Despite the blowing snow and frigid temperatures, a record number of people attended the Alberta Association of Architects’ Banff Session this past April. The theme of this year’s conference was Emerge–Exploring the Possibilities, Inspirations and Innovations of Design. The diverse group of architects included Steve Christer of Studio Granda from Iceland, Pieter Bannenberg of NL Architects from The Netherlands, Heinrich Wolff of Noero Wolff Architects from South Africa and Bernard Khoury from Lebanon. These emerging leaders in design gave inspirational and thought-provoking presentations on how climate, culture, politics and war have impacted their respective design philosophies.

In comparison to the other presenters, Steve Christer spoke more to the familiar aesthetic of natural materials, the use of light, and the relationship between his architecture and its natural surroundings. Projects shown certainly illustrated these points and exemplified Studio Granda’s mantra of “making a building that was not just a shelter from the weather,” but Christer failed to demonstrate any innovative examples beyond typical Western ideas on the subject. That being said, descriptions of Reykjavk City Hall and Bifrst University showed a consistent commitment to site-specific design often missing in urban Alberta architecture. Interestingly enough, much of his explanation of the Icelandic people’s connection to the natural environment echoes the way Albertans think of themselves but so often ignore. The recent boom in Alberta, as a result of oil sands development, has led to an increased demand for housing, commercial and industrial buildings–all of which have resulted in disposable architecture intended only to last as long as the oil does. In contrast to the majority of new buildings in Alberta, fundamental beliefs about the relationship between man-made and natural environments permeate new construction projects in Iceland. Is it possible for Alberta to balance the demand for more buildings with the natural environment we are so proud of, or will we continue to view stucco, metal panels and vinyl siding as acceptable building materials because they are better for the budget?

Some of the more enlightening issues presented during the Banff Session was the use of metaphor in interior projects such as Studio Granda’s Supreme Court of Iceland. At its most basic, the building has organized the courtrooms on the lower levels and the judges’ chambers on top, alluding to a sense of hierarchy present in the justice system. Intermediate levels, containing the libraries and other support spaces, metaphorically serve as a filter in the quest for truth. Circulation through the space is by way of a series of ramps with receding ceiling heights, and narrowing walls convey a feeling of confinement and judgement. Columns and corners are avoided in each courtroom to symbolize that the law has no boundaries, but they are present in the public gallery to symbolize the restraints inherent in the system. However, the sobriety of the building’s function still allows for some whimsy. Artwork is integrated into the courtrooms’ gypsum walls by seamlessly creating auricle-like shapes out of plaster. This, along with a skylight feature over each litigator’s table, is reminiscent of the less figurative “eyes and ears” of the courtroom. These thought-provoking details may not impact the casual observer, but they are certainly successful in communicating a greater impact than many North American judicial buildings.

Pieter Bannenburg of NL Architects presented the firm’s most innovative work on the exterior of buildings, responding to a need for recreational spaces in a dense urban context. NL Architects accomplish this objective while fulfilling the commercial and industrial requirements set out by the client. Along with several projects boasting accessible green roofs, they have explored other options in “programming the roof” while the exterior walls are designed to utilize more elements and serve a greater number of functions. Early conceptual projects Parkhouse and Carstadt placed parking on the roofs of both stores and row houses to allow for more pedestrian-oriented streetscapes. Although they were never built, positive response to these ideas was encouraging and they began to explore variations on the theme.

Basketbar, on the University of Utrecht campus, integrated a basketball court on the roof of a caf. One of the few spaces on campus not already occupied by a building was a small park that was well used by students. Not wanting to give up the gathering space, NL designed the caf with a large exterior patio sunken into the sidewalk and built a basketball court on the roof. Mechanical piping is hidden in the fencing around the court to maintain a clean, uninterrupted aesthetic.

The scheme to incorporate recreational programming was further developed with WOS8, a heat-transfer station currently located in a farmer’s field soon to be surrounded by suburban development. In an effort to avoid the temptation to vandalize the vacant building, NL transformed one exterior wall into a climbing wall and another as a backboard for a basketball net and adjacent court. Integrating a mechanical building into a community instead of fencing it off from the public makes this otherwise invasive building type a contributor to its environment. Ideas like this contradict the prevalent North American solution of building a bigger fence to keep the public away and instead provide a more sympathetic solution.

In a twist on this theme, Bannenburg programmed and designed a large area under an existing highway in Koog aan de Zaan called A8ernA. Before the redevelopment, the area, at grade and below the elevated thoroughfare, was used as a parking lot and divided a neighbourhood. This unwelcoming environment was devoid of people most of the time. With the addi- tion of amenities such as a supermarket, marina, skate park and green space, the highway now serves as a link, proving that poor planning decisions made in the past do not necessarily antagonize a healthy urban environment.

Alberta’s largest cities are refocusing on urbanism through mixed-use and 24-hour-use development, and through multi-purpose public spaces. Can the multi-use ideas introduced by NL Architects be adapted for use in the northern climate of Alberta or the rest of Canada?

Another topic explored was that of critical regionalism. Heinrich Wolff of Noero Wolff Architects, an award-winning South African firm, gave an inspiring and provocative presentation entitled “Strangeness and Familiarity” about the moral obligation of architects to create relevant and familiar, yet imaginative architecture for its users. According to Wolff, “buildings must intellectually belong in the context of where they physically exist.” In general, Noero Wolff is conscious about not conforming to the latest architectural trends emanating from Western Europe. These trends do nothing for the predominantly black population of South Africa who consider architecture an elitist art. Wolff described his firm’s design philosophy as instead focusing on transcultural phenomena, such as climate and landscape–that do not discriminate according to ethnicity or social class.

This idea of regional and ethical architecture is best exemplified by the Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth, a memorial to the conflicts and injustices of South Africa. The post-apartheid government wanted a building that conveyed their progressive values of equality and reform to its users. The museum references the city’s industrial vernacular by emulating the forms and materials commonly found in the surrounding landscape of shacks and factory buildings. These gestures speak a familiar language to both the black and white populations of Port Elizabeth, transcending the dichotomy between the two opposing cultures. Within our unique context of multiculturalism, the concept of transcultural
design can perhaps define a Canadian vernacular that goes beyond the Victorian gingerbread appliqus of our residential neighbourhoods to one that speaks to our common experiences of climate and landscape.

In contrast to the public architecture of Noero Wolff, Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury presented architecture for the wealthy. Working within the context of postwar Lebanon, Khoury was commissioned to design, among other things, financial institutions, a sushi bar and an exclusive nightclub.

Although he presented some interesting design concepts, his ideas on urban renewal were the most intriguing. After the civil war, the city of Beirut had developed a restructuring plan known as Solidaire, one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken in the Middle East. Under this plan, damaged structures were earmarked for demolition and any salvageable buildings had to be returned to their original state. Strict architectural guidelines were put in place to ensure that all future construction replicated historical building forms. Khoury was concerned that Solidaire’s rigid parameters would stifle the organic growth of the city and eliminate any memory of the recent civil war. He stressed the importance of preserving the city’s present condition because it was a physical manifestation of the population’s collective memory. This philosophy of designing for the present was most evident in his concept for Centrale, a high-end restaurant and bar on the outskirts of central Beirut. The building site contained an existing wardamaged house that, under Solidaire, would have been demolished. Instead, Khoury decided to keep the existing faade, removing only the maze of interior rooms that did not serve the building’s proposed functions.

What makes Khoury’s architecture relevant to our environment is its emphasis on adaptive reuse. Whether we realize it or not, most of the development in Canada is based on the same fundamental principle as Solidaire; that new must equal improved. One need only look to the bigbox landscape of suburbia to know this isn’t true. Even most urban renewal projects promote demolition over the refurbishment and reuse of existing buildings. Within the context of our consumer culture, it is easy for architecture to be considered another disposable product. The construction industry’s understanding of sustainability must expand beyond LEED certification to include the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle.

The underlying message from each presentation was that great architecture can still exist in places with extreme economic, social and climatic conditions. We are fortunate enough to live in one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, whose government values equality, peace and freedom. The positive outlook the speakers imparted about the future of their own countries and the influence of architecture in that future was inspiring. Will we be inspired to capture the potential of our own surroundings and emerge as world leaders in design? CA

Lesley Tomlinson and Erin Hampson work at Stantec Architecture in Edmonton and are board members of Media Art & Design Exposed (M. A. D. E.) in Edmonton.