A Public Purpose

PROJECT UBC Faculty of Arts Buchanan Courtyard Renewal, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECTS Public Architecture + Communication in association with Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Nic Lehoux, Bob Matheson

For many erstwhile denizens of the University of British Columbia, the building known as the Buchanan Block evokes memories of bleak walkabouts, visual monotony, and wayfinding challenges. Designed by Thompson Berwick Pratt and Zoltan Kiss in the late 1950s, the interlocking glass, steel and brick complex is admirable in its formal proportions and clarity. At the same time, its surrounding space has not only been hostile to student needs but derelict in projecting any sense of its own programmatic identity. The Buchanan Block is the main centre for UBC’s humanities seminars, but its visual austerity and empty, windswept courtyards have belied that noble purpose for a very long time. 

Now, though, the landscape redesign around the Buchanan Block is the harbinger of a massively ambitious overhaul of the university’s outdoor commons and corridors. Its flagship gesture is an as-yet-untitled structure known simply as “the pavilion,” designed by the young firm Public Architecture + Communication–which, like the pavilion itself, is destined to become much better known, used and discussed in the coming years. 

The pavilion and its surrounding interventions are elements within the overall master plan for the twin courtyard complex, designed by landscape architects Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg (PFS). Led by Andrew Robertson, PFS had already devised a basic template (with provisions for seating and a rectilinear pond that Public would later design) and have created an otherworldly, naturalistic micro-park in the western courtyard of the complex. For the adjacent eastern courtyard, it was decided that an outdoor performance pavilion and seating would provide the new animus. At that point, Public was brought in. 

Steered by principals Brian Wakelin, John Wall and Susan Mavor, Public is positioning itself as one of the more imaginative design practices in Vancouver. Fittingly enough, both Wakelin and Wall are UBC alumni, receiving their architecture degrees there in the mid-1990s. Wakelin spent his post-degree years honing his skills at Busby & Associates and Acton Ostry Architects; Wall interned at Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects before starting a small practice which he dubbed Superkül. The two crossed paths often, exchanging ideas and in some cases commissions. Then, recalls Wakelin, “the idea of a large, collaborative practice started to emerge.” 

Their firm name is an homage to a Vancouver bar called the Public Lounge, where Wakelin and Wall were imbibing when they made their decision to join forces. Mavor joined shortly afterward as a crucial complement to the two architects: she studied communication design at what was then known as the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, and before that, theatre design in Ontario. Mavor’s role is especially important, notes Wakelin, given that the major innovations of the last decade have not been in architecture per se but in media. As the task of architects broadens to encompass an entire spectrum of skill sets and perspectives, the more nimble firms will embody that expertise within their design teams. 

The Buchanan Courtyard project is a case in point. Although the pavilion structure is the heart of the project, the program also required Public to design the peripheral furniture and building canopies; now they’re focusing on the graphic communications strategy for the entire arts faculty. 

The built-in courtyard furniture–amoeba-like backless stools by PFS complemented by built-in wood-and-concrete benches by Public–helps make the courtyard more inviting to pedestrians. But the new seating design is not as compelling as the pavilion itself. A striking mass that cants and folds inwards upon itself, the pavilion is theatrical and people-friendly (even on a cool January day, I saw students taking pictures of it and sitting on its platform bench) while still respecting the High Modernism that surrounds it. “In the context of that site, a more artisanal approach wouldn’t have worked,” notes Wakelin. The design team at Public used a self-consolidating concrete (Agilia) to ensure the fine aggregate mixture would feel smooth to the touch yet set properly in the tall formwork. However, the top of the pavilion formwork was poured with conventional concrete, which has created a subtle, almost invisible striation line. The pavilion floor cleaves and slopes into the shallow pond water, like Berthold Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool at the London Zoo. And sandblasted into the floor of the pond are 26 quotations, selected from each of the university’s arts and science faculties, running in concentric arcs. The idea, says Mavor, was to “physically express what an arts program is”–not an A-to-B linear path but a circuitous journey. 

Wakelin cites as influences Spanish architect Félix Candela, master of the thin-shelled concrete form; and Vancouver artist B.C. Binning, whose compositions are predicated on an obliquely inflected grid. The pavilion also suggests a rectilinear variation of a standalone sculpture by Henry Moore–whose organic Modernism, like that of Lubetkin, had strongly informed Binning’s own compositional sense.

The pan-cultural approach has helped earn and inform Public’s current projects, including exhibition design, cultural branding campaigns, and a graphic identity system for the UBC arts faculty. For now, the pavilion is garnering the 11-person firm its most important acclaim to date, but the principals have their eyes on more variegated kinds of programs, in the expectation that the future will demand such diversity of skills. “Right now,” says Wakelin, “we have to collaborate or die.” 

The Buchanan Courtyard project is the first of a series of interventions in the outdoor public spaces on the university’s main campus. Overseen by UBC head architect Gerry McGeough, the overall plan will unfurl over 15 years with a $50-million budget. The broad architectural mandate, says McGeough, is to “borrow from the legacy of the International Style openness, but also reflect the future.” The future means sustainability–for instance, through rainwater retention and reuse as configured by PFS in this project. But it also means transforming the anachronistic elements of the International Style–which means, in this case, enriching the Buchanan Block courtyard with human reference, scale and usefulness, and making it, simply put, a pleasant place to be. CA

Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia.

Client UBC Project Services
Architect Team Chris Forrest, Brian Wakelin, John Wall, David Zeibin
Landscape & Master plan Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
Structural Fast + Epp
Mechanical Stantec
Electrical Acumen Engineering
Contractor Scott Construction Group
Fountain Vincent Helton
Industrial Design 3D Services
Communication Design Public Architecture + Communication
Lighting EOS Lightmedia
Area 247 M2
Budget $2.25 M
Completion August 2011