Reading Architecture

Edmonton is the largest city in North America without a school of architecture in its environs. Perhaps not coincidentally, the same city has also demonstrated a remarkable pattern of supporting ground-breaking, fashion-resisting design. It was Edmonton that permitted the late Peter Hemingway to be that rare Canadian architect who functioned as public intellectual while simultaneously designing fine buildings in a rich variety of Late Modern idioms–inspired but not beholden to precedents from Kenzo Tange, Eero Saarinen and Alvar Aalto, among others. It is no accident, I believe, that the two unalloyed masterpieces produced by the partnership of Barton Myers and Jack Diamond are both located in this isolated prairie city: the Housing Union Building (HUB) at the University of Alberta and the Citadel Theatre (Edmontonian Rick Wilkin was an important contributor to both projects). And it is hard to think of another city on the continent that would have provided the crescendo of increasingly complex public commissions that gave a start to ultimate non-conformist Douglas Cardinal.

Edmonton architect Barry Johns is the inheritor of this tradition. Like Hemingway, Johns is something of a stylistic chameleon, adapting his design colouring to the walls of work he admires. Like Diamond and Myers, his best urban architecture is moored in a rigorous analysis of its civic situation. And like Cardinal, Johns has a tendency to take a good idea too far, to overshadow his buildings’ otherwise carefully elaborated finesse with a showman’s bid for symbolism. Like all of these architectural kin, Johns is a fearless original, two descriptors too seldom found in accounts of contemporary Canadian architecture.

A wide view of Barry Johns’ work in historical context is now possible thanks to the recent completion of two career-capping achievements. First is the publication of Barry Johns Architects, a monograph in the Documents in Canadian Architecture series from Halifax-based TUNS Press, a rare and important series providing visual documentation and critical commentary on Canada’s most important designers in a publishing landscape otherwise almost totally dominated by international imprints and projects. The second is the opening of the Two Rivers Art Gallery in the northern British Columbia hub of Prince George. This is an ambitious building which internalizes surrounding landforms and links with the unique character of its northern locale, risking inconsistency and even dismissal by some for its attempt at an architecture appropriate to this city of nearly 100,000 at the junction of the Nechako and Fraser Rivers.

Landform and Built Form

The Nechako and the Fraser are at the heart of Johns’ conception for the Two Rivers Art Gallery. Eroded cutbanks of compacted sandstone and glacial till serve as the visual boundary for downtown Prince George, their curving forms in section seeming to defy gravity. Johns transposes the idea to the cross-section of the building, with its similarly-curved walls. This is but one more example of the architecturalization of landform which has emerged as a key theme of Canadian architecture over the past two decades, this interest also being one of our crucial differences from American designers.

The cutbank image emerged very early, during a week-long string of 1995 design workshops in Prince George conducted with local residents, artists and clients–what Johns calls “design in real time.” Johns’ partner at the time, Jim Hancock, took part in the workshops and sees them as having inspired many of the key formal and urban design ideas that survived into final construction. Design development was carried out by Barry Johns Architects, with construction supervision and working drawings completed during his brief alliance with Stantec Architects (Johns has since returned to his own sole proprietorship). According to Hancock, “the workshops got the community excited about the project and the design, and were likely responsible for its funding, then support right through to completion.” He adds that like Edmontonians, residents of Prince George were remarkably open to new architectural ideas, as long as they had some resonance with the local.

Landform is also the theme of two essays in the Barry Johns Architects book. Specifically, the dominant idea of both foreword and first essay is the supposed link between Johns’ work and the prairie landscape where he builds. Make that sometimes builds, as is evident with B.C.’s Two Rivers Art Gallery, also featured in the book. British-born architect Brian Carter, Chair of the Architecture Program at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s Taubman College of Architecture and Planning, tells us in his foreword that “the prairie registers as both place and space.” In trying to account for Johns’ empowerment of prairie individuals and communities, Carter writes that “It is a move which has helped to make architecture a focus of concern and benefit in places where people are still made aware of the rigours of life by the extremes of climate and distance that predominate in their daily lives.” But are the rigours and extremes any greater on the Alberta plains than in St. John’s, Phoenix, or Ann Arbor for that matter? I doubt it. Consider the three architectural firms with fine Edmonton work I mentioned above: Peter Hemingway, Diamond and Myers, and Douglas Cardinal. Are they any more or less exemplars of this abstract prairie-ism than Johns? I doubt that, too. I suspect that this may not be a particularly useful line of critical inquiry.

Essy Baniassad, former Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at Dalhousie (when it was still known as TUNS, the Technical University of Nova Scotia) and current architecture Dean at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, struggles with the same task in a much longer essay. He seeks the qualities of the prairie that inform the architecture of Barry Johns, but remains detached from writing about actual settings and buildings. He invokes useful old shibboleths like Northrop Frye’s characterization of the essential Canadian question being “where is here?” plus Margaret Atwood’s national literary criterion “Canadian literature–not just literature that happened to be written in Canada,” clearly implying that we have too much architecture that happened to be built in Canada.

Baniassad first illustrates, then asks us to compare, two of Johns’ key public buildings, the Advanced Technology Centre and Grant MacEwan Community College, both in Edmonton. Rather than offer his own thoughts on the projects, Baniassad includes a lengthy Georges Bataille quotation on architecture and the nature of institutions that seems to have little to do with any of the subjects at hand: Barry Johns, his architecture or the prairie. In conclusion, Baniassad invokes Alison and Peter Smithson’s Ordinariness and Light, and riles with them against “an architecture of bland indistinction.” Agreed, but such generalizations offer little insight into Johns’ work. Ironically, the only specific commentary in the essay comes in the form of a longish quote from Barry Johns himself, where he describes a key influence on his thinking as being his many years spent working on Arthur Erickson’s Robson Square in Vancouver–a decidedly non-prairie building.

Barry Johns’ 1988 Advanced Technology Centre (ATC; see CA April 1989) is the building that first established his national reputation, and appropriately serves as cover subject and first detailed project profile in the book. As photographed magnificently by James Dow–whose artful contribution to the reputations of Johns and the Patkaus cannot be underestimated, and his photos are one of the great joys of this serenely-designed volume–this building seems to exemplify the landform-become-built-form thesis. The ATC is a suburban laboratory centre wrapped with clever berming on a large site, seeming to have sunk into the plains themselves. This is less imitating the prairie landscape than giving in to it, largely so that budget and visual attention can be shifted from exterior elevations (which did not require windows) t
owards a skylit internal street with handsome detailing clearly derived from HUB’s kit of parts.

The cutbank allusions in the Prince George art gallery are actually quite different in intent and substance. To pile berms around labs is to use landscape as a tectonic, constructional device. To shape a key urban elevation into curves like nearby micro-landscapes of shaped sandstone is much more mimetic, existing almost purely in the symbolic realm.


As anyone who has done both knows, it takes as much time, energy, blood, sweat and tears to make a book as it does to make a building. And just as surely as books write books, buildings design buildings. An unbuilt project reproduced in Barry Johns’ book proves to be a key source for his Two Rivers Art Gallery. The architect’s first and most successful essay in the book, “Making Places,” is a kind of manifesto, one of considerable power because it is moored in a specific analysis of one of his best designs, sadly never built: the Timms Collections Centre, a storage and exhibition building planned for the University of Alberta. As a specific response to the very dry and cold Edmonton winters (temperatures in the -30C range) where there is a need to maintain a constant temperature and 50% relative humidity for delicate paper documents, Johns worked out a sectional and mechanical solution he calls “cocooning.” In his essay, Johns describes the approach this way: “Zones containing sensitive artifacts form the centre core of the plan and are stacked over three floors. Less sensitive areas such as public circulation, studios and classrooms wrap around this core forming a protective outer layer, or cocoon, sheltering the delicate interior from the extremes of the exterior climate.”

At the Two Rivers Art Gallery, working with cultural building consultant Murray Frost, Johns finally got an opportunity to build his cocoon concept a dozen years later. The two main public galleries are laid out enfilade, and together with a safety zone of art storage, preparation and delivery areas are all set at the centre of the cocoon, separated by air seals, insulation and a separate air handling system from the public and service spaces which blanket them on most sides. The most prominent of these is the galleria which runs along the public face of the building behind the curving sway of the glazed cutbank wall form, a room also used to exhibit sculpture and other forms of art less sensitive to damage from ultraviolet light and variations in temperature and humidity. Helping build a preservationist’s case for the redundancy provided by cocooning are Prince George’s pollution problems during wintertime air inversions, necessitating the inclusion of activated charcoal sulphur dioxide filters for the inner zone to protect art.

With light as its theme, the most successful room in the Two Rivers Art Gallery is found in section immediately above the galleries. This is the attic: a multi-purpose workshop, meeting, classroom and storage space ringed by staff offices. A large work and layout table custom-designed by the architect runs the length of this long room, breaking in the middle and rolling out on tracked casters to allow sunlight into the galleries. As the building runs north-south, maximum control of the skylight is easy, and a mechanically-operated scrim on a track just above the gallery ceiling ensures that any combination of opening or closure of attic table or inclusion or exclusion of natural light is possible. There is a synthesis of light, space and detail in the attic that speaks of a very sophisticated and thoughtful architect. Moreover, compared with the elaborate mirrored light shafts intended to bring natural illumination to the lower level of Moshe Safdie’s National Gallery in Ottawa, Johns’ straightforward design is more successful. Light enters through skylights running along the large vaulted ceiling–supplemented significantly by ambient light that slides in from windows below both ends of the roof–then is bounced off the vaulted ceiling and into the table-cum-light scoops. The subjective qualities of light in the gallery are emotionally effective and completely controllable, even if the enfilade layout makes for limited flexibility in art installation possibilities.

Constructing Symbols

The urban design issues for the Two Rivers Art Gallery were daunting, to say the least. Part of a modern-oid civic centre campus, the linear gallery site is placed near the blank bulk of the town arena, a swimming pool, some ungraceful municipal office buildings and a library. Immediately adjacent is, worst of all, a postmodern clock tower in bright red steel, one of those too-common urban hood ornaments where civic worthies seek to re-create place only after having first destroyed it. With neighbours like these, quiet contextualism was never an option–not that Barry Johns has ever chosen it elsewhere.

The cutbank shaping of the elevation is an attempt to reach beyond this problematic context, to rope in wider landscape values that might have richer resonance than the hunky buildings nearby. Some discussion of the architect’s specific construction choices is needed here. I have to admit to initial resistance to the curved glulam columns-cum-totems that march along the main (galleria) elevation when I first saw them on a model in Barry Johns’ office during design development. Local residents now refer to them as “bronto-ribs” after the enormous racks of Jurassic meat products clipped onto Fred Flintstone’s car. One of Johns’ weaknesses as a designer is a tendency to over-emphasize the rhythm of his constructions over their envelope and textural melodies, like a stereo that is all sub-woofer and no treble. This is evident in the repeating quartets of huge concrete towers that mark former intersections of city streets for Grant MacEwan College’s megastructure (see CA, May 1994); the urbanist intention is fine, but the architectural execution is too emphatic.

Given this need to speak above the noise of the site, the totem-columns in Prince George now seem almost right. Their ambiguous symbolism has pleased local First Nations leaders (who see references to tent frames and ceremonial posts), local forest product and milling operations (eager for high profile architectural use of wood), environmentalists (who interpret references to the driftwood found along the still-clean rivers upstream), and the general public (keen for anything unique that pumps up the pulse of a town that gets a hard ride in the media). Another success of the construction is the tension between symmetry and deformation in the section, seen most clearly in the placidity of the gallery rooms (which seem like respectful refugees from Peter Rose’s Canadian Centre for Architecture galleries in Montreal) set against the deformation of the cutbank. The Two Rivers Art Gallery’s steel structure and window frames run artful interference between the two opposed sectional orders. Johns’ declared sources for the gallery layouts are John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery and Munich’s Alte Pinakotek. Despite these high culture references, Johns freely admits to the populism of his design, saying his Prince George clients and users “wanted a strong vision, as there is an appreciation here for architectural uniqueness. Build it and they will come.”

There are deep roots for Barry Johns’ learned populism, but none of these are explored in the monograph, which is short on biographical detail. Born in 1947 and growing up on Montreal’s West Island, his first exposure to architecture was a gift from an uncle of Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Living City. Johns says “It took me a while to understand the genius of the man.” Between liberal arts studies at Acadia University and starting architectural school at the Technical University of Nova Scotia (now Dalhousie) he spent a summer as a draftsman for Imperial Oil working on renovations to Mies van der Rohe’s Esso Service Station on Montreal’s Nun’s Island.

A key influence at TUNS was historian/critic Tony Jackson, who, according to the architect “taught us to think for ourselves, a very important le
sson that some students don’t want.” He goes on to mention urbanist Peter Jacob and hugely underrated high Modernist Jim Donahue as key influences there, describing the latter’s designs such as Winnipeg’s Monarch Life Building in terms that might apply to his own best work: “clean, crisp and pure, but with a complex twist.” After a brief period working in Moncton, New Brunswick, he spent his apprenticeship and early years as an architect working with Arthur Erickson, where one of his rewards was affixing his signature to the Certificate of Substantial Completion for a large portion of Robson Square. Boom-time production firm Chandler Kennedy lured him to Edmonton in 1979, and since leaving them in 1981 to establish his own firm, he has never considered being based elsewhere, despite the fact that–or maybe because–the city is so far off the architectural ant-trail. “It’s actually a pretty good place to be,” says Johns, his eyes wrinkling in a full smile behind his spectacles while giving his prominent curving moustache a final twist and turning away to continue his work.

Edmonton-born and Vancouver-based Trevor Boddy’s architectural criticism has been shortlisted for the Western and National Magazine Awards.

Two Rivers Art Gallery, Prince George, British Columbia

Hancock Johns Architects/Barry Johns Architects/Stantec Architecture Ltd.

Client: City of Prince George, B.C.; Tom Madden, Director of Leisure Services

Architects: The commission was awarded to the firm of Hancock + Johns Architects Inc. of Vancouver, B.C. in 1993 with Barry Johns and James Hancock as Project Partners. The schematic design was completed by this firm. Design Development was completed by Barry Johns Architects with Barry Johns as Partner in Charge. The project production was completed by Barry Johns Architects and Stantec Architecture Ltd. and the contract administration was completed by Stantec Architecture Ltd. with Barry Johns as Principal in Charge.

Architect team: Barry Johns, Jim Hancock, Tomasz Anielski, Frank Hilbich, Ray Bindon, Stephen Boyd, Steven Shamchuk, Louis Pereira, Darrell Halliwell, Tom Nicoll and John Lansdell

Structural: Read Jones Christoffersen

Mechanical: Keen Engineering Ltd.

Electrical: Morgan Dowhan Engineering Ltd / Stantec Consulting Ltd.

Landscape: Stantec Architecture Ltd.

Interiors: Stantec Architecture Ltd.

Contractor: Clark Builders/Western Industrial Contractors Ltd. in Joint Venture

Cultural building consultant: Murray Frost

Area: 2,000 m2

Budget: $4.3 million

Completion: June 2000

Photography: James Dowl building consultant: Murray Frost

Area: 2,000 m2

Budget: $4.3 million

Completion: June 2000

Photography: James Dow

Two Rivers Art Gallery, Prince George, British Columbia

Hancock Johns Architects/Barry Johns Architects/Stantec Architecture Ltd.