Testing the Waters

Project Toto Pool Pavilion, Kleinburg, Ontario

Intern Architect Michael Amantea

Text Nova Tayona

Photos Tom Arban

It is said that to see the future we must look to the past. Extend this thought further: as a lens, the present shows us what young architects of today are designing on their way to becoming the generation of tomorrow.

I recently received an e-mail from a friend working in Amsterdam: he was one of the lucky first-place winners of Europan 8–the big biennial competition for young architects in Europe. Because winning schemes often become realized commissions, such publicly and privately sponsored competitions are the springboard from which MVRDV, S333 and others jumped to full-fledged independent practice. By comparison, how do young architects in our country get their start? At this moment, even though the “lucky break” for a young Canadian architect does not often come in the form of governmentally or privately sponsored competitions, we do share with our European colleagues a universal requirement to snag that first project: it’s necessary for someone to take a leap of faith. For intern architect Michael Amantea, his first clients were his in-laws. What was commissioned by them was not a massive housing development; it was not even a house.

Sites promoted by the Europan competition program, often large in scale, ask young architects to think big: how might architecture address social and economic issues? The solutions are avant-garde ideas realized at a large scale via housing or mixed-use development. To win Europan as a young architect is to truly arrive. First commissions for architects in our country tend to happen on a smaller, more private stage. Ironically, at the start of his career, Michael Amantea’s first project is what many established architects haven’t yet had the fortune to design and is what many would say to be at the heart of all structures: the pavilion.

The design of a pool pavilion to replace an existing underused changeroom was a project that grew out of necessity. What began as a casual family conversation about replacing their existing cracked concrete pool deck ended with an expanded scope of work and an OAA Intern Architect Award of Excellence. That this pool pavilion is set in a small Ontario town called Kleinburg–German for “small hill”–is very apt indeed. Amantea’s hill to climb was the obstacle of time–common to most young architects trying to develop their own body of work outside of being employed at an architectural office. Now an intern at Ian MacDonald Architect, at the time of this project, Amantea was working at Hariri Pontarini Architects (HPA). In tandem with the pool pavilion, he was project-managing the New Branksome Hall Middle School for HPA, overseeing the renovation of his two-storey loft, while also planning for an OAA licensing exam. Most significantly, he was also preparing for his wedding. With the reception scheduled to take place at his in-laws’ property, the pool area and pavilion had to be ready in time. “It was the busiest, most stressful time of my life. I think I’m still recovering.”

Trying to find time for the pavilion while working full time, Amantea admits that being at a detail-oriented office afforded him access to the best trades, consultants and suppliers–something not all interns starting out have at their fingertips. Already established relationships and an understanding of expectations was an invaluable tool for him, and set the tone for the quality of the project. He especially appreciated collaborating with structural engineer David Bowick, a busy partner at Blackwell-Bowick. “He works on larger, more complex structures. By comparison, taking the time to work with me personally on this modest project showed that David had a personal interest not only in it, but in my career development as well.”

Great architecture is borne from great patrons, and Amantea’s father-in-law, a kitchen manufacturer, accepted his role as client. “He’s a craftsman; cabinet-making has been his business for over 40 years, but he was open to new ideas and trusted me to resolve the design and detailing of the project. For me, it was an incredible and invaluable act of faith.”

Canadian summer days are precious, so it was Amantea’s intention to create a building “in the spirit of celebrating the summer season.” The phrase “summer pool cabana in Canada” is an almost incongruous one, which makes Amantea’s first project unique. This is a structure that comes alive in the summer months and during winter, it reassures its owners that summer will return again.

Working with an existing pool on a 4.5-acre residential site, Amantea saw the opportunity to build for his in-laws a service structure that could be more than the completely enclosed changeroom they currently had. Unappealing as a changing space, it functioned as a storage shed for outdoor furniture. “I wanted to maintain a connection to the outside in a sensory way, which the old changeroom did not do. How do you do this while incorporating the need for privacy that changing and showering requires?” In this case, form truly followed function. Faced with the challenge of combining an interior and at times, private realm with an exterior, more public one, the design began with one louvered screen that created privacy but filtered in light and air. “Some colleagues felt that what I wanted to achieve with light was ambitious, but unrealistic.” Many paper models later, the end result is a thoughtful assembly of screening elements and opening devices that successfully mediate the experience between inside and out. Five spaces of differing practical and spatial requirements are housed behind a sapele wood skin that is at once transparent and opaque–depending on what function lies beyond. Being inside, particularly in the shower, is to be outside too, achieving what Amantea originally set out to do. The internal realm is animated by the external, and its delight is that one’s experience of the elements is unique to being inside: sky becomes framed rectangles of blue; unseen, water from the pool is a reflective, twinkling light on the fir ceiling; sunlight shows itself as thin horizontal slivers–brightness occasionally darkened by the movement of silhouettes. At the kitchen, the screen dissolves as the corner slides away, creating a seamless connection to the outside pool and dining area that includes an Algonquin limestone fire pit and fountain beyond.

From the outset, it wasn’t difficult to convince the clients to do this project. “Family gatherings are a big part of their life. I am a part of that life, so in a way, I was a client too. Some might say that makes it easier, but it’s actually more pressure–I was testing out my own ideas, on my own watch, outside of HPA and the way I learned to do things there. At a certain point, you want to find your own way.”

Experiencing it firsthand, the pavilion is successful because it achieves what good architecture does best: building on what is already there. The family’s existing pool, property and the ubiquitous elements of light and air are all carefully considered–a framed experience with the pavilion as reference point. That it is a structure of Douglas fir wrapped in a sapele skin and surrounded by an Algonquin limestone deck is, in a way, extraneous. With more humble materials, it would still shine; the pavilion’s siting and overall spatial experience through fine detailing is where its true richness lies.

During a job interview, a notable architect once said to an architectural student something to the effect of, “You are what you eat.” This advice was part of a larger discussion they had about the start of any young architect’s professional career and the importance of employment choices made along the way. Ours is a profession of mentorship, and architecture critic Lisa Rochon aptly stated in the March 2006 issue of Canadian Architect that of Canada’s future architects, some will be the progeny of our c
ountry’s best design firms. Like the generations before us, we are learning the practice of architecture from excellent mentors who themselves once needed to find their own way.

Nova Tayona is an architect working at Ian MacDonald Architect in Toronto.

Client The Toto Family

Design Team Michael Amantea

Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership Ltd.

Landscape Coivic Contracting Ltd.

Contractor SCE Construction

Screens & Doors Radiant City Millwork

Interior Millwork Quality Tops & Kitchens Ltd.

Area 460 Ft2

Budget Withheld

Completion Fall 2004