Structural Collaborations

The interior of the dining hall at Trent University exhibits a tight collaboration between architect and engineer.

About 10 years ago, while conducting a site review, I was approached by a construction worker who asked me if I was the project’s architect. I admitted that I was and braced myself for some sort of criticism or complaint about a difficult-to-execute detail. To my surprise, he thanked me for leaving the structure exposed in the building’s major public space. The structure consisted of round polished concrete columns carrying custom designed steel king post trusses that the architectural team had developed in close collaboration with our structural engineer. It was nothing fancy but, as a member of the concrete crew, the man who approached me was delighted that his work, so often concealed beneath layers of finish materials, would be left exposed to constitute not only the building’s structure, but its architecture.

This anecdote serves as a reminder of how often this fundamental relationship is overlooked, constituting one of the greatest missed opportunities in our discipline. The fact that an experienced concrete worker found the integration of structure and architecture remarkable enough to warrant an expression of thanks indicates that, although it is an obvious generator of design opportunity, this kind of architectural strategy remains relatively rare. Too often, structure is treated as a necessary evil concealed beneath generic finishes. While building codes and budgets contribute to this tendency, there are creative solutions to these constraints that still allow for the meaningful architectural expression of the fundamental elements of structure.

In this issue, we look at the contribution of two structural engineers to this important collaborative effort: Morden Yolles of Toronto and C.Y. Loh of Vancouver. Both have directly participated in the design of important Canadian architecture. For over 50 years, the Yolles firm has worked with some of Canada’s most respected architects and played a central role in the development of Canadian Modern architecture. A true believer in the power of the collaborative spirit, Yolles sponsors an annual design competition at the University of Toronto that brings together students in the architecture and engineering programs which, on most Canadian campuses, operate as two solitudes. An abridged excerpt from a forthcoming book on Yolles by Beth Kapusta and John McMinn documents some milestone projects from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s (see page 10).

Similarly, C.Y. Loh has been an important collaborator on much of the cutting edge work coming from the West Coast over the past three decades, working as the engineer of choice for many of Vancouver’s premier architectural practices. Loh has participated in the development of a body of work typified by highly customized structures like the hybrid masonry, concrete, steel and wood used in the Patkaus’ Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, the elaborate timber framing in their Seabird Island School, and the expressive steel ribs in Peter Cardew’s Belkin Gallery. His work was recently recognized in an exhibition organized by Elizabeth Shotton of the University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Jim Nicholls of the University of Washington Department of Architecture (see page 14).

The work of these firms serves as an important reminder of the poetic potential that lies in the integration of architecture and structure and the considered expression of how buildings mediate fundamental physical forces. This happy marriage can result in some memorable spaces, and who knows? Someone might even thank you. Marco Polo