Claude Watson School for the Arts

Architype Dialogue presents

John Shnier, Architect

What was the single hardest issue to predict about working within this building type and/or the most unexpected challenge that influenced new thought in the building?

As a school specializing in young students gifted in the arts, we had a mandate to provide a building which performs at a higher level than many public schools in the city. Examples of this include, sprung floors for the dance studios; extra wide doors so pianos and large items could move between spaces; increased acoustic performance; additional infrastructure to provide expansion flexibility for lighting; circulation space that could double as informal/spontaneous rehearsal or socializing space. These value added components had to be provided within conventional school board budgets— we had no extra funding. So the challenge was to find a way to transfer resources to these features without making it seem like other aspects of the design, materiality or quality were compromised.

Additionally, the school had to be designed to anticipate programmatic changes that might convert it into a more traditional curriculum, should the performative aspects become unnecessary.

Finally, our clients had very high expectations of the design itself. It had to be iconic and a landmark within both the local and the larger community. The building had to exceed expectations, within the aforementioned limited scope of resource.

Did this project or building type require an expansion and evolution of your role as an architect in any way? In general, do you feel that the role of the architect is having to expand, change, or evolve on projects?

Of course schools always challenge our role as architects. For one, schools come with a varied and complex set of stakeholders and users. In the case of Claude Watson, one of the stakeholders was a developer who had acquired land from the school board for a new large scale residential development adjacent to the school. From a practical point of view we had to advocate in the best interest of our client without alienating the more arms-length stakeholders in order to try to accommodate the approvals and other processes as amenably as possible.

While schools have always brought together specialists in teaching, parenting, community engagement, political positioning and physical-plant management, we are finding more and more clients now are multifaceted and come with varying visions and requirements. Architects now more than ever, must become skillful in generating the process and means by which to reach a consensus and then be able to design an outcome that satisfies that consensus. In order to continue to exceed expectations, we must not confuse compromise with consensus. That is why, for all of our projects, the first and last goal on any collective vision statement is to “produce a remarkable project”.
How is this particular building possible today in a way that it may not have been before and how have trends in technology and society inspired new solutions?

In the case of Claude Watson, We do not think we could point to any way in which technology made something possible that would not have otherwise been possible. Many people see the aluminum sun-screen as an element that must have been “digitally” designed and produced, when in fact in order to be achievable within the budget, it was conceived from the point of view of a one-person manual installation. It is assembled out of a single, simply folded unit that is mechanically erected by hand by one worker on a “cherry-picker”.

Toronto has been, is now, and will continue to be a paradigm of multi-culturalism and a society of inclusion and hybridism. As such, we thrive (as alluded to above) on creating a project that is a manifestation of the many voices that our community— or society as the case may be— brings to bear on the project. The idea of education and how to facilitate is one of the key discourses in society today and this discourse is THE discourse embedded in the design process.
In the context of this project, how is your office and design process being influenced by current trends in academic curricula and incoming young architects? In turn, how are current projects and processes guiding the ongoing reformulation and development of academic curricula?

As practicing professionals with one partner in the firm who is seriously engaged in teaching at the graduate level, we know first-hand both how fluid and fickle trends in both academia and the profession can be. We try to nurture and identify an aptitude to value and develop a “world of ideas” that is ambivalent to these trends, while embracing the processes and opportunities that are embedded within them. We have found that no matter how interesting the academic discourse or wonderful the technology, we profit from a critical iterative process that recognizes the relationship between the tangible and the esoteric; the technical and the experiential; the pro-active and the interactive and the lingering after-effect that remains in our memory.

Of course, more than once in a while, we may find ourselves seduced by those trends that appear simultaneously irresistible and actually valuable and lasting while maintaining a critical position to ensure we can differentiate substance over ephemera. For us architecture must be both of its time and timeless; practical and transcendent— and foremost the success of its result must rely on qualities that are un-photographable; while at the same time, unquestioningly beautiful.


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