The Seneca, a Native American tribe in upstate New York, have had profound impacts on the United States, ranging from natural remedies to the country's embrace of democracy. The fact that you probably didn't know these things testifies to the importance of architect Francois deMenil's Seneca Art and Cultural Center, the new focal point of the Ganondagan State Historic Site, located on one of the Seneca's largest former settlements in Victor, just southeast of Rochester.
The project, which has been envisioned for about 30 years, explores Seneca culture with year-round exhibitions, programs and events. The 17,000 sq ft, one-storey building contains exhibition spaces, an auditorium, classrooms, retail, and administrative offices.
The rectangular building's form was inspired by two of the tribe's seminal symbols: the Hiawatha Belt, a symbol-rich gesture of peace between the five Iroquois nations (depicting five linked cubes projecting from the 'Tree of Peace'), and the Longhouse, a long, narrow native dwelling that can expand and contract to accommodate changes in family size. Like both, the building has a strong horizontal axis, with galleries extending laterally from either side of a central entry. White cedar siding is beveled inward along the edges of the facade, uniting the roof and walls into a singular mass, articulating the simple form, and modulating the entry of sunlight. The building sits lightly on its location, partially buried into the land at its rear.
Inside, large glass curtain walls flood the space with illumination. Beveled skylights evoke the building's shape and minimise direct light in warmer months. Spaces flow smoothly from one to the next, and a minimal white palette defers to artworks and exhibitions.
Mirroring a typical native procession, once you stop at the centre, you then make your way to the Ganondagan site's other destinations, which include a replica of a 17th century bark longhouse, fields of Iroquois white corn and wildflowers, a granary, and several hiking trails.
'It's very important to acknowledge that the Seneca are still in this area, following their customs, even speaking their native language,' said deMenil. 'That recognition was a very soulful part of the project.'