Banff Session 2006: Pastoral Inclinations

Text Trevor Boddy

Alberta architects have a lot to celebrate these days. For one, the province’s always manic-depressive construction industry is currently on a giddy high. In an uneven pattern we have seen before in Canada, sky-high commodity prices are pushing construction activity to overdrive in the provinces straddling the Rockies. Somehow, roughly 400 Alberta architects and design students managed a few days away from the petro-boom as participants in this year’s Banff Session, Canada’s oldest and most prestigious design symposium.

Alberta architects have a second reason to celebrate, as this is the 100th anniversary of enabling provincial legislation and the foundation of their professional association. In a speech after the Alberta Association of Architects’ gala centennial dinner, University of Calgary emeritus architectural historian and theorist Michael McMordie offered a history of their association animated with a parade of built highlights–from teepee rings to post-Pomo things.

Whether by intention or because of the unpredictable availability of prominent international designers for talks, this year’s Banff Session had a definite pastoral quality, with lots of exurban and rural projects and a few too many honking big houses. The honking biggest house of all was there, the 55,000-square-foot behemoth James Cutler and Peter Bohlin planted underneath the shores of Seattle’s Lake Washington for Bill Gates. Frustratingly, much of Cutler’s design work for the Microsoft mogul remained out of view in his Banff talk, as the architect has signed a non-disclosure agreement forbidding publication or even presentation of most interior living areas. We were allowed just glimpses of salvaged and re-milled Douglas fir doors and beams, plus one of the mega-dwelling’s several dining areas.

However, we did get a look at the house’s private salmon run–Cutler described the initial reaction of the ever-blunt Gates as “that swamp is the stupidest idea I ever heard”–and an Auguste Perret-inspired vaulted concrete frame underground parking garage for 60 cars. The Cutler talk may have been therapeutic for the many designers of Canmore and Bragg Creek McMansions at the Banff Session, a needed reminder that houses and incomes are occasionally grander outside of Alberta than within it.

While Alberta’s rate of urbanization is roughly the national average, architects there maintain a fondness for rural vernacular-cribbing regionalists from the American Deep South or Canadian Maritimes. Filling that slot this time was Marlon Blackwell from Arkansas. Gates is to microprocessors what the Arkansas Tyson family is to chicken processing, and one detail of the multi-pavilion house he designed for them says it all: COR-TEN steel plate as domestic interior finish. I can only guess that rust-coloured stains on French poodles and houseguests’ seersucker suits is an arcane Ozark folk tradition, analogous to the updates on farm forms that otherwise inspire his handsomely detailed and arrayed domestic designs. For Cutler and Blackwell both, the smallest projects they showed were also their best.

Perhaps sensing the drift of the Banff program, Toronto’s PLANT Architect Inc. chose to show only the rural portion of their impressive portfolio of landscape and architectural works. The close reading of the landscape, the obsessive opticality, and the clever use of modest materials that denote their work stood in welcome relief against the less rigourous but materially more extravagant American work. Whether landscape interventions for New Jersey’s Meadowlands, temporary outdoor chaises longue and woodpile walls for the Eastern Townships, or a backyard pavilion for Oakville’s art gallery, PLANT’s designs balance a commitment to ideas with an interest in creating sublime zones of repose, precisely the kind of reflective interrogation of nature missing in those big houses.

Canadian-educated, New York-based Hani Rashid could not make it to Banff, and sent Asymptote associate Alex Pincus to present the firm’s recent work. Surprisingly, the most impressive of their built projects recalls the work of Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Laboratory. Their Hydra Pier is a monument erected to celebrate the heroic reclamation efforts which have extended the Netherlands landscape with hundreds of square kilometres of new farmland set below sea level. The building is something of a monument to ideas itself–ideas of the phenomenological relationship of the human body to sea level by devising an entry where visitors pass below a glass-enclosed pod of water set at sea level, and ideas of morphogenetic form in architecture, a label its exponents prefer over the much cruder “blobsters.”

Much less impressive was a project for the Guggenheim Museum for Guadalajara (believe me, I wish I was making this up). The “Asymptotic” take on this streamlined tripod of a mega-museum proposes that it is “a hybrid of the organic with the machine, net with armature, zocalo with Calder.” I thought it a foolish bit of styling myself, as unworkable in plan and section as it is impressive in digital rendering and animation. Rashid and Couture are too intelligent and thoughtful designers, I believe, to continue cranking out over-hyped variations on the same theme that is looking more like Art Nouveau for the digital age.

The Asymptote designs looked positively old-fashioned compared to work of the unquestioned star of this year’s Banff Session, London-based multi-designer Thomas Heatherwick. He is best known for a Docklands canal-spanning pedestrian drawbridge designed with a hydraulic mechanism that allows it to curl up into itself at the press of a button, allowing ships to pass. Heatherwick represents a hopeful future where the spirit of the Modernists lives on in work that draws variously on product and urban design. The variety and depth of Heatherwick’s work was astonishing–perhaps because he has discarded the petty polemics of architecture for the ergonomic arguments of industrial design–and the wit with which his work was presented was welcome relief from the hardened lingo of many of the other presenting architects.

One Heatherwick standout was a New York Soho showroom for a French leather goods firm not far from Rem Koolhaas’ famous space for Prada. A stacked series of curving metal surfaces serve variously as walls, treads, risers, floors, plinths and shelves–taking shoppers from a narrow street entrance to a much larger second-floor showroom. Heatherwick is clearly a major talent, and congratulations to the Banff Session organizers for making possible his first-ever Canadian talk.

During the session, Calgary architect Jeremy Sturgess asked a pointed question about the absence of urban debate and examples at this year’s Banff Session. Sturgess’ own work has turned from largely exurban custom houses to an increasing engagement with an urban design strategy appropriate for the new Calgary–to wit, his firm’s competition-winning proposal for the former General Hospital site, and current work with Foster and Partners on a spectacular two-block project for EnCana. If ever there was a place that needed a debate about the form and future of cities, it is Alberta right now, as decisions are locking into place that will set the character of Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Fort McMurray and Lethbridge for a generation. Sadly, this will have to wait until the next Banff Session in 2008, when the current construction frenzy may well be over, with Albertans’ attentions shifting to the countryside and mountains, as they always do when boom turns to bust.

Ex-Albertan architecture critic Trevor Boddy is curating the Dialogue of Cities symposium for UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, which runs from June 1-3, 2006 in Vancouver.