Building Impact: Interviews with Daniel Cohlmeyer, Shallyn Murray, John Patkau, and Silva Stojak

Architects often seem to have a relationship with their work that connects deeply with the idea of artistic legacy. Like painters, they design an oeuvre by which they are judged, and these projects are what they leave behind. Firm by firm, you can see this sort of narrative being purposefully develop­ed in books, corporate websites, firm profiles, presentations. As a proposal writer, I was a dutiful student of this type of storytelling for a long time, and it became part of my career. After all, it was (and remains) a necessity of marketing for architecture firms to create a body of work and put it forward. Behold, these are the works that we have designed. 

This is a straightforward enough idea of professional legacy—appealing even—but buildings aren’t like other artworks. They get lived in, added on to, renovated, worn out, torn down. Design work itself is also more complicated than the stories that tend to follow. Finished buildings mark the culmination of what is usually a huge and messy group project, as opposed to a work of single authorship. The actual process of design and project management takes months or years before a building’s completion. How that day-to-day work is handled by different individuals is in itself a significant professional legacy: one that often gets completely omitted or overlooked when talking about architecture. (You can get through an entire retrospective of Frank Lloyd Wright’s career without reading about how he treated students in his Taliesin Fellowship, which to me is one of the aspects of his legacy worth remembering and learning from.) As always, reality is both richer and more complicated than meticulously photoshopped images of finished buildings, or stories about how design challenges were successfully resolved. 

So how does this square with the question of legacy and how architects tend to think about it? I spoke with four architects from three different firms across Canada. Their responses were varied, unexpected, and all ran deeper than the idea of simply cultivating a portfolio of photogenic or recognized work. 


Daniel Cohlmeyer (left) with his late father Stephen Cohlmeyer (right). Photo courtesy Cohlmeyer Architecture.

Throughout one of these conversations, Daniel Cohlmeyer, Principal at Cohlmeyer Architecture, unpacked tensions that exist between popular narratives about architects and the day-to-day reality of the work. Rather than creating major, well-recognized projects, the majority of his time is spent on unsung background projects, smaller renovations, and minor upgrades. Daniel is a fourth-generation architect—the son of architect Stephen Cohlmeyer (who passed away in 2021) and landscape architect Cynthia Cohlmeyer (who works at Cohlmeyer Architecture). In our conversation, Daniel expressed pride in a family legacy of design that runs back generations. He was also thoughtful about what it means to contribute to the ongoing meta-projects of designing cities and architecture firms themselves.

“There’s no doubt there’s an ego deep down, and you think of legacy. You look at your colleagues and what they’ve done, and you look at what some people have done at a very young age,” says Cohlmeyer. “There’s no way to not compare yourself, because we’re taught to look at other architects and what they’ve built, and why they’re important, and what kind of legacy they have brought to the world of architecture. “Right from the outset of school, you’re taught about the legacy of architecture. I don’t think that many architects end up creating legacy, and I mean that in good terms. Many architects—at least in Canada—work on projects that are definitely not seen by the public.”

Cohlmeyer’s work on The Forks in downtown Winnipeg began by creating a public space strategy for the 80-acre site, and extended 
to long-term planning for a future development initiative. Photo courtesy Cohlmeyer Architecture.

Cohlmeyer sees so-called background projects as one of the things often omitted in a discussion of professional legacy, but does not discount their importance. Recalling his father’s work, Cohlmeyer notes that while design work was being done on The Forks in Winnipeg (a beloved and well-known public space), his father was also working on a project to replace 300 locks on high-security prison doors—one of a litany of necessary projects, both for the world, and for the sake of maintaining a viable architecture practice. 

To Cohlmeyer, this type of understated contribution to the built environment isn’t the only thing missed by the more conventional stories that are told about architectural legacy. We also tend to miss just how many people are involved in the work. 

At Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park, Cohlmeyer Architecture and HTFC Planning and Design’s work included creating a 400-foot-long interpretive wall from layered Corten steel. Photo courtesy Cohlmeyer Architecture.

“I feel very awkward talking about me, when we all know it’s a team of people. A lot of people are implicated in every single project. Legacy specifically points out one name of a firm or a person, but rarely talks about the ninety-nine percent of the work was done by others. So that’s a problem. And we train that in school. We train that with Canadian Architect too,” says Cohlmeyer. The client, too, is an essential player, he adds: “Legacy is as much the client as it is the architect.”


John Patkau with Cut/Drawn, a piece that explores the properties of steel by precisely cutting an industrially extruded metal plate and drawing it out with enormous tension. Photo: James Dow / Patkau Architects

I spoke with John Patkau in December of last year. John is one of the principals at Patkau Architects in Vancouver, a design firm recognized with many Governor General’s Medals—most recently, in 2020 for the Polygon Gallery in Vancouver. Throughout our discussion, I was struck by how many of his comments made me think of the traditional notion of architectural legacy as something that almost looked unhealthily backwards. At the close of our call, Patkau summed up his thoughts:

Patkau Architects’ entry to a design competition for a public library in Daegu, South Korea, proposed a curvilinear shell structure made from timber members and panels. Photo: James Dow / Patkau Architects

“The buildings that you make do comprise a legacy. My view is that being overly concerned about that might not be the best thing, because I think it would tend to cause you to focus on what you might call your ‘brand’, which is an anathema to me, the idea of a brand,” he said. “While I recognize that legacy is very important, and a brand, I guess, is important, it’s something that I don’t like to think about. I would like to always be open and growing and changing, so that the legacy is an ever-growing, ever-changing thing, rather than something that is being consolidated, concretized and frozen into a repeated pattern. I’m looking for expansion.” 

GNaum, named for the Russian Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo, is a habitable sculpture made through folding and bending light-gauge stainless steel sheets. Photo: James Dow / Patkau Architects

This type of thinking directly informs work at Patkau Architects. The firm often engages in research projects that are smaller, intentionally open-ended, and done with the purpose of both playing with and investigating new ideas. Patkau even sees a trap in people trying to bundle their work into a single comprehensible package: “I would see that as shutting down the willingness to risk, the willingness to push into new areas that aren’t well-worn. And certainly, the idea of limiting yourself to the scope of thinking that you’ve previously thought—as opposed to moving into new areas—is something that I would think is not a good thing. […] For us, it’s always been more about trying to find new things to address, new issues to enrich what we do.”


Nine Yards Studio principals Silva Stojak (left) and Shallyn Murray (right). Photo by Stewart MacLean Media

Throughout my Zoom call with Shallyn Hendry and Silva Stojak, Principals at Nine Yards Architecture in Prince Edward Island, I watched as they bounced ideas off each other about the idea of a professional legacy, and what it meant to them. Their firm opened in 2017; since then, it’s being recognized with an RAIC National Urban Design Award for their Urban Beehive Project and was featured in this magazine’s “Twenty + Change: Emerging Talent” selection. They agreed they had never intentionally set out to develop a “legacy” per se as a firm, and that any legacy created was a natural extension of their own values, including their interests in equitable work and fulfilling designs. 

“I do think legacy for some architects is probably recognition of a body of work—I mean, that’s the first thing that comes to mind, talking about the legacy of architects that are more well-known, for example,” says Hendry. “We tend to look for more meaningful work as our legacy, and I think that’s probably true for a lot of [other] architects as well—they gear their choices and what they want to leave behind as a fulfillment of their own careers and what they believe in.”

Nine Yards Studio and MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects collaborated on the refurbishment of the ground floor of a 1950s government building into the Charlottetown Library Learning Centre. Photo by Doublespace Photography

Says Stojak, “You never think about anything that you are doing as a legacy at all, because you are not doing things to make it a ‘legacy’, necessarily. It’s just too presumptuous to think about. […] We are interested to do things that equalize everyone in our community.”

Asked about what meaningful work meant to her, Hendry mentioned the firm’s not-for-profit housing designs. She also discussed the recently completed Charlottetown Library (with design collaborators MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects), and smaller single-object and public art projects. Of the latter, she says: “It gives us that opportunity to design freely and be a bigger part of the community. Those art projects, it’s usually something in a park, somewhere that the community sees it and can engage with it.” 

Built for Charlottetown’s Art in the Open festival, Sh*t Load of Tubes was made from inexpensive paper tubes used to transport carpet and flooring. Photo by Nine Yards Studio

Hendry sees a shift in how people have thought about architectural legacy—a move from seeing things as more portfolio-based, to something that takes a more holistic view of the business. Both Hendry and Stojak mentioned the importance of having a diverse workplace, providing opportunity and work-life balance to staff, as well as providing fair pay for work. 

“I think there’s some legacy in that, too: having a firm that is better balanced and looking at the profession in a different way than maybe it was looked at before,” says Hendry. “You practice the person that you are, what you believe, and that somehow becomes—if you’re looking for it—your legacy.”

I asked everybody I talked with how the necessity of marketing an architecture firm forced them to contend with certain types of storytelling or legacy-building. For all, there was a necessity to tell stories about their projects that followed from the need to market a firm, but how they thought about it varied. 

“My pessimistic answer is yes, it’s absolutely [needed] for business,” says Cohlmeyer. “It’s not about legacy. You can’t compete without a website. You can’t compete without doing RFPs.”

For Patkau, the question hit a bit of a nerve.

“That’s a sore point. You’ve really hit me in an area that I find really frustrating. The fact that buildings are now compelled to be stories. Buildings aren’t stories. They’re buildings,” Patkau says through a laugh on our call. “They’re dumb objects that just sit there, and they’re not storytellers. And architects, if they’re storytellers, are maybe more bullshit artists than anything else. So that whole narrative dimension drives me nuts, and it always has. We’ve always tried to be reticent about that, and to basically—to use the expression—let the work speak for itself.”

Hendry at Nine Yards seemed to view the firm’s marketing initiatives as less focussed on portfolio, and more a natural expression of the firm’s personality in the world. “We use Instagram as a main tool to sometimes get work, but also promote who we want to be. I very much feel like that has made us relatable to many people that probably never knew an architect, or even knew what architects did.” Hendry continues: “I think marketing plays a big role in our legacy—what we would leave behind, what people would know us as, or what impact we would make in the community.”

One of the last questions I asked everybody was how they thought of their own finished projects—whether they remembered them as experiences, or maybe thought of them as their own distinct entities. 

“The buildings themselves do take on an independence,” says Patkau. “It does change, and when you go back to them you look at them at a distance, because you’ve moved on, too. What was fascinating, and what you were really trying to accomplish on a project 15 years ago, is not the same as what you’re thinking about today. So, when you get back to them, they have acquired some separation, some distance, and in that sense, you are able to see them more clearly perhaps—because you have gotten that separation.”

For Cohlmeyer, there was a kind of lovely balance between wanting to contribute to a city while still contributing distinct and recognizable work. “I really like the idea of my buildings evolving. However, the one we just did for Montauk Sofa Montreal [see February CA, 2023], it’s so crystalline. It’s so perfect. I would feel hurt to see that modified.”

As for the work of his family, Cohlmeyer expressed a sense of pride, both in seeing past projects come to fruition, and in continuing some of them into the present day. “I feel very proud to go see my Dad’s work. There’s just pride. It’s as simple as that.”

For Stojak and Hendry at Nine Yards, there is some variation in how they think of their past work, depending on the context of the project. Stojak noted a bit of sadness in being done with some of her projects, while others—like the firm’s Urban Beehive Project—have continued directly in a way that she finds rewarding. 

“We are just part of the life of the building,” says Stojak. “We can’t give more life and soul to the building after we are done. It’s up to users to do that.”

There is potency in looking at what a legacy means, beyond just creating a portfolio of works. The practice of designing buildings is spectacularly varied, and it leaves its mark. Asking what this adds up to in terms of legacy is a thought-experiment worth luxuriating in—if for no other reason than it might change how you think about what you’re doing right now.

Jake Nicholson is a writer based in London, Ontario, with extensive experience working on proposals for architectural and engineering firms.

See all articles in the November issue