You could call UWM’s Chris Cornelius an architect, but first and foremost he considers himself a storyteller. A member of Wisconsin’s Oneida nation, Cornelius’s building designs embody the values and stories of Native American cultures.
Take the example of Milwaukee’s Indian Community School. As a member of the design team, Cornelius played a key role in ensuring that architect Antoine Predock’s award-winning school design accurately translated Wisconsin’s woodland Native culture.
Towering tree trunks serve as dramatic support pillars throughout the school’s open space, which is appropriate given the important symbolic role of trees in Native culture, Cornelius says. For example, among the Oneida, the white pine represents Mother Earth.
“These trees gave themselves to the school,” he says. “They are our great-grandparents and they reinforce the priorities of the school – respect and responsibility.”
“Many of these kids come from the city and don’t have a connection to the landscape of their cultural home,” he says. “We were looking for visual links so that the inside and outside boundaries were blurred.”
Cornelius, one of only a few Native architect-academics in the U.S., grew up on a Green Bay reservation and completed his undergraduate architecture degree at UWM and his master’s degree at the University of Virginia. Before accepting his current position as UWM associate professor, Cornelius worked with sustainable-design guru William McDonough and served as an artist-in-residence at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
“The work coming out of his studios at UWM is like nothing I’ve seen before,” says Robert Greenstreet, dean of the School of Architecture & Urban Planning. “It’s much more spirit-inspired, with interesting applied forms and a completely different aesthetic.”