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Making Difference

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Blogs are not new, but blogging is new to us. We intend to explore this medium as a way to share some of the experience that we have in practicing architecture, particularly the experience of building. We will also post announcements for interesting events in which we are involved. There may be space for commentary as well. We’ll just have to see what comes of it.

As a primer, we offer the following text, Making Difference. It is a lecture written by John Patkau in 1998. The lecture puts into context the firm’s early work, and frames an outlook from which our work to-date has moved. Making Difference is an argument for balance between the general and the particular and, because of a perceived increasing imbalance toward generality, it promotes an emphasis on the particular.

It is necessary to place this text in its time, in the denouement of the postwar socio-economic confidence and functionalist standardization that defined North America’s urban corridors and suburban uniformity—just before critical changes in building and design technology, and before the contemporary surge in glamorized development that seems to froth across the planet. The pendulum has already swung far, in some respects, while not at all in others, which suggests something other than a pure bi-modality. Regardless, as a situated observation, as a reflection, and as a descriptive projection, Making Difference remains pertinent to the work that we do.

As a practice and as persons, we are constantly changing and growing, as are our methods and interests. Much of what we value, however, such as the specificity and fit of each project to its circumstances, remains constant. Let the following text serve as a foundation, or at very least a history for the discussions we hope to conduct in the future.­


Making Difference
John Patkau – 1998

In speaking or writing about one’s work it is tempting to represent the work as a manifestation of a theoretical position which somehow precedes the work. This is the model upon which our present-day notion of the architect as avant-garde artist/intellectual is based. However, in a practice which I share with my wife Patricia, the representation of our work as the manifestation, from the outset, of a thoroughgoing theoretical position would not only be untrue, it would deny the real mechanisms through which this work has developed. What we have been engaged in, to this point at least, is rather more craft based, what I would describe as “reflective practice” – the essentially modest activity which attempts to come to some limited understanding of architecture through the conventional activities associated with the design of normal buildings. This understanding is developed as much as possible from a consideration of the making and experience of the “thing-itself”.

This is not to say that we are uninterested in generalities, in the general principles or theories by which the world as a whole may be understood to be organized. Indeed, perhaps in defense, we frequently speculate on what these might be. Thus, over many years of practice we have come to some conclusions and have patched together a set of attitudes which might be understood to constitute an evolving working position from which we approach the design of individual projects – a working position, however, which is inevitably modified or expanded in response to the different circumstances which characterize each new project.

This evening, rather than simply describing our current work and what it is about I would like to describe the process by which we came to this work. To do this I would like to trace the line of development of one of the defining mechanisms within our work, namely differentiation and especially its material manifestations. To a certain extent that differentiation has been the defining mechanism in our work is very much as a response to circumstance – the circumstance of living and practicing in post WW2 North America, especially the western part of North America. To understand why this is so I would like to suggest that one of the important ways that a people or a culture defines itself, that is to say creates meaning, has to do with the interaction of the general and the particular – a necessary interaction which establishes associations which allow us to make sense of both. As an extreme condition generality in the absence of particularity renders a culture empty, where any residual structure or order is essentially trivial. At the same time particularity in the absence of generality, as an extreme condition, reduces a culture to chaos. It is only by defining our generality in the context of particularity, and our particularity in the context of generality that we establish who we are in the world.

In this sense, post WW2 western North America is very different from Europe or even the east coast of North America. In Europe, and some parts of the east coast as well, it is possible to work within a strongly developed local context which is often centuries old. And in this circumstance, while we are all very much part of a world architectural culture, these older places have a cultural balance which allows a fluid expression within both the general world culture as well as a particular local culture. In the west, which has been constructed largely since the Second World War, we work in the context of the most banal generalities. Vancouver, for example, the city where I live, save for its natural setting which is a wonderfully defining gift, is a city that is composed almost entirely of the “franchised” manifestations of late 20th century capitalism.

To the extent that we have not defined our local condition we are cultural colonials of the more powerful places and cultures which have established the generalities which we inhabit. I would argue that in this context we in Vancouver, and for that matter any other people and places, to the extent that this phenomenon applies to them, need to concentrate upon the creation of the particular – that is, the development of local culture. I would argue further that architecture, which is necessarily grounded in place, should be uniquely able to do this and in so doing playa greater role, beyond itself, as a counterbalance to the increasing generality of many other aspects of culture

Pyrch House 1983


Found Potential

The first of our projects in which our present line of investigation regarding differentiation became evident began simply, almost naively, with the conventional notion that architecture had something to do with “place” and that the design of buildings should be directed toward “placemaking”. Our intuitive response toward “placemaking” was to center our interest around those things that were particular to the project – the development of what we have come to call the “found potential” of a project – those aspects of site, climate, building context, program, or local culture, for example, that will facilitate the development of an architectural order which is evocative of circumstance.

The Pyrch house, which is located on Vancouver Island off the west coast of British Columbia, was designed to make the qualities of its natural site somehow more evident, more present. To this end the house was organized around the perimeter of the site and below the apex of the rock which fills the majority of the site so that from within the house the surrounding neighbourhood is screened but the distant view of the ocean is framed as a fragment of some perfect landscape. The terrace and wall surfaces of the house have been rendered abstractly to differentiate them from rock and trees so that the natural textures and patterns of the landscape are isolated and brought forward while the roof parapet has been maintained at a constant elevation so that the highly irregular topography of the rock can be registered against the constructional absolute of the house.

The Seabird Island School is designed for an unusual community. The Seabird Island Band is a community of Native Americans comprised mostly of the Salish people of the Pacific Northwest. This is a community which is desperately attempting to save itself from the spectre of cultural oblivion. Decades of cultural imperialism on the part of the Canadian government (i.e. the Canadian people of European origin), most insidiously in the form of residential schools where children were taken from their communities and sent hundreds of miles away to exclusively English speaking Christian schools, has almost completely erased the self reliance, integrity and identity of this community. The result has been an epidemic of self-destruction through alcohol, drugs, and violence.

Seabird Island School 1991


In this context the first purpose of the educational program of the Band, and the building in which it is to be housed, beyond the conventional training of children in the skills required to find a place in the contemporary job market, is to promote and enhance the historical culture, language, and way of life of the Salish people. In this regard the school has been sited to complete an incipient village square and organized along a public porch in a form similar to certain Salish villages of the past. A clear interface between the school and the village was essential, not only in making the school a vital part of the community, but also in encouraging the active participation of the community in the school’s daily organization. After all, much of the essential cultural and language instruction within the school is provided by elders within the community, as they rather than the professional teaching staff are the only people who currently have this knowledge.

During the course of the design we met extensively with the whole community, not just the professional teaching staff, but parents, children, and elders as well. We also visited other schools in the area to help the community understand what might be possible in their school. We were surprised to find a widespread dislike, verging on outright hostility, toward these schools. We should not have been surprised. Our surprise was the result our own cultural blindness. The form of the schools we visited came from our (invisible to us) European heritage. The Cartesian order of these schools was a symbol to the Band of the European imperialism they had endured at the residential schools of their past.

We also came to understand that in their culture the world of inanimate objects as well as animate objects, which to European culture are just raw materials for our use, are filled with spirits. We came to understand what kind of role, beyond pure instrumentality, the building we were designing could potentially play in the cultural life of their community. We had been aware from our first visit to the site which is a small island of delta land in the Fraser River surrounded by the towering mountains of the Pacific Coastal Range that the school, very much the largest building on the island, would inevitably be seen figurally – a large figure in an even larger natural room. But what kind offigure? It was important that the building evoke images which would resonate with the cultural traditions of the band. At the same time the literal use of images from their artistic history, which is a common practise among Canadian architects working for native American clients, seemed inappropriate and patronizing. Ultimately we attempted to develop a building that was vaguely zoomorphic, but ambiguous enough that it was subject to diverse interpretation. Admittedly the whole question of representation for another culture raises serious questions and doubts.


Totemic Elements

If differentiation in the interests of placemaking is the starting point of our general approach, the manner and scale in which differentiation is achieved can vary significantly from project to project. One early technique we attempted involved the notion of “totemic elements”, architectural figures which occupy a relatively neutral field and in so doing order that field. These architectural presences are intended to define distinct territories within the larger context and in so doing energize that context.

The Appleton house is a simple house for a young family within which a single large volume which constitutes the common space of the family is organized by a pair of figural elements – a large column which rises from the center of this space to support the roof, but at the same time counter-intuitively breaks through the roof to create an irregularly shaped opening to the sky, and an archaically proportioned fireplace, also associated with an opening, in this case an opening to the ground.

The Kustin house, which is located in Los Angeles, California, develops this approach in a somewhat more refined manner by virtue of the fortuitous circumstance that the owner, who intended to construct parts of the house himself, is a craftsman, a maker of bamboo fly-fishing rods. So within the more generic, conventional wood framed volumes of the house highly crafted elements act to define the house uniquely, both in terms of its location and in terms of its occupants.

The house has been divided in half by a flight of stairs which replicates the slope of the site, a slope so steep that the site itself, the ground on which the house is constructed, is not readily accessible. The space of the stair recaptures the experience of the site within the house. Across this space two gently arched wooden bridges connect the halves of the house. Rising within the central volume of stair and bridges a pair of columns, hollow and constructed of radial segments like the bamboo rods made by the owner act as air ducts which are used to destratify the air within the three story height of the space.

Kustin House 1986 – Model


The house has been designed as a house of walls in response to the intense heat and light of Los Angeles. Window openings are carefully controlled principally through size or orientation. However to the west, in response to a panoramic view of the hills above the city, large window openings and roof terraces from dining and living rooms are exposed to the full intensity of the afternoon sun . Here large sun shading devices have been constructed celebrating both the extreme climate of the place and the craft of the owner.

In our submission for the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery competition the idea of totemic elements takes on a more overtly symbolic character. The gallery is located in southern Ontario which is the industrial heartland of central Canada. Within the context of the gallery space as generic industrial shed, a direct response to the industrial history and character of the site, we proposed to insert a variety of architectural figures through which the function of the building would be emphasized and symbolized. Principal among these are an entry colonade of kiln-like columns containing fire and light which allude to the transformational process of fire through which glass and ceramics are made, as well as a tower within the stained glass gallery for the display of monumental stained glass, and an exterior courtyard within the ceramics gallery for ceramic sculpture, and a drum-like archives. In this way the spectator and artifact on display are placed in a specific, intensified architectural relationship.


Material Differentiation

Although we were successful in winning the competition for the gallery the project was delayed for a number of years due to a lack of funding. When we were finally authorized to proceed with the development of our design construction costs had increased to such an extent that it was necessary to substantially reduced the size of the building. To do this a number of program components of the original project were deleted or reduced. Among these was a glass-blowing studio, which was to have been the first of a series of studios within the gallery. The presence of the actual making of art within the gallery had been an important element in our original design as it had been our intention to make the layers of cultural judgement which are applied to a work of art on its journey from making through collection to display more explicit through a variety of architectural juxtapositions. The absence of studios in the revised program for the gallery made this intention no longer feasible. Nevertheless, it remained our intention to materialize a critical understanding of the institution of the art gallery in the design of the building.

The modern stereotype of the art gallery space is the white cube; a pure white space, lit artificially, with no connection to the world beyond. This stereotype has arisen naturally as a response to curatorial interests as well as to the drive toward abstraction characteristic of avant-garde painting and sculpture of the post-war period. The fundamental difficulty with this view is the tendency of this type of space to place “art-on-a-pedestal” – in a sense to turn works of art into psuedo-sacred objects divorced from everyday life.

The final design of the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery challenges the extreme isolation of this stereotype. First, the gallery interiors are strongly connected to the outside world: Natural light from skylights and windows articulates the order of the gallery spaces. An exterior courtyard brings daily and seasonal cycles into the gallery interior. Stained-glass is displayed against the background of exterior views so that it may be animated by changing light and movement. Second, the construction of the gallery interiors is not abstract: Building materials are directly expressed; details reveal the layers of construction – the building up of roof and wall assemblies – and articulate the relationships of materials to each other. In this way the art-objects which are displayed (as well as the architecture within which they are displayed) are connected to normal experiences, so that they may be understood to be part of everyday life.

Canadian Clay and Glass Museum  1990 – Analytical Model


Following the completion of the design a model study was undertaken to continue to explore certain of the formal principles of the design. The model is comprised of an irregular section taken through the center of the building. The partial nature of the model allows characteristics of the design, such as the play of complex linear constructions against simple geometric volumes and the layering of components within building assemblies, to be made explicit. Further, and largely independent of the original design, the partial nature of the model suggested unexpected formal possibilities having to do with the densely centered but open-ended composition, or the juxtaposition of complete and fragmentary forms. In this way the ideas and lessons of the original design are extrapolated so that they may begin to inform future work.


Tectonic vs. Clad (Jekyl and Hyde)

Shortly after completing this analysis of the gallery we received a commission to design a small branch library in a suburb of Vancouver. We decided to continue our investigation by adopting the formal characteristics of the gallery model as a starting point for the library. This is not to say that we ignored the issues and relationships that we would normally consider in developing any design. The library is located along the south edge of the site. In order to give it the presence appropriate to a public institution adrift in the suburban sea of “strip-malls” and residential subdivisions, as well as to give some definition to the street, the height of the Single-storey perimeter walls to the north and south were exaggerated. Not only does this give the building greater presence on the street, it also allows large amounts of natural light to enter the building in controlled ways. The south side is layered and shaped to modify the sometimes harsh south sun while the north glass “curtain-wall” allows the soft north light to fill the interior with a quiet luminousity.

While the perimeter walls to the north and south are exaggerated in height to give the library a public presence, the scale of the entrance to the west, adjacent to the principal vehicular access to the site, is compressed, even intimate. This compression or valley in the cross-section runs the entire length of the building maintaining the scale established at the entrance along the principal circulation spine of the plan. The inward sloping ceiling planes which result help drive the light which enters through the high sidewalls deep into the interior.

This valley also works in conjunction with a complementary pitched attic space above the roof to provide a plenum which houses the major air distribution ducts leading from a mechanical penthouse located directly above the entrance. The cross-section of this attic space diminishes in conjunction with a reduction in the number and size of ducts as it moves away from the penthouse. The changing intersection of attic and valley results in a cross-slope which drains the entire roof to each end of the building. Here water is directed through large galvanized steel scuppers into rock-filled catchment areas on grade and then allowed to permeate back into the site.

Newton Library 1993 – Analytical Model


The construction of the building begins with the natural sticks and stones of the region – a laminated wood structural frame on a concrete foundation. The tectonic qualities of this construction establish the primary character of the building shell. To this extent, the construction of the library follows directly from the formal analysis of the gallery which had been a starting point for the design of the library. However, because the light of the Vancouver area can be very soft, even weak, under the frequently overcast skies of winter, the robust light absorbing character of heavy timber and concrete, in themselves, are not appropriate to distribute natural light into a relatively deep floor plate. For this reason a complementary clad construction of painted gypsum board on the interior, and stucco on the exterior was overlaid on portions of the tectonic frame of the building. The cladding of ceiling and walls acts to reflect light from the edges to the centre of the building. As well, this ceiling acts in conjunction with the attic of the roof to house and distribute the mechanical and electrical systems of the building.

Where its luminous and enclosing characteristics are not required the layer of cladding is feathered out to its own thickness, eventually giving way to exposed construction. This allows the tectonic, more durable parts of the building to extend outside as a rain canopy. In this way a dialectic of construction types energizes the architectural expression of the building. Following the design of the library we, again, decided to construct a model which would allow us to continue to explore the formal characteristics of the design. As well, the model was seen as an opportunity to explore sectional extensions of these principles regarding the ground plane which were not possible in the actual building due to security and accessibility considerations.

The model is comprised of two components taken from portions of the building which most clearly represent its dialectical nature. The first component concentrates on the tectonic/dynamic portion of the building while the second concentrates on the clad/static portion of the building. Taken individually, each model component can be understood autonomously as a representation of a complete architectural schema. Taken together they represent a more complex transformational schema, an architectural jekyl and hyde, which is capable of responding to a diverse physical and conceptual context.


Found Potential Differentiated

The Barnes house is the most recent house we have completed. It is located at the edge of an open rocky outcrop within a generally forested five acre parcel of land which overlooks the Strait of Georgia and the mainland of British Columbia to the north and along the rocky shoreline of Vancouver Island to the northwest. Here the site is understood to be not only the rocky outcrop upon which the house is situated and the surrounding vegetation which encompasses it but the entire region centered on the Strait of Georgia. Not only is this region clearly comprehensible as a large scaled place it is actually visible from the site.

In this context the house has been designed as a landscape focusing device – a mechanism through which the experience of this place, from the small scaled textural characteristics of the rock to the large scaled expanse of the sea, is made manifest. The form of the house takes on the irregularity of its site. Facing the open rock outcrop and the panorama of the sea the compositional order of the house is clearly legible. Backed into the forest its compositional order becomes ambiguous, much weaker so that, unlike its assertive response to the clearing, here the house becomes recessive, subordinate to the forest which surrounds it.

Barnes House 1993 – entry & patio


Unlike the earlier houses the materials and construction components which make up this house are carefully differentiated. For the most part the shell of the house is comprised of conventional stud framing, stucco clad so that its appearance is monolithic, like traditional rendered masonry. (This is not an inappropriate “reading” as stud framing, unlike wood post and beam framing, acts as a structurally monolithic element.) Juxtaposed to this monolithic shell three concrete columns rise within the interior to support a heavy timber roof. Steel is used as a counterpoint to these robust presences, as elaborated connections between concrete and heavy timber, as railings at stairs, and as a canopy which cantilivers over the entrance and large window facing west.


Strawberry Vale Elementary School 1995



The last building that I want to discuss this afternoon is the Strawberry Vale School, an elementary school located in Victoria, British Columbia. I would like to begin by considering an issue which has been implicit in our work since the beginning – the relation between the manmade and the natural. I think this distinction is losing its significance.

As surely as the forces of nature act upon our buildings, we work upon the natural world. Gravity, rain and snow, wind, changes in temperature, plant and animal life, all act to reduce buildings to their material constituents. At the same time, through the act of building, we work upon the natural world at both the relatively small scale of the building site as well as the relatively large scale of resource extraction and processing, manufacturing and transportation. In this context it is of limited value to understand architecture exclusively in terms of existing cultural traditions – whether that be the humanist tradition within classicism where architecture is understood to be the representation of “man” as a measure of the world that is other or whether it be the abstract tradition within modernism where architecture is understood to be a manifestation of pure form juxtaposed to a world that is other.

Strawberry Vale Elementary School 1995 – Outdoor classroom


Clearly, while architecture is the product of human thought and work it also affected by and increasingly affects the environment within which it exists. In many ways what seems to be missing from both classicism and modernism, understood in this manner, is evident in the subtle environmental adjustment characteristic of vernacular architecture. In this sense it might be appropriate to avoid the idealization that characterizes both abstract modernism and classical humanism and adopt in its place a form of pragmatism which takes things at “face value”, without idealization.

The site of the school consists of an existing schoolyard and a newly acquired parcel of land located between the present schoolyard and a Garry Oak woodland that forms the edge of a small neighbourhood park to the south. All classrooms are oriented toward the south to optimize potential natural illumination within the interior as well as to maximize visual connection and access to the park. The landscape development of the site is intended to play an important role in mediating the environmental impact of the new school. To this end rainwater from wall and roof surfaces is collected in concrete trenches located below roof overhangs.and then carried along an open swale to the low point of the site where it settles into a shallow marsh. Initially, this swale will be planted with rough grass, inviting the gradual in-migration of aquatic plants brought by birds, the wind and perhaps the occasional class of Strawberry Vale students who will plant cattails. At the marsh planned lessons and experiments will occur as classes use this area to plant and monitor cattails, bulrushes, and other plant species, collected from neighbouring marshes. Here also, contaminants from building materials, carried by surface water, are filtered and cleansed by contact with microbial growth attached to water plants. In this way water from the site and the building is ‘polished’ before it percolates back into the subsurface water of the area.

The construction of the school begins with the selection of building materials. Generally materials have been selected to minimize the amount of energy which is embodied within the building. As well materials which are potentially toxic to users or the surrounding environment have been avoided. For these reasons claddings have been kept to a minimum within the school leaving much of the primary construction of wood, steel, and concrete exposed. White painted gypsum board has been added to complete exterior wall assemblies and where needed on interior wall and ceiling surfaces for light reflectance and luminousity.

Heating, ventilation, and lighting systems within the school attempt to take advantage of the “natural forces” acting on the site. Heating and lighting systems are designed, utilizing computer modelling techniques, to optimize the use of solar energy – heating through simple passive heat gain when sun angles are low, and lighting through the controlled placement of windows, clerestoreys, and skylights combined with reflective interior surfaces to distribute sunlight evenly throughout major interior spaces, especially classrooms.

Strawberry Vale Elementary School 1995 – Analytical Model


The detail development of the building construction is intended to be expressive, both of the manner in which the building is acted upon by natural forces, as well as of the manner in which the building has been made. Thus, for example, roof cladding changes profile and plane as the roof assembly changes from insulated building envelope to uninsulated roof overhang. Similarly wall cladding changes from vented cedar siding to a variable aluminum skirting at grade. In this way the detail development of the building acknowledges that in addition to existing intellectually or conceptually buildings exist in the dirt, rain and snow, that is, in an environment of natural forces.



Prior to a brief postscript which considers the beginning of what may be a new stage in our work I would like to conclude the main body of my presentation with these images of one further model study. Like previous models this one of the Strawberry Vale School is not only about the past, the design it attempts to represent, it is also about the future, the direction in which our work might be heading.

We began with an interest in placemaking which has led to a series of explorations regarding differentiation. At the same time we have come to feel that some of the idealizations upon which our cultural traditions are based might no longer be appropriate given our strained relationship with the natural world, and in this context favor an approach founded in pragmatism.

I think the implication of these observations for the future of our work is that both differentiation and pragmatism lead inevitably toward a condition of heterogeneity. I think that this is where the future of our work might lie and I think that is what these images of the Strawberry Vale School model might be taken to represent.

Victoria & Albert Museum

Lifetime Achievement Award

Making Difference