Building the future of design

Today's young architects are gutsy and inventive -- generating new ways of building with daring shapes and fresh approaches to traditional materials. So why is it, LISA ROCHON asks, that their best ideas so rarely make the leap from blueprints to bricks and mortar?

LISA ROCHON - Monday, March 20, 2006

So much depends on young architects. But in North America, where it is nearly impossible for brilliant young designers to build, so much argues against them. The 2006 Young Architects award by the Architectural League of New York offers sweet reprieve from a building establishment that typically ignores young studios. A Toronto-based design partnership has been honoured, along with five American teams, by what is arguably the most significant prize given to fresh, intrepid thinkers in North America.

Now in its 25th year, the Young Architects award acknowledges the role young, independent thinkers play in the world of design. For each of the winning teams, there's a cash prize of $1,000 (U.S.), a springtime lecture in New York and a book published by the Architectural League and Princeton Architectural Press. It's an extended tribute, which explains why the award is also known as the Young Architects Forum. Importantly, there's a chance to build: Each recipient is invited to design an exhibition of his or her work for the league's gallery on Madison Avenue.

Williamson.Williamson, one of the 2006 winners, is a Toronto studio founded by Shane Williamson, assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, and Betsy Williamson, project architect with Shim-Sutcliffe Architects of Toronto.

Like many of their award-winning peers, Williamson.Williamson's is an eclectic portfolio of low-cost summer cabins, exquisite furniture and startling exhibition design produced by advanced computer software and CNC milling. Much of the work was prepared for competitions, including their short-listed design for water taxi stands along the Chicago River, as well as the Pentagon Memorial in Washington.

The winners of the Young Architects Forum -- selected annually during a blind competition -- are innovating new systems of construction and ways of producing daring shapes by rethinking traditional materials.

Williamson.Williamson have milled wooden doors and cabinetry to evoke sensuous landscapes. PLY Architecture of Ann Arbor, Michigan, another 2006 prizewinner, designed a three-dimensional honeycomb pattern in aluminum to grace the ceiling of a burrito restaurant. I'm thinking, too, of the work of previous recipients of the Young Architects Forum; the endless layers of paper used to create the accordion-like, freestanding soft wall by Forsythe + MacAllen Design Associates of Vancouver or the way that nARCHITECTS of New York have detailed a Tribeca loft renovation with plywood, to create sensuous, seamless cabinetry and ceilings that look stitched together.

Remarkably, nARCHITECTS, led by principals Eric Bunge, of Montreal, and Mimi Hoang, originally of Vietnam, was discovered by a developer interested enough in young talent to take a leap of faith and hire them to design an in-fill condo in the Lower East Side. Called the Switch Building, the seven-storey condo is clad in galvanized aluminum and features modernized bay windows and balconies that appear to horizontally shift in alternating patterns.
Construction is nearing completion.

But, too often, in spite of years in graduate school and work experience with award-winning firms, the principals of young studios are ignored by an industry driven by budgets, fast-track construction and protocols for hiring. More than ever, clients select firms according to a request for proposals in which a greater number of points are accorded for number of building types -- a school, a civic centre -- already accomplished.

European countries such as Holland and Spain have built a deep design culture that seeks the invigorating ideas of architecture graduates. Open, international competitions are commonplace and winners are chosen for the depth of their ideas, not the depth of their building portfolio.

In North America, what youth can produce is glorified in the music and film industries. Not so in architecture, where young, brilliant minds need to content themselves with paper architecture -- beautiful drawings to look at but, sadly, designs that are rarely built. "There's a grey hair requirement in our profession," says Mason White, the 32-year-old recipient of the 2005 Young Architects Forum who won the award with his partner, Lola Sheppard. The Harvard graduates worked in London before settling in Toronto and establishing their firm, Lateral Architecture. "You have to have grey hair before you get significant projects. We're in this constant competition stage," he says, although since winning the League's award the firm has pursued joint ventures with more established practices. The hope is that they might actually get to build some of their designs.

There's a critical need for young architects: They have the brains and the guts to contribute something important even if it requires enormous personal sacrifice. For the Williamsons, their design for the Dog/Trot house accommodated a very tight budget (less than $10,000) and a client who wanted the wildness of a site on Lake Couchiching near Orillia, Ontario to be left intact. Drawing from the vernacular tradition of the 19th-century Dog Trot house built in the southern United States, the Williamsons rendered a simple hut with pre-fabricated wooden panels ventilated by a courtyard that cuts through it. In order to maintain the budget and keep their client happy, the Harvard grads were willing to build the cottage themselves. But their client apparently lost interest. In another instance, Julio Salcedo, a Harvard classmate of Betsy Wiliamson's who has also won the 2006 Young Architects award, moved back to his native Spain several years ago in order to supervise the construction of his first residential project, the Casa Lazo.

Together with his American wife, he lived for a year and a half on the fringe of an isolated village in the Basque country, working closely with a contractor whose primary expertise was in concrete foundations. The clients were a Spanish couple who had decided they could only occasionally live together. Against all odds, the house emerged as a study of separate living zones and spaces for entertaining. Salcedo set the house within a berm, used the diagonal as the strongest of axes and kicked up the roof to indicate the front entrance. For his first built work, it is a remarkably self-assured building.

Occasionally, open, international competitions pay solid dividends.
Salcedo, 35, has just won a competition to master plan a new, 0.85-hectare lakefront district for Hamar, two hours north of Oslo in Norway. The area was previously used by the 1994 Winter Olympics and is now being converted into a tourist and residential destination. It's possible that Salcedo will be given the hotel/convention centre to design as well as providing the urban design guidelines. After years of struggling, Salcedo says, "It's too dreamy and surreal, so I'm not talking about it too much. I don't want to jinx it."

In Canada, the promise of the young architect is only occasionally feted. Emerging practitioners are invited to create landscape as architecture at the Jardins de Métis gardens in Quebec, and the Canada Council for the Arts awards $50,000 to winners of the Canadian Professional Rome Prize, allowing for travel and research ideas during a two-year period. nARCHITECTS are the 2005 recipients.

But in a country where open design competitions are rare and the talent of young architects is sidelined by large design consortiums, there's plenty of room to do more. Institutions like the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal or the Design Exchange in Toronto might more often showcase the work of young, advanced thinkers from across Canada and the United States. Professional associations of architects might look to actively promote the work of the undiscovered in centrally located gallery spaces. And cultural institutions should engage the ideas of bright thinkers who live down the street, rather than relying heavily on the world's superstars. "I was going around the Frank Gehry exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario and thinking it was really in need of an exhibition design," says Mason White. "There were just a lot of missed opportunities. Why didn't they ask some of the city's young architects? I would have literally done that for free."