Brave New World

Smith Carter Workplace, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Smith Carter Architects

Given a chance, who among us would not fine-tune our personalities–a nip here, a tuck there–offering a rebirth, a complete rejuvenation, a purging of bad habits and old ways, a new beginning. Rarely does life offer us this opportunity, but when it does, it’s exhilarating to drop the baggage of history and habit.

Within the architectural profession, the manifold straitjackets of law and liability, profit targets, shareholder accountability, specialization and expertise, client demands and human resource management conspire to make it virtually impossible to reconstruct an established architectural practice from the ground up. Branding works, or so we have been led to believe. Advertising and promotion campaigns can push a firm over the great identity divide–or propel it into a new trajectory. But for the deep-rooted all-encompassing full-change workup, nothing’s as good as a new place and new space.

In 2002, Smith Carter Architects embarked on a strategy to centralize and consolidate their operations. A multi-dimensional third-generation practice of about 125 employees with offices in three cities, Smith Carter Architects needed to adapt to changing markets, new employee management philosophies, and new production technologies. They wanted to expand their collaborative project-based partnerships, attain higher levels of client care, and invent the means for reaching out to the community. All this had to happen without production missing a beat and under the overwhelmingly complex pressures of designing a new headquarters by (and for) themselves.

Meet the new slim and trim SC3, remade in the image of the 21st century, complete with wireless connections, a juice and coffee bar, in-house bicycle storage and staff showers, a workout area on the mezzanine, and individuated fresh airflow. Set this all into a neutral two-storey high generic design hall, distribute the partners randomly amongst the staff (a social and political gamble), and you have a fairly impressive new start with considerable vigour.

With its brand new fully equipped multi-disciplinary toolbox, Smith Carter Architects is now poised to evolve as an international practice, refining their specialty–Level 3 and Level 4 Biocontainment Laboratories and Medical Research Facilities–across North America and around the world. These labs require the highest standards in building systems integration. They also call for intense relations with the scientific community whose work they support. This new generation of facilities offers the benefit of limitless daylight, maximum flexibility, and collaborative working environments.

In one sense, the new Smith Carter Architects building is a test bed for the kinds of labs that are needed to further bio-scientific research by humanist means. Key projects currently underway include the Institute for Advanced Medicine at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, The National Biocontainment Lab at Boston University, and an exoskeletal test facility for immune building systems studies in Lubbock, Texas. SC3 is an intense research-based practice experimenting at the cutting edge of smart building technology, and is always looking for other intensive and experimental projects. They are, for example, flexible enough to take on large office commissions, like the new Manitoba Hydro building with Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects. They are also interested in small intricate projects, like the Infectious Disease Research Clinic in Nairobi, Kenya, which will bolster the work of the Microbiology Laboratory of the Canadian Science Centre and the University of Manitoba’s world-renowned HIV research program.

The Smith Carter Architects office represents one of many signals indicating a renaissance of progressive architecture in Winnipeg. Institutional projects like the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and the recent announcement of a new Airport Terminal project indicate that the city is going through a progressive architectural change of its own, approaching the energetic and frenzied activity of the 1950s and 1960s. What is most interesting about this shift is the breadth of its impact–from avant-garde micro projects to large-scale institutional and commercial work.

Aiming for the LEED Gold rating–SC3 is a machine indeed, but not overtly so. The sustainability aspects operate behind the scenes. Plenums in the north wall and the roof open automatically, augmenting thermal convection and fresh air intake. Window blinds on the north and west glass walls raise and lower automatically in response to sun exposure. Clients prefer buildings that work simply, and if they work efficiently, so much the better. Energy costs are skyrocketing (currently hovering around $45.00 USD a barrel), and if one can provide significant energy saving measures while improving standards of indoor air quality, why not? More productive employees, lower capital and operating costs, and daylit double-height spaces benefit all parties involved.

What is delightful about the building is the seamless manner in which the new materials and technologies are integrated. One senses that the investment in planning and design will pay off in the long run with the use of more durable materials like stainless steel cladding, which has a higher initial cost, but which endures in the long run. One might even suggest that in a market of escalating land and construction costs, the building–apart from the expected increase in productivity and employee satisfaction–is a smart investment. The building will be eminently marketable by virtue of the large generic spaces and flexible systems.

The partners explicitly recognize that they must handle their employees with care in order to maximize their capabilities. Phrases like “a place of inspiration,” “a place for serious play,” and “a place of social benefit” take into account the needs and requirements of interns, employees, associates, and partners. Everyone stands to gain from a high-quality designed environment. One might argue that in a large office it is possible to amortize the luxury of employee amenities like the Fitness Zone. But at its root, the intentions of the firm are admirable. An interest in employee well-being is registered through access to flexible work stations, vast amounts of daylight, a democratic Crown Hall-like courtyard studio, personalized under-floor fresh air supply, and an intimate but spectacular landscape setting. Architects and engineers mingle with accountants–and all are able to move around the space and use their laptops anywhere in and outside of the building. A special projects space on the mezzanine is designed for collaborative works, and this is where the Manitoba Hydro Building project will be fleshed out over the next several years.

Familiarity with sophisticated European environmental standards and construction technologies derived from their work on the Canadian Embassy in Berlin is also evident in the project. In this sense the project is less “local” but as was the case in the 1950s, imported ideas are tempered by regional climate and values. The success of the project is entirely predicated on both the transfer of exotic building technology and its regional integration into the Manitoba context.

Scott Stirton, CEO of Smith Carter Architects, remembers practicing his chip shots with a nine iron on the site as a kid, while his father put in a few extra Saturday hours at the Smith Carter office building across the street. The new SC3 office has an interesting attachment to the site and its public recreation potential. The firm intends to hold annual open houses to exhibit architectural projects in the large entry hall–anticipating the display of not just their own work but the work of other firms. This is both a research strategy and an acknowledgement that autonomous architectural practices are essentially a thing of the past: collaboration and cross-fertilization is good for architectural culture in general, and SC3 in particular.

It’s hard to pinpoint the author
ship of the scheme–there were many hands involved, but the genesis of the project rests with Jim Orzechowski, and this is his corporate legacy. He had the vision for change, and developed the mechanism to enact it. As the CEO of a previous iteration of SC3, he left the firm in better shape than when he found it. If we all accomplished that much in our own lives, progress would inevitably follow. The design strategies for the project were developed by Karen Shanski and Alan Coppinger. They were freed to work at arms length from the firm and the shareholders, with Jim Yamashita as a mentor. Their prior immersion in the experimental cultures of OMA and IKOY respectively, meshed elegantly with the Smith Carter reputation of the 1950s and 1960s for slick, understated, lucid, refined and experimental architecture keyed directly into site and landscape.

Perhaps, in reaching outside of its core, by opening itself up to external inspiration and hard criticism–as was the case when they hired young designers like James Donahue for the John R. Russell Building at the University of Manitoba (1959) and the Monarch Life Building on Broadway (1961), SC3 has inadvertently stumbled upon the very essence of a strong design reputation that transcends every era. This includes the willingness and the ability to challenge the status quo, to back up lofty ideals with action, and to question every aspect of a building’s conceptualization. In committing themselves to this process of change, they have recovered the very pragmatism upon which the high calibre of Modern architecture in the city was founded. Some things never change.

Herb Enns is Professor of Architecture at the University of Manitoba and a Contributing Editor at Canadian Architect.

Smith Carter Architects Office, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Smith Carter Architects

Client: Smith Carter Architects

Architect Team: Smith Carter Architects

Structural: Smith Carter Architects

Mechanical: Smith Carter Architects

Electrical: Smith Carter Architects

Interiors: Smith Carter Architects

Lanscape: Smith Carter Architects

Construction Manager: M.D. Steele Construction Ltd.

Area: 50,000 ft2

Budget: $7,500,000

Completion: July 2004

Photography: Gerry Kopelow