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Saturday 29 July 2000

Architects in our good books

Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec a step in ascent of husband and wife team

MAGDA LASZKIEWICZ, GAZETTE / La Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec president Lise Bissonnette (left), Canadian Centre for Architecture founder Phyllis Lambert (centre) and architect Patricia Patkau examine model of library, which is scheduled to open in 2003 on the Palais du Commerce site in Montreal's Quartier Latin at a cost of $58.3 million.

DON MACKINNON, CP / The Seabird Island School is one of the team's most renowned designs.

DON MACKINNON, CP / The Newton Library stands out as an enticing landmark in Surrey, B.C.

DON MACKINNON, CP / Patricia and John Patkau flank partner Michael Cunningham.

It all started with a photograph. When architects John and Patricia Patkau sat down to design the new Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec, hanging over the design table was a photo of Christ Church Cathedral on stilts, the earth underneath scooped out to make way for Les Promenades de la Cathedrale.

A husband and wife design team, the Patkaus are known for their ability to find what they call the "particularity" of a site - be it a rocky West Coast island or the centre of a major North American metropolis - and making it the focal point of the design. In this case, the photograph of the cathedral was graphic evidence that in Montreal, topography is not always what it seems.

"The photo brought a powerful realization that the ground level in Montreal isn't a solid boundary," Patricia Patkau said. "The city really exists on two levels."

Interviewed in her downtown Vancouver office, she shows off the first draft result of that realization, a little balsa-wood model no more than 30 centimetres long, with a series of broad internal ramps rising from one level to another and then falling again, linking a multi-level structure in one continuous plane. "We decided to make our own topography."

This man-made landscape accomplished a number of goals. Passengers coming off the metro at Berri-UQaM will be able to see through a sunken sunlit garden into the lower-level children's library. With luck, they'll also be drawn in to wander up a slight incline to a landing overlooking the children's theatre, from where another slight incline leads to the main information desk. Almost without knowing what happened, passers-by will have been attracted to the heart of the building.

"Particularity" wasn't the only thing to consider, however. There was also cost. At $163 per square foot, the budget for the $58.3-million GBQ is relatively modest, particularly in comparison with the $637 per square foot budgeted for the new Koolhaas-designed Seattle Public Library, or even the $281 per square foot spent on Moshe Safdie's Vancouver Public Library. Money goes a little farther in construction-hungry Montreal, of course, but in monumental terms the GBQ would still have to be modest. For that reason, the Patkaus opted for a box.

Or two boxes, actually: a smaller, grander box at the Ontario St. end to house the Quebec collection, and a larger box at the opposite end for the general collection. Linking the two is the same system of internal walkways, while a common copper sheathing encapsulates both.

There's some irony in this simplicity. The Patkaus, in their work to date, have been noted for highly complex and original forms.

"They are probably the best and most original architects practicing in Canada at the moment, and among the best in North America," said James Russell, editor at large of the New York-based Architectural Record. Russell, in fact, can't speak highly enough of the Patkaus's work.

Russell praised not only their form-giving talents but also their sensitivity toward materials, proportion and setting.

He recently nominated the pair for the Chrysler prize, an annual award given to architects whose talents - while great - have yet to really burst upon the scene.

Among the Patkaus's most recognized designs to date is the Seabird Island School, built for a Coast Salish Indian band in Agassiz, B.C. Set in the shadow of the province's Coast Range, the school turns its broad back to the mountain winds on the north side, while on its south side a large sheltered, windowed expanse looks out over the Fraser Valley.

It is, according to Russell, "a memorable composition of folded wing-like roofs, hefty posts and rib-like rafters that manages to evoke native imagery while being of our time."

Designing it, Patricia Patkau says, also took a great deal of time. There wasn't much left over in the way of money or energy to spend on materials.

Of late, her own architectural tastes have been inclining more to buildings where the form is restrained but the materials and detailing are rich and varied.

That, plus the exigencies of cost, prompted the couple (who design side- by-side, at the same desk) to choose a simple form for the Montreal library, set to open in 2003. They look for elegance in the materials - the copper-shingle cladding and the rich wood interior. "How the box is carved will add the richness," Patricia said.

One of the most interesting aspects of the design - and what she seems to mean by "carving" - is the way in which the building will be used to frame views of the surrounding city.

In other Patkau designs - notably the Strawberry Vale School near Victoria - internal-view axes and openings in the building shell were used to showcase such external elements as the ocean, rocks or gardens. The Grande Bibliotheque has been carved to frame views of the city, including the Old Port, Place Ville Marie and Mount Royal. Linking these views together is a bottom-to-top pathway - a goat path, Patricia calls it - running on the outer edge of the building.

Those wandering this path will be treated to a wide variety of architectural spaces - another Patkau hallmark.

For those uninterested in such niceties - or just in a hurry - the GBQ will house a functional central core, with standard stairs and elevators moving up and down between levels.

Functionally is important to the Patkaus. Among form-giving architects, that, too, is a bit of an anomaly.

Many - think of Vancouver's Arthur Erickson or Big O designer Roger Taillibert - are more interested in the beauty of a design than in whether it stands or keeps out the rain.

One of their most successful designs to date was, promisingly enough, the Newton Library in Surrey, B.C.

Stuck as they were in a suburban wasteland of strip malls and big-box outlets, library managers there wanted something striking.

"It was meant to look like more than a box," said librarian David Conn, who has worked in the building since it opened in 1991. "It was meant to stand out as a civic monument."

The Patkaus's solution was to surround an affordable one-storey structure with two-storey glass windows. The roof then slanted down and in from either side to join in the middle, one storey lower, creating an inverted V-shape.

The structure was intriguing - and instantly recognizable. The windows gave the building tremendous street presence. They also let in an abundance of natural light. Sunlight may be hard on the books, but in a fast-growing city with many immigrants, library managers wanted to announce to the public that here was a place they could feel welcome and comfortable.

According to Conn, it's been a stunning success. And despite the original roof design, in the decade he's been in the building, it hasn't had a single leak - or any other structural fault, for that matter. What the building has drawn is a steady stream of architects on tour - at least one group a month, Conn said - to see the Patkaus's work.

The Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec should have a far greater effect, both on Montreal and on the Patkaus themselves. Just designing it marks a step in their careers, from small public institutions to grand civic monuments.

It's something they've been anticipating for a long time. And now that it's arrived, Patricia said, she has found the design process to be much the same. As with planned new library, one simply moves from one level to the other, almost imperceptibly.

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