There’s a school of thought that if Doug Cardinal had been born in Toronto, he’d be hands-down Canada’s most famous architect. That if the sweeping, utterly original lines of St. Mary’s Church had been in Rosedale, instead of his native Red Deer, his name would be known by high school students. That if the striking regional college he designed was in North York, not Grand Prairie, his name would be spoken with the same reverence used for his iconoclastic inspiration, Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s a compelling argument for anyone who happens upon his work and immediately wonders: Who made this?

douglas cardinal
Credit: Yousuf Karsh

But there’s a competing theory saying that whether Cardinal was born in Alberta, Ontario or a penthouse on Park Avenue, he would forever be defined by his Indigenous heritage and every project, every commission and every design would still be met with the generations of prejudice that accompanied him through every step of his career. When writer Dan Stafford wrote a lengthy profile of Cardinal for us in 1981, he didn’t shy away from the racism that had plagued Cardinal’s career, but little did Stafford know that he had also caught the great architect at a pivotal time. Cardinal was already working on the Edmonton Space and Science Centre and the next two decades would see the most high-profile commissions of his career: the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau and then the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. 

National Museum of the American Indian:
Credit: Carol M. Highsmith

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Now well into his 80s, Cardinal continues to work, crafting flowing, curvilinear designs that could not have come from any other hand. And if he’s not the household name he should be, he nonetheless has created a legacy of blazing one’s own path that will be a beacon for all Western Canadian designers to follow him.

Canadian Museum of History
Credit: Joanne Clifford

Canadian Museum of Civilization (now renamed the Canadian Museum of History) in Gatineau, Quebec.

Canadian Museum of History
Credit: Joanne Clifford

The First Peoples Hall (also referred to as the Grand Hall) at the Canadian Museum of History.

Canadian Museum of History
Credit: Joanne Clifford

Canadian Museum of Civilization (now renamed the Canadian Museum of History).

St. Maryʼs
Credit: DJC Architect

St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer.

To read about more great people, designs, homes and innovations that shaped Western Living, click here.