Patkau Architects: Investigations Into the Particular
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John and Patricia Patkau, leading Canadian architects with a practice in Vancouver, British Columbia, delivered the 1995 Dinkeloo Memorial Lecture at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. In this excerpt John Patkau presents his firm's practice-based approach to architectural theory and discusses the design of two new schools in British Columbia, the Seabird Island School and the Strawberry Vale School.
When presented with a commission, our intuitive starting point is to seek those things that are particular to the project and to center our architectural response around them. We have come to describe this search as a search for "found potential"-those aspects of site, climate, or local culture, that facilitate the development of an architectural order evocative of circumstance.
Seabird Island School
For Seabird Island School, the found potential was revealed in studies of both the site and the client. This school for a Salish Indian Band is on a large delta in the middle of the Fraser River at the point where the river valley disappears into the coastal mountain range. The site is an agricultural area with large fields and a wooded perimeter where the individual dwellings of the band members are located. To the south of the site there is a modest town center, a U-shaped configuration of buildings loosely grouped around a small green.
Given the opportunity to build on this site, we chose to locate the building close to other community buildings. This is an obvious move but an especially important one for this community. The aboriginals of western Canada-much as in the United States-have suffered tremendously as a result of an imposed European culture. It was a community in disarray with many social problems, a troubled culture in which only a few elders still speak the Salish language.
This school represented a major opportunity for the band. It was to be their most significant resource and their largest community facility. They were to construct the building themselves, and so it also represented an expression of their communal will. The school would teach the children the language that their parents had not learned. It would be understood not as an institution but as a way of passing on knowledge within an extended family.
The school is organized in a familial manner. The classrooms are placed along a porch which faces south to the existing community center. All of the doorways are directly accessible onto this porch which is a public space. Members of the community can enter directly into the classrooms, take part in lessons and teach the children. The children likewise have immediate access to the outdoors where there are teaching gardens and salmon drying racks along the porch. Spaces within the building are organized in a completely open way so that there is no hierarchical separation between teachers, parents and students. As important community spaces, these facilities can be used as intensively after hours as during the school day.
We were told by members of the band that the orthogonal configuration of the residential schools which they had attended in the past-instruments of cultural genocide-was completely unacceptable to them. So we attempted to make a building which did not have these characteristics. Instead the building is irregular and, in a naive sense, more natural. It is more like a landscape or the interior of a forest.
Our first perception of this flat site surrounded by mountains was that it was almost room-like in character. Any large building within this vast room would necessarily take on a figural quality by virtue of the defining mountains around it, a figural quality which we thought might somehow be suggestive to our clients. The building began to assume a zoomorphic character which has proved to be significant for the band. They have come to see it as a creature, some as a fish and some as a bird. As a result, the building has achieved a level of significance within their community which in some ways is not open to us.
The school was built by the members of the band who had no construction experience. They did not know that the building was difficult but merely said, "Fine, we'll build it." We constructed a large-scale detailed framing model as a part of our working drawings. The model went to site and was a reference throughout the construction of the school. When they could not figure something out they checked the model. This was the first building of any substance that they had undertaken; the workmanship is very good and they had no difficulty doing it. It was a remarkable experience.
The Strawberry Vale School
Strawberry Vale School is currently under construction in the outskirts of Victoria. This project deals with a subject that has been implicit in our work from the very beginning: the relationship between the man-made and the natural. This distinction, upon which much of our architectural heritage is based, 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, we work upon the natural world through the act of building, at both the small scale of the building site as well as the large scale of resource extraction, processing, manufacture and transportation. It is no longer clear whether anything is truly natural or truly man-made.
As a result of the increasing continuity between the natural and the man-made, our cultural traditions need to be re-examined. Both classicism and modernism are based upon the distinction between the natural and the man-made. In the humanist tradition within classicism, architecture is understood to be a representation of "man" as the measure of the world that is other; in the abstract tradition within modernism architecture is understood to be a manifestation of pure form juxtaposed to a world that is other. If the distinction between the man-made and the natural is losing significance, these cultural traditions within which we work have to be, if not questioned, then enriched and expanded.
Clearly, while architecture is the product of human thought and work, it also affects and is affected by the environment within which it exists. 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.
The design of Strawberry Vale attempts to pursue a line of investigation which not only acknowledges our cultural traditions, but, inspired by the vernacular, also gives architectural form to environmental forces.
The site is developed so as to mitigate the impact of construction on the site. For example, rainwater run-off from the building is collected in trenches and runs along a swale to collect in a marsh. Plants planted by students will clean the water before it re-enters the groundwater. The materials of the building have been carefully selected to minimize embodied energy and toxicity.
The community to be served by this school considers itself "semi-rural" in character. A strong relationship to the natural world plays an important part in the cultural and educational objectives of this community. In British Columbia, everything is sun-seeking. To this end, all classrooms are oriented toward the south to optimize natural illumination within the interior as well as to maximize visual connection to an adjacent woodland. Furthermore, all classrooms are located on-grade providing direct access to the out-of-doors and the possibility of an extended program of teaching. This not only maintains a small scale consistent with the neighborhood of single-family dwellings but also attempts to establish a positive reciprocity in the definition of woodland and schoolyard.
The buildings we have designed since Seabird Island School have become increasingly explicit about the way in which they are made. We have struggled very slowly with a series of ideas which began intuitively and which have become more formally expressed and more carefully considered over time. In each building, the materials relate to the narrative of the building and to the significance of the parts of the building. The richness of the space is developed directly out of an expression of how the space is constructed. This is part of a larger idea regarding our interest in the particular, and how this interest is manifested through differentiation; whether that be differentiation of one place from another, or differentiation within the materials and construction of a building.
In a world dominated by global culture it is necessary to foster a local culture to define yourself as a people. A regional place defined exclusively by global culture is, in a sense, a colonial place without a culture of its own. Although we are inevitably shaped by global culture, we need to make a local culture, and we need to reinforce the particular in the context of an overwhelming generality. The principle mechanism in the creation of the particular is differentiation.