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Twenty + Change: Davidson Rafailidis, Fort Erie, Ontario

“Over time, it matters less what a space was made for. It is more essential that it surprises us, inspires a certain curiosity, and does not prescribe a single use.”

Big Space, Little Space adaptively reuses a 1920s garage in Buffalo, New York, into an apartment dwelling and workshop. A strategy of minimal interventions maintains the industrial character of the space and a flexibility in the way it is inhabited. Photo Florian Holzherr

“Over time, it matters less what a space was made for. It is more essential that it surprises us, inspires a certain curiosity, and does not prescribe a single use,” says Georg Rafailidis, co-founder of Fort Erie, Ontario-based studio Davidson Rafailidis. “We aim to make spaces that look specific and don’t immediately reveal themselves—spaces that are charged with an atmosphere that keeps radiating over time,” adds co-founder Stephanie Davidson.

Big Space, Little Space adaptively reuses a 1920s garage in Buffalo, New York, into an apartment dwelling and workshop. A strategy of minimal interventions maintains the industrial character of the space and a flexibility in the way it is inhabited. Photo Florian Holzherr

Davidson and Rafailidis met while studying at the Architectural Association in London, and planned their collaboration while teaching at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. They shared an appreciation for the “mysterious idiosyncrasies of old buildings” which “magnetize you,” says Davidson, as well as a dedication to learning from observation. The Euregio region’s strong culture of high-quality design also inspired their approach to material detailing, which takes a disciplined attitude to making the most of resources and money.

Big Space, Little Space adaptively reuses a 1920s garage in Buffalo, New York, into an apartment dwelling and workshop. A strategy of minimal interventions maintains the industrial character of the space and a flexibility in the way it is inhabited. Photo Florian Holzherr

This attitude also suits the Rustbelt context of Buffalo, New York, where many of Davidson Rafailidis’s projects are located. The duo relocated to southern Ontario, close to Davidson’s parents, after teaching opportunities arose at Ryerson University (for Davidson) and at the University at Buffalo (for Rafailidis). Davidson and Rafailidis have positioned themselves between the two cities, developing a nimble cross-border practice with a reach that extends far beyond.

Big Space, Little Space adaptively reuses a 1920s garage in Buffalo, New York, into an apartment dwelling and workshop. A strategy of minimal interventions maintains the industrial character of the space and a flexibility in the way it is inhabited. Photo Florian Holzherr

Many of Davidson Rafailidis’s projects are forms of adaptive reuse, applying tactics of adding, subtracting and sculpting. For example, Big Space, Little Space is a residence in an industrial shed, structured as a series of nested enclosures. The project uses minimal means to expose unexpected relationships: an enlarged door opening reveals the cross-section of the existing structure’s façade; a skylight over the shower makes an intimate space feel 20 feet tall. In a workshop named He, She, & It, three distinct volumes provide the appropriate climactic conditions for a ceramist, painter, and their plants, while flexible walls blur the boundaries between these spaces.

He, She & It is a 135-square-metre building that houses three distinct spaces: a white-box painting studio for him, a ceramicist and silversmith’s workshop for her, and a greenhouse for the couple’s seedlings. Photo Florian Holzherr

In Together, Apart, a zigzag glass screen draws a diffuse, ambiguous division between an area for cats and an area for people in a cat-café. As the screen steps through the space, it subverts conventions—for instance, allowing cats to sit on a part of the counter next to cakes. Similarly, a glass window in the back courtyard wall is mounted to the outside, concealing the window frame from within. According to Rafailidis, both divisions teasingly question: “Are you in the one area or the other area? Are you outside or inside?” The interlocked, yet isolated spaces permitted the business to keep operating through the pandemic—animal shelters are an essential business. During the past year, it facilitated the rescue of 300 cats.

He, She & It is a 135-square-metre building that houses three distinct spaces: a white-box painting studio for him, a ceramicist and silversmith’s workshop for her, and a greenhouse for the couple’s seedlings. Photo Florian Holzherr

“Nothing is static, nothing is tidy,” says Davidson as she describes the pair’s website, developed in collaboration with German designers Fuchs Borst. The site is a kind of investigative project in and of itself, documenting Davidson Rafailidis’s works as a composition of found photographs. It shares a sense of serendipity with their architectural spaces: where accidental encounters disrupt expectations, and time continuously unfolds new discoveries.

This profile is part of our August 2021 feature story, Twenty + Change: Emerging Talent

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