UrbanToronto recently sat down with Stephen Teeple, founding partner of multi-award-winning avant garde modernists Teeple Architects.
What first led you to a career in design? Do you recall any specific buildings or experiences which were formative in that process?
You know, it was somewhat accidental. As a kid, I knew the most famous architects – the Frank Lloyd Wrights, the Le Corbusiers – but I never really scratched beyond that surface. I have to thank lucky educational experiences at Waterloo and Columbia for inspiring me to build a deeper interest in it. In this sense, it really wasn’t until I entered the design environment at Waterloo and met people like Rick Haldenby and Larry Cummings that I really started to understand and engage with the history and cultural depth of the profession. At that time in Canada, architecture was not really studied at the public high school level so you had to experience it through travel. Since, frankly, any normal kid only gets so much out of that, you need keys and clues to build on.
What were some of your own ‘keys and clues?’ If you didn’t learn about architecture in high-school, what led you to study it at Waterloo?
In high school I had an Arthur Erickson coffee table book and would often romanticize about what being an architect would be like. Most of my friends went into engineering – at that time, it was just the way the world was, that was the focus: science and engineering. It was what was taught in high school and that was where success was supposed to fall. Architecture wasn’t as popular as it is now so schools were small and you had to have a good grasp of math and science to enter those programs. I was also fortunate in that liked to draw, something I must have gotten from my mother who’s a skilled painter and sketcher.
I do remember that Erickson book though, I think I got it used. I also remember I had Richard Neutra and Oscar Niemeyer books which I got at ‘Towers,’ a department store in my hometown of Woodstock, Ontario. They were from an old series called Architects of the World and were on sale for 20 cents or something. I remember pouring through those, in fact, I still have them and still love them.
What did you do upon graduation? How did you decide which office you wanted to work in?
I was pretty lucky. Michael Kirkland was my critic at Waterloo so a week after graduation, I started working with him. A few months later, Edward Jones joined the firm. I learned a tremendous amount from both of them – urban design from Michael and methodology from Edward. There are still influences in what we do now which carry over from that time. Not focusing so much on individual objects is something we get from Michael, while much of the firm’s overall method is derived from Edward who is very organized and diligent in terms of his architecture. He’s all about process so he draws and redraws, then draws and redraws again. When Edward went back to London I briefly partnered with Jeremy Dickson before starting something entirely new with Ralph Giannone. After that, I went to Columbia for a one-year Masters of Architecture and when I returned, I started the practice. Unfortunately, back then there was no work.
Were you at Kirkland and Jones when the firm was working on Mississauga City Hall?
I was. I spent about three or four years doing many of the working drawings on that building. I only did technical work but it was still fun because we had a sort of ‘fascist’ design, kind of like an Italian train station.
Florence’s Santa Maria Novella for instance?
Florence’ station is beautiful but the real gem is the power station to the north on Via delle Chiacciaie. If you walk about three quarters of a kilometre down the tracks, there’s a generating and operating station with windows canted over the tracks where they used to monitor the trains. It’s one of the only futurist buildings ever completed and was quite famous in the late 1930s.
I’m familiar with Florence because I taught there for two years with the University of Toronto. I was able to work for the university and travel, so I did two study abroad sessions in a very nice studio space right on the river. Hence the earlier futurist tie-in – one of the courses I taught was on modern Italian architecture.
At that time, Florence was still quite rough. There were diesel cars and buses right downtown and as a result, many of the buildings had been blackened with soot. It was smelly, it was dirty; there was more crime and more of a drug problem. If you were out at 2 in the morning, crack and heroin were everywhere. I went back a few years ago and was shocked at the change; it was much different back then.
When I was at Waterloo, our class did a southern Italian tour. I went ahead and organized a northern Italian tour because I wanted to see Carlos Scarpa’s Bank of Verona building. Back then, it wasn’t cool to study modern stuff – Waterloo was focused on Classical architecture and history – so we were seen as not that intellectually ‘deep' because we wanted to look at Terragni and Scarpa but that’s what we were interested in.
Teeple Architects started in 1989 with a number of small institutional projects. Tell us about those early days.
In many ways, we’re still working our way out of them; it’s not easy. That was a very slow period for us but fortunately, through the public process, we were able to get a couple of pretty good jobs. The first one was a recreation centre in Hamilton – Sackville Community Centre.
It’s still in our portfolio today, and we still proudly show it. When it was done, I was able to convince Larry Richards to come to see the building and he liked it. That connection got us on the short list for the Trent Childcare Centre which wasn’t necessarily a big job, but for us was certainly important.
I wasn’t even really aware that Larry was on the advisory board for that project; I just wanted to show him our project. We’re still getting childcare centres off of the strength of Trent, the latest being the University of Toronto Early Learning Centre. Through that time, we’re still showing the original Trent building as precedent.
Working in Trent was definitely pivotal not only because we won a Governor General’s Award for the project, but because it got our name out there and it led us to three additional projects at the University. The latest, the Chemical Science Building, which wasn’t that long ago, is the largest and the coolest, I think. When it was constructed, it was very energy efficient, using things like low flow fume hoods and green roofs.
…Before those were buzz words.
Exactly, we look at those sorts of technologies and say: “That’s interesting, but we were doing that 12 years ago!” From there, we got a few more childcare centers, churches and a little library on Park Lawn Road in Etobicoke. It was just a recladding but that project got us into the library world. Now we’ve done about fourteen or fifteen libraries, all from that one little step. Our more recent library projects – Burlington Central, Ajax Central, Pickering – are actually quite big. That experience with the library typology helped us get one at Loyalist College [in Belleville] and one at Langara College [in Vancouver].
Now you’re now doing additional buildings for Langara as well?
We’re designing a science building, a creative arts building and, with another firm, a gymnasium. They’re not all funded but that’s a tricky situation in itself. If they’re all constructed, they’ll make the campus a better place by making it more formed and spatial. The college needs its buildings to work in a way that makes use of every space since they have such a limited amount of land. Urban Design, again, plays a huge role. But that’s part of the focus of this office: shaping the landscape or the urban environment with the architecture; it’s never a singular thing.
Graduate House also defines the corner of Harbord and Spadina in a very urban way. How did Teeple work with Morphosis and the University to arrive at a final solution?
It’s actually more of a Larry Richards connection again. He pushed the University to accept the idea that the building should stand out, even though it was just a low-budget student residence. He suggested that the RFP stress a high level of design, and that the competition for the building be international.
Designing and constructing that building was a fantastic experience. Thom Mayne is very collaborative and an excellent gentleman to work with. He’s a bit like Edward in many ways: a strong thinker, but also a good listener. As a result, I feel we were able to have a positive influence on the outcome of that project. At the outset he was very typically Californian. This influenced things like the lettering and some of the details – but to do more of a street defining building wasn’t really part of his vocabulary at that time. A more ‘urban’ ethos was strongly pushed from our side and I like to think that that way of thinking is now part of his general approach.
I think the urban approach was our influence was but the overall expression is clearly Thom’s. In the beginning, the project was very craft-based and used a lot of wood, and it was us that really pushed him away from that sort of old school ‘crafty Canadiana’ to something more progressive. We’ve pursued other projects together with Morphosis and we travelled to Paris with him to see his show at the Pompidou. Thom definitely inspired us – maybe it’s too much to say that we had an influence on Thom but he definitely had a transformative influence on us.
What do you mean by ‘crafty Canadiana?’
It’s that classic Canadian approach of using expensive woods and really overworking every little detail. We tried to get beyond that and take in the big picture of the building’s organization and the spatial sequences. The skip stop section for example, is not an invention of ours – it has been a part of architecture for nearly 80 years – but we took the concept a step further to a triple skip stop where you enter into two living rooms and move up or down to four bedrooms. In some ways I think you can achieve a higher level of success thinking that way especially when there's the challenge of a lower budget. Graduate House was supposed to be 73 dollars per square foot and even when we were able to get it down to 85 dollars, Thom kept telling us that that was ‘less than a parking garage in America.’ You see that approach right up into our Perimeter Institute addition where it’s not just about the small details, it’s about the bigger picture creating a high quality of space for researchers to work together exploring amazing ideas. It’s got standard baseboards, but it still looks pretty hot! Grad House was an inspiring experience that is still strong in the memory of many people still working for us.
When you say Thom transformed the office, was it a conceptual or procedural shift?
Definitely conceptual. Thom makes sure you’re focused on the key concept, the ‘big idea’ of the project, and works hard to not let little details get in the way of broader goals. He has a very creative design process and he pushed us to ensure we always put that level of experimentation into our work. At the beginning, we thought we knew how things should be and now we know that we don’t.
At the same time, we were working on the Eatonville Library in Etobicoke and you can see some of Thom’s influence on the office emerge in that project. The broader idea that it has both a more urban side facing Burnhamthorpe and a highway side facing Highway 427 for example. Originally that was supposed to be a copper wall with stone but when the opportunity to work with zinc to make it and a little more ‘cool’ and industrial and less ‘Canadiana’ we took it. We also switched to a dark brick which hadn’t really been used in the city at the time.
Keeping on the theme of process, you’ve said that Teeple Architects approaches new projects by looking for opportunities to make ‘boring realities inspirational.’ How does the firm’s creative process stem from that initial belief?
We don’t come in with a ‘thing’ that we do. We start by looking for the inspiration or the driving idea in a situation to get the ‘feel’ of a project. Something like the Sisters of St. Joseph for example is warmer and has a lot of wood – details we added because we want the Sisters to be at home in their Motherhouse. It’s also driven by who the Sisters are, how they live together and what they do. The shapes of the forms for example, guide you naturally into gathering spaces because the Sisters are very communal.
In fact, I think it’s a good example of a situation where our initial concept was wrong because we thought they would want something like a cloister. We had started designing this cool, Corbusian cloister with lots of light coming in from above and it was tough to admit that the scheme was totally wrong. They wanted an outward-looking building which stretched through the landscape and thought that every room should have a view to a garden and beyond. The chapel was also altered and would not have light from above but would instead look out to the landscape. They explained that one of their core values is care of Earth – it’s not traditional Catholicism you must understand – their essential nature is to go out into the world and help people. It’s a very outward looking sense of spirituality so they wanted a building that was about looking out, appreciating nature and caring for it; it’s also a LEED Gold building.
So you look at what is unique or special about a client and use what you find to inform the design of a building for them.
Exactly. I find approaching a project by looking at its unique inspiration makes each design different. No two designs are the same because we do work hard to respond to the client’s individual requirements –everything has to be in the right spot, everything has to work. But we also want to create an idea or a sentient form that’s responsive. Our Perimeter Institute project for example, was more like a fun science experiment in a suburban rec room because it’s a place where the scientists don’t dress in suits and want a space that’s creative, fun and inspiring; a place where they can roll up their sleeves and just throw stuff around.
But that’s the challenge of being an architect – not just listening to someone say ‘build this,’ but taking that and interpreting that into an idea with which you're then able to experiment with models and drawings and come back with an architectural concept that’s reflective of the original request.
Is most of Teeple’s conceptual modelling done on computer or by hand?
We actually work with hand-made models quite a bit. I’m slightly pre-computer and at Columbia, the big influence was to use models as tools to evolve both interior and exterior spaces. We also won’t build a model of something we’ve drawn, but rather we design in model and then translate that into a drawing in a sort of backwards process. It’s a process that people like Kenneth Frampton were pushing at Columbia so it’s how I was trained.
We now have a 3D printer as well which allows us to do a lot of studies very quickly and get the basic height, size, form and massing of a project going early on. After that, we turn to more detailed models for which we laser cut the windows and use a variety of woods, the harder of which we have cut professionally but the softer we do by hand. There’s actually a model of the Gateway School project in our lobby which Tom Arban, the photographer, built for us – he worked in the office for many years.
Do you keep all of the models?
Oh, there are millions of them; they’re all over the place.
How do you tailor your creative process to the type and scale and client of a new project? For example, you’re doing work for Symmetry Developments, a younger company that focuses on unique, small scale residential buildings.
Sayf Hassan of Symmetry is a fantastic client. He tries to get small sites – Linea for example, is very nice set of townhouses in North York that are built with beautiful quality. Hive is also a very simple building but there it’s more about the urban design. It’s a corner building which responds to its site by following the inclined plane with setbacks at the rear. Sayf is one of the few who’s already there, but there’s actually getting to be more and more clients who are willing to say: ‘let’s try something different and see if we can make it worthwhile.’
We’re doing another awesome one with Sayf on Bathurst. It’s the same kind of thing – the setbacks, the inclined plane, so we conceived of this thing with an inner core and a sort of dress going around it. It’s basically taking all of those influences and coming up with a concept which in this case is the zinc dress wrapping around the core. You get an idea out of what you're given and you have to respond to all of those conditions. I’m very excited about this one though; I think it’s going to be really cool. I don’t know why, but there aren’t too many ‘different-looking’ condos.
Our interview with Stephen Teeple continues next Thursday when we discuss Picasso, 60 Richmond and Sherbourne Common.
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