Building a Future

Text George Baird

The list of Bruce Kuwabara’s achievements is, of course, an extraordinarily long one, encompassing professional commissions, teaching, philanthropy and public advocacy. In a short statement such as I have been asked to prepare, it will not be possible to describe the range of his remarkable achievements in each of these categories. To some extent, they are well known, in any event. Given this, I have decided to focus on three quite different sets of activities from different periods in his career, ones which for me are both highly distinctive and exemplary of his strong personal commitment to and engagement with the manifold aspects of the culture of architecture.

It is by now quite a familiar story of how the firm of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg was created, in the wake of the decision of their former mentor, Barton Myers, to move to Los Angeles. Toronto projects such as King James Place on King Street East in downtown Toronto and the 1991 renovation to the Art Gallery of Ontario are pivotal ones occurring during the transition of offices from Barton Myers Associates to Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg. And a concurrent project–the addition and renovations to Woodsworth College–has widely been seen to represent the clear-cut debut of the new firm.1 All of these still stand as exemplary projects in recent Toronto architecture, and they clearly set the tone for the production of the new firm.

But in attempting to capture the tenor of the early independent career of Kuwabara and his partners, I propose instead to focus on a small group of retail shop interiors designed by Kuwabara and Thomas Payne, completed in the early years of the firm: a first shop and then an expansion on Bloor Street in midtown Toronto for the clothier Marc Laurent, then a new shop for the same client across the street, and finally, two more for Nicolas Kalatzis, a member of Marc Laurent who struck out on his own–a first shop on Bellair Street followed by a second one on Cumberland Street.2

It seems to me that it is in this group of rather personal projects that Kuwabara and Payne first established the distinctive spatial, tectonic, and material ethos that has typified the best work of KPMB ever since that time. A cool and calm, yet rich interior atmosphere, marked by the use of exquisite natural stones and wood veneers, highly refined metal details, and subtle lighting schemes is found in all of these shops. They also brilliantly embody the creation and the extended utilization of a set of highly skilled tradesmen in the Toronto area, as already identified by Rodolphe el-Khoury in his interview contained in the recently published monograph on the firm.

It is even possible to trace strong echoes of the sensibility that produced these early projects in recent buildings like the James Stewart Centre for Mathematics on the campus of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.3 As with the shops described above, the firm was dealing here with another interior–this one of a heritage structure on the campus. A similar set of spatial, tectonic and material effects that are typically employed for the shops here produce an institutional interior of surprising voluptuousness. Most deservedly, the renovation of the Stewart building won a Governor General’s Medal in 2004, and the 2005 American Institute of Architects Honor Award.

The second set of activities I wish to point to involves a quite current set of projects in the KPMB office, only one of which is completed. This is the Celia Franca Centre for Canada’s National Ballet School on Jarvis Street in downtown Toronto. Completed as a joint venture with Goldsmith Borgal & Company Architects (GBCA), the project entailed an extraordinarily complex set of site circumstances. First of all, the overall site was split in two by the developer, Context Developments; the west half accommodating a high-density residential project (designed by Toronto’s architectsAlliance), and the east half accommodating the new Jarvis Street campus for the NBS. But this is only the beginning of the complication of the commission. The east half of the site already included some existing facilities of the NBS, as well as two important heritage structures, one from the mid, and the other from the late 19th century. Together with GBCA, KPMB has accomplished an astonishing feat of design integration. The new buildings that comprise the Celia Franca Centre for the NBS brilliantly complement the two preserved and reused heritage buildings, as well as both the low-rise and high-rise residential structures to which they abut. And while all of this is true, the principal massing element of the Celia Franca Centre proper projects striking images of the rehearsing young dancers in their practice space out into the void of Jarvis Street itself.4

In the corpus of the firm’s current work, the Ballet School is about to be joined by three other remarkable, and–to my eye–tonally similar projects. These are the renovated and expanded Gardiner Museum for Ceramic Art,5 the new municipal complex for the City of Vaughan6 north of Toronto, and the Sugar Building residential condominium complex located in a heritage district in downtown Denver, Colorado.7 The bold new exterior of the Gardiner Museum is already apparent on Queens Park in downtown Toronto, and its spare, cool, yet rich vocabulary of gridded and striated elements is already making a powerful impression on passersby. While the Vaughan Corporate Centre and the Denver condominium only exist in drawn form at this stage, they promise to do the same in their respective locations.

With this recent set of projects, it seems to me that KPMB has reached an impressive threshold of design maturity. By now, the varied influences of Kahn and Myers and Stirling and Scarpa–not to mention a few more contemporary architects–all seem to have been quite distilled, and a distinctive calmness, luxuriousness and voluptuousness now begins to characterize the oeuvre of the firm.

To close, I want to say a few words about Kuwabara’s philanthropy and public advocacy. For nearly a decade now, he has been a leading financial supporter and fundraiser for the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. Many have contributed a great deal to the campaign of the faculty, but no single individual has contributed so generously as Kuwabara.

And then, there is his recent decision to move clearly into the public arena of design quality advocacy in the city of Toronto. As the first chair of the Design Review Panel of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation, and as spokesperson at innumerable public meetings and conferences, Kuwabara has now taken on the mantle of the city’s leading advocate of design quality for its buildings and public realm. I expect the University of Toronto, the city of Toronto, and Canadian architecture to be the beneficiaries of his talent, commitment and tenacity for many years to come.

George Baird is the current Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. He is also a partner in the Toronto firm of Baird Sampson Neuert Architects.

1 The partner-in-charge for both the Art Gallery of Ontario Stage III Expansion and Woodsworth College was Thomas Payne. Kuwabara worked on the competition entry for the AGO.

2 A number of members of KPMB worked with Kuwabara and Payne on these projects: Lexi Kolt, Jason King, Larry Chow and Anthony Provenzano worked on subsequent phases of Marc Laurent, and Todd Macyk, Andrew Dyke and Javier Uribe worked on various phases of the Nicolas interiors.

3 On the James Stewart Centre for Mathematics, Kuwabara worked with partner Shirley Blumberg and Kevin Bridgman.

4 The KPMB National Ballet School team was headed by Bruce Kuwabara and Shirley Blumberg, and included Mitchell Hall and Olga Pushkar. The GBCA team was headed by Phil Goldsmith, and included Allan Killin and Pa
ul Gagne.

5 The Gardiner Museum team was headed by Bruce Kuwabara and Shirley Blumberg, and included Paulo Rocha.

6 The project team for the City of Vaughan is headed by Bruce Kuwabara, and includes Goran Milosevic and Kevin Bridgman.

7 The New Sugar Building team is headed by Bruce Kuwabara and Shirley Blumberg, and includes Javier Uribe, Bruno Weber and Myriam Tawadros.