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Pawnee Nation

2019 Design Competition

First Place Entry


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In a three-way partnership between the Oklahoma State University School of Architecture, the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM), and the Pawnee Museum Design Advisory Committee, nearly four months were spent designing and refining a prototype Cultural Center for the Pawnee Nation.

For over 30 years, the Pawnee Nation have desired to share their rich history and culture in a state-of-the-art facility that honors their traditional values and that will encourage the cultural development of generations to come. Originally from the plains of Nebraska and Kansas, the Pawnee are a proud nation that continues to honor the memories of their ancestors through ceremonial celebrations, cooking, and song. 

This project brought forth challenges to the design process that had not previously been encountered for academic purposes. Client interaction in the form of participatory design, real-world budget concerns, and cultural sensitivity were just some of the daily considerations that molded the design process through its ever-changing iterations. From initial conceptual dialogue with the Pawnee to the beginning stages of Design Development, these real-world design goals and challenges ultimately created the foundation of what may one day become a legitimate facility in Pawnee, Oklahoma.

This project was conceptually driven by a fascinating observation about the construction methods and design of the traditional Pawnee Earth Lodge. When considering the limited availability of natural structural materials on the plains of the western United States, it becomes clear that the Pawnee Earth Lodge was designed for load path efficiency. In order to shelter multiple families within one lodge, gravity loads were deflected to the outside, which, in turn, resulted in a regular gathering space for eating and socializing directly in the center of every dwelling.

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The take-away observation: The Pawnee community exists in the very center of its Earth Lodges as a result of historical material availability and efficient load dispersion

From this, a design philosophy emerges with one major goal in mind. In order to maintain the historical, sovereign identity of the Pawnee while simultaneously perpetuating its future, the facility that houses the culture and traditions must always reflect inwards to the centralized heart of the Pawnee Nation. After months of design and consultation by the Pawnee, the resulting Cultural Center serves to preserve the remnants of the Pawnee past while, most importantly, creating a dedicated space for the Pawnee community to remember, celebrate, and develop together

The two major wings of the Pawnee Nation Cultural Center are dedicated to each of these purposes. The northern half of the building is equipped with a full-sized gallery and exhibition space for artifacts and art to be repatriated and properly archived or displayed. The southern half of the building, on the other hand, hosts spaces for the present day Pawnee to engage in everyday life as a community. Multi-purpose spaces can accommodate dance classes or graduation parties. A research library can provided a quite haven for the community's academic pursuits or merely a tranquil destination for learning about the community's past.

Ultimately, while the facility is open to tourism and the education of all in the ways of the Pawnee, its purest purpose is to create a home for the community and the identity of the Pawnee Nation as they have been, as they are, and as they will be for generations to come.

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