Big Plans

Canada isn’t known for its ground­break­ing de­sign. An up­start firm is try­ing to change that

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Si­mon Lewsen

In March of last year, while guest lecturing at the Depart­ment of Ar­chi­tec­tural Science at Ry­er­son Uni­ver­sity in Toronto, Alex Joseph­son, co-founder of the de­sign-and-ar­chi­tec­ture firm Par­ti­sans, asked his au­di­ence to name an iconic lo­cal project. The crowd, with its si­lence, gave him the an­swer he’d ex­pected. In an in­dus­try dominated by baby boomers in Ox­ford shirts, Joseph­son, thirty-five, stands out in his T-shirts and tight leather pants. Af­ter mak­ing con­tro­ver­sial state­ments, whether about Canada’s in­no­va­tion gap (“This isn’t an en­vi­ron­ment that en­cour­ages en­trepreneur­ship”) or the hasty process through which res­i­den­tial struc­tures get built (“like shit through a goose”), he often smiles knowingly, as if dar­ing his in­ter­locu­tors to dis­agree. Joseph­son ar­gues that be­cause Toronto is a boom town — a nexus of money, knowl­edge, and hu­man cap­i­tal — it’s uniquely po­si­tioned to be an ar­chi­tec­tural leader. And yet the city is fail­ing. Just visit one of its many res­i­den­tial towers. Wher­ever you go, you’ll likely find the same thing: a bland glass-and-steel ex­tru­sion atop a rec­tan­gu­lar base. In Toronto — as in Van­cou­ver, Cal­gary, and Ot­tawa — the towers aren’t just ugly, they’re uni­form. In the 2016 polemic Rise and Sprawl, Joseph­son, along with the Par­ti­sans team and co-au­thor Hans Ibel­ings, com­pared the city’s con­dos — un­sightly struc­tures, made to max­i­mize ev­ery dol­lar — to the col­umns on a Mi­crosoft Ex­cel grid. “Ef­fec­tively, we are build­ing spread­sheets in the sky,” they wrote. Ac­cord­ing to Joseph­son, the prob­lem is partly leg­isla­tive — strin­gent by­laws dis­cour­age cre­ativ­ity — but it’s cul­tural too. It doesn’t have to be this way. Bu­dapest is a liv­ing art nou­veau mu­seum. Ber­lin, where build­ings re­sem­ble tents or fun­nels or seed pods, is di­verse and weird. And Copen­hagen leads the world in green de­sign with its dense cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture, streets that con­serve rain­wa­ter, and, soon, a waste-man­age­ment cen­tre that will dou­ble as a ski slope. If cities get the ar­chi­tec­ture their peo­ple de­mand, it would seem that Toron­to­ni­ans don’t de­mand much. This com­pla­cency is what Joseph­son, along with his col­leagues at Par­ti­sans, wants to change.

Canada has a lim­ited ros­ter of world­class ar­chi­tects, who mostly work for rar­i­fied clients. It also has a small com­mu­nity of bou­tique stu­dios that do cre­ative one­off pieces, usu­ally pri­vate res­i­dences. But Par­ti­sans, which Joseph­son started in 2012 with his friend Pooya Bak­tash, is dif­fer­ent — a crit­i­cal firm, spe­cial­iz­ing not only in de­sign but also in rhetoric and ac­tivism. In six years, the firm has worked up a var­ied port­fo­lio: houses, fur­ni­ture, in­dus­trial pieces, restau­rant in­te­ri­ors, sculp­tural light­ing, books, and pub­lic in­ter­ven­tions that bor­der on per­for­mance art. “They’ve had a huge im­pact,” says Omar Gandhi, ahal­i­faxand Toronto-based ar­chi­tect. “Their work is un­like any­thing I’ve seen in this coun­try.” Take Par­ti­sans’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with the arts fes­ti­val Lu­mi­nato in 2016. The team helped trans­form the Hearn Gen­er­at­ing Sta­tion — a de­com­mis­sioned coal­fired plant in Toronto’s Port Lands —into a temporary venue with coloured flood­lights and a ship­ping-con­tainer theatre. The build­ing, which is 650,000 cu­bic me­tres in vol­ume — about half the size of the Rogers Cen­tre — has long posed a prob­lem for plan­ners: it would be ex­pen­sive to ren­o­vate, but it’s too unique to demolish. To show off the rarely seen space to the pub­lic, the team didn’t re­move scaf­fold­ing, pip­ing, or all of the de­bris. The aim was to ac­quaint vis­i­tors with the grime and grandeur of the city’s in­dus­trial his­tory. “We wanted them to ex­pe­ri­ence the sense of vol­ume and scale and the sud­den tem­per­a­ture drop when they get in­side,” ex­plains Jonathan Fried­man, an ar­chi­tect who joined the firm in 2013. Fried­man hopes that such in­ter­ven­tions will in­spire Toron­to­ni­ans to de­mand an am­bi­tious Hearn ren­o­va­tion some­day. A sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion in Lon­don turned the Bank­side Power Sta­tion into the world-renowned Tate Modern art gallery. But it isn’t easy to change minds. As Joseph­son ex­plains it, Toronto’s cul­ture won’t im­prove un­less a crit­i­cal mass in­sists on some­thing bet­ter. He seemed to sum up his — and Par­ti­sans’s — phi­los­o­phy dur­ing a Fe­bru­ary 2017 ap­pear­ance on tvo’s The Agenda. “If you were lucky enough to be a cit­i­zen of Athens 2,500 years ago,” he said, “you would have to take an oath to leave it a bet­ter, more beau­ti­ful city than when you ar­rived.” P ar­ti­sans oc­cu­pies a for­mer glass-dec­o­rat­ing and tex­tile- print­ing fac­tory in Toronto’s Dover­court Vil­lage. Its fel­low ten­ants in­clude a ce­ram­i­cist, a pasta man­u­fac­turer, and a gui­tar maker. The firm’s 500-square-me­tre room, fea­tur­ing both desks and open space where the team builds mod­els and prod­uct pro­to­types, is as much a work­shop as an of­fice. Par­ti­sans, which now has thir­teen em­ploy­ees, can trace its roots back to 2008, when Joseph­son and Bak­tash were com­plet­ing their mas­ter’s of ar­chi­tec­ture de­grees at the Uni­ver­sity of Water­loo. For his the­sis, Joseph­son was draw­ing a rad­i­cal proposal for Mecca, which in­cluded a whirlpool-shaped hole at the cen­tre — a void rep­re­sent­ing an un­know­able God. Bak­tash, mean­while, was writ­ing an es­say on Los An­ge­les, in which he ar­gued that the city is more imag­i­nary than real, partly be­cause of its in­nu­mer­able de­pic­tions in Hol­ly­wood movies. The two faced a sim­i­lar prob­lem: Joseph­son, who is Jewish, can’t be ad­mit­ted to Mecca, and Bak­tash, who is from Iran, had never set foot in LA. So they con­sulted on each other’s projects, and soon they were talk­ing about go­ing into busi­ness to­gether. Joseph­son and Bak­tash had both pre­vi­ously worked at es­tab­lished com­pa­nies. “Work­ing for a big firm,” Joseph­son ex­plains, “means tak­ing your most cre­ative, en­er­getic years and in­vest­ing them some­where else. That’s a tragedy.” In 2010, the two moved to Toronto and set up their own shop, first in a stor­age locker and later in Bak­tash’s apart­ment, where they built a bed that folds into a ta­ble so clients wouldn’t know that the of­fice dou­bled as a home. Joseph­son’s un­cle, op­ti­cian Josh Joseph­son, gave Par­ti­sans its first commission:

“Work­ing for a big firm means tak­ing your most cre­ative, en­er­getic years and in­vest­ing them some­where else. That’s a tragedy.”

a dis­play fix­ture for vin­tage eye­glasses. The duo made a shelf that droops from the ceil­ing like clothes on a line. An early in­dus­trial- de­sign project was just as play­ful: a wooden bench with ma­chine-cut ridges and grooves, evok­ing tufted leather. These works were also pho­to­genic, and they helped Par­ti­sans get so­cial-me­dia at­ten­tion. Com­mis­sions soon fol­lowed: an art gallery in a for­mer can­nery, a glass-and-ply­wood of­fice space in the land­mark Toronto-do­min­ion Cen­tre. In 2013 and 2014, Par­ti­sans brought on ad­di­tional part­ners: Fried­man and Ni­cola Spunt, a for­mer lit­er­ary scholar who man­ages pub­lic re­la­tions. Around that time, a client with a prop­erty on Lake Huron hired Par­ti­sans to cre­ate a sauna re­sem­bling a grotto. The de­sign­ers opted to use Cana­dian cedar, which meant fig­ur­ing out how to sculpt wood as if it were clay. “To our knowl­edge, noth­ing like it had been done be­fore,” says Fried­man. Us­ing a cus­tom-de­signed al­go­rithm, the team milled about 100 curved-wood ob­jects, which fit to­gether like puz­zle pieces. They then trans­ported the parts by barge to the site, where Joseph­son and Fried­man as­sisted with the three­week as­sem­bly. The project went vi­ral. Ital­ian and Span­ish de­sign web­sites ran sto­ries about it. At his Ry­er­son lec­ture, Joseph­son said that a Rus­sian porn site once named it the best place to have an orgy. The grotto caught the at­ten­tion of Grant van Gameren, a young Toronto restau­ra­teur whose pre­vi­ous project, Bar Is­abel, had opened in 2013 to na­tional ac­claim. He’d just re­turned from Spain, where he had fallen in love with the work of An­toni Gaudí, an ar­chi­tect fa­mous for cor­ner­less rooms made of op­u­lent ma­te­ri­als. “I’d started to un­der­stand how im­por­tant feel­ings and emo­tions are in a din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” says van Gameren. He com­mis­sioned Par­ti­sans to de­sign Bar Raval, a tapas restau­rant in­spired by the neighbourhood snack bars he’d fre­quented in San Se­bastián. Raval, like Par­ti­sans’s grotto, is a wooden cave, rem­i­nis­cent of a hollow in a tree. Ev­ery­thing down to the bar taps is cus­tom made, and the ma­hogany pan­elling swells and re­cedes like warped vinyl. “Peo­ple walk into Raval and fon­dle it,” says van Gameren. “They want to know if it’s real.” Get­ting it built wasn’t easy, though. “They pushed us,” van Gameren says of Joseph­son and Bak­tash. “They don’t just sit around and wait to be told what to do or how to do it.” Be­cause Raval has only a few seats for pa­trons, Bak­tash and Joseph­son col­lected data on how peo­ple stand. Van Gameren and the Par­ti­sans team spent an af­ter­noon drink­ing at the par­tially com­pleted site, while the de­sign­ers took note of where peo­ple put their limbs. In the fi­nal prod­uct, the ledges and bars have re­cesses for­pa­trons’ el­bows. The build cost around $1 mil­lion and re­quired seventy-five in­tri­cate ma­hogany pan­els. As the work be­came more com­plex, van Gameren be­gan to worry. “Half­way through the project, when noth­ing was re­ally done yet, he was get­ting scared,” Joseph­son told the crowd at his Ry­er­son lec­ture. But when a client gets cold feet, he joked, a self-re­spect­ing de­signer should re­spond firmly: “Shut up. It’s go­ing to be fine.” That stance comes with a corol­lary: a be­lief that seem­ingly un­achiev­able things can, in fact, be done. Fried­man often goes moun­tain bik­ing on the Bruce Trail, which runs through a land­scape of jagged out­crop­pings on the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment. “You’ve got rock faces with an­cient cedars grow­ing out the sides,” he says. “You won­der, ‘How do trees get their roots into [the lime­stone]?’ Clearly, what­ever prob­lems ex­ist, there are de­sign so­lu­tions out there.”

Toronto’s Union Sta­tion, a beaux arts rail­way hub that opened in 1927, is a relic from a more beau­ty­con­scious era in Cana­dian city build­ing. It has a colon­naded ex­te­rior, and the in­te­rior has mar­ble floors, a vaulted ceil­ing, and arched win­dows rem­i­nis­cent of Ro­man baths. It’s now un­der­go­ing a mas­sive ren­o­va­tion, and in 2013, Par­ti­sans be­gan work on its con­tri­bu­tion to the project — the food court and mar­ket in­side Union’s un­der­ground re­tail con­course. Last Jan­uary, while con­struc­tion was un­der­way, I met Bak­tash at the sta­tion. He was en­er­getic and chatty, de­spite be­ing hun­gover from a night of par­ty­ing. As we walked, he pointed out his­toric odd­i­ties, in­clud­ing a trio of grease marks be­hind an old bench, rem­nants of the po­made that bag­gage han­dlers in the ’30s and ’40s put in their hair. We vis­ited the con­course, two floors be­low street level, that Par­ti­sans is trans­form­ing into a bazaar of restau­rants and shops. The most strik­ing fea­tures in the space are the ceil­ing fix­tures. In many ar­eas, the ceil­ings are low, a lim­i­ta­tion that ini­tially posed a prob­lem: How do you in­stall nec­es­sary me­chan­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture without mak­ing the space more cramped than it is? To solve this prob­lem, Bak­tash de­signed dis­cus-like ob­jects, each con­tain­ing HVAC dif­fusers, lights, and sprin­klers. Par­ti­sans has now com­mis­sioned ap­prox­i­mately 210 such pods, which will be sus­pended from the ceil­ing like low-hang­ing clouds. “We said, ‘Let’s make in­fra­struc­ture into art,’” Bak­tash ex­plained. Union is one of two high-pro­file civic com­mis­sions in Par­ti­sans’s port­fo­lio. In Septem­ber 2017, Jeff Be­zos, CEO of Ama­zon, an­nounced a com­pe­ti­tion whereby North Amer­i­can cities would bid to be­come the next home to the com­pany’s head­quar­ters. The win­ning city could re­ceive $5 bil­lion in con­struc­tion in­vest­ments and 50,000 high-pay­ing jobs. The Toronto re­gion se­lected Par­ti­sans to co-au­thor its book-length proposal. While other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties de­based them­selves — Ne­wark, New Jer­sey, promised $7 bil­lion in tax in­cen­tives, and Stonecrest, Ge­or­gia, of­fered Be­zos a life­time may­oralty — Par­ti­sans fo­cused on as­sets Toronto al­ready has: di­ver­sity, so­cial ben­e­fits, and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. As a work of civic boos­t­er­ism, the ap­pli­ca­tion has done well: of the 238 cities that joined the com­pe­ti­tion, Toronto is now one of twenty that made Be­zos’s short­list. But the goal of the project, which would help Ama­zon fur­ther

“When a client gets cold feet, Joseph­son said, a self-re­spect­ing de­signer should re­spond firmly: ‘Shut up. It’s go­ing to be fine.’”

ex­pand its em­pire, seems to sit awk­wardly with Par­ti­sans’s ur­ban­ist agenda. Par­ti­sans ar­gues for cre­ativ­ity and dis­tinc­tive­ness; Ama­zon seems to act as a ho­mog­e­niz­ing force more pow­er­ful than the most ra­pa­cious condo de­vel­oper. Par­ti­sans sees aes­thetic value as a so­cial good, which can­not be con­flated with crass profit seek­ing; Ama­zon, with its mar­ket heft, may be the crass­est profit seeker out there. Par­ti­sans, how­ever, makes the case that good de­sign and profit are related. Spunt says that the Ama­zon bid was also in the best in­ter­ests of the city. “I often think about pre­vent­ing a brain drain,” she says. “If Ama­zon opens some­where else, peo­ple who’ve been ed­u­cated here will go south for jobs.” The Ama­zon co­nun­drum, how­ever, sug­gests a deeper is­sue, not just at Par­ti­sans but within the pro­fes­sion. To build boldly, ar­chi­tects must work with pre-ex­ist­ing struc­tures and in­sti­tu­tions, which often means co-op­er­at­ing with gov­ern­ments and the ul­tra-wealthy. That’s why even the most stri­dently non­con­formist prac­ti­tion­ers even­tu­ally forge some kind of truce with re­al­ity. For as long as they’re in busi­ness, Par­ti­sans will grap­ple with this ten­sion: to re­make the world as you want it to be, you must some­times accept it as it is. On a tour through the Par­ti­sans of­fice last fall, how­ever, it seemed to me that the part­ners are at their freest when work­ing for them­selves. Their most rad­i­cal projects are made not of bricks or sculpted wood but rather of glue and card­board. Joseph­son showed me a the­o­ret­i­cal city that they’d put to­gether: mod­els made in-house, with nei­ther bud­get nor pa­tron, for the sake of the ideas them­selves. There was a pub­lic park in the sky; it sat over­top an of­fice build­ing and be­neath a cloud-like canopy. There was also a re­design of the Hearn, which was en­veloped by a moun­tain-like form that could be a condo build­ing or a planned com­mu­nity. The most strik­ing model, though, was a sky­scraper shaped like a ques­tion mark — imag­ine if New York’s Sea­gram Build­ing sud­denly dou­bled in height and then snaked around it­self in a dra­matic arc. The team af­fec­tion­ately calls it the WTF Tower, and it has be­come Par­ti­sans’s de facto logo. “The tower is a rhetor­i­cal sug­ges­tion,” Joseph­son said, “a pure man­i­fes­ta­tion of cu­rios­ity.” It ex­ists in a par­al­lel uni­verse where con­straints are sur­mount­able and cre­ativ­ity wins out, ev­ery time, against bland in­sti­tu­tional norms. I sug­gested to Joseph­son that its ar­chi­tec­tural value is more sym­bolic than real, and he agreed. “It’s build­able, though,” he told me. “If some­body wanted to make it hap­pen, they could find a way.”

op­po­site Bar Raval’s in­te­rior is rem­i­nis­cent of a hollow in a tree. above Par­ti­sans’s de­sign work in­cludes “ar­chi­tec­tural” lights.

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