Canadian Architect


Experiential Symbiosis

December 1, 2006
by Canadian Architect

STUDENT Philip Vandermey, University of Calgary

LOCATION Calgary, Alberta


This thesis of experiential symbiosis explores the potential of architecture, and produced three sensibilities with which to approach a form of architectural production that engages the human senses. The first focused on the development of a sensory atmosphere through material studies. The second focused on a new paradigm of architectural organization. And the third explored the potential of architecture to emerge from its context through an intensive mapping process. These three sensibilities were combined into a holistic design consciousness, one which is flexible enough to respond to changes through time.


The actual intervention needed to be a program that could test these ideas through design, and a wellness centre fit this purpose on two levels. Typically associated with exclusivity, the open-endedness of this program could be reinterpreted to be strategically inclusive. As well, the holistic nature of such a program has a great deal of potential to engage the senses of an embodied user. The actual program was to emerge in symbiosis with its site, essentially fusing the wellness centre with the city and extending the program beyond its normative bounds.


The site is located south of Calgary’s core, and exists between natural and urban realms on the edge of the Elbow River. Surrounding opportunities include 1st Street and 17th Avenue, two of Calgary’s few successful urban streets which contain many retail and restaurant amenities. It spans between the Stampede grounds, a city-scale event space, and the everyday activity spaces of a physical fitness centre, dance school, high school, and many other residential and commercial venues. The site is readily accessible by a light-rail commuter train, the river pathway system, and pedestrian networks. The two large-scale commuter roads that pass by either side of the site provided a major design challenge facing almost every contemporary city.


Word-based diagrams, photographs, and time-based activity intensity maps revealed implicit information about the site which informed the development of the project. The actual process avoided ocularcentric tools of design such as two-dimensional drawings, except in their ability to record more nuanced information about the site. Instead, material studies and physical models embodied tactile, interactive tools which shaped the development of an experiential field.


A series of experiential conditions were explored through material studies to enhance specific site qualities and their temporal, shifting states. Five conditions were developed through material artifice: capturing the colour and shape of light, dematerializing the edge, revealing movement and change, enhancing by taking away, and the imprinting of use and time.


Several amenities were injected into the site to create a strategic interplay between surrounding programs. The idea was to create an extended community-based wellness centre which would reach into pedestrian and pathway systems while engaging existing facilities, interest groups and activities in dialogue. For example: a library amenity was injected to contrast the physical fitness amenity across the river; a variety of retail and restaurant spaces were provided to extend the qualities of 17th Avenue through the site; event spaces were provided to allow the extension of large-scale gatherings beyond the gates of the Stampede; and, the river was developed aggressively as an essentially open “spa,” a water amenity appropriable by all.


In order to formally organize the material studies, the capacity of three elements to shape space and atmosphere were studied. First, a continuous ground was explored as an essential element of connection. Second, a long-span container was explored with regards to an essential quality of shelter, simultaneously conditioning experience and releasing space. The concept of the object as an element in space, providing essential services and subdividing the large contained space, was the third study. These three elements were developed through site observations of existing spatial types. Adding a project of this scale would relate to the existing built fabric, eroding its edges, providing a high level of transparency and translucency, as well as subdividing the larger space into smaller semi-defined spaces that would allow the project to remain sensitive to human scale.

Sweetapple: The theory behind this thesis is less important than the beautiful result. There is a delight in the simplicity of a formal study dealing with the “ground” and the “container” above. This is expressed best through well designed sections.

Teeple: The simple volumes and surfaces of the centre feather the land into the river creating a pleasure zone that has the quality of a quiet eddy in the river.

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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