The 2011 Charlottetown Architecture Awards

As mentioned in this space last week, today was the day that many of the architects of Charlottetown held open houses as part of Architecture Week.

The weather didn’t cooperate: hurricane-force winds and driving rain made the prospect of strolling the streets of downtown from firm to firm somewhat unappealing. But I was not to be daunted: if we are to teacher our architects to become more socially engaged, we must seize every opportunity, especially when it is they who are doing the opening.

I started off closest to home at BGHJ, a firm I know well not only because my office is in the house once occupied by the B and H, but also because I know B, G, H and J, as well as the uncredited S, as friends as much as architects (I also interviewed both J and B as part of my video series on climate change two years ago). They are arguably the most social firm in town: their annual party is a renowned for its excellent food, good music and diverse company.

Architect S welcomed me at the door to BGHJ and put me in the capable hands of Carol, an architect intern, who responded with enthusiasm and patience to all of my arcane questions like “what’s the difference between architects and architectural technologists?” and “if you had to design seniors homes for the rest of your life wouldn’t you go crazy?” I was joined by another audience member half-way through the tour, and together we got to see exciting sections of the office like “the shelves where we keep the sample catalogs” and “the couches” (it turns out that architecture firm open houses are much more interesting for the people, and (mostly) not at all interesting for the infrastructure).

I came away from BGHJ having learned a lot about “working drawings” and how they’re made, and the role they play in the construction process, and also about how architects take a sketchy vision from a client – “we’d like a house like this…” – and turn it into something the client can afford, that is physically possible, is well-designed and original (hint: it’s complicated).

BGHJ is runner up for “Best Food” (cookies, grapes and coffee) and wins the award for “Otherwise Most Hard at Work During Open House.”

Down Queen Street and around the corner to North 46, another firm I have more than passing familiarity with because of their Rform side-project, something that’s managed by principal architect David Lopes’ brother Paul, who’s a friend.

N46 was seemingly less prepared for holding an open house (no food, for example, and a somewhat surprised look when I showed up looking for action). But they made up for it with enthusiasm.

As at BGHJ, I was handed over to an interning architect and given a quick tour of the office. Fewer sample catalogs than BGHJ, and a smaller space to start with, so the tour was over as quickly as it started. My fellow tourer and I were then ushered into the board room and taken on an interesting journey through the working drawings for the new Holland College Centre for Applied Science and Technology, which N46 designed and project-managed.

All the talk about working drawings had me wondering about where Rform fit in: I knew a lot about it from the technology side from Paul, but not much about it from the architect’s side. David caught wind of this thread, and this led into a very thorough and interesting discussion about and demonstration of Rform, using the Holland College building as an example.

In addition to learning even more about working drawings and change orders and other aspects of the paper side of making buildings, I came away realizing that the day-to-day life of the small town architect is a lot more mundane than I’d imagined.  I went in thinking “Frank Gehry drinking scotch and dreaming wild and crazy spacial dreams” and came away realizing it’s all far more about carpet samples and sheet rock tolerances and what to do if the concrete doesn’t dry.

North 46 receives the award for “Most Enthusiastic Product Demo” and another for “Best Integration of Recently Completed Actual Project in Open House Tutelage.”

Back out into the hurricane and along Grafton to Pownal, left, and down to the corner of Sydney to Open Practice, the firm operated by Aaron Stavert. I first met Aaron in the spring of 2010 when I wandered into his office and found him a kindred spirit; later in the year he was one of the participants in our Pecha Kucha in New Glasgow where he spoke about Sustainable Architecture (are you beginning to notice a theme here: PEI is a very small place, and everyone knows everyone).

Aaron’s practice is the smallest of those that I visited: just a single room, Aaron and an intern. There was nothing to “tour,” technically, as it once you walk in the door you’ve seen it all. But I did get a chance to ask Aaron about his seemingly impossible floor, which is made out of cheap coated particle board of the sort that you’d imagine would have dissolved by now simply from the occasional spilled cup of coffee, to say nothing of the rigours of Island winter boots. But it’s in excellent shape, and Aaron explained that when a part wears out you can simply peel off that section and lay down a replacement for less than $10.

The open house at Open Practice was more “kitchen party” than “tour,” with a changing cast of characters over the hour I spent there. Conversation ranged from “so, if you were the architect working on the Dominion Building, would you have chosen those windows?” to “does Charlottetown really need a new convention centre?”

Things really got interesting when Aaron pulled over a model of the house he’s designed for himself for Upper Hillsborough Street and took us all on a cook’s tour of its whys and wherefores.

Open Practice is hands-down winner for “Best Food” (hot apple cider, tiny cupcakes, fresh blueberries and blackberries, pumpkin pie) and also for “Best Description of a Personal Project by an Architect.”

With the hour drawing late and only another 20 minutes of the 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. open house window left, I dashed up Sydney Street to the corner of Queen and up the stairs over Ta-ke Sushi to the office of William W. Chandler Architects.

I worked a very little with Bill Chandler, the principal architect, back in the late 1990s when we were both involved in the Gateway Village project (he as architect, me as installer-of-Macintoshes and partner of museum exhibit builder Catherine) but I don’t know him well.

When I arrived at the firm it appeared deserted but for a slideshow running in the board room and some sparking water on the table. This turned out to be due to this being only the shared second-floor space and not the heart of the firm. Bill was fetched for me and we immediately launched into a tour of their facilities, which are vast and make for a compelling tour.

Chandler Architects and related firms are spread our over the third floors of three buildings on Queen Street – on the corner above Ta-ke Sushi, Burke Electric and China Garden – as well as the aforementioned second floor space at the corner. All of the third floor spaces are interconnected, and they’re an interesting mixture of “attic” feeling spaces and straight-ahead office spaces. They do all their own printing in-house so there’s a large print shop at the back (with the largest cutting mat I’ve ever seen). And there are interesting views of the courtyard in the back formed by the Olde Dublin Pub, Fishbones, the Globe and the buildings along Queen.

After the tour of the rabbit warren Bill took me back to the board room and we spent a long while talking about the convention centre that’s being built at the foot of Queen Street that his firm has designed. I got a look at the final renderings of the building, along with a conceptual drawing of a possible later-stage addition that engineering allowances are being made for that might one day see an extension of the Delta Hotel rise out at the end (it’s actually quite interestingly designed and works in a way you wouldn’t initially think it would).

I came away with a much deeper understanding of a building that, to this point, I’d only see renderings of in news stories about the project.

Chandler Architects wins the award, obviously, for “Most Interesting Tour” and also for “Best Description of a Commercial Project by an Architect.”

I didn’t manage to complete my entire dance card in the allotted time – I missed out on Coles Associates on the waterfront and Architecture 360 in Rice Point. Fodder for next year’s Architecture Week, I hope.

Thanks to the Architects Association of PEI for organizing this excellent opportunity for we civilians to learn more about what they do and how they do it.


Ron Walsh's picture
Ron Walsh on October 7, 2011 - 01:14 Permalink

so, if you were the architect working on the Dominion Building, would you have chosen those windows?”