Architect of the Year 2013: Cedric Burgers
With an eye to local materials and environmentally conscious design, architect Cedric Burgers has created work that's a celebration of next-generation modernism.
So much of design focuses on the internal workings of a home: we’re inspired by a beautifully crafted kitchen that rolls into a warm and inviting living space, or by the right combination of colours, textures and material that creates a “wish you were here” moment. But for architects like Cedric Burgers, this year’s Architect of the Year, those beautiful moments inside the home actually start outside: what creates that perfect setting is the initial decision of where the house itself will live on the property.
Burgers recently spent time in Australia with architect Glenn Murcutt studying just that phenomenon. While designing an art gallery on location, his group spent a few weeks camping in the outback. “We spent an enormous amount of time siting, thinking about how views, breezes and sunlight would affect the site location,” says Burgers. “It has nothing to do with style, with the types of windows we’ll use—but all good architecture starts with this consideration for the site, and for the sunlight and the wind and the rain.”
Burgers’s work often takes inspiration and direction from the local environment. A home on Bowen Island is inspired by the Finnish fishing cabins found in Finn Slough in Richmond, B.C. “They’ve existed forever, with no maintenance and they look so perfect,” he says. “What I came up with is a roof shape that would shed water very easily. The shape and the simplicity of the building, that’s what appealed to me.”
That careful attention to detail and reflection on sense of place is brought to life in Burgers’s own work, most of it in B.C. There’s a practical, human-centred nature to his designs: an island cabin inspired by durable Finnish fishing cabins; an artist’s studio that opens seamlessly onto the garden; the renovation of his own home, which modernized an old orchard residence into a family-friendly, open-concept double-lofted space. That sense of practicality has been with him since he was a child, something no doubt connected to having an architect as a father, and it is a quality Burgers affirmed when he spent a year interning in starchitect Daniel Libeskind’s firm in Berlin. “I’m really interested in the detailing of how pieces go together, intelligently and with durability—almost like Japanese construction, which focuses on the parts, and the parts becoming an expression of the whole,” he explains. “In Europe, it was very much grand thinking without really any sense of how people use a space or how the thing goes together. It was a very large gesture, a sculptural gesture, but it didn’t interest me at all.”
His own home is a renovation of an old orchard house, featuring a lofted living space. “Renovations are interesting because you’re forced to deal with geometries and structures that you never do otherwise,” he notes. “We wanted to create something flexible enough that would, in five years time, accommodate another floor. Sometimes the right solution is just to create a very different volume that can be adapted to future use.”
Instead, Burgers’s designs keep people, those using the building, as the primary focus. Buildings that are beautiful first, says Burgers, are ultimately problematic. But just as integral to his designs is sustainability, and many of his projects incorporate both passive elements (such as rooflines wide enough to block out high summer rays but that still capture low-lying winter sunshine) and more complicated systems. One home features a roof, shaped like an inverted umbrella, that channels rain in a waterfall-like stream toward underground tanks that filter and store enough water for the homeowner to live off-grid for most of the year.
That home itself is a wonder for its structural innovation. Overlooking the water, it features one unbroken wall of glass that faces the view; with such a wide use of the material, it could have been a near impossible feat to keep the home upright in any condition, let alone in a seismic zone like West Vancouver. But Burgers worked closely with an engineer and came up with an ingenious innovation: an internal cross brace made of inch-thick, stainless-steel cables at the back of a bathroom in one corner of the house keeps the home stable while preserving the view.
Its materials—Squamish stone, cedar, anodized aluminum, glass—speak to a tradition of coastal modernism that Burgers has interpreted for modern-day living: spaces that flow from one room to the next, seamless transition between indoors and out and, most importantly, sustainability. “This is the type of house that really appeals to me because it’s distinctly West Coast,” explains Burgers. “You can’t really build this anywhere else in the world.”
Burgers designed an addition for a home that operates as a private art gallery. “It’s a bit of a contradiction because the view is so stunning, but it also had to be very intimate and a gallery-like space, which creates a very unusual dynamic.”
Burgers adheres to a school of thought known as critical regionalism—a philosophy that pivots around the idea that good architecture is the result of designers who truly understand the environment they’re working in. It means understanding local materials, but also focusing on craftsmanship: on the West Coast, that means working with the trades that excel at carpentry, working with the wood that’s so plentiful. And it’s in large part why he’s focused on building in B.C. rather than looking further afield.
It’s a gesture lauded by our judges. Jeremy Sturgess praised Burgers for his “elegant and expressive rendition of West Coast modern, the next generation.” And Bruce Haden of Dialog commended Burgers for creating a modern approach that covers a wide range of budgets. “Interestingly, Burgers’s design ranges from overt luxury to modesty—the last is a reminder that it was not until recently that modernity and luxury were seen as inextricably linked,” says Haden. “The virtues of modernity were founded in simplicity and restraint—a light container for a light-filled life. Burgers’s work celebrates this range.” WL