The Belly of An Architect

Project Art Collectors’ Residence, Toronto, Ontario

Architect Hariri Pontarini Architects

Text Ian Chodikoff

Photos Steven Evans, Ben Rahn

In an upscale Toronto suburb not known for discreet housing lives an enlightened couple who challenged an architect and his team to build them an exceptional home for their art collection. A significant commission in its own right, the house has allowed Hariri Pontarini Architects (HPA) to explore and experiment with their design process, evolve their intellectual property and use the Art Collectors’ Residence as a platform to refine other projects in the office.

By no means petite at 12,700 square feet, the house is divided into two wings and is sited on a three-acre lot surrounded by trees on all sides. While the budget is confidential, its cost per square foot is far below what some of Toronto’s “premier residential architects” charge their clients for puffy EIFS-clad baronial manors. As an antidote to the recent generation of upscale residences, this project is remarkable not only for its careful deployment of Owen Sound limestone, copper, glass or hand-finished plaster, but as an essay in lightness and depth.

Working on the home was an intense process involving up to seven people assigned to the project at one time. HPA’s Jaegap Chung directed much of the project, admitting to having never done anything before that demanded so much attention to detail and complexity. As an architecture student at the University of Toronto and before working for HPA, Chung was impressed by principal Siamak Hariri’s faith in youth, energy and talent. After graduation, it took him 18 months to quit Montgomery Sisam Architects and join the HPA team where he worked for a couple of years before tackling this residence. He’s now been at HPA for six years.

While playing a pivotal role on the project, Chung was not alone. In addition to working on the interior and drawing all the elevations, Liming Rao photographed the client’s entire art collection–an arduous but necessary task when preparing the detailed designs for the house. Rao also had the task of converting numerous sketches by Hariri into drawings. For every designer, there are the requisite technologists, and both Francis Lapointe and John Cook ensured that everything would be built according to plan while avoiding problems along the way. Forming a bridge between technology and design, Lapointe became a sort of mentor to Jaegap Chung, advising him on the exterior details in addition to working out the politics of being on site, while also assisting Dennis Giobbe along the way. Recent graduate Steven Bauer was instrumental in developing and detailing one of the project’s signature elements, the ceiling belly located on the second floor of the gallery. At the time, the ceiling couldn’t be modelled on a computer, so a physical model was made before being translated into working drawings. As for the office’s digital tools at the time, Maya wasn’t sophisticated or precise enough to use as a 3D tool and Form-Z couldn’t handle the compound curves. Since then, the office has invested heavily in software applications such as CATIA which has allowed this process to be developed faster and more accurately. Through CATIA, the office’s current project for the Baha’ Temple in Chile (see CA, December 2004) has benefitted from the necessary advancements in refining 3D design processes.

Chung admits to having gone through an enormous learning curve. “It was intimidating at first. The contractors push you to the edge. It took about six months to get their respect and not be psychologically tormented.” Nonetheless, the quality of a project is ultimately what the reputation of his firm depends upon. Chung disagrees with Spanish architect Rafael Moneo’s dictum of “Never applaud a trade.” By encouraging and motivating tradesmen, by telling them that they are artists, Chung feels that he gets results. “There was not one single extra [charge] from the stonemason,” he proudly declares. Another invaluable lesson–and an important one for any young architect–was Chung’s experience working with the clients and learning how to listen to them.

Having never before worked with an architect, the clients began their search for one with a phone call to Larry Richards, the former Dean of Architecture at the University of Toronto, who then suggested a list of architects from Vancouver, Toronto and Boston. In the end, the clients wanted somebody local. When a high-profile philanthropist took them to HPA’s McKinsey & Company building (completed with former partner Michael Taylor) on the University of Toronto campus one rainy night, they were intrigued with Hariri’s treatment of the building–contemporary design with traditional materials.

As the clients interviewed a shortlist of architects, many assumptions were made by some of them which demonstrated a certain bias or preconceived idea of the clients’ expectations. When the neighbourhood was mentioned, judgements were made about their level of the taste. When the kitchen was discussed, the architects would turn to the wife while only the husband was questioned about the requirements for his home office. Making assumptions along gender lines or age didn’t win points with the clients; both husband and wife have offices and neither of them is particularly fond of cooking.

After spending a year deciding upon an architect, HPA was ultimately chosen. Shortly thereafter, Hariri went on a three-day retreat with the clients and arrived at the L-shaped design for the house; one wing for the gallery space, the other for the spa. The subtle curve of the spa wing was a challenge for the architects, but the clients were insistent that the house had curves–a decision partly influenced by the nature of their art collection. At the intersection of the two wings is where the family living spaces are clustered. With two narrow wings, it would be possible to capture light from both sides, creating an essay in natural daylight. The significant issues to consider were solitude, tranquility, softness of light, intimacy and of course, the art collection.

Wanting to be very involved throughout the entire process, the clients exercised their competitive strengths: one paid particular attention to the budgets and time frames, while the other understood the significance of design. Feeling that the process involved a successful collaboration, it was very important to put contemporary design at the forefront, as they believed that they could contribute a significant example of contemporary Canadian architecture. Although the project’s budget was generous, Hariri notes, “You absolutely don’t get carte blanche. People who commission something like this are very careful about spending. They want to see where their money is being spent throughout the entire process.”

“You have to be quite specific in your desires,” claims one of the clients, noting that “there was never a point where there was a misread [between us].” As far as empowering the clients in the process, Hariri felt that the endeavour involved a fully partnered process where “the project results in something good because the client wants it to be something good.” From the clients’ perspective, the project was a success. They continue to discover aspects about the house every day and maintain a relationship with Hariri and his team.

A lot of what was learned from the Art Collectors’ Residence was applied to the Baha’ Temple and the Schulich School of Business (2003). Similarly, HPA’s house on Dunvegan Road (1997) led to the McKinsey & Company headquarters (1999), and the Massie Residence (1996) led to the McLaren Art Centre (2001). To Hariri, learning from one project and applying it the next “gives you the courage to move to the next step.” With the Art Collectors’ Residence, “working with curves was daring for us. It was a step outside of ourselves and is what gave us the courage to make the big step for the Temple.”

As w
ith other projects in this 30-person office, Hariri is very concerned about forming individual relationships with specific trades, some of which are nearly 15 years old. “You have a mutual understanding and you know where each other’s expectations are. These trades are as much, if not more, important to the success of the project,” notes Hariri. For HPA, builders like Richard Wilson are seen as a vital member of the team, for it is the builder that protects the quality of the work, along with the budget. “Simply put, it is easier to do a $10-million home with a lot of mouldings. Builders [like Wilson] are on your side because they are interested in architecture.” In the context of the Toronto real estate market, there are many residential architects who demand budgets in excess of $1,000 per square feet for fewer than 20 sheets of drawings (whereas the exterior of the Art Collectors’ Residence alone required some 600 details). These conventional architects are perceived by some clients as being far more prestigious than HPA, Shim-Sutcliffe or Ian MacDonald. Somehow, the value of meaningful architecture has been edited out of a client’s frame of reference–their understanding of the breadth of our profession is still largely a mystery to them. How is it that a lack of communication between architect and client has resulted in so many 18th-century Styrofoam castles applying for zoning variances?

The Art Collectors’ Residence recently won a Citation Award in Architecture magazine’s annual Home of the Year Awards as well as a Tucker Award sponsored by the Building Stone Institute.

Client Withheld

Design Team Siamak Hariri (Partner in Charge), Jaegap Chung (Project Manager), Francis Lapointe, Steven Bauer, John Cook, Liming Rao, Dennis Giobbe

Structural Blackwell Engineering

Mechanical Toews Engineering

Electrical Dynamic Designs + Engineering Inc.

Landscape Janet Rosenberg + Associates (Soft), Hariri Pontarini Architects (Hard)

Contractor Richard Wilson Management

Water Consultant Dan Euser Water Architecture

Area 12,700 Ft2

Budget Withheld

Completion February 2005