This past year has seen the emergence of several publications relating to current thinking in architecture in Canada, ranging from monographs to surveys of contemporary work. A recently opened exhibition at the School of Architecture, University of Waterloo presents a unique exploration into that constantly evolving area of architecture: sustainability. Marco Polo, former editor of Canadian Architect and current Associate Professor at Ryerson University teamed up with University of Waterloo Associate Professor John McMinn to curate a fascinating show accompanied by a well-written companion publication. Their project addresses the link between contemporary projects incorporating sustainable design with regional vernacular architecture across Canada.

The title of their show, 41 to 66: Regional Responses to Sustainable Architecture in Canada attempts to explore the recent shifts in sustainable architecture that are more “pragmatic” and “transcendent.” 41 to 66 includes projects from six cultural and geographic regions of Canada: Arctic, West Coast, Mountain, Prairie, Continental and Atlantic. Architecture can play both a practical and symbolic role in our culture. But until recently, sustainable architecture has been disconnected from the broader culture by being discussed only through the lenses of technology and energy performance. In their exhibition, Polo and McMinn sought to explore this disconnect while forging an argument for reconnecting sustainability to the larger critical discourse of contemporary architecture.

This interview with Polo and McMinn seeks to encapsulate their ideas behind the exhibition and publication as well as to explore their overall thoughts pertaining to the continuing evolution of sustainable architecture.–Ian Chodikoff

How has your exhibition examined issues of sustainability to move beyond merely representing buildings as a science project?

MP We wanted to believe that the issue of sustainability can be a generator of a new architecture in the same way as we might locate modern architecture emerging from industrial processes and social dynamics. One of the elements that was concerning us were systems like the LEED program which were being developed as the standard for green architecture and where people were trying to hit LEED targets on a checklist. We visited buildings that were LEED Silver but were dreadful architecturally, but they gained a level of credibility because of their LEED rating.

JM About five years ago, there was a discussion of the construction of sustainable buildings on the European scene. The discussion focused on sustainability and the green agenda combined with energy costs, space limitations and building costs. The discussion relating to building technological systems was different than what was happening in North America, and this is what eventually triggered our need to investigate issues of sustainability within a larger social agenda.

How far have we come over the past decade?

MP In 1998, the Green Building Conference (GBC) in Vancouver showed supposedly exemplary work in the area of sustainable design. In order to be “green,” the architecture was sacrificed so the GBC people in Canada asked me to assist them for the next selection round. Many architects submitted projects for review and there were quite a few surprises. For example, KPMB had submitted the Jackson-Triggs Winery. The engineers reviewed all the submissions and came back saying that KPMB’s building was the best performer. This was a real eye-opener because KPMB at that time did not identify themselves with green architecture. Here, the engineers woke up to the fact that a building can be architecturally ambitious while being a real performer. There was no reason to bias one over the other. The two can coexist, so this was a watershed project.

The exhibition includes many drawings, photographs and models of several buildings. It also includes large-scale mock-ups of the Jackson-Triggs winery and the Murdena Marshall Meeting Hall by Richard Kroeker. Why these buildings?

JM We felt that it was quite appropriate to the agenda that the large mock-ups weren’t displaying photovoltaic cells or windmills. What I find the most interesting about the Jackson-Triggs project is the use of the cement board cladding. The choice of the specific product had more wood content than usual, so this was a small step forward in terms of material selection (and meeting the LEED agenda) but it is just simply more beautiful than a regular cement board. Everybody mentions the Richard Kroeker building which is significant as a model for lateral thinking: using material in an innovative and appropriate way.

Could it be that your exhibition advocates an emotional connection to place and sustainability?

JM When we were recently in Tokyo, we heard a quote from Shigeru Ban that said, “If people don’t love and respect your building, they won’t keep it.” Having something resonant that is linked to culture and materials that are indigenous to place is very important. The ways in which people can see their own cultural identity embedded within a building was certainly an important part of the projects that were chosen.

MP The reason why we fixated so much on regions and landscapes is the question of cultural sustainability. How do you talk about that in the Canadian context when there are people from all over the world and there isn’t a sense of long-rootedness in the land except for the First Nations people (who have been completely displaced). The fact that regional conditions vary so much makes it a much more powerful argument.

How does the notion of urban versus rural play out in your argument of regional vernacular?

MP Basically, vernacular buildings are non-urban buildings. We were considering having a separate category for “urban” buildings but this seemed to go against the grain of what we were trying to argue. There is an urban vernacular. In the case of the Angus Technopole in Montreal, its biggest argument for sustainability is social and community sustainability. It no longer functioned as an economic model to have an industrial giant but there was a local connectedness to the building that drove the efforts to save and convert the building.

The Bahen Centre for Information Technology or the Computer Science Building at York University are buildings which are much more matter-of-fact. To me, Bahen is a Beaux-Arts project that responds to the contextual conditions in Toronto. Diamond and Schmitt [Architects] have always had a strong idea about the resonance of the urban fabric and this ties into the project’s infrastructural identity.

Are we moving beyond an awkward stage of rediscovering the value of native architecture and vernacular buildings?

MP For me, Nicola Valley [Institute of Technology] is almost the poster child for the show because it hits upon our argument in many ways. It is a green building but not a perfect green building. The way it approaches a cultural response is interesting: it addresses a specific client and a micro-region. It manages to do this by being legible without being symbolic. There is no motif that smacks of a nostalgic interpretation of that culture. It is a wholly contemporary approach to building.

JM An example of a non-native building is the Jackson-Triggs winery that deals with the industrial, agricultural vernacular but is intrinsically related to the conditions of place.

MP And not just place but the specifics of the making and marketing of wine. The winery manages to do this in a building that is essentially a shed cranked up to KPMB volume in terms of material selection and detailing.

How can your exhibition pave the way for the next steps in regional and v
ernacular thinking for Canadian architecture?

JM The argument that we would like to make is to drop the word “sustainable” and describe the potential of a new paradigm in architecture that is uniquely Canadian and that does not necessarily reference models from the exterior. Traditionally, this is what Canadian architecture has often done.

MP I remember reading Kenneth Frampton 20 years ago in terms of “critical regionalism.” Canadian architecture has always done that. As we identified in the opening essay, when you look at somebody like Gaboury, Clifford Wiens, Douglas Cardinal…that’s critical regionalism! It’s about taking a local architectural tradition and reinterpreting it in a contemporary way. Even in Canada’s Modernist heyday, there was an interest in the regional. It’s part of the way in which we think about architecture. This show has the potential to revise a Modernist way of thinking about architecture that arises not out of a formal idea but a set of operations, techniques and attitudes. Why do we talk about the vernacular as being sustainable? Well, if you didn’t respond to climate, you’d die. This is what Le Corbusier talks about when he talks about the airplane. What’s the lesson? An airplane is going to be used for flying, so if you screw that up you are going to die. In a way, vernacular regions in Canada, and certainly in cold climates–if a building doesn’t respond to the way it needs to (climate, shelter, etc.)–there is a lot at stake. So, in Corb’s terms, the problem has to be properly stated. If you properly state the problem then the resolutions that emerge are by definition relevant to their place, program and cultural traditions.

How might you see these buildings act as a way to question the relationship of Modernism, tradition and Canadian architecture?

MP The idea that Modernism is unrelated to tradition is problematic. The buildings in the exhibition are building upon vernacular traditions that are in fact very modern in their approach. If you state a problem and develop a solution, there is a connectedness as opposed to a Beaux-Arts sensibility that talks about an image where you cram program, function and performance into a form. Historically, part of the rejection of International Modernism was its muteness and its loss of meaning. The response was to revert to traditional approaches of meaning and symbolism in architecture with postmodernism and classical revivalism. The work in the show has the potential to be profoundly meaningful not necessarily in the global sense, but that it is responding to specific issues with a direct focus and in a legible way.

Can your work stimulate the marketplace to adopt more examples of sustainable architecture?

MP This is another important aspect of the show. The vast majority of these projects are either private homes or institutional clients with a handful of commercial work. By far, this sensibility has operated at the level of the public sector or the individual and it hasn’t been bought into by the commercial section.

JM This has a lot to do with the way procurement happens. If you build something with a five-year payback, then why would you build something with a 20-year payback. It’s not worth it. That’s where issues of regulation and incentive need to be implemented and are not being implemented adequately by all levels of government. Things like tax breaks and so on. Things like that are happening in Europe and that impact is huge.

How was the show perceived by the profession and the community at large?

JM One of the reasons why we felt that we should be doing this show is that there is an importance for the profession to communicate crucial issues of sustainability to the public.

MP For the non-architectural public, there is still a kind of perception about sustainability either being highly engineered and technical or to include solar earth-bermed houses from the ’60s. These are extreme understandings, yet most people wouldn’t understand the buildings in the exhibition as sustainable unless they are specifically told. There are stereotypes that we all carry around with us.

41 to 66 will travel across the country in 2006. Look for the exhibition schedule in the calendar listings of Canadian Architect at www.canadianarchitect.com.