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PROJECT Tros/Keefe House, Calgary, Alberta
ARCHITECT AKA/andrewkingstudio
TEXT Thomas Strickland
PHOTOS Wayne Goddard

“Architecture is…of all the arts that closest constitutionally to the economic, with which, in the form of commissions and land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship.” (Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 46, [1984]: 53-92).

It is probable that the first 10 years of the 21st century will become emblematic of architecture’s complicity with corporate and financial irresponsibility. With the emergence of the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, the image of suburban sprawl and excessively priced and built homes are an obvious target for critics of contemporary North American planning and development processes. Buildings are bound to economics. A recently completed house by AKA/andrewkingstudio produces, however, a different relationship of architecture to the history of land development by exploiting subversive possibilities within the existing landscape of a community. Designed during Calgary’s most recent oil boom, the Tros/Keefe House, King believes, questions the relationship between economics and civic planning rather than being emblematic of it.

Collaboration between the marketplace and architecture is nothing new. An ostensible example is mid-19th-century planning and construction in Chicago. Financial capital is concentrated within certain lifestyles and reinforced by civic planning policies. The Calgary neighbourhood in which the Tros/Keefe House is situated, Crescent Heights, is a good example of this process. The area is largely populated with Eaton’s-like pattern homes constructed before and after WWI. The new residence’s lot size is standard for the area and previously was the site of a small house built in 1913 after the area was annexed by the City of Calgary in 1911, before its establishment as a neighbourhood in 1914. Currently, there is an Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) in place, which draws from the context to guide how an existing built-up area or neighbourhood should develop in the future. In effect, the ARP–via building setbacks, surface area and height restrictions–prescribes a lot size and housing typology that underpins the economic viability of a compartmentalized single-family building located at the centre of the lot. In practice, however, the context reveals irregularities that offer avenues for spatial invention and difference.

King’s design for the Tros/Keefe House exploits the neighbourhood’s non-conformities to create a built space that engages with a variety of views and the clients’ lifestyle. The house design is based on four positions: House as Pattern, House as Lens, House as Material, and House as Container. Each position was developed separately and then potential congruencies amongst the positions were explored, with the form of the house emerging from this process. For example, House as Lens concentrated on views, revealing long vistas from the back of the lot to downtown Calgary and to the Rocky Mountains, and short views to the street and potentially within the interior. House as Pattern explored the patterns of land development in the neighbourhood and the prairie landscape, looking for irregularities that might offer interesting spatial solutions. One such incident, a barn constructed prior to the annexation and which does not conform to the ARP guidelines, secured a viable argument for creating an outdoor space at the side of the house. To achieve this space and provide visual access to the Rockies, King stretched a skinny box along one side of the lot. A square box was attached to create the front half of the house and to complete the outdoor room. The anterior of the outdoor room, or the elevation of the house, is finished with a glass curtain-wall system, which opens up views to the room and across it into other parts of the house, thereby embedding the room within the ocular arrangement of the house.

The house is experienced through a series of overlapping views that are intensified by vertical and horizontal movements within its spaces. This strategy is further articulated by the structural system–House as Material. A steel beam, expressed on the exterior, functioned as an organizing datum during construction and now integrates the various paths of circulation through the house. Concentrated by its tectonic assembly, the house is arranged around overlaps that are at once material and spatial, putting it in tension with its neighbour’s interior wall divisions and ornamental signifiers of the late Victorian era. The idea was to mirror the lifestyle of his clients (House as Container), an art enthusiast and a computer programmer. “It’s almost like a Calvino story,” King explains. “Their lives are so divergent in certain ways but so compressed together in other ways. And really, the house becomes a kind of foil for that existence.” The expectations are that the house will offer another kind of place in the landscape by proposing convenient overlaps, with views and relationships, rather than the unrealized inter-World War expectations of a tight compartmentalized family meeting in the kitchen and dining room table at the centre of the lot.

By hiring an architect to design a house in a community largely constructed from pattern homes, the clients for the Tros/Keefe House are unique within the cultural landscape of the neighbourhood. Moreover, having the means to build a house that is particular in terms of one’s lifestyle and beliefs certainly positions the house differently in relation to the housing market. While the house is thus already distinct amongst its neighbours–visually and economically–it testifies to King’s interest in dissecting “the normative patterns” of landscape development. Both sympathetic to and in tension with the context, the Tros/Keefe House challenges the typology, or single purposing, of houses that are irrevocably intertwined with global finance, while at the same time building on an existing civic discussion about how buildings are set into the landscape. Simply put, King’s design offers not a rejection of, but a critique from within the enmeshed historical arrangement of lifestyles, houses and economics. Symbolically, the discussion is manifest succinctly on the front elevation of the house. There, a 4-foot cantilever allows the landscape to slip beneath the house, embedding itself in the overall floor plate. From the end of the extension, a large window projects dramatically outward like a camera lens capturing within its frame a reflection of the houses across the street. CA

Thomas Strickland is pursuing his doctorate in the history of medical architecture, considering in particular the influence of pop culture of the 1960s and ’70s on innovative, space-age hospital design. He is an occasional art curator and published critic.

Client Donna Tros and John Keefe
Architect Team Andrew King, Paul Stady
Models and Drawings Ryan Palibroda, Zsofi Schvan-Ritecz, Cedric Boulet, Dustin Couzens
Landscape AKA/Donna Tros
Interiors AKA/Donna Tros
Area 3.500 ft2
Budget withheld
Completion January 2009