métis, from old French, mestis, from Latin mixticius, cognate of Spanish mestizo, Portuguese mestiço: the mixing of aboriginal peoples and Europeans. In Canada métissage began with contact, centuries ago, emerging as ‘a distinctive socio-cultural heritage, a means of ethnic self-identification and a political and legal category’ (The Canadian Encyclopedia).
It is a curse of postmodernism that everything can be metaphorical: the danger in delineating a Métis architecture is that the word ‘hybridity’ is inevitable. But not here, with the capital M Métis: it is the architecture of a particular people, and yes it has hybrid characteristics, but not all hybridity in architecture is Métis.
For On Site review 34: on writing, I mentioned a new book by Mark Dorrian, Writing on the Image. Architecture, the City and the Politics of Representation. Circumstances meant I couldn’t do a proper review, however, Mark Dorrian and Adrian Hawker have a critical practice in Edinburgh called Metis meant to connect architectural teaching, research and practice. Their word, metis, is from the Greek, rather than the Latin: Metis was the daughter of Oceanus, first wife of Zeus and mother of Athena. The word metis combines wisdom with cunning, an Odysseus-like quality. No connection with mixing, or métissage.
Metis's mandate is on their website: They focus ‘on the city and the complex ways in which it is imagined, inhabited, and representationally encoded. They seek to produce rich, multi-layered works that resist immediate consumption and that are instead gradually unfurled over time through interaction with them. Their approach is concerned with establishing a poetic but critical approach to the city that is sensitive to its cultural memory but is also articulated in relation to its possible futures.’
In some ways this outlines what a métis architecture could be: taking the socio-cultural history of Métis building as fundamental to a Canadian architecture as cultural memory: a way of working that recognises encoded cultures through representation, and resignifies such cultures in a wise and cunning, complex and deep description of our various futures, whether urban, rural, individual or cooperative.
It is curious, this accidental coincidence of five letters, one with an accent aigule, that can begin to theorise a Métis architecture if you simply put them side by side and start to squeeze them together. It is a kind of metissage in itself, a dadaist accident, that reveals so many new paths.