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Making Difference

Patkau Architects

Making Difference

1. Work and Writing
When setting out to discuss our work, we are always a little surprised by the subtle discomfort of the task. We manage, but wonder; why so ticklish, this perennial need to explain? At length, we have chosen to look at the question because within it lies a meaningful difference. This much we can say directly, one of the most salient insights afforded us by our practice is that attention to difference and the corresponding arrangement of things is how sense and meaning are made. Let attention to difference be the provisional container for a design ethos. To fill it with a more practical and developed exposition, a reasonable place to start is the distinction between what matters to us about design and what it means to write or speak about it.
There are three common misgivings about commitment to words that frame our position in relief. There is the paralytic desire to both protect one’s own ideas and permit them their own failings. Negotiating care and risk, however, is not so different from how we handle mere drawings destined for literal concrete. There is also the dread of misinterpretation. Every building must stand mute and without apology as countless individuals draw their own conclusions about the mentality of its absent designers. We not only embrace this but, as we will discuss, anticipate that there is no other means by which significance or meaning may accrue to the work. And then there is the fear that, at bottom, there is nothing worth saying. This tension, however, or dissonance, or rub, or whatever oppositional metaphor one may choose, is not a symptom of faltering confidence. It stems rather from a secure observation that much about architectural meaning, beauty, delight, or the virtues of geometrical awkwardness simply cannot be said. It can only be given through building(s).
As we see it, description and narrative are more likely to interfere with experience than enhance it, the way beliefs can impede discovery without intimating loss. This may seem consonant with the first misgiving but there is no ideal at risk of ossification, so much as there is a risk of making the actual dissolute. It may also ring of the second, but there is no story to be misunderstood within the work itself. The stories that matter all happen afterward. These are individual personal encounters with completed buildings, which are always and forever open to interpretation. We rarely know them and they are what matters most. 
We are concerned with direct human experience of architecture. More, it is the manufacture of sense, meaning and delight in both the result and the process of the work. These, we claim, are inaccessible to language and if we are wrong about that, then they are inaccessible to our honest application of language. But even photography, as much as we value and rely upon it, is a pallid representative of architectural experience, which is yet more than a haptic experience because it includes expectation and dream, necessity and surprise, routine, and desire. This is as true for us as we evolve within the discipline as it is for what we hope our work will achieve. 
Provided here is an account of how our experience and values project a heterodoxical method in lieu of theory. This stands to one side of our architecture and ought not be construed as a justification for, nor a guide to reading the work. It is something different. 
We notice this difference acutely and wish to draw attention to it so that, as we refer to specific aspects of past projects, our readers are equipped with appropriately targeted skepticism. 

Fare la differenza Audain Art Museum, Whistler, Columbia Britannica, Canada, 2016 © James Dow courtesy Patkau Architects

2. Historical Context
We established our practice in Vancouver, Canada, on the west coast of what was still, in 1984, a post WW2 North America. The North American west was largely developed after the war with the sense of cultural tabula rasa common to colonialist enthusiasm. It was built on fast-burning prosperity, distributed industrialization, and the selective embrace of modernist ideals. Among the consequences is a broadly generalized and indistinct built environment. Vancouver, despite its backdrop of extraordinary natural beauty, was and remains a manifestation of historical disregard and opportunistic banality. By contrast, in our early travels, we encountered many older places exhibiting a more balanced heterogeneity that corresponded with more distinct local identities. Through this difference we observed that culture seems to nucleate and produce meaningful environments according to differentiation between the general and the particular. 
A brief thought experiment can illustrate the relationship between generality and particularity in the built environment. Imagine moving through a city that lacks generality. All buildings are sculptures and even the streets, sidewalks and signage are objects of expression. Each part is loaded with idiosyncratic meaning and abides by no convention. Such a place may be thrilling but would also be incomprehensible. Unable to cohere into a legible organization, it cannot make sense. Now imagine passing through a place of undifferentiated uniformity, utterly rational, regular and redundant. Pragmatic though it may be, it provides no contrast, no discrete identification, no figure/ground. The more alike every aspect becomes, the less any place within it can exist. It cannot make meaning. In each case, it is not merely the lack of order nor the lack of character that is sterile, it is the lack of differentiation between the particular and the general that fails to bring sensibility together with meaningfulness. 
To claim that the monomaniacal nightmare of the second imaginary city represents Vancouver would be an outlandish exaggeration. However, through the years of finding our stride as a practice, it seemed very much the trend. This was not simply the post WW2 era, but the rise of globalization. City-scaled tendencies, let alone international patterns, ought not be reduced to a single explanation. Nevertheless, economic, political, and cultural flows can be seen to accrete the built environment as a record of collective attention – and inattention. And while such forces can appear inevitable in their immensity, like a river and its banks, every fixed part shares some responsibility for the flow. We take each of our endeavors to be such a part. Given our observation of the current, we seek what makes each project particular to its immediate circumstance. 
Anywhere that buildings deny context by treating land as an abstract plane and culture as a market segment, anywhere that space is a mere commodity and material a symbolic superficiality, insensible and meaningless generality abounds. We cannot be the first to claim that to create meaning and identity in the built environment, attention to difference is required. In the Vancouver context, or any place dissolving into generality, it is necessary if insufficient that architects champion the particular for the sustenance and development of local culture. 

Fare la differenza Tula House, Quadra Island, Columbia Britannica, 2012, courtesy of Patkau Architects

3. Making Difference Across Architectural Scales
Our experience has taught us that a sensible, meaningful and even delightful built environment can arise through differentiation. Our design process is a practical application of this lesson, which we will discuss in three nested scales. First is site or context, within this is form and space, which in turn contains material. These three categories are pulled apart as a descriptive aid. In the reality of our process, however, there are no discrete boundaries between them, nor a set procedure for addressing them. They are nodes within a nonlinear network of decision making and imagination.

Fare la differenza Tula House, Quadra Island, Columbia Britannica, 2012, courtesy Patkau Architects

3.1 Making Difference Through Site 
Site is much more than the plot of land given to construction, its topography, or even its environmental conditions like solar exposure, prevailing winds, geology and the presence of water, all of which is necessary but insufficient. As a locus of design, site is both broader and more specific. It is how the land and its features belong to a socioeconomic and cultural context, and expressions of need or desire. Site is the set of circumstantial facts that spur the imagination toward a particular possibility and away from general presupposition.
Sq’éwqel Community School, built for and by the Seabird Island First Nation in 1991, occupies the edge of a broad floodplain of the Fraser River on Seabird Island. The differences found here are as elemental as the cardinal directions. Winds funnel out of northern canyons and shear across this flat and fertile basin held beneath the Coast Mountains. The building is relatively solitary, exposed on all sides, and oriented toward the Seabird community to the south. Between arctic flows and the warmth of both the sun and gathering people, the school is duly huddled and closed with cedar shingles that weather gracefully on the north, while open on the south under generous roof overhangs with glass, bright white surfaces and articulated spaces. We learned from the local community that orthogonal geometries recalled their tragic history with European colonization. The imperative not to use them, the immediate visual context of the mountains, and that the building would stand as a lone object in this colossal geological room of the valley, all but demanded animate form that could resonate with community imagination.
Tula House, 2012, is a residence perched above the Pacific Ocean that responds to five aspects of its site. Its apparently free and energetic plan-form is an index of differentiation within its surroundings. The dominant feature is an oceanic horizon gently serrated by the mainland mountains of British Columbia. Drawing closer, the shoreline 15 m below is a scatter of flotsam and jetsam, forever rearranging in angular jags amid the rocky tidal zone. Surface water trickles over the undulating ground and is gathered briefly in the courtyard on its way to the sea. Close observation of basalt outcroppings reveals microecologies of moss and lichens. And the surrounding forest of shadowy Douglas fir is punctuated by stands of red alder and big-leafed maple. The design is an exercise of threading these differences into the life of the house, allowing corresponding interior spaces to resolve in contemplative engagement with the environment. 
Audain Art Museum, 2016, is a building with an improbable location, a former works yard within the floodplain of a mountain creek. To protect the museum during a flood, when the creek becomes a torrent of fallen trees, ice and boulders, the building is a steel bridge with as few structural pylons as possible. Because snowfall in this region can accumulate up to 5 m, the roof is shaped to shed enormous quantities of snow. Held between these formidable acts of water is the personal art collection of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa. This artwork, tracing a visual record of British Columbia from the late 18th century to present, makes the entire cultural bioregion a site for the building. The building carefully picks its way through existing trees and opens towards the town with a great protected porch. Within the museum, the collection is organized into closed galleries on the town side, and a glazed walkway overlooking the restored forest and meadow on the other. The differentiated interior culturally situates the collection by bringing visitors into contact with nature – the subject of much of the collection – on their journey through the galleries. 

Fare la differenza Scuola elementare Strawberry Vale, Victoria, Columbia Britannica, Canada, 1995, courtesy Patkau Architects

3.2 Making Difference through Space and Form
Architectural space and form are an inextricable binary. Architectural space has social attributes (places where things happen) and phenomenal attributes (experiences of boundaries and centers). Form is the morphology of construction that forms space. While form can be defined metrically, space exceeds metrical definition as it arises through experience and projection. An elevated balcony seen from below, for example, stirs an expanse in the mind long before its prospect is attained. To be composed architecturally, space must be considered as a sequence of experiences that unfold through movement in relation to form. Differentiation comes about through the transitions in that sequence. To expand our terms, “particularity” and “generality” translate to something like “expressiveness” and “receptiveness”, where the particular is architecturally expressive and the general is more receptive to the use and interpretation of the occupants. 
Strawberry Vale Elementary School, 1995, is a composition of form and space that is deeply enmeshed in site and highly articulated through material. Its main formal masses are a large, protective shell facing the suburban context to the north, and four classroom pods that open to rock formations and Garry Oaks to the south. These forms are mediated by a highly activated ribbon of space that celebrates architectural assembly. Bends and changes in elevation along this syncopated corridor develop as minor spaces for spontaneous interaction between students. Within the classrooms, ceilings are intimate to calm the atmosphere, and surfaces are clad in white, bringing student activities to the foreground. Each pod is arranged according to a standardized plan, yet they are staggered and rotated in relation to each other in response to the natural rock formations. These idiosyncratic maneuvers result in a finer grain of space that becomes a family of differentiated outdoor learning spaces defined by both architecture and nature. 
The Polygon Gallery, 2017, is an exercise in redefining space with unequivocal form. The building occupies an artificial plane of reclaimed industrial waterfront and asserts an open public space with the leading face of its suspended second-story volume. The saw-toothed profile suggests an iconographic recollection of the former use of the site, but is actually an expression of the light requirements of the studio-like gallery within, allowing the stories to shift without historical negligence. The main mass of the building is suspended above the ground plane, creating an open lobby space that is almost exclusively contained by its ceiling. The double cantilever performing this levitation does less to project the building forward than it does to draw the public in, first out of the rain, then into the lobby and, by degrees, up to the gallery, which is utterly contained, shifting the sense of space from welcoming extroversion to inward attention. The gallery space itself, in contrast to the expressive façade, is as general and restrained as possible, affording the artwork the role of the particular. 
Thunder Bay Art Gallery, 2025, under construction at the time of writing, is situated along the formerly industrial shoreline of Lake Superior. It is dubbed by the Anishinaabemowin and Ojibwe speaking people for whom it is designed: Pinesi Waaji Waawaabadahiwewigamik ashij lniniwag Ooshjikewinan, or a place where things made by the people are shown. Consultation with approximately 30 individual stakeholders from local indigenous communities, including elders and artists, preceded design. The insights from this gathering are folded into the siting, organization and form of the building. Prominent concerns include a strong symbolic orientation to the cardinal axes, curvilinear form, and integrating a sacred Ojibwe re-creation story in which the Earth is reborn after a punishing flood upon the back of a turtle’s shell. The inland and waterfront sides of the building’s inflected linear form modulate end to end with a sense of movement and transformation that echoes the turtle’s procession. The convex inland side rises above earthen berms into which an intimate oval entry court is carved. On the waterfront, the concave mass of the building embraces a broad public green space while gathering a panoramic lake view. This differentiation aligns the indigenous context with movement through the building to the collections and distant landscape.

Fare la differenza Sq’éwqel Community School, Agassiz, Columbia Britannica, Canada, 1991, courtesy of Patkau Architects

3.3 Making Difference through Material
Material is responsible for the texture of architectural experience. Differentiation corresponds to the roles of materials in the expression of the building and its discrete parts. Translating the terms “general” and “particular” into material choice can be rendered many ways. In some instances it may be “restraint” and “elaboration”, while in others it may be “concealment” and “demonstration”. There is material as an articulation of construction and there is material that is more of an assembled surface of form. There is material that shrinks from attention and there is material that shines. 
An incremental comparison between two projects, Audain Art Museum and The Polygon Gallery, demonstrates material differentiation in particular architectural identities. To a significant degree, it is their different circumstances that account for resolutely particular architecture and materialization. There are three main architectural identities addressed materially by each project: building exterior, interior public space and exhibition space. 
The Audain Art Museum dons charcoal-toned exterior cladding to dissolve into the tree cover, allowing the bulk of its hull to recede, foregrounding the forest context. It is solid, smooth, sloped and thick to resist the environmental challenges described above. Conversely, The Polygon Gallery must reach further afield to bring environmental life to its post-industrial plot, and contends with a less demanding climate, affording more depth and articulation to its appearance. Through an experimental process involving models and full-scale mock-ups, an unlikely pairing of mirror-polished stainless steel and expanded aluminum catwalk assembles to bring the 
ever-changing hue of sky into play. The matte texture and physical depth of the aluminum softens the glint of the mirrored steel and brings a subtle parallax over the reflections, combining to lighten the sheer solidity of the façade. 
These two projects also have very different relationships to the public, which call for different material expressions within. Polygon lifts its entire mass to create an almost completely dematerialized public interior, easing the institutional boundary by maximizing street-level urban engagement. Audain must overcome the weight of the forest shadow and reach across the street in order to invite the public. It does this with a luminous opening and covered porch that introduces a rhythmic natural wood surface that seems to exude light and warmth. This surface permeates the public interiors, leading visitors past wide meditative views of the forest into the gallery cores. 
The Audain exhibition spaces must support a wide variety of artwork, from repatriated indigenous carvings, to mid-century paintings, and contemporary cross-media installations. They are, therefore, pure white museum spaces with minimal architectural expression and maximal curatorial control. The Polygon Gallery needs to be equally free of architecture, but even more interpretable. More like a studio than a conventional museum, its floors, walls, ceilings are of a ruggedly systematic construction that can support unpredictable artistic endeavors. Diffuse daylight is provided through fully controllable north-facing light monitors. An array of steel channels below these provides power, lighting, data and acts as structural support for art and temporary partitions. 

Fare la differenza The Polygon Gallery, North Vancouver, Columbia Britannica, Canada, 2017 © James Dow courtesy Patkau Architects

4. Making Difference in Practice
Our fascination with material, its involvement in form, space and structure, and our sheer delight in made things has evolved into a parallel occupation edging on play that serves to top off the container we proposed earlier, attention to difference. Where it is tempting to claim that a practice stands upon a rigorous premeditated theory, ours has emerged from the work itself, from a disinclination to forge a brand, and a tendency to dissect our own work, looking for unrealized potential. The analytical model of Strawberry Vale is an example of this reflective practice. By remaking the project with decisive incompleteness, we gained insight into how structures, assemblies and materials participated in form and space – insight that can be applied to future projects. This way of knowing belongs to a certain kind of making and sits close to the heart of our practice. There is making to fulfil an instruction, with virtues all its own, and then there is making to learn what can be made. Perhaps what can be made is different from what has been made. 
The Winnipeg Skating Shelters, 2011, with their limited size, constrained program and ephemerality, allowed us to engage in making as a direct approach to design. Though we did not know it then, these huts were the progenitors of an entire line of research that continues to this day, which we call “Material Operations”. The shelters were developed through intensive full-scale trial-and-error
mock-ups. We started with what we knew, plywood. It was available, workable and pliable. We asked, might it be able to define form, space and structure as a single material? We pushed and bent it to its breaking point until we not only knew more deeply what could be done with it, but found something that we would not have imagined otherwise. Material thus became a context unto itself – a set of circumstantial facts that spur the imagination toward unanticipated possibility. As we found new ways to bend, break, stretch, fold and distress different materials into self-structuring forms, the outcomes both departed from architecture and fed back into the practice, extending our range. This direct and iterative modality reflects and reinforces the impulse we have had from the beginning to not only seek out difference and make it, but also to make difference of ourselves.
Behind all our explorations of difference, there is an implication of movement and change. There is dissatisfaction with a built world that is somehow lacking both in sensibility and meaningfulness. This motivates us to make difference where we find opportunity. Making difference is as applicable to the course of our own work as it is to finding and responding to particularities of circumstance because each new project is also in the context of our preceding work and participates in our continual transformation. Perhaps it extends to overcoming our hesitancy to write and thereby discovering what there is worth saying. There is a necessary element of surprise and delight particular to building that is only possible when it is not solely governed by generalities, as is all too often the case. This is the delicate thing that is perhaps at risk of losing its truth and magic when entrusted to language. We trust in building. If the delight we find in pursuit of architecture is at all transmitted to others experiencing it, then perhaps some sense, meaning and difference has been made. 
 

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