Town of Bedrock

PROJECT McDonald Drive Condominiums, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

ARCHITECT Pin/Taylor Architects

TEXT Elsa Lam

PHOTOS Ihor Pona

Four years after moving to Yellowknife in 1971, architect Gino Pin decided to make his home on a cliffside on Latham Island, adjacent to the historic Old Town. City officials said they’d be happy to sell the lot, though they doubted one could build on the steep grade. “Sure you can,” replied Pin, and proceeded to construct a staircase-like house ascending the slope, with one room on each level.

Across a narrow causeway from this first residence, Pin’s newest project testifies to the maturation of the architect’s work over the decades. Like its counterpart, the eight-unit McDonald Drive condominium complex is driven by a close engagement with its site. This sensibility occurs on multiple scales, from broad strategic moves to finely tuned details, developed through years of architectural experience in the North.

The building’s curved, stacked form and perching foundations align directly with its site, a massive outcrop of bedrock, jutting towards the water at the edge of town. The project’s inception was in part an effort to preserve the integrity of this formidable geology. “In recent years, planning in Yellowknife hasn’t related to the natural terrain,” Pin says, explaining how his collaboration with four Yellowknife residents began. “We were concerned that someone else might build there and blast the rock away.”

A fundamental respect for the rock literally pervades the project. In several of the units, exposed bedrock enters as a surreal presence on the ground floor, while acting as a heat sink that moderates seasonal temperature extremes. Individual floor plans are adapted to the shape of the terrain: in one unit, a bedroom steps up to a sleeping platform and work area, following the rock profile.

Level shifts on the ground floor reverberate above, where living and dining spaces are designated by a grade change. An open staircase leads to the uppermost level housing a tiny study and open balcony, with a panoramic view to the rock top and Yellowknife Bay.

The climactic extremities of Yellowknife are equally important, if less obvious influences on the building’s form. Prevailing winds from the north are deflected by the curved layout of the complex, whose crescent shape creates a sheltered microclimate for the terraces and community space to the south. The roof also slopes north, further protecting against harsh weather patterns while diverting rain and snowmelt to the street.

A perennial challenge in the subarctic is coaxing light to enter during the brief winter daylight hours, while sheltering from excessive heat gain under the relentless summer sun. An instinct to hunker down in the cold season and seek relief from summer rays is one reason for placing bedrooms on the sheltered ground floor. On the main level, generous south-facing windows permit low-angled winter light to enter while shading against steep midsummer sun angles. While the layout shies away from a full open plan–perhaps acknowledging its logistical and acoustical impracticalities–sliding glass doors and partially glazed partitions create pathways for natural light

in the winter and shoulder seasons. In one unit, a below-grade sauna is endowed with polycarbonate glazing at ceiling height and a glass door allows daylight to continue through to the bathroom. In the living areas, north-facing clerestories are angled so that ambient light reflects off snow and bounces inside, towards a built-in window seat.

If the bowed-out, wood-and-metal waterfront construction tempts nautical metaphors, Pin is adamant that any such links are unintentional. Even the porthole-like screened openings punctuating the faade are practical: they’re devices for providing natural cross-ventilation, refined by trial and error over the course of many projects. The depth of the openings prevents wind-driven ice and snow buildup, and gives room for circulating air to pick up warmth in winter.

The exterior finish strategy reflects another challenge in Yellowknife–the shortage and expense of materials and skilled labour, currently at a premium because of the booming economy in neighbouring Alberta. The cladding is made of zinc, a weather-resistant metal and one of the few materials native to the Northwest Territories. To economize on labour costs, one-metre-wide rolls straight from the factory were top-hung from the structure with minimal cutting or crimping. Stainless steel washers and screws fasten the material loosely in place, allowing for expansion and contraction.

As a result, the faade has an oil-canned warp that appears somewhat incongruous against the otherwise sturdy-looking construction. But that very roughness reflects the spirit of a project that doesn’t aim to be slick, or to conform to current stylistic trends. Instead, a combination of practicality and improvisation drives the design, both inside and out. The outcome is a far cry from the sterile trailer-home suburbs that have come to dominate Yellowknife development. It recalls, rather, the improvised housing of the houseboat community, the neo-hippie shacks of a district affectionately known as the Woodpile, or Pin’s own quirky first residence: housing highly flexible in adapting to its environmental surroundings, and which makes the most of the resources at hand. CA

Elsa Lam is a freelance journalist and PhD candidate in architectural history at Columbia University in New York.


Client Mafic Condominiums

Architect Team Gino Pin, Simon Taylor, Doug Townson, Becca Kroeger, Svetlana Kaznacheeva, Vance Fok, Jennifer Esposito, Seth Lippert, Jacob Shank, Vince Barter, Clark Webb

Structural Nelson Engineering

Mechanical JSL Mechanical Installations Ltd

Electrical Ryfan Electric Ltd

Landscape Pin/Taylor Architects

Interiors Pin/Taylor Architects

Contractor Tundra Construction

Area 16,000 Ft 2

Budget $6 M

Completion June 2008