Critical Visions, 2008 RAIA National Conference
With little knowledge of Brigitte Shim’s work, apart from the early-1990s publication of a compact house on a tight site in The Architectural Review, it was with some interest that I waited for her to speak, hoping to gain a better understanding of her design process and seeing more of her portfolio. The design of that compact dwelling – the Laneway House as it is known – was very tidy in plan and section, and it was obvious that the architects had deeply considered the program, site and construction detailing.
Brigitte Shim, one half of the respected Canadian firm, Shim-Sutcliffe Architects hailing from Toronto, introduced her keynote by outlining the three organising themes; The Constructed Landscape, The Canadian Shield and The Toronto Ravine. She continued that all her projects are guided by the maxim “specific, particular and local” and that they establish a “dialogue with the context”.
The Constructed Landscape
The first project was a house on an island (above) in the St Lawrence River that was a series of orthogonal volumes of different heights and dimensions covered by green roofs with low flowering plants. A hydroseeded clover meadow surrounded the house entirely and reflected the “agricultural cycle”. After sunset, the house glowed like a paper lantern in a meadow. Shim commented that a water body – almost as large as the house it surrounded – filled with water lilies and fish was intended to create a “metaphor of an island”. Another “constructed landscape” project was the Corkin Shopland Gallery located within a heritage distillery, characterised by a series of close-spaced brick vaults and vats. Shim created spaces by selective removal and insertion. Brick walls were removed to create new spaces and stairs were inserted within the brick arches. Not sure where the “landscape” was on that project though…
The Canadian Shield
At first, the Canadian Shield didn’t make much sense to me as my knowledge of the Canadian landscape is very limited but as Shim explained, The Shield is a very large zone of igneous rock in northern Canada located close to the surface which influences the overlying landscape. Here, the project was a summer camp dining hall located in an isolated setting within a pine forest on the edge of a lake – a typical Shield landscape. The timber/steel hybrid structure of the pavilion is flooded with natural light via a standard greenhouse glazing system and although the structure is rigourous and repetitive (lower cost, easier to transport to the site), the sensitive detailing of the timber adds a distinctive character.
The Toronto Ravine
Shim’s third theme, the Toronto Ravine, again revealed a part of the Canadian landscape unknown to me, yet a distinctive geographic feature of downtown Toronto. The ravine system is a network of deep cuts (20 metre drops are common), often with waterways, that weave though the city and are mostly undeveloped or parks. Within this context, Shim introduced an early project for external pavilion that rests on the edge of the ravine and provides a calm, tranquil place to reflect.
Another aspect to Shim’s work is the consideration of the seasons (which are very clearly defined in Canada) and this is exemplified by the Weathering House which is clad in COR-TEN steel. Also, the functional requirements of a designing such a building in a climate that ranges from -40ºC to 40ºC are not ignored, as Shim-Sutcliffe typically engage envelope specialists to collaborate on the facade and ensure energy targets are met. The last project Shim presented was the Integral House, also sited on the edge of the ravine, for a very wealthy client who is a calculus scholar and musician (which explains why the program includes a 150 person concert hall!) The 1,600m2 house is a series of curvilinear volumes – somewhat like an Aalto Vase – built on the edge of the ravine with a sinuous glazed facade broken by the syncopated rhythm of timber fins. Shim described her affinity with Aalto, apparent in the organic form of the Integral House, which she “synthesised” to the local conditions.
Shim is fortunate enough to have clients with seemingly endless budgets – the Integral House and the amazingly detailed bespoke door hardware and interior lighting are some examples – but Shim-Sutcliffe seem to remain grounded nonetheless. Their sense of fun and inventiveness is reflected in their approach to a suspended luminaire made from Mason Jars, mylar and phosphor, that Shim called “fireflies in a jar”. Very witty but only part of the reason why Shim-Sutcliffe are an architectural practice to follow closely!
Projects Presented (in order)
- Island House, Thousand Islands (2002)
- Corkin Shopland Gallery, Toronto (2004)
- Ledbury Park, Ontario (1997)
- Muskoka Boat House, Point William (1999)
- Garden Pavilion and Reflecting Pool (1990?)
- Weathering House, Toronto (2001)
- Moorelands Camp Dining Hall, Lake Kawagama, Dorset (2001?)
- Integral House, Toronto (2008)
Additional Shim-Sutcliffe Resources
- “A Solution to Urban Density” – about the Laneway House (with plans and sections)
- Details about the green roof at the Island House
- Shim-Sutcliffe Architects entry in the The Canadian Encyclopedia
- Ledbury Park entry at The Archi-Tourist
- Project data and product information on the Island House
- Corkin Gallery
- “New ideas for a modern residence” – about the Integral House
- “The Sum of Its Parts” about the Integral House design process (with model photos and other diagrams)
- Two articles by Lisa Rochon (1, 2) about the Integral House appeared in The Globe and Mail but unfortunately are both pay-per-view and are unpreviewed. A text copy can be read for free at the Urban Toronto Forum however.