The work of Patricia and John Patkau can be characterized by a very particular reference to site and by its discretely tectonic character. In developing their approach to design, this young Canadian practice has sought to search out the particular and, in doing so, avoid the generalized solutions that are so pervasive in modern architecture and especially so in North America. Patricia and John Patkau founded their practice in 1978 in Edmonton, Alberta. Their early work consisted of houses and educational buildings on the prairies. Six years later, they relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia, and during the last 16 years, working from a studio in a loft in the heart of the city, they have designed a series of private houses and public buildings for sites not only on the west coast but across Canada as well.
Their winning competition design for the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery (1986) in Ontario marked a significant point in the development of their work. The construction of this project was delayed by a lack of funding, but when it was eventually completed in 1992, the Gallery also established an important landmark in contemporary Canadian architecture.
John Patkau studied at the University of Manitoba and graduated with a Master of Architecture degree in 1972, whereas Patricia Patkau (b. 1950) graduated from Yale University after completing her undergraduate studies at the University of Manitoba. Working together and with their colleague Michael Cunningham, they have developed one of the most significant architectural practices in Canada. The Patkaus scrutinize the site, construction, and materials in the settings in which they work so as to reveal the special characteristics of the place. This concern for the nature of place, which they have characterized as “investigations into the particular,” has significantly shaped their approach to design. In 1988 they designed a new school for the Seabird Island Band—a Salish community at Agassiz in the Pacific Northwest. Organized to consider alternatives to the institutional and prefabricated school building that were customarily provided by government for remote First Nation communities, this project was developed by the Patkaus, who worked in close collaboration with the Salish people to design a new school, built by the community. The zoomorphic form of the building created some construction problems, but despite this, the new school was well constructed by its community builders in a government-sponsored scheme.
The Patkaus continue to receive private commissions; many of these have been within areas of outstanding natural beauty. In sharp contrast to the long-established and densely built landscapes of Europe, these buildings have frequently represented the first acts of settlement on a site. This first settlement on a site has fundamentally influenced the development of the residential architecture of the Patkaus. The Barnes House, for example, which was completed in 1994, is located at the edge of rocky outcrop overlooking the Straits of Georgia in British Columbia and sited in a depression in the rock, but with the main living room on the upper floor turned to focus the long view to the ocean. The house not only is embedded in the site but also serves to focus a view onto the landscape. Their designs are derived from the topography and detail of the landscape. However, they also relish the constructional detail and explore a heterogeneity in ways that are reminiscent of Alvar Aalto’s work.
The design of new public buildings—a library at Newton, Strawberry Vale School on the outskirts of Victoria, new facilities for the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, as well as a new community school on the waterfront in Toronto—has ensured that the architecture of Patricia and John Patkau has not been isolated within private worlds or remote sites. These public buildings have been significant not only because of their complexity and public presence but also because they embody elusive and original qualities that make reference to the culture of Canada. In this respect, the work can again be viewed alongside that of Aalto, an architect whose work became an important part of the construction of a new nation. Canada can be viewed as a social democratic nation that emerged from the British Commonwealth anxious to define itself and to seek out differences that distinguish it from its expansive neighbor, the United States. In the last few years, the architecture of the Patkaus has played a role in this process.
Increasingly, the work of Patkau Architects has been seen on the international stage. Since 1994 their work has been shown extensively in Europe and North America, and in 1999 they were selected to represent Canada in the Venice Biennale. This notice has also brought their work to the attention of the promoters of major national and international architectural competitions. Invitations to compete for several significant design projects have resulted in successful submissions for new buildings in the United States, and at present they are designing new student residences for the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia as well as for the Grande Bibliotheque du Québec in Montreal.
These young Canadian architects have stated that they see their work as “only at the beginning of the issues of heterogeneity that we are interested in—the variety, the difference and differentiation, the irregularity juxtaposed to regularity.” As they move into the design of large civic buildings set within different urban contexts, it will be revealing to see how their declared desires for the buildings that they design—to “become more differentiated, more irregular, more various”—are made manifest.