Designers of the Year Photo Credit: Carlo Ricci

Arthur Erickson Memorial Award 2012: Public Architecture + Communication

The medium is the message for Vancouver's Public Architecture, whose body of work speaks for itself.

John Wall, principal at Public: Architecture + Communication, is waxing poetic in his Gastown offices with fellow principal Susan Mavor. The third in this triumvirate, Brian Wakelin, is a disembodied head, talking to us via Skype on an iPad. “The history of architecture has always been about brands,” says Wall. “Gothic cathedrals? Those were totally brands. So what we’re doing here isn’t that new.”

Since establishing their practice in 2008, these three have been convincing clients of that simple truth: architecture is your brand. Buildings, gardens, the entire built environment—it’s either a honed expression of your identity, a message to its users, or it’s a mistake. Judges Marcia and Lloyd Secter noted that this focused attitude has led Public toward “a more imaginative and avant-garde use of materials and forms than others.”

They’ve put it into practice, too. When the powerhouse landscape architecture firm Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg invited Public to contribute to a reimagining of a courtyard at UBC, Public’s 10-person firm brought about a total brand rethink for the university’s arts faculty.

Here’s how: the $2.25-million Buchanan Pavilion face-lift started with the rigorously modernist shoeboxes that make up UBC’s arts buildings. (“The least loved buildings on campus,” notes Wakelin.) “So we took that long rectangle shape,” says Wall, “and deformed it.” The result is a dramatically folded (almost origami) expression of raw concrete, beneath which sits a large reflecting pool. Etched into the floor of that reflecting pool: a single quotation from each of the faculty’s 25 departments (in 11 languages in total), all of which ripple out in curved lines of text.

That visual, of plural philosophies emanating out into the world, became such a strong image that it now lives on T-shirts, stationery and banners at UBC. “Most of our clients are looking for either communication design or for architecture,” says Wall. “It’s only after they come to us that they realize they’re getting both.”

Judge Marc Boutin cheered the Buchanan project for embodying the spirit of Arthur Erickson: “Their forms, material and logic reveal a sense of place,” he said.

Our judges saw that same big-picture approach when, at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C., Public took a typical concrete institutional space and enclosed it with a weaving of wood slats that creates an informal and multipurpose First Nations-inspired “basket” for students to gather within. We’ll see it again when Public re-imagines Vancouver’s Hastings Park next year.

Public receives this year’s Arthur Erickson Memorial Award, then, because—in addition to designing truly beautiful, life-enhancing spaces—this emerging firm is giving us a smarter way to talk about design itself. wl

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