John and Patricia Patkau: The Architectural Outsiders

On a 16-acre farm on Salt Spring Island sits arguably the greatest house Western Canada has seen since the glory days of Arthur Erickson. The Linear House runs, as its name suggests, for 84 metres along a bank of Douglas firs. An orchard grows on its opposite side, making the home a bulwark between cultivated nature and the wild. Its brawny charcoal exterior and enormous banks of retractable windows-the largest, 24 metres wide-make critics swoon before the subtler intelligence of its interior is even discovered. The house is that rare sort of architectural statement: it succeeds as both the highest kind of academic exercise and the sexiest sort of design porn. Since its completion, it has been lighting up blogs nonstop. Azure magazine awarded it the 2011 residential-architecture prize.

What’s most interesting about this triumph is the inconspicuous nature of its authors. Yes, John and Patricia Patkau are known and admired in global architectural circles. Indeed, they seem to be more famous the further one ventures from their nondescript West Eighth Avenue offices. (In some architectural schools overseas they are the only Canadian architects ever mentioned.) But here in Vancouver their impact is not commensurate with their stature. John Patkau said recently that even though the pair moved their firm here (from Alberta) 27 years ago, he feels no real connection to the city’s scene.

That disconnect is evident in Vancouver’s skyline. While two of our greatest architects (of our greatest thinkers, really) are occupied with the art of building homes that matter (in a humane, even philosophical sense), Vancouver is increasingly a red-faced marketplace made concrete. Three-quarters of all towers in our downtown are condos, which suits developers just fine: they make four times as much from condos as they do from offices. In a little over 20 years, the downtown population has grown from 40,000 to well over 100,000. That sort of growth leaves little room for balance. Architect James Cheng, whose towers define our cityscape (he has given us more than 30 of them), says, “The invisible hand of the marketplace draws at least three-quarters of downtown Vancouver.”

A pity, according to the Patkaus. “A homogenous land of condos has replaced that overlaying of public bodies that is necessary for successful cities,” says Patricia. “The great experiment called Vancouver has led us somewhere-it’s made us into a city of the rich, and I think that’s very unpleasant.”

Is there no room for a bit of soul in the city? Surrey has their Newton Library, with its playful butterfly roof; on Granville Island there’s the Charles H. Scott Gallery at Emily Carr, so humble it could be mistaken for a light industrial space; and in West Vancouver is the Gleneagles Community Centre. Tellingly, the Patkaus’ major contribution to the makeup of Vancouver has been a series of large university developments (for UBC and Emily Carr).

Outside Vancouver, they’ve done small projects that would pass by the notice of most senior architects-“warming sheds” in Winnipeg, “cocoon” change rooms in Tokyo’s Comme des Garçons shop. (They ousted a dozen top firms for the prestigious Fallingwater project, designing Hobbit-like studios for the grasslands around Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous house, but that commission has since been cancelled.) Every project, says John Patkau, “is a way of working out ideas. The important thing is to never do the same thing twice.” It’s a philosophy that places him worlds apart from condo-gorged Vancouver, whether he lives here or no.

Perhaps the Patkaus are valuable to us precisely because their work stands at fierce odds with our city. Lisa Rochon, the architecture critic at the Globe and Mail, had this to say: “Architecture may well be the greatest of the arts but rarely are buildings expressed artfully. The Patkaus, though, are committed to the art of architecture. Most build; they sculpt.”

Spend time in the Linear House and their commitment becomes evident. Poetry where you expect prose. Art among the elements.