“What do architects do?” moderator Michael McClelland of ERA Architects asked at the opening of Re:Practice, a symposium recently hosted by Ryerson University’s Master of Architecture class. “It’s not so much a question of what they are doing, it’s what they can do, what they could do, what they should do.”
His question was seized upon by practitioners in some of the most prominent firms in the country—fellow speakers included Lola Sheppard, Helena Grdadolnik and Tudor Radulescu, MRAIC—who are developing alternative approaches to architecture.
Lola Sheppard, co-founder of Lateral Office, reflected on what architects could do: “We have incredible capacities for synthetic thinking, and if we actually came in much earlier, our agency as a profession would expand.” Inspired by the role of the detective, Lateral Office delves into design research as a form of investigation, and often uncovers unexpected entry points into a project.
Lateral Office’s speculative approach is evident in its recent work in Northern Canada—a context where there are no real rules yet on how to think about design—including in its forthcoming book, Many Norths: Spatial Practice in a Polar Territory. “In a way, we’ve always worked backwards,” said Sheppard. “We’re interested in the places that architects don’t seem to be looking, trying to see if there are opportunities for new ways of thinking about environments that we take for granted. Then we imagine new possibilities, and go out and find partners that are willing to engage in these projects.” Being able to initiate their own work allows Sheppard and her team to contribute to environmental discussions and engage with communities.
This sentiment was echoed by Helena Grdadolnik, director of Workshop Architecture. Grdadolnik initiates projects that help identify problems in the urban context. Her involvement in FrontierSpace, an urban installation to get people to rethink the alleys in Vancouver’s historic Gastown, as well as Toronto’s ongoing Green Line vision, reaffirms that working in what she calls “an active or activist form of practice” can have a larger impact. According to Grdadolnik, the balance between providing conventional architectural services and an activist approach creates “a firm which we hope has a strong theoretical underpinning grounded in the social, as well as grounded in practice.”
Tudor Radulescu, founding partner of Montreal firm KANVA, emphasized that any project starts with an opportunity. “How do we create this mandate ourselves?” he asked. Once an opportunity is established, KANVA takes a “total architecture” approach that revisits the architect as a master builder. The firm’s recent Edison Residence project, for instance, included advising on acquiring the land, the design and fabrication of installations and prototypes, and multidisciplinary involvement as architect, developer and building manager.
Having taken an “off-ramp” from his career in architecture, William MacIvor now leads a product design team at Loblaw Digital. MacIvor highlighted the usefulness of his experience on the architectural team for projects including the Maple Leaf Gardens conversion. He learned to see value in “questioning the framework, or the challenge, or the problem […] and identifying opportunities.” He also learned to empathize with the people that were to inhabit and use the resulting spaces. “Building that connection is not something which many other disciplines, professions, or people necessarily have much exposure to.” This experience has proved critical in his new role. “These values are the lens,” he said. “The object we look at through that lens can change.”
Comparing the two professions, McIvor emphasized that architectural design decisions have enduring impact: a building will last generations, yet a digital product could last a mere three or four years before new technology emerges.
The takeaway for students and emerging architects is that we should constantly be questioning and reinventing the idea of what we do. Whether we personify the role of detective or problem-identifier, we can uncover and initiate projects through community involvement, careful investigation, installations, prototyping and built work. As a profession, we have the ability to identify areas of need and provide solutions, constantly “re:practicing” what we do. The firms that take this approach are addressing society’s emerging needs—and are also furthering the profession.
Re:Practice was held on February 3rd, 2016, at the Berkeley Church in Toronto.
Sajith Sabanadesan and Ashleigh Crofts are Master of Architecture students in Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science.