Theory of Creation

Unlike George Costanza and his celebrated “Art Van Delay” pretensions, I never had given a great deal of thought to the profession of architecture. What little I had thought about it was doubtless the standard knee-jerk fare: an interesting career choice lying at the crossroads between art and science, an intriguing marriage of form and function, an important aspect of urban cultural identity.

Little did I imagine that I would one day have the opportunity (indeed responsibility) of constructing an entire building. But then, little did I imagine that I would be creating a theoretical physics institute either.

In the summer of 1999, after having recently completed my PhD, I was reluctantly prepared to seek my fortune in the rapacious world of Wall Street finance. Right before leaving for the splendours of the cubicle-bound world of hedge-fund modelling, however, I started to develop some second thoughts: after all, this was 1999, and possibilities for rapid generation of wealth seemed everywhere. There must be better options than Wall Street.

After some research, I sent out some letters to CEOs of various high-tech companies, beseeching them to consider hiring an impressive fellow such as myself and thus save me from a soulless, if lucrative, life in the world of high finance. And that is how I met Mike Lazaridis, founder of Research In Motion (RIM) and pioneer of the BlackBerry wireless e-mail device.

“You can always work at RIM,” Mike assured me, “we’re always looking for smart people. But,” he added with a curious glance, “I’m thinking about something else that you might be able to help me with.”

And so it began. Mike’s “something else” turned out to be an inchoate desire to create some philanthropic initiative involving physics; and I quickly began to realize that I was in the privileged, thoroughly unexpected and somewhat daunting position of being in charge of capitalizing on the single greatest philanthropic opportunity for basic research since Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study was founded in 1930.

There was no question that the Institute was to be in Waterloo–as Mike’s home, that was a given. But it was also not inappropriate: Waterloo is a thriving academic centre with two universities and an active high-tech culture a little over an hour away from Toronto. The City of Waterloo offered us a choice of four prime sites to build the Institute upon and we quickly settled on the one outstanding choice: a large slice of Waterloo Park on the south shore of a small lake occupied solely by a dilapidated hockey arena and an adjacent gravel parking lot. The attraction of a site that combined a contemplative park-like setting with close proximity to the shops of the city’s core was immediately apparent; and in moving forward to negotiate the precise terms of the City’s donation, we well recognized that we were likely making Canadian history by knocking down a hockey rink to establish a centre of scholarship.

The task now remained to select the architect. I had not the slightest idea as to how to go about this, but then I had no idea about budgetary planning, administrative management, scientific recruitment, reporting to a board, negotiating agreements with universities, constructing scientific advisory committees or, quite simply, designing a scientific institution either, so what was one more thing to add to the list? When it came down to the selection of an architect, I contacted the heads of the schools of architecture at Toronto, Ryerson and Waterloo, and invited all three to Waterloo to tour the site and help me move the process forward.

Throughout the last six years, I have been consistently amazed and inspired by how many knowledgeable, capable and extremely busy people were willing to donate so much of their time and expertise to assist some ignorant fellow they didn’t know tackle some rather curious challenges; Larry Richards, Michael Miller and Rick Haldenby were certainly no exception. The three of them joined me for a walk around the site one fall evening in 2000, after which we retired to a nearby restaurant for dinner and to develop a plan of attack.

The original plan was to have five or six shortlisted architectural firms participate in a two-stage process of interviews and a short competition, with only three firms selected for the competition based on the interviews. However, after the initial interviews, the selection committee was so impressed by Gilles Saucier and Andr Perrotte of Saucier + Perrotte architectes that we decided to eliminate the second stage and just hire them outright.

What had impressed us so much? Two things stood out. First, they had a very engaging manner and clearly seemed very willing to listen. I was terrified at the prospect of enlisting architects who would be dogmatically driven to develop some transcendent statement of their own artistic genius independent of what was necessary to make the Institute function, and my fears had indeed been exacerbated by what I had heard from some of the other candidates. Second, Gilles and Andr were more than just good listeners; they had interesting ideas of their own. Their clear determination to capitalize on the unique attributes of the site to bring nature into the building resonated strongly with all of us. They had studied the site and had thought carefully about its strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes you just know when you have a good fit.

Our first impressions were accurate. I began to work intensely with Gilles and Andr from January of 2001 and we quickly developed a solid partnership. I wrote descriptive documents describing the key factors that were required: an abundance of natural light, a harmonious marriage of private and public space, combinations of formal and informal meeting areas, the importance of coffee and good food. I encouraged them to interact with as many physicists as they could to get a variety of perspectives while we travelled to other institutions to witness what worked and what didn’t. I impressed upon them how important the building was to our needs: how competitive the market was and how we needed to develop the most exciting, attractive and functional building possible to give us a chance to make the impact on the international stage we were looking for.

They listened and they thought. And then they created. And then they listened and they thought some more.

By the early summer of 2001 the basic concept for the building was done. The central atrium, the rows of staggered research offices over an external reflecting pool that separated the Institute from the surrounding public parkland, the courtyard with an open, landscaped west side to allow for maximum passage of light, the informal meeting areas, lounges, seminar rooms, lecture theatre and bistro were all in that design, pretty well exactly where they are now. Over the course of the next six months we worked methodically to address all the numerous details to move towards going to tender. I insisted on wood-burning fireplaces for ambience and espresso machines for late-night necessity. In went the fireplaces and espresso machines. They added wood ceilings in the interaction areas to the wood floors to provide additional intimacy while dampening noise. The teamwork was smooth and productive. Perhaps even more noteworthy was the fact that the process of designing the building had an associated impact on the development of the Institute as well. There is nothing quite like the hard constraints of a physical structure to focus the mind on concrete decisions of moving forward–how many faculty to plan for, how many visitors to accommodate and so forth. In its own way, the act of planning the building had a significant effect on the development of the entire Institute.

There remained the issue of the south faade. One of the most exciting aspects of this building is the way that it presents four strikingly different views to external observers, but it was the south faade, as the one directly facing the city centre, that would likely have the greatest impact
and establish the building in the public’s consciousness. I was primarily concerned with the functionality of the space, so the details of the south faade didn’t occupy my thoughts terribly much, but clearly it meant a great deal to Gilles. I knew this because whenever I’d ask him about it he’d jabber on excitedly about its transformative dynamism and magnificent reflexivity. Eventually I gave up trying to understand what on earth he was talking about and turned my attention back to more pressing issues inside the building. If I wanted to find out what the south faade looked like, it seemed I’d just have to wait like everybody else.

Towards the end of 2001, it looked like the design of the building was pretty well finished. In a fit of unconscionable navet, I remember thinking then that the hard part was pretty well over. However unprepared I had been to confront the world of architecture, my ignorance of the earthy realm of construction would provide a rather more bracing wake-up call.

When I first told people about the new building, I was ruefully told by every one of my more experienced acquaintances that I could be assured that, like any construction effort, it would necessarily be over time and over budget, and that my job was to do everything possible to minimize both. Trying to take the bull by the horns, we hired a cost consultant before we went to tender at the end of 2001 and duly discovered that the expected price was indeed over budget. I met with Gilles and Andr for intensive cost-cutting meetings to trim the costs before resubmitting to the cost consultants. Desperate to put an end to the madness, we elected to go to tender. The price was considerably higher still.

Some three years later, as the finishing touches are still being applied to our building, I can safely say that it is both over time and over budget. Whether or not I was successful in ensuring that it wasn’t too late or too expensive is, I suppose, a matter of opinion. But what is clearer to me is the fact that we have been blessed with a truly magnificent facility that is already making its mark on the international theoretical physics landscape, and is achieving its objective of assisting us to recruit top talent at the highest international level. This past September, as I watched architectural experts enthusiastically milling around S,+,P’s model of the Perimeter Institute building at the Venice Biennale, it was equally clear to me that the impact of this building will go far beyond the theoretical physics community and significantly affect the hearts and minds of many people throughout Canada and beyond.

And I even understand the south faade now.

Howard Burton is the Executive Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, an independent, resident-based research institute.