Last week, we spoke to Stephen Teeple, founding partner at Teeple Architects, about his education, early work experience at Kirkland and Jones, and how the creative processes which led the firm’s initial projects shifted after working with Thom Mayne and Morphosis on Graduate House. This week we complete our interview, looking at the firm's more recent and ongoing work.
Tell us about Teeple Architects’ strengths. What advantages would you say this firm has over others?
I always stress is that this firm is technically strong because the people we have here are very talented. Because what we design is often fairly complex and you need to be able to build it, technical drawings are a sort of unknown strength. People usually judge firms as either design or technical and if they think you can only design, you won’t get the job. I did working drawings for Michael and Edward for years and I loved doing it. The craft of building things, working through the practicalities of a vision is amazing and it’s something I have a real passion for. In the end, you’re shaping an experience as much as you are shaping space – how you move through a building, what you see, how the light falls – all of these things have to be thought out but sometimes your brain doesn’t get to register all of that at once. Sometimes I like to make our details recessive but that’s also challenging because in that case, you don’t want people to see certain things. My general experience with the clients is that people tend to love the space that they’re in. I know the Sisters just love their space and the scientists are just thrilled with the Perimeter Institute; it’s something they can really enjoy.
How did the Perimeter Institute job come about?
Initially the Institute went back to Saucier & Perotte but they declined to do the addition. After that, there was a little competition. Our entry was based on two ideas. The first was simple: add more space. The second was more complicated and addressed the scientists' need for a single research institute where they can all work together. We felt that a disparate or discrete object close to the original building with a bridge or tunnel or whatever just would not create the interactive, whole experience they desired. We got to walk around with one of their people who told everybody what they needed and we all went away with those needs in mind… yet all of the other firms came back with connected yet discrete objects.
It was a difficult project because Saucier & Perotte's work is so distinctive. I think our building actually improves the urban design of the entire complex because the original sits somewhat awkwardly on the site. Our building picks up on some of the spirit of the Saucier & Perotte building yet is kind in that it attaches nicely. We also won an OAA award for it so everyone’s happy!
UrbanToronto readers will be familiar with the evolution of The Gansevoort Hotel proposal which has now evolved into to Picasso. How do the ideas underlying your unbuilt projects make it into later ones or do you try and start fresh each time?
You know, if I look over the pattern of our work, I do see little groupings of two or three projects that have similar influences before we move on. In design, our projects go through many iterations. The way we work is we create a team led by an associate or I, and we work collaboratively, drawing and making physical models together. That way, each project has the influence of not just one person, but of several people. It’s great to be inspired by everybody in the office, working through ideas on paper and in models. Then, when something feels right, we will have other people work through it virtually on CAD and Rhino. I would say having so many people working on our projects is an advantage but it makes things a little bit tricky because I do believe in a consistent hand. By that I mean that all of our projects have to make sense as a whole.
So in the case of Picasso, how did you evolve the original design into something new, yet still keep its form so distinctly ‘Teeple?’
It has been immensely challenging because there are so many ‘givens.’ There are for example, formulas for how big units must be, how they're stacked and how they’re sold. Often the developer gets blamed but it’s not necessarily their fault, it’s just the way the world is. I would say that what we try and do is be the best at what interests the developer. So we have to have the best unit plans, the best net-to-gross ratio (rentable to buildable space) and by doing that you try and create some space for creativity. If you just come in as the big, brash architect, with something that doesn’t make any sense, it probably won’t get built.
We try and win that game by creating some space in the budget where we can think creatively. Now, in my opinion, the city has a positive influence on that process. On a project the size of Picasso, Councillor Vaughan says: ‘if you want this, then it has to be good.’ That sets the standard so everybody goes in knowing it has to be good, it has to be special. It’s a unique urban condition and we have to respond sculpturally to that condition. Picasso looks at how far we can go within the residential high-rise typology yet still have it be successful for the developer. In the end, we work for them but I fundamentally believe we as architects have value to add. People respond positively to a little bit of creativity because they want something interesting. In that vein, I think developers who say it’s just got to be a glass box are wrong. We as architects have something to offer and I am so happy that that building brought them success because they trusted us. Barry Goldman and The Monarch Corporation are the driving forces there; the project would not be there if it weren’t for that company or him. It’s a project he cares deeply about.
You mentioned floor plans a little while ago. For a project like Picasso, do you design all of the floor plans yourselves?
It’s a team exercise. Monarch have a huge amount of expertise in ‘what works’ so you want to be smart and use that expertise. They’ve done it so many times before and because of that experience, they know what they’re doing. The company is also becoming much more urban. They’re tuning into what people want downtown. It’s very impressive; they’re a very professional organization which makes decisions quickly. That’s also another advantage over institutional work where the decision making can be long and laborious.
Yet Teeple still seems to focus on public, institutional clients. 60 Richmond for example, is part of a new generation of TCHC housing which is starting to value unique architectural expressions. How did the firm work with the City to retain your vision on a tight budget?
TCHC had already started on Regent Park and they needed to build a building fairly quickly to house people who were being displaced. The local councillor, Pam McConnell, had the idea that because there were so many people in the Food Service / Hotel Workers Union you would get people to come together in a food-based co-op. That created an opportunity for people in Regent Park to sign up for this building with a little bit of preference for people who had a relationship to the food service industry. They also wanted a LEED Gold building which just added to the opportunity. These things influenced the nature of our envelope which we took back to TCHC and said ‘look, you’ve got a great urban agriculture opportunity to create a garden and use that material for the restaurant and to take the compost from the restaurant up to the garden.’ And you also have a co-op that is able to organize it all so our thought was to connect that basis to learning.
It has a built-in cistern which waters the gardens and that’s been very successful. Right now it’s just a flower garden until the restaurant gets going but the flowers are completely taking over the whole building. It’s really gone wild; they're climbing up the walls [laughs]. Connecting gardening to the food preparation and completing the cycle of learning works very well because those interests are shared by most of the residents. This way gardening and food preparation become the social heart of the building. If it were a building full of golfers, we would have put in a putting green or something, but because they’re all food service workers we focused on the thing they all gather around. The garden is a three-story high space on the sixth floor of a twelve story building so when you move through the building it’s a constant frame of reference.
They’re still trying to raise funds for the teaching kitchen and restaurant on the ground level; it’s already been designed so there’s a classroom and a little restaurant where you can upgrade your skills. This way, if you’re a housekeeper which is a very low paying job, you can upgrade and become a chef de partie and eventually a sous chef or a chef de cuisine. But it’s not 100 percent food-service workers – other people are allowed in as well. We wanted to create a real mix of housing so it goes from 5 bedrooms to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1. That all gets incredibly complicated when you have to make things like the plumbing work.
It seems that that cross-collaboration is something that you’re always thinking about. With the scientists in the Perimeter Institute, the Sisters, the workers living in 60 Richmond…
It’s a theme of social interconnectivity more than anything. It’s actually very surprising to be in a hallway or gathering space that has natural light and operable windows. It really becomes the heart of the place.
It’s also reflective of the push towards operable windows et cetera in the last few years, almost a reversal against things like air conditioning.
That aspect is really based on trying to get the LEED gold certification cost-effectively and on a very tight budget. At 60 Richmond, we went with 40% glass, 60% solid which is really all you need in a residential building because you need your privacy as well. There was also the opportunity to create a corner building which is sculpted and really creates a dynamic, moving-around-the-corner-feel which we’ve wrapped right into the atrium. Courtyard buildings are not that unusual a typology as well. If you go to a place like Berlin or Paris, every single building has a centre court; there it’s kind of normal. Here, the standard response would have been to make a little podium and do a point tower.
But to me, Richmond Street has the opportunity to continue to shape the space and the experience of the city and try and animate that experience. So our scheme for 60 Richmond is a very traditional idea for shaping an urban corner and then extending that and sculpting that into the public space which then becomes part of the experience of the street. It’s kind of a traditional thing, it’s not radical necessarily, but it is kind of the opposite of the typical condo norm that’s around right now. It is important to understand that the first move for that building was to fill the entire site, and put the leftover space in a courtyard instead of around a point tower. It’s essentially the same spatial volume, it’s just moved around because we really wanted not to leave gaps in the urban fabric; we wanted to shape the street. It’s fundamentally what your vision of the street is, and if it’s just a traffic artery then that’s a problem; so whether Richmond and Adelaide are one way or two way isn’t as important as things like how wide the sidewalks are, if there’s parking on the street and what the pace of the street is.
Shaping space is something that Teeple has managed to accomplish quite sculpturally in your Pavilion at Sherbourne Common. How did that job come about and how did you arrive at that particular form?
Philips Farevaag Smallenberg called us up to work with them on their entry for a competition. It was a hugely important project and I think they out-performed most of their earlier work on it. There was a Waterfront Toronto design review panel which helped move the design to a higher level. There were two fundamental analogies in that project and what’s most-interesting about it is what is actually not seen. Their first idea was a recovery of the original lake landscape with a glade along the water and a waterway coming down with a little swell in it. But what came up as we were working through the design panel is the idea that sustainability should play a bigger role in the project. So that gave birth to the water-treatment facility which was then layered on that original vision and became the expressive nature of the project. Through that came the idea of the water coming up through the ground in Jill’s sculpture.
That water is completely free of contaminants and despite the City’s signs, it’s completely safe for kids to play in. It was an exciting opportunity for us because it changed the nature of the pavilion project in that we now had to build this huge basement for all of the UV equipment. Above ground, one leg of the pavilion is a café and the other contains the washrooms for the park and the skating rink. Our intent was to make the pavilion a sort of point of disturbance in the flow of the water; it has to jog around the pavilion which makes the structure interact with the water and create a sort of ripple effect. We didn’t want to do another one of those shapes in a park, we wanted to make it more spatial so it also spans across the water and shapes the edge of the rink. So it’s not an object in the park but part of the landscape – it’s the connector between the water, the rink and the glade and it draws them all together. It also has a sense of being an archway, framing an amazing view toward the water.
Are there any new projects can you tell us about?
We’ve just finished a number of projects for colleges and universities; one at Georgian College, another at Durham College, so there’s a whole bunch of those things that haven’t been shown yet but that we’re very happy with. There’s also an addition to the Boulevard Club and several unseen residential projects.
Are you able to tell us about the Boulevard Club project?
Well it’s a very challenging site on the water. We’re replacing the west wing badminton courts and change rooms with something that will be present on Toronto’s waterfront for a long, long time. It’s a tremendous design challenge.
Are there any working images at this point?
We’re still in the modelling stages now because we don’t have a scheme that feels quite right yet. We do have some nice ones but because our thinking is more three dimensional, they’re hard to show.
The notion of a ‘Toronto Style’ is something which is hotly debated on UrbanToronto. If such a school exists, where do you situate Teeple Architects within that context?
I would say that it probably does exist but I’d say that we’re not part of it. I was actually out at Dalhousie University doing a talk and the students there insisted that there was a kind of ‘Toronto-look.’ What’s funny is they were shocked that our stuff didn’t look anything like that. I would say that just by virtue of interaction that there is one developing but I’m not entirely convinced that that is an entirely positive thing. I think we at Teeple have some relationship to it but we’re definitely not inside that school. There are different influences and there are many good architects doing their own thing but I think that if you’re on the outside looking in, it’ not hard to identify that in the vast majority of what’s built, there are one or two dominant styles.
It’s no surprise that Toronto is in the midst of an explosive building boom. What projects outside of those your office is working on excite you?
I’m going to say that there’s some interesting experimental work from some of the younger architects working around the city that’s taking us to new places. Some of the recent grads are doing some really cool little houses which I think are very thoughtful, elegant and tasteful. Shane and Betsy Williamson, Williamson Chong are a good example of that. It’s nice to have the young guns on your heels, it’s good. You need to be challenged.
UrbanToronto thanks Stephen Teeple and Teeple Architects for their assitance with this preparation of this interview. More Teeple-designed projects will soon be appearing on UrbanToronto.