Designers of the Year Photo Credit: Nic Lehoux. Styling by Maureen Willick.

Architects of the Year 2012: Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture

A couple aims to transform the way we think about innercity living, one sustainable project at a time.

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Oliver Lang and Cindy Wilson are drawn to cities on the edge. They met in Barcelona in the early ’90s—a time when young architectural students were enticed by the city’s rapid post-Franco, pre-Olympics urban regeneration. And they might have stayed there, were it not for the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a city to reunify, and an architectural renaissance to join.

Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture

Then, three years after their time in Berlin, an offer from Santiago, Chile, proved irresistible, as did other opportunities in New York City.
So when the time came to move to Vancouver in 1999, it made perfect sense—yet another city on the verge of change. “I think we’ve always been interested in the idea of cities,” says Lang. “And Vancouver was still sort of an outpost in the Pacific Northwest, really poised with potential.”

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Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture (LWPAC) began in earnest in 1998 in NYC and, since then, our Architects of the Year have been creating ground-breaking projects that are both visually arresting and socially transformative. There was the Governor General’s award-winning Roar One, a condo in Vancouver’s university district that incorporated interior courtyards and deployable floor-to-ceiling “sliders” on the building’s facade—designed both to protect against hot summer sun and to give the building a constantly morphing appearance.

Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture

It was followed closely by Monad, a condo built on a standard 33-foot lot and designed to take all of the positives of life in a single-family home (backyard, dedicated entranceway, a basement for storage) and convert it to work vertically. Lang and Wilson wanted to rethink the traditional condo: that single-sided, 15- to 20-foot-wide and 40-foot-deep box that proliferates in the city. “You get this long tunnel with a window at the end,” explains Lang. “It certainly didn’t work for our typology.”

Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture CultureInstead, the units in Monad have several interior courtyards and light wells that punctuate the structure. The elevator runs up through the central courtyard, and each resident has a separate entranceway, outside, surrounded by gardens. Terraced outdoor living is very much a part of the structure: one 1,280-square-foot home has a 500-square-foot deck; a 2,000-square-foot penthouse has over 1,200 square feet of outdoor space. (Viewed from above, all the exterior surfaces are covered with gardens or decking, including the rooftop.) All have generous storage rooms in the basement, because LWPAC didn’t have to dedicate the entire lower level to parking—they used a car elevator instead, requiring only a few square feet for the vehicles.

Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture

But the most inspiring thing? Much of this building was constructed off-site; at a prefab factory in Surrey, LWPAC designed C-shaped, 45-foot modules with all of the mechanical systems, plumbing, electrical and siding incorporated within. Building in a factory setting meant they never had to worry about weather, and waste was drastically reduced—nothing lost to the construction site, no mould issues to counter. Lang and Wilson were attracted to the control afforded by this factory setting—they were in effect designing a product, not simply a home. At the end, each module was trucked down busy West Fourth Avenue and craned into place.

And yet, standing within the airy, light-filled spaces, there are no giveaways to the building’s origins. In fact, the design feels better than a typical condo along this busy street—the interior light wells mean that, even on a hot day, the street-side windows can remain closed to traffic, blocking out noise, and air circulation isn’t compromised.

Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture

Ultimately, LWPAC’s goal is to design a prototype for sustainable living in an urban centre. To encourage people to live within walking distance of shops and stores—while allowing developers to take advantage of narrow plots of land on busy arteries. And most importantly, to make these “sky houses,” as LWPAC calls them, desirable, even sought-after, places to live. “I don’t think density is necessarily a positive term,” explains Lang. “Density means shoving things together. To make density good, we have to counter it with porosity—to open it up with light and air, and that it should feel as good or better than a single-family house.”

Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture

t was this commitment to rethinking urban density that caught the attention of our judging panel—Marc Boutin was “impressed by Lang Wilson’s capacity to define a comprehensive perspective on architecture and architectural practice,” he explained. “A much-needed ambition given the critical need for environmental stewardship and the opportunities afforded by new technological processes.”

It’s the city itself that’s rewarded by these rethinks of our urban future, as Lang aptly puts it. “The words ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ have the same root, and there’s something interesting in there. For us, as designers, we’re trying to develop models that have relevance in the evolution of the city.” wl

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