CHAI – Theater Building


Concept sketch of façade.

Cloud Horse Art Institute – Kyle, SD, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, USA

“In our view, the term “architecture” refers to more than just the design and decoration of buildings. It embraces what happens whenever human thought or action makes order and meaning of random space: naming places, designating sacred parts of “wilderness”, clearing village areas and garden plots, claiming food-gathering areas, planning and constructing buildings, and arranging the spaces that surround and connect them. Finally, it includes the often unseen social and religious meanings which are encoded into buildings and spatial domains.”

Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton “Native American Architecture”

The Cloud Horse Art Institute (Šunkawakan Mahpiya Oklolakiciye) is a non-profit educational institution based near the town of Kyle, SD on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is the dream project of Tilda Long Soldier and her husband Mark St. Pierre, and is named in honor of Tilda’s great grandmother Ella Cloud Horse. The institute exists as a unique place to teach traditional Lakota crafts, food preparation, language and spiritual values alongside contemporary “western” arts like theater, creative writing and painting.


View of the project site.

Traditional forms of Lakota artwork inform the architecture design at a detailed level and also in an oblique way. The variations in tone among similarly colored quills, embroidered together on a moccasin, lend the entire design a visual depth and richness beyond the symbols woven into the pattern. The contrasting colors of a feather used in a war bonnet, along with the subtle filigree of individual fibers at the feather’s edge breakdown the density of repeating patterns. The nomadic Lakota culture developed in the outdoors and the world was their home and classroom. The building, while being stationary and permanent, maintains a connection to the sacred landscape by embracing its lessons, moods, climates and seasons.

This building, the first of about a half dozen to be constructed on the new campus, contains a gallery, a black box theater, art studios, classrooms, a library, a kitchen and all necessary supporting functions. The building is organized around a courtyard, closed to the north and open to the south. The art studios have direct access to an east facing patio for working outdoors when the weather is pleasant. Large sliding glass doors will be used as the windows around the courtyard allowing for ample breezes of air perfumed with the scent of sage and sweet grass growing in the courtyard garden to fill the building.


View at the entry ramp and steps.

The goal of learning while conserving Lakota culture is achieved through the student’s direct experience of the landscape – nature as a classroom – as well as gaining artistic skills taught by local masters of traditional crafts. The educational model of this institute will be a hybrid teaching of traditional skills through immersion alongside western arts and classroom situations. The architecture of the campus is also a hybrid, fusing the values and organizational principles of the nomadic society with a grouping of permanent buildings employing contemporary construction techniques.


View into the courtyard.

Exterior materials were chosen based on the Plains Indian aesthetic concepts of appropriateness, harmony and sacredness. Specifically this translates to local availability, long term durability and ease of maintenance, fitness for purpose and symbolic meaning. The exterior façade uses a waterproof screen of locally available pine and cedar. The pine is left untreated to weather to a silvery patina. The cedar is darkened through a controlled burning based on the Japanese yaki sugi technique. It is planned that the interiors of the building will be decorated with a variety of tile mosaics based on traditional quill embroidery designs, locally quarried stone tile floors, acoustical wood ceilings and locally built furniture.

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