2024 RAIC Research & Innovation Award: Patkau Design Lab

The research and fabrication wing of Patkau Architects experiments in new ways of working with everyday materials.


The Temple of Light in Kootenay Bay, BC, was the first large-scale realization of a prototype by Patkau Design Lab. The structure’s curved petals are made from wood joists laid in non-parallel ruled surfaces, and clad with a taut plywood skin. Photo by James Dow / Patkau Architects

Patkau Design Lab is the research and fabrication wing of Patkau Architects. More than simply a workshop, it engages in speculative experiments that test the potential of new ways of working with common materials. Through iterative development, attention to detail, and a refined aesthetic, this experimental work has evolved into fully realized furniture pieces, pavilions, and building elements.

Patkau Design Lab’s inaugural project, the Winnipeg Skating Shelters, explored how sculptural forms could be created by bending sheets of plywood. Photo by James Dow / Patkau Architects

The lab believes that understanding material, force, and form at a deep level is essential for architectural innovation. ​Its inaugural project, Winnipeg Skating Shelters, was inspired by the way a small plastic satchel, made of two flat sheets, expands when gently squeezed into an appealing volumetric form. The lab simulated this deformation with sheets of plywood, then expanded the exercise with multiple sheets to create larger volumes and more sophisticated compound curving surfaces.

Turning to more robust materials, the lab began applying the same techniques to thin sheets of stainless steel, eventually developing the OneFold sculptures (winner of the RAIC Innovation Award, 2015). These self-structuring vaults were derived from a bending process that the lab had to invent, because no available steel worker believed it could be done. The technique was evolved to create Cocoons, a series of steel pavilions for the Comme des Garçons store in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

The rhythmic pleated ceiling of Arbour House, overlooking Cadboro Bay in Victoria, BC, is made of finger-jointed hemlock and alternates between areas of greater and lesser porosity. Photo by James Dow / Patkau Architects

The challenge of shipping the Cocoons led to the insight that a single straight seam-line could be found in what was otherwise a compound curving surface. This led the team to study warped surfaces composed of rule lines, similar to the curves formed by straight lines in DNA’s double-helix structure. They found that these rule lines could be rendered in standard timber units to create exceptional forms. These materialized in the design proposal for Daegu Gosan Public Library, the petal-like walls of the Temple of Light in Kootenay Bay, BC (2018), and the tree canopy-inspired ceiling of Arbour House, in Victoria, BC (2024).

The exploration continued in the Lab’s Twist Chair, which bends and twists a thin sheet of plywood into an asymmetrical elliptical cone. A slightly modified duplicate of the cone is aligned with and pressed onto the back of the first, giving the chair structural strength. Photo credit: Nienkamper

Further experimentation stemming from the Winnipeg Skating Shelters resulted in Twist Chair, which appears as a single bent piece of plywood, but is in fact two nested pieces to give the construction hidden structural depth. Attempts to hybridize Twist Chair with Onefold resulted in the Spingfold Chair, whose sweeping curves result from the spring-like elastic deformation of the steel. The discovery that this chair was difficult to manufacture led to the idea to surround the steel with leather, and then to the embedding of metal anchors within formed and laminated leather—the basis for the Joey Stool.

While pursuing its research, Patkau Design Lab has made numerous efforts to open its methodologies and perspectives to the public, students, and practitioners. This outreach has included articles, lectures, presentations, workshops, and the book Material Operations (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017), which chronicle their thinking and processes. The intent is for this outreach to be generative, providing tools and inspiration for others to find their own innovations. 

Jury Comment :: Patkau Design Lab is a Canadian architectural practice that has developed a system of enquiry over years of research, affirming the value of curiosity, close observation of materials, and imagination. They articulate their principles and position relative to the profession, situating themselves within the discipline with rigour and a critical awareness of the development of current types and methods of innovation and their implications. Their work challenges Canadian architecture and modernism through material explorations and formal innovations.

As appeared in the May 2024 issue of Canadian Architect magazine