Bruce Kuwabara and the Radical Possibilities of Transformation

Text Larry Wayne Richards

Over the past 30 years, Canada has come to know Bruce Kuwabara as one of the country’s most talented architects. And, increasingly, he is recognized as a sophisticated urbanist. From his collaborative contributions on large urban projects with Barton Myers in the 1970s to his conceptions for complex city-fabric insertions during the past decade such as the Canadian Embassy in Berlin,1 Le Quartier Concordia in Montreal,2 and the Festival Centre and Tower in Toronto, Kuwabara has demonstrated remarkable leadership as an accomplished architect-urbanist with a very particular sense of the design and health of cities.

The particularity of Kuwabara’s vision and that of his partners was brought into focus in the book The Architecture of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (Birkhuser, 2004), where writers referred to KPMB’s work as cultivating a “sense of community” (Phyllis Lambert), engendering a “new way of living” (Detlef Mertins), and making a “commitment to longevity as a form of environmental sustainability” (Bruce Mau). These references ring true and open us to more complex readings of Kuwabara’s thinking and his cultural leadership. We begin to see that his agenda is not just about making objects and places of great beauty but something more active, more profound–something that is simultaneously both culturally stabilizing and transforming. Indeed, as I reflect on the 28 years that I have known Kuwabara, the words “stabilizing” and “transforming” might also be appropriately applied to his personal manner and social engagement.

For me, the key to a deeper understanding of Kuwabara’s preoccupations jumped forth when he himself revealed his passion for a small but powerful book on architecture and cities, Ordinariness and Light (MIT Press, 1970), by the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson. Published in 1970, just two years before he received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Toronto, Kuwabara says he “revelled in that book for the mesmerizing way it captured the radical possibilities of ordinariness, and the more subtle spatial experiences in the city.”

The Smithson book, which presents the couple’s urban theories from 1952 to 1960, spends a great deal of time speculating on new patterns of communication, emerging notions of motion and change that could be reflected “plastically” in cities, the importance of reusing and responding to existing urban form, the necessity of accommodating multi-voiced entities, the renewal of community structure, and attention to patterns of association. The Smithsons preached against buildings as self-contained islands, promoting instead the idea of a city as a living organism. The more closely I read Ordinariness and Light, the more I found strong linkages between the Smithsons’ vision of what cities could and should be in the last third of the 20th century, and the direction that Kuwabara has taken with his work, which includes carefully responding to existing contexts, accommodating multiple voices, and making a strong commitment to renewing community structure.

But most striking was the Smithsons’ assertion that “the responsibility of architects working in countries of great social change for directing the culture potential is very great, and it is mostly being evaded.” This statement kept coming back to me, because Kuwabara has not evaded the challenge that the Smithsons set forth. Over the past half century, Canada has radically urbanized and gone through dramatic social change. It might have been enough for an architect with Kuwabara’s design talent to create superb buildings and places, win awards, and rest on his accolades. However, this was not in his nature. Rather, he has taken a broader, active cultural role as KPMB’s primary public voice, a university teacher and aggressive supporter of architectural education, a promoter of the arts, and a constant raise-the-bar instigator for design excellence in Canada. Similar to Eric Arthur, Arthur Erickson, Phyllis Lambert, Jack Diamond, and other RAIC Gold Medal recipients over the years, Kuwabara is, in the best sense, driven to elevate Canada in terms of its cultural potential. He relishes Canada’s distinctiveness, physically and socially, and knows the vast potential for our nation to be la mode internationally, of not only decency and civility but also as great city makers.

As I mentioned earlier, the words “stabilizing” and “transforming” come to mind in thinking about both Kuwabara’s work and his personal manner. By stabilizing I mean the conservative side of his design approach, which entails a grand sense of history and time, and which values the reinforcement of organic, proven patterns. And here there is also gravitation to “ordinariness” and intentionally loose organizational strategies. For example, in two City Hall projects–the 1993 Kitchener City Hall, which helped consolidate and reinforce public space in that city’s downtown, and the 2000 Richmond City Hall (in association with Hotson Bakker Architects), which through its ensemble of three buildings and network of landscaped courtyards generated a civic precinct amidst suburban drift–Kuwabara brought stability to and reinforced the identity of these developing municipalities.

In contrast to the essentially conservative and stabilizing nature of the Kitchener and Richmond City Halls, Kuwabara’s design for the headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival, which includes an adjacent residential point tower, reveals his capacity to crank up the volume and release transformational potential. For the roof of the centre, he proposes an outdoor theatre reminiscent of the roof of the Villa Malaparte. And the 42-storey condominium tower promises to be a sparkling, optic essay in glass and light. To be completed in 2009, its radical transparency will participate in this decade’s vast, vertical transformation of Toronto’s skyline.

Openness and light were among the many qualities that Alison and Peter Smithson promoted for cities, not just for aesthetic reasons but because they imagined old urban structures giving way to emerging ones based on new patterns of communication. Their prophecy is unfolding before us in cities across Canada–living organisms, cultural organisms–made real by the passion, talent, and action of a natural leader like Bruce Kuwabara.

1 The architect team for the Canadian Embassy in Berlin included the following firms: Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, Gagnon Letellier Cyr Architectes, Smith Carter Architects + Engineers Inc., Pysall Ruge von Matt Architekten, RAVE Architekten, HOK International Ltd./Urbana Architects and Vogel Architect.

2 In addition to Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, Le Quartier Concordia at Concordia University was completed in joint venture with Fichten Soiferman et Associs, Architectes.