Chris Cornelius didn’t fall for architecture in the soaring nave of a church or the memorable lines of a skyscraper. Instead, it was the feel of pencil on paper, ancient indigenous values – and his own imagination.
He took to drafting instinctively in an eighth-grade classroom. That’s when he decided to become an architect, he says.
“It felt like a thing that was calling me, and I became very good at it,” says Cornelius, who spent those formative years in the mid-’80s in an unremarkable three-bedroom house, part of public housing on the Oneida reservation near Green Bay.
Today, drawing remains the heart of the UW-Milwaukee associate professor’s unusual practice as an architect. Cornelius is one of a small group of architects in the U.S. to infuse Native American culture into his work. And while he has few permanent building projects in his portfolio, he has a rising prole nonetheless, increasingly known for his expressive sketches and art-like installations.
In fact, he’s as much of an artist as he is an architect, an idea he is getting used to. In recent years, he’s been working on ephemeral and small-scale projects that allow him to experiment, develop his voice and provoke questions about decolonizing his profession, to “make architecture indigenous again,” as he sometimes puts it.
He won a competition to participate in Exhibit Columbus, a prestigious showcase in the small Indiana city known for its outsized architectural pedigree. His Trickster sculpture at Bookworm Gardens in Sheboygan, a botanical garden based on children’s literature, was granted a Best of Design award for a temporary installation from The Architect’s Newspaper. And Cornelius won a Mary L. Nohl Fellowship, the leading Milwaukee-area award for individual artists.
Next year, Cornelius will exhibit some conceptual drawings at Yale University – artworks inspired by Native activists’ occupation of Alcatraz Island a generation ago. He has a full schedule of lectures – most outside of Wisconsin – scheduled in the coming months. In 2021, he will spend a semester teaching at Yale as part of a prestigious and endowed post. He will be the Louis I. Kahn Visiting Professor of Architectural Design.
And yet, despite all of this professional recognition, larger building projects elude him.
“I want to be the indigenous architect,” says Cornelius, a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. “If there is another commission like the National Museum of the American Indian, I want people to say, ‘We need Chris to do it.’” That Smithsonian museum opened in 2004 after several indigenous architects, designers and artists were involved in the design process.
ONE PROJECT AWAY?
WHAT MAKES HIS PRACTICE indigenous is not a slavish devotion to the iconography of Native American tribes. Cornelius is quick to point out that he isn’t going to design turtle-shaped buildings anytime soon.
He’s more interested in unearthing the stories that landscapes have to tell and connecting to past and future generations, he says. He asks himself what his ancestors would be doing in this century, a question that could represent a life’s work, he adds.
“I’m not going to fall into the kinds of stereotypes of what someone thinks indigenous architecture should be,” he says, noting that he often titles artworks to hint at what they are not, like Trickster (itsnotatipi), for instance.
At 48, Cornelius has plenty of time to snag bigger projects, since many architects hit their stride and do their most prominent work in what would be considered retirement years for most professions.
On the one hand, Cornelius is unproven. He doesn’t have a portfolio fat with award-winning permanent projects or a recognizable aesthetic style. On the other hand, his career has a lot of momentum because of his approach and art-like practice.
Cornelius could be a project or two away from an even higher profile within the field. Or not. That’s the nature of a highly competitive and often political profession. The coming few years will be critical. “Someone has to believe in me,” says Cornelius.
His hoped-for leap may be wildly ambitious, but it could be a natural one, too, says Marc Swackhamer, the incoming chair of architecture at the University of Colorado Denver. Swackhamer describes Cornelius’ career path as circuitous but rich and productive.
“The way he thinks would be very applicable to any scale,” says Iker Gil, an architect and director of Chicago-based MAS Studio. “I just think he provides a very rich conversation … another way of thinking about buildings.” Gil suggests, too, that Cornelius’ approach shouldn’t be pigeonholed as strictly applicable to indigenous clients.
“It presents a giant question mark to me,” says Anne Rieselbach, program director of The Architectural League of New York, speaking of Cornelius’ design vocabulary and how it would scale up to high-profile building projects.
‘HE WAS MADE FOR IT’
“I could drive by this thing and say, ‘I drew that, and now it exists,’” Cornelius says. “That was one of the first times that I could see that what I was doing could actually be a physical thing in the world.”
Some of those homes still exist on the reservation, though he’s not sure precisely where they are. When asked about the last time he’s been to the reservation, Cornelius has to think. It’s been at least a few years, he says.
Cornelius and Chris Wenz were inseparable as boys and remain good friends. “He had always been an artist with pen and paper, that type of thing, but when he took to drafting [a house], he just latched onto it immediately,” Wenz says.
Of the design work, Wenz says: “There are little things now that you see in retrospect … he was made for it.”
One of those little things was Cornelius’ quiet intensity as a kid, whether applied to his friendships, his gardening job for a local church or his determination to teach himself how to play drums.
“At that time, it would have been ’80s metal,” Wenz says of their youthful obsession. Both boys had Van Halen posters plastered in their bedrooms, and Cornelius wore through gloves practicing at his drum kit for countless hours, alone, Wenz says. As a young person, Cornelius played well enough to sit in with regional bands passing through the Green Bay area as a result. He didn’t make a show of his skills or talk about his prowess, Wenz says. He just did the work.
PREPARED TO COMPETE
AS A TRAINED ARCHITECT, Cornelius’ highest profile project came early. He was invited to collaborate with recognized architect Antoine Predock on the Indian Community School of Milwaukee, completed between 2003 and 2007. The school’s angular forms – crafted from glass, wood and stone – are nestled into a high ridge line in Franklin, surrounded by old oaks, wetlands and prairie. It feels both ancient and modern, like an extension of the earth itself but also of our time.
While Cornelius may eschew the notion of animal-shaped buildings, he does talk about projects as if they were living creatures, including the school. Part of his process is discovering what kind of an animal he’s dealing with. “Is it a predator?” he’ll ask. “Is it prey? Is it something in between? Does it fly in the air? Does it dig into the ground?”
After 15 years, Cornelius remains a design consultant for the school, and he’s on-site at least once a month, approving even the smallest of changes. That kind of ongoing and intimate relationship with a client is rare, he says, noting that he and his wife married in a room he calls “the drum” in 2014. “It’s my job to maintain the visual integrity of the whole thing,” he says, walking the grounds in the early morning light and showing me a giant oak known as the Wisdom Keeper, which is surrounded by an amphitheater-like berm.
No two classrooms are the same at the school, a structure that was built at the scale of the surrounding forest and that Cornelius describes as “collage-like.” All these years later, he measures the success of the project by exploring how well it “inhabits” the landscape. “It’s been validated by nature itself,” he says. “The wetlands are growing back. Animals come up to the building.”
Cornelius came off of his seminal experience with Predock during the economic downturn, when many architects were hard up for work. He could have retreated into academic life but instead kept his head down, intent to build his practice and continue his research.
“When he didn’t have any work, he was still working every single day and designing things for his own purposes,” says Cornelius’ wife, Brittany.
He likens the preparation he’s done over the last 15 years or so to the training he does for another pursuit: competitive cycling.
“That day when I line up next to you, I don’t care who you are; you’re going to pay,” he says of his race days. “And I can’t just make that happen. … I have to go back to the 300 hours of training that I’ve already put in,” he adds, talking about being on a trainer in the middle of January or out on the roads on cold, wet days.
In other words, he’ll be in prime condition and ready to compete when a career-defining opportunity comes into view. If that sounds arrogant, think again.
Cornelius is intentional about listening and takes time to answer questions.
“There is a softness to Chris that I really appreciate,” Swackhamer says. “He brings this welcoming acknowledgment of difference. … That’s how he conducts himself.”
Generosity and humility are among his defining traits, according to Jeffrey Gibson, an artist of Choctaw and Cherokee heritage. Gibson wrote an essay about Cornelius’ work, part of a book produced in conjunction with an exhibition of the Nohl fellows at the Haggerty Museum of Art earlier this year. “A large part of his drive is propelled by his desire to carve out and build spaces for Indigenous bodies, Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous pasts, presents and futures,” Gibson wrote.
IN HIS MODEST-SIZED OFFICE – jammed with books, sketches and scale models – the pace of Cornelius’ speech picks up when he talks about a project he’s been working on. It’s a vision of an alternative history: what Alcatraz Island might look like today had it been reclaimed by Native people.
He pulls out a drawing, one of several inspired by the occupation of Alcatraz by Native protesters between 1969 and 1971. Student activists claimed that the island, as abandoned federal property, should have been returned to indigenous people based on a 19th century treaty.
“I said, let’s suppose they got what they wanted,” says Cornelius. “They’re going to build a university, and I’m going to design it. This is my opportunity to be able to design the thing and be able to show what indigenous design is for me. … What does that kind of sovereignty look like in an urban context?”
The sketch is covered in an array of what look like computer-generated marks, though it is entirely handmade. Precise and controlled, like the notations of an architectural blueprint, Cornelius’ lines are also expressive. They reference a wide range of research and ideas. Layered into the drawings is information about the prison buildings, the history of settler colonialism, graffiti the activists created, geologic formations, vegetation, indigenous beliefs, petroglyphs, the state of Wisconsin, the Oneida reservation and protests at Standing Rock, among other things.
“I think Chris builds whole cosmologies,” says Perry Kulper, associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan.
“What he’s rendering isn’t anchored in a specific time or place,” says Rieselbach, of The Architectural League of New York. It is “a really deep and personal interpretation of form.
Some architects are perplexed by his abstractions, Cornelius admits, but seduced by the handcrafted nature of them, too. That kind of drawing by hand is considered antiquated by some, a bit of a lost art in a profession that is increasingly technology driven.
“So the line types I make, the drafting and the skill that goes into that – that’s what I’ve been honing my entire career,” he says. “It’s important to me to continue to draw like an architect.”
Drawing, he adds, “is ceremony to me.”
A COVETED SPOT IN INDIANA
THE CHALLENGE OF TRANSLATING the richness and energy of those drawings into three dimensions is what occupies Cornelius these days – often into the wee hours.
He spends the early part of his days teaching and preparing for classes. His afternoons are often spent on the bike, and the evenings belong to Brittany, who also studied architecture at UWM. He’d see her a lot less if she weren’t also an avid cyclist, he adds. His most creative hours come later, after dinner and often well beyond midnight.
“It’s like he’s in a constant state of thesis,” says Brittany. “He’s always creating. It’s a very rare time when he’s not working on something.”
Every project warrants a deep consideration of context and history, he says. No site is passive, he adds.
For his installation in Columbus, for instance, his most high-profile gig in recent years, he researched the dwellings of the Myaamia, or Miami, a native tribe that occupied what’s now central Indiana.
Because of a unique program of civic patronage in Columbus dating back to the 1940s, a city that’s roughly the size of Sheboygan is known internationally as a mecca of modernism, a community with an enviable collection of crisply designed churches, schools, banks and other structures. The 2017 indie film Columbus, which used the city’s famous architecture by designers such as I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Eliel Saarinen and Eero Saarinen as a backdrop, has brought a new wave of cultural tourists to town.
Winning a spot in the annual exhibit is like being called into an intimate chat with some of those architectural greats, and Cornelius was given the prized site: beside the city’s first modernist landmark, First Christian Church by the late Eliel Saarinen.
When Cornelius visited Columbus, he looked at the small stretch of grass beside Saarinen’s stark bell tower and across the street from Pei’s public library. He spotted an opening in the tree canopy. A cluster of towering trees had “opened themselves up” to “share the light,” he says. He envisioned a structure that would tuck itself into that opening and swell larger near the ground.
Then, he did what came naturally: He drew.
On a November day in 2016, Cornelius sketched an elliptical shape into the fall leaves on the ground. Then he took photographs of the site back to Milwaukee to do the rest of his design work.
The result is a sweeping, conical form called Wiikiaami. Covered in feather- or scale-like shapes made of workaday building materials such as rebar and metal panels, it was a sanctuary in its own right. The 30-foot-tall structure with an opening to the sky aligned with the fall equinox and also Saarinen’s tower. Its creature-like presence was worshipful, gentle and proud.
When I arrived in Columbus to see it, the news of Pei’s death was surfacing in my Twitter feed. An afternoon storm had just passed through, leaving the small city gleaming and green. Wiikiaami put on quite a kinetic show that day, filtering light and casting shadows in constantly altering ways.
Passersby on the street in Columbus could speak poetically – and at some length – about Cornelius’ Wiikiaami. The piece was so beloved by locals – a place to escape the midday heat or stargaze at night – that event organizers let the temporary structure linger until the late summer of this year, several months after it was slated to come down.
Cornelius calls his relationship with Saarinen – much like the one with Predock – an “arranged marriage” that turned out better than he could have imagined.
“He was trying to get his buildings to be more like nature,” Cornelius says of Saarinen, “and I was trying to get nature to be more like buildings. So there’s that conversation.”
Critically for Cornelius, though, Wiikiaami was also an act of land acknowledgment. It is a tribute to the original inhabitants of the region, once a crossroads for Native tribes, and a recognition of the shameful aspects of colonialism, which led to a loss of life, land and culture for so many, he says.
A CERTAIN DIFFERENCE
EXCEPT FOR HIS EARLY BREAK with the Indian Community School and his recent Nohl win, many of Cornelius’ opportunities and recognitions have come from beyond Milwaukee and the Oneida Nation. It’s been a point of sadness and frustration on both counts, he says.
“My relationship with my own tribe is challenging,” says Cornelius, who notes that the Oneida paid for much of his education so he wouldn’t have to take out student loans. “I’ve actually stood in front of the tribal council … and said, ‘Look, you’ve invested all of this in me. You wrote the check. I’m standing here. I just want to work here.’”
It was a plea that was effectively rejected, Cornelius says, not wanting to get into particulars. “It’s complicated,” he adds.
“If I got rejected for a project, you can say, well, that client just wasn’t right,” he says, “but when that client is where you came from … how do I wrestle with that?”
Leaving the reservation, getting advanced degrees, including a master’s degree from the University of Virginia, may have contributed to a certain distance and a “weird distrust,” he adds.
“There is a whole generation of people who are younger than me that have gone to law school or medical school, right?” says Cornelius, speaking of his tribe. “They will feel differently and hopefully say, ‘Look, we need to be doing our own medicine, our own law, our own architecture.’ And they are the people who will do that.”
Susan Doxtator, director of planning for the Oneida Nation, wrote in an emailed response about Cornelius that she hopes “to work with him one day on something special for our Nation,” noting especially the beauty and thoughtfulness of the Wiikiaami installation, which she calls inspiring.
Wenz said Cornelius’ relationship with his tribe has been especially painful because he’s always been so personally connected to that heritage. “That was absolutely part of his identity from the get-go,” says Wenz. “He didn’t go back and discover it. By the time I met him, he was already that way.”
As for Milwaukee, Cornelius would love to do projects here and has tried to get work, other than his teaching and his work for the Community School, of course.
But Milwaukee feels like a closed system, he says. “That’s troubling to me. … For instance, how was I not the person that designed the Potawatomi Hotel, right?” asks Cornelius, referring to the Menomonee Valley building that opened in 2014. The tribe expanded its tower earlier this year.
He wishes Milwaukee were a bit more like Columbus, a down-to-earth Midwestern city where many residents can speak like trained docents about their architecture. “I don’t think Milwaukee is a place that values design, as a community, as a city,” he adds.
He’s had to let it go, the hope of working for his tribe or in Milwaukee, where he was born and lived for a while before moving to the reservation. For now, he’s content boarding planes and building relationships in other communities.
Sometimes, he calls his career “upside down” for its lack of convention and predictability. He’s not precisely sure what will come next.
But he also thinks about what his grandmother told him when he was a boy and still in grade school. Interpreting his quiet introspection and intensity, she explained that he is of the Wolf Clan. You will be alone, but you will be a pathfinder, she told him.
“This is part of how I reconcile myself with the world. … I am a lone wolf kind of a person,” he says. “Whatever my career is, whatever my education was, all of that stuffed figured out for myself.
“She knew that about me,” he adds, speaking of his grandmother, who taught him much of what he knows about his culture.
“This is the subtext: There is no model for what I’m doing,” says Cornelius. “But it’s most edifying for me in the end, right? Me, as a creative mind, that’s what’s changing. That’s what’s important.”
This was Mary Louise Schumacher’s first feature for Milwaukee Magazine. She was t he longtime art and architecture editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel until February.