Northwest Coast Architecture

Due to the abundant resources and temperate climate of the Northwest Coast, its original inhabitants developed a sedentary rather than nomadic way of life. For thousands of years they lived in permanent winter homes, supplemented by their labour in seasonal camps used for hunting, fishing, and gathering. Up until 3 to 4 thousand years ago these inhabitants mostly lived in simple pit houses which were dug out of the land and had wooden, peaked roof structures covered with bark and brush protecting them from the heavy rains. By 1000 BC, however, the distinctive Northwest Coast cultural patterns were flowering, and the people were building post and beam house frames above ground out of massive Cedar logs, and were sheathing these with planks split from felled or standing trees, or from fallen logs and driftwood. These boards were then adzed, finished and notched for use as roof and wall cladding. In fact, it is these boards which lend their name to the typical Northwest Coast house style --- the “Plank House”. It is a wooden post and beam structure sheathed in wide Cedar boards. These can be removed and transported when the occupants travel to seasonal hunting and gathering sites.

Tsimshian plank house unearthed near Metlakatla, B.C. Photo © G.F. MacDonald, ca. 1970.

Typically the Plank House is a rectangular structure with three dimensional axes originating in the central fire pit. There are always four corner posts, and each side of the house represents one of the cardinal directions. The front of the house always faces the ocean/river, and the back the mountains. Houses are situated side-by-side, either in a single or a double row along a protected beach or waterway to form a village. There is great spiritual meaning built into both the house and the village. The post and beam structure is the bones, and the Cedar planks are the flesh of the house. Its façade is the face and the rear wall is the anus. The vertical axis through the fire pit of the house joins the ocean/underground to the earth and sky worlds, which allows for the transformations which are so central to the Northwest Coast cosmology. So the sun continues to rise and set, the seasons return, and the fruits of the ocean and earth also return.

Interior of Chief Wiah's Monster House. Masset, ca. 1885.

Symmetrical form was and still is the norm for the Plank House, and surfaces were carefully adzed and polished with sharkskin well beyond utilitarian need. Mythic characters, crests and legends are often carved and/or painted on the houseposts, beams, interior back and exterior front walls of the house. As living entities, houses receive names which survive through generations, and some houses acquire reputations for their wealth and prestige. Both the names and reputations survive through disrepair, renovation and replacement.

As Northwest Coast society was highly complex, sophisticated and stratified, it was broken down into a number of classes. These were chiefs, nobles, commoners and slaves (who were considered to be outside the regular social order). This highly stratified social organization placed a premium on ancestry, status, prestige and wealth. The population lived in clans (or groups of families claiming a common ancestor) under a single roof. On the North Coast the societies were matrilineal, while on the Central and South Coast ancestry was traced bilaterally. There was a strong tradition of potlatching, which aided in ordering the stratification between clans. With no written languages, the local traditions, legends and myths were passed down orally, which led to the people being highly spiritual and publicly expressive. During the winter months, house interiors were converted into sacred spaces during religious festivals, potlatches and ritual dramas. These events reaffirmed the network of important social relations, as well as being a mechanism for local chiefs to enhance their power and reputations, and to redistribute wealth. During these events, it was the houses themselves, rather than just the current occupants, vying for attention and status. The full blossoming of Northwest Coast architecture came post-contact with the Western world and the use of iron woodworking tools. However, being made of wood and located in a wet climate, the houses were susceptible to both rotting and fire. Therefore, the earliest known remains of the Plank House date back only 5,000 years.

Decorated housefronts at the Kwakwaka'wakw community of Tsatsiknekwome. Photo by C.F. Newcombe, 1917.

Eventually each sub-region on the Northwest Coast produced a singular housing type, distinctive by language group and local conditions. These will be dealt with in more detail in the subsequent pages but, suffice it to say, the North Coast houses are square, the Central Coast houses are rectangular, and the South Coast houses are long and rectangular, being added to in modules on both sides of the building as more space is required.