Nature Vs. Nurture

For one so young, Vancouver architect Matthew Soules is building an impressive career. In the spring of 2003, while completing his studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, visiting lecturer Rem Koolhaus invited Soules to join the Rotterdam headquarters of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, where he would research urbanism in China. Following this propelling launch, he returned to North America and contributed to Pei Cobb Freed and Partners in New York City.

It was 2006 and Soules was interested in truly making a mark on a new urban culture and in starting his own architecture practice, so he returned to his native Vancouver where he could nurture his design and entrepreneurial aspirations. His first project would also be a first for his client: the downtown dental practice of Dr. Kary Taylor. Both Soules and Taylor wanted to create a truly innovative space that would reflect the dynamic dialogue between Vancouver’s built and natural environments. The duo also wanted to create a space that would engage staff and visitors, while challenging conventional understanding of a dental office.

Soules cleverly manipulated a variety of materials in creating dimension and texture in the 1,600-square-foot space that would become Harbour Centre Dental. Incorporating plants and wood throughout underscores the natural environment. He employed a rift cut in walnut with the grains running in strong horizontal lines; by creating a variety of lines and angles that fold back along themselves, he transforms and introduces new spaces within a space. The choice of white naturally lends itself to an ethereal ambience and the ubiquitous association with dentistry. “The space acts as an experiential essay on whiteness with varying tones woven together,” says Soules. “Carefully selected lighting reveals the diversity of materials and textures, while creating a feeling of greater space and openness.”

One other design objective was to eliminate free-standing items, such as tables with magazines. Soules elected to exploit poured concrete to incorporate a reading materials ledge and to form a bench, communicating the idea of transformation or one element flowing into another seamlessly within the space. Even the patient washroom is cleverly woven into the reception area. Since the pivot system is embedded into the floor and ceiling, it is barely perceptible — one simply pushes on the door to have it open inward.

Nature again makes an appearance through bold photographic images of enlarged orchids upon backlit graphic panels in three open treatment areas divided by pivoting frosted glass. The panels were custom designed by Soules to create a frameless system that would easily incorporate changing graphics over time: “We enlarged or zoomed in on images found in nature to create an exciting scale.” In what he calls a “first” for Vancouver, Soules worked with local G-Sky to create a living green wall to greet patients as they enter the space. This feature combined with the use of efficient lighting and all non-VOC, water-based paints comprise his nod to sustainability.

The response to Harbour Centre Dental has been very positive all around. Dr. Taylor is pleased that a more liberal take on a dental office can also be both functional and enjoyable. Passersby are curious, drawn in by the glowing, ethereal quality of the space, with only a subtle moniker being etched into the outside glass. And the project has received a Silver Award of Excellence from the Interior Designers Institute of British Columbia.

For Soules, his approach to the space was inspired by his undergraduate studies in installation art at the University of British Columbia. “I was always fascinated with the manipulation of space. I found that working in a gallery was more limited, and that architecture allows you to engage with a larger segment of the population.” In fact, he went to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design as an experiment and was “swallowed entirely by architecture — I loved it!”

The “accidental architect” is now at work on a substantial 900,000-square-foot mixed-use project for Blackburn Developments, which will incorporate the world’s largest green roof. CI