Defining Function

A concluding statement by Douglas Cardinal becomes an evocative beginning: “human ingenuity and creativity–that’s our resource today.” The importance of creativity in Cardinal’s process conveys the intention to respond to the user and simultaneously engage the surrounding context. This ability of a project to reflect its functionality was illustrated in a recent celebration of Douglas Cardinal’s career. Numerous lectures and events, including a student design charrette, opened the retrospective Celebrate Cardinal–A Portfolio last month as part of Canadian Architecture Week in Chicago.

The exhibition, held at the John David Mooney Foundation, was accompanied by a series of events celebrating not only the work of Douglas Cardinal but also a design process strengthened through group interaction. The exploration of Cardinal’s process in a design charrette involving students from six Canadian universities (Calgary, DalTech, Laval, Manitoba, McGill, and Montreal) and from the University of Illinois in Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology re-examined the premise that architecture should evolve from people’s needs and the expressed function of the space. The group explorations reflected Cardinal’s strategy of “wrapping” a form around a function; the established relationship provides the code or strategy for the entire project. The intended spatial functions organize the architecture’s engagement with both its built and natural contexts.

The charrette itself revealed the potential for innovation within this design process. The site chosen was an abandoned bridge structure extending without a terminus–a remnant of the demolished raised walkway network on the University of Illinois campus. The contrast between the bridge’s past function and its proposed revitalization addressed both the intended use of the space and the contextual history of its function on the campus. As both user and designer, each participant reassessed how the function of the design studio space–the charrette program–should be formally articulated. Engaging the architecture’s internal function and external context through a formal strategy drove the charrette designs to examine the complexity of spatial function and interaction.

Cardinal’s design strategy seemed particularly appropriate to examine through the charrette in the context of downtown Chicago. The retrospective exhibition was located on the edge of the built channel system that divides and forms the architecture and urban strategies of the city’s downtown. The natural network of waterways has been both preserved and manipulated throughout the city’s history to enable both economic growth and industrial progress. This draws interesting parallels with Cardinal’s work, providing an evocative background for viewing the exhibit. While the organic, formal presence of his work evokes an initial visual impact, it is the combination of this quality and his commitment to the use of the space that drives his unique architecture. In both the urban fabric of Chicago and Cardinal’s design strategy, it is the balance between the internal function and external context that has created public spaces that are both engaging and vibrant. Exhibiting Celebrate Cardinal–A Portfolio in downtown Chicago resulted in giving a philosophically rich body of work an added layer of interpretation.

Keir Stuhlmiller is a fourth year Masters student in the Department of Architecture at the University of Calgary. Thanks to the University of Calgary Architecture Faculty, Canadian Consulate General, the John David Mooney Foundation, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and the Canadian Architectural Archives. Photography by the author.