draw Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together in an inclusive circle. Places that can better support and represent who we are, and want to be, as Canadians.



Celebration Circle, Prince Arthur’s Landing, Thunder Bay. IMAGE/ Brook McIlroy

Celebration Circle, Prince Arthur’s Landing, Thunder Bay. IMAGE/ Brook McIlroy

Pond pavilion poetry. IMAGE/ Brook McIlroy

Pond pavilion poetry. IMAGE/ Brook McIlroy