Interview: Pat Hanson
INTERVIEWER Sarah Fletcher
Architect Pat Hanson’s firm, gh3, is known for its stubbornly minimalist aesthetic and innovative public spaces; the firm’s projects include Edmonton’s Borden Park Pavilion, a number of residential constructions, and the as-yet unconstructed building enclosure for Waterfront Toronto’s stormwater facility. We speak with Pat Hanson, winner of a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture, about her design philosophy and approach to business in a competitive landscape.
Who are your inspirations?
We get our inspiration from all over the place. There are other architects we all greatly admire, like Sejima. Artists as well, certainly James Turell and Donald Judd—the central message of his work is something that we aspire to in the detailing of our buildings.
There are the old Masters of course— everyone has a lot of reverence for Le Corbusier. Currently, one firm that gives us confidence to pursue the work the way that we do is Herzog and de Meuron, because they are a very conceptually-based firm. Their buildings have a really strong idea. Whether it comes from the site or whether it comes from an idea of program, it really is a kind of distillation of an idea expressed through an architectural form.
Would you say your work has a strong conceptual element?
Most of the projects do. We completed one a couple of years ago called Borden Park Pavilion, in Edmonton. It’s located in an early 20th century picturesque park that is based on a fusion of English picturesque and the classical. It has axial paths and moves on to more meandering picturesque paths. I think that is one of our most successful projects because it really results in a building and a landscape that understands the park design. In many picturesque parks, the paths end up in circular nodes. This park in particular ended in a bandshell in one place, and the paths ended in a circle. It’s really working with the geometric structure of the paths.
There were other buildings on that site many years ago, when it used to be an amusement park. There used to be a carousel, there was a circular bandshell and there was a circular wading pool. So the circular form of the building really recalled some of those past amusements, in particular the carousel. It is an interpretation of that—the building has a kind of playfulness that really speaks to what was once there.
That’s what I mean, the content-based approach of our work— that kind of thing is really the starting point for most of our work.
Another project that is not yet constructed is the building enclosure for the stormwater facility for Waterfront Toronto, on Cherry Street and Lakeshore Boulevard. In that project, we were inspired initially by the idea of stone and water and well. The principal evocative thought of what that building should be was the feel of water against stone. So our building is conceptually an inverse well—an above-grade well. It’s no longer in stone, we’ve worked it through with budget constraints, so it will be cast concrete. That building enclosure and the site are working as one. The building material and the material of the ground plane of the site around it are exactly the same. So there is a play about what is horizontal and what is vertical, and a continuity of the horizontal plane to the vertical wall plane of the building.
You say on your website that “We apply global learning to local problems”. Can you elaborate?
It is something that distinguishes the practice of architecture in the last decade: the availability of information, the number of architectural blogs, being able to research and find things online. That goes from looking at other architects’ work, to products, to being able to research certain kinds of details online. We embrace that ability to be completely informed and to see instances of how other architects would approach a problem similar to ours around the world. We really do encourage our studio to bring forward precedents and examples of how things are done elsewhere.
Years ago—I’ve been in practice for 30 years—we would wait for the monthly periodicals to come into the office and devour them. You would have to wait for the magazines, wait for Canadian Architect, Domus, Japan Architect, Architectural Review. Now, there is so much more available, and available with more content. We are not shy about admitting that we extensively research the work that we do in a number of ways.
Does your firm have a particular aesthetic approach or philosophy?
I started doing some work with Diana Gerard, and at one point in our careers we were not really willing to compromise anymore. We founded this practice about 10 years ago with the underlying ambition of doing really good work. Doing work that was smart and that serviced the client, but did not compromise. We would work hard and do as many hours as we needed to make sure that the work was always the best it could possibly be. I sort of joke that it’s not a very good business model, but it really is the foundation of how we see things in the office. Do the very best work that we can and strive for excellence.
When you talk about compromise is that because the clients often want to cut corners?
I think compromise is partly what kind of work you go after. Within any number of sectors, there’s work that systemically does not allow for good architecture. The starting point is: do you really try and look for work where the client has a desire for good architecture?
We normally are hired for the kind of work where a client has a sort of vision that mostly aligns with ours, in terms of wanting something of architectural content. I think compromise is an architectural firm going after the kind of work to pay the bills. Then compromise again would be that you’re working to a fixed fee and the fee is starting to disappear, do you keep working? Do you keep trying to invent when you run into problems? Or do you compromise, and stop and say “we worked on this hard enough and it’s going to be what it’s going to be?” It’s compromising within your own standards as well.
Are there a lot of risks associated with that approach?
Architecture is a tough business. It’s difficult to be really comfortable or confident that there is always going to be work. You feel responsibility to the people that work for you. As well, pver the last couple of decades, architects have been their own worst enemies. There’s been a paradigm shift in practice; so many, many practices have merged or been bought by others.
So you get two models of practice these days. One—which is firms are anywhere from 50 to 1500—multinational practices that can afford to put in very low fees, and that’s of dropped the standard of architecture in North America. And then there are those firms like ours—under 15 people—that find it difficult to compete with firms like that, especially if you have an ambition for the projects that you are working on that is greater than a corporate model. I think that shift will become even more pronounced in the future, where medium-sized firms will become a thing of the past.
All that is to say, it is a tough profession. When you make a choice that you are going to practice a certain way, there is a price to pay for it. There is also a lot of reward, too. Everyday, it’s great to come to the office and see the potential of your work.