Canadian Architect

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Books

November 1, 2013
by Canadian Architect

Bracket–Goes Soft
Edited by Neeraj Bhatia and Lola Sheppard. New York: Actar, 2012.

Bracket–Goes Soft, the second volume in the almanac series collated by Archinect and Infranet Lab with a changing cast of jurors, presents a wide selection of proposals. It includes both urban and rural projects at various scales–from a prototype desalination facility in the tropics to a post-apocalyptic vision of a bario colonizing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge–that together suggest that a flexible and responsive technopolis will respond to pressing global issues.

In the introduction, the editors declare that the definition of soft toward which we are going picks up from the work of Archigram, who changed the definition of soft “from the malleability of a material to the flexibility of a system.” The editors ascribe this redefinition to “design motives that were entrenched in a skepticism of Modernism.” From another vantage point, however, the postwar avant-garde with its Neo-Futurist cities simply continued the Techno-Utopianism that lies at the heart of Modernism.

So, can’t we go softer? In certain projects, a more convincing version of softness as subversive and opposed to the hardness of Modernist ideology and practice can be glimpsed. These more phenomenologically inflected contributions return to the sensing body as the basis for experiencing architecture and the city.

STUDIOGRUBER’s A Floating Room, for instance, literally suspends reality through an immersive and surprising sensational experience, providing an opening for more profound social interactions to take place. Claire Lubell and Virginia Fernandez’s Buoyant Light proposes a pragmatic and poetic installation of solar balloons along transportation routes in the Arctic. Their exploration demonstrates a striking attentiveness to the interrelatedness of emotional and physical well-being. Shannon Werle’s essay on sound art that transforms the raw material of city noise into, variously, a minimal recording of subtracted sound, a performance piece, and a catalogue of “sonic specimens” encourages resensitizing ourselves to everyday sensory experience. Although not necessarily new, these arguments are at the core of a truly soft architecture that subverts the rigid systems-thinking of Modernism.

Kai Woolner-Pratt studies at the School of Architecture at Dalhousie University.

Architecture of Saskatchewan: A Visual Journey, 1930-2011
By Bernard Flaman. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013.

Nearly 10 years in the making, Bernard Flaman’s long-awaited survey of architecture in Canada’s most central prairie province picks up where the 1986 publication Historic Architecture of Saskatchewan left off, chronologically presenting by decade the best buildings in the province–all documented within an extensive historical context. 

A conservation architect with Public Works and Government Services Canada, Flaman has thoroughly researched the broad scope of his subject for the past several years. Rife with archival photos, drawings and artists’ sketches, the book sets forth the often poetic approaches taken to building in an unbroken and expansive landscape while enduring an unrelentingly harsh climate. As expected, most of the buildings featured are drawn from the province’s two largest cities, Saskatoon and Regina, but there is a varied assortment of exemplary buildings from many of Saskatchewan’s smaller communities. 

Just 108 years old, Saskatchewan was once (incredibly) the third most populous province in the early part of the 20th century prior to WWII. Following this ambitious period of expansion, Flaman’s opening chapter reflects the change in direction in the 1930s and ’40s from a preoccupation with late 19th- and early 20th-century Revival styles to an era defined by Art Deco and Streamlined Moderne. While the 1950s were characterized by a buoyant economy recovering from the Great Depression and WWII, the decade ends with the distinct arrival of Modernism, laying a solid foundation for the exhilarating period to follow.

The 1960s represent a distinct high point for the province, in which it experienced an unprecedented level of building activity marked by an experimental approach to the International Style. With the expansion of the University of Saskatchewan as the province’s only (at the time) postsecondary institution, many of the best buildings were constructed on its graciously scaled Saskatoon campus. Outside influences proved beneficial to the increasing sophistication of the province’s architecture: Saskatchewan’s best-known architect Clifford Wiens was educated at the Rhode Island School of Design, Kiyoshi Izumi studied at the London School of Economics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and they–along with an influx of European-trained architects that had emigrated from the United Kingdom–were responsible for many of the outstanding buildings of this period.

Of course, the building that Flaman chose as the image for his book’s cover is none other than Wiens’s iconic Heating and Cooling Plant for the University of Saskatchewan’s Regina campus–completed in 1967 and awarded a prestigious Massey Medal in 1970, followed more than four decades later with a Prix du XXe Siècle in 2011 from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Wiens’s mastery is further evidenced by the stunningly pure and elemental form of Silton Chapel (1969) on the slopes of Last Mountain Lake, another Massey Medal winner. Tragically, the chapel faces imminent demolition.

The Brutalism of the 1970s and the painful Postmodern excesses of the 1980s were followed by an even darker period in which Saskatchewan’s fortunes waned, and the province languished for almost two solid decades, architecturally and otherwise. By 2006, renewed economic prosperity ramped up construction activity, and thankfully, a new generation of architects now returning to the province signals its emergence from a prolonged period of relative dormancy. 

Architects, designers and potential clients would be well advised to read Architecture of Saskatchewan–not merely as an exercise in nostalgia but as a buoyant reminder of greatness and of what can still be accomplished in such an underrated and undervalued province. One hopes that today’s practitioners will embrace these most worthwhile lessons of the past to inspire their future work, returning the architectural bar back to its former position of excellence. Saskatchewan’s economic future has never looked brighter; let’s hope its architectural future burns just as brightly.

Leslie Jen, MRAIC, is the Associate Editor of Canadian Architect.

Project by Project: Architectural/Memoirs
By Clifford Wiens. Vancouver: Wiens Publishing House, 2012.

Clifford Wiens’s architecture was widely published around 1970 as an exemplar of the remarkable flowering of Canadian design in the wake of Expo 67. His projects show a deep commitment to the specifics of place, including both the physical site and climate, the material culture, and an abiding love of ingenuity driven by economy. The renowned early projects–St. Mark’s Shop, the University of Regina Heating and Cooling Plant, and the outdoor chapel at Silton–are mostly known from black and white photos in contemporary journals. The wonderful colour photographs in the main Project by Project volume provide new insight into the material and spatial qualities of his designs, augmented by drawings, models and images of the Saskatchewan landscape so important to Wiens’s thinking about placemaking.

The early projects seem less singular situated as they are among the full breadth of his work, and one can see how his design method is manifest in more su
btle projects, such as the masterful renovation of the Saskatchewan Legislature. Diverse in material and expression, his architecture shows a consistent interest in directness, economy of means, and lightness of effect.

Documentation is accompanied by Wiens’s thoughtful, fulsome, sometimes barbed reflections on project process and the later lives of the buildings. Reflecting on his life in design, the architect offers two key insights. First, he sets aside the term “architect” and offers his work under the title of “Clifford Wiens, Improver”–shifting the focus of his work away from self-expression and towards its usefulness in the world. Second, in reviewing the often challenging later lives of his buildings, altered and defaced by entropy, weather, and unsympathetic or ignorant stewards, he comes to recognize that architecture–understood as the self-conscious and deliberate expression of a spatial and material idea–is in reality so ephemeral that it is best understood as a kind of performance art, creating momentary artifacts that are released to quickly assume bittersweet and challenging lives of their own. Bernard Flaman’s epilogue offers a deeply felt contextualization of Wiens’s work in its Saskatchewan setting, and makes a strong case for the continuing relevance of the economy and realism embodied in these buildings.

A second volume, Rewind and Fast Forward, is a more personal memoir of his early life on the prairie. His accounts of farm ingenuity and economy of effort are important clues to understanding the pre-stressed trusses of the Artists’ Studio, or the improvised contraption of telephone pole, wire automobile wheel, and hydraulic jack that enabled the pre-tensioning of reinforcing steel at St. Mark’s Shop. Read together, these two volumes are a rich account of an architect’s intertwined life and career, and provide new insight into an important body of modern Canadian architecture.

Books are available only from the author by contacting cliffordwiens@shaw.ca.

Halifax architect Steven Mannell, NSAA, FRAIC, is Professor of Architecture and Director of the College of Sustainability at Dalhousie University. 

BattersbyHowat
Edited by Brian Carter. Halifax: Tuns Press, 2013.

The latest installment from Tuns Press’s series Architectural Signatures Canada presents a selection of recent work from Vancouver-based BattersbyHowat Architects. The practice headed by Heather Howat and David Battersby is somewhat of a rarity–having garnered much critical and popular acclaim for their residential work, the partners only became licensed in 2010–a full 14 years after founding their firm. The timing then, of this slim grey volume, necessarily infuses it with intent. In short, to help propel this duo to the next stage of their career which, according to the contributors, means more varied and more public commissions.

First and foremost, the monograph is a modest, matter-of-fact survey of 10 West Coast residential projects (nine built and one unbuilt) completed between 2004 and 2011. Each house is showcased, through drawings and photographs, across about a half-dozen pages. Over the course of their career, BattersbyHowat has helped usher in a sort of new contemporary vernacular–you can’t walk down a street in Vancouver without encountering the most sincerest forms of flattery, but these pale in comparison to the work illustrated here. Every site is carefully introduced, whether remote panoramic landscape or tight urban lot, and the character of each building emerges through a series of carefully composed moments. With each page turned the work becomes increasingly confident; the houses become larger and more deftly executed. Bold angular forms are tempered with wrappers made of thin wood slats; articulated compositions of mass and void are highlighted by spare material juxtapositions.

Christine Macy, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at Dalhousie University, provides the origin story via David and Heather’s respective theses at Dalhousie in the mid-’90s. Christopher Macdonald, Professor at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, surrounds their recent work with discussions on landscape and the artifice of design, a certain propensity for “deep thresholds” or “attenuated arrival” and the variously “firm, commodious, and delightful” attributes of their work. The book’s editor, Brian Carter, includes a postscript page illustrating a new project, noteworthy both for its more varied and public nature and for having won a 2012 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence. This, the UBC Geological Field School, a 10-building complex on 80 acres in the South Okanagan, concludes the monograph and gently ushers BattersbyHowat into a future full of public purpose. We, the readers, patiently await this future.

Courtney Healey is the Director of Lodge Think Tank and an intern architect at Public Architecture + Communication.





Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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