Public performance

Definition of public (Oxford English Dictionary) adjective

1. of or concerning the people as a whole

2. done, perceived, or existing in open view

The term “public” is a loaded one. Who decides what should concern the people as a whole? How, in the online age, does one define being “in open view”? And what design studio would have the moxie to bestow the very lofty term upon its own operation? 

The self-evident answer is the Vancouver firm Public. That its full official name is Public: Architecture + Communication only affirms its audacious self-confidence. “Our ideas are public,” says co-founder Brian Wakelin, “and they’re collaborative.”  

Actually, the namesake grew out of more humble circumstances: it was, in part, a homage to a Vancouver watering hole called the Public Lounge, where over many an evening Wakelin and partner John Wall first brewed their plans to launch the firm. But it’s also a tribute to the idea that architecture is for the public realm, not just rarified clients or corporations; and that the individual designers in the firm don’t matter as much as the collective idea. Even after a third partner, Susan Mavor, joined in to form a triumvirate, Public held fast. Says Wakelin, “We very purposely chose not to incorporate the partners’ names in the firm name.”   

The three principals of Public came of professional age just as modernism had re-established itself as the natural ruling party of the design establishment, the “starchitecture” trend was peaking and preparing to implode into a caricature of itself, and a recession-scarred country was ready to build again. Still hovering near the sunny side of 40, the Public partners have gathered around them a coterie of keen and talented young designers, the better to take on more complex and multidisciplinary design briefs. Instead of relying on eye-bending shapes or gimmicks to win contracts, they win awards and work by way of their protean DNA: they’re equipped to handle big jobs and small jobs; interior-focussed and tectonic; branding and graphics. 

Wakelin and Wall first met at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture, but after graduation, their paths diverged for a good while. Wakelin logged 10 years at Busby Perkins+Will (now Perkins+Will Canada), a rigorous boiler-room of a firm renowned for its clean high-tech aesthetic, green design and top-down office hierarchy. Wall joined Hotson Bakker and Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg for three years, just enough time to sink his teeth into the firms’ Richmond City Hall joint-venture, and then created his own firm called Superkül, a boutique establishment that garnered local buzz.

Soon after forming Public, Wakelin and Wall brought in Susan Mavor, a communications designer with her own firm, Metaform. An alumna of Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Mavor brought expertise in theatre and graphic design with her, including a series of stamps she designed for Canada Post. It was a project that was like boot camp for designers, she recalls: “It’s extreme graphic-designing training. There’s nothing like it for honing your skills in making the tiny details count.” 

The firm’s early renown flared with Xthum, an aboriginal gathering place at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in nearby Surrey, B.C. A small jewel of a project, the gathering place is designed in one corner of Kwantlen’s “C” Building, warming a starkly officious space with reams of cedar strips that curve from wall to ceiling and crest into what looks like a breaking wave at the top of the room. 

The other associates – interior architect Scot Geib, Sarah English and others – have varied backgrounds that, collectively, serve the purposes of a highly compact but multidisciplinary firm. But unlike many emerging practices, Public has foregone the temptation of the big-budget trophy home or condo complex as a stepping-stone to greater things. A surreal outdoor installation at Vancouver’s Science World; a branding campaign for the city’s avant-garde Vancouver East Cultural Centre (or “The Cultch” as it’s universally called); a website for a folding-kayak company – these small creative projects help brand the firm as a creative goldmine.

After Xthum came the Centennial Beach Day Use Facility in suburban Delta. The elegantly modernist pavilion-cum-café stands less than a kilometre away from a jumble of suburban roadways and fast-food emporia, but it embodies an entirely different architectural identity. Perpendicular to the shallow waves of Boundary Bay waters it faces, the pavilion is clad in concrete sheathing that is itself inscribed with bas-relief undulations, evoking the nearby waves. It also brings to mind the origami-like folds of one of the firm’s early benchmarks, the Buchanan Courtyard Pavilion at UBC.  

Public has made its mark at the co-founders’ alma mater, the University of British Columbia, with distinctive assignments that are contributing to the enlivening of the once-banal campus. Following the Buchanan Courtyard, the firm completed the university’s Centre for Comparative Medicine and, just this winter, the Gerald McGavin UBC Rugby Centre. The Rugby Centre was an exercise in creative thrift: the fundraising clocked in at just two-thirds of the project’s original $3-million budget, so the design team took its mandate to use recycled materials very, very seriously.  

Like the bulk of Public’s work to date, the Rugby Centre evokes compact simplicity, but reveals its complexity as you perambulate the building. From the fore and sides, the two-storey structure reads like an enclosed spectator booth, its front facade buttressed by a sloping concrete grandstand. It’s a sharp, trim counterpoint to the bland behemoth of a stadium that it stands beside. “In these kinds of projects, we try to find large moves that organize the little moves,” says Wakelin. 

The firm’s Centre for Comparative Medicine at UBC is another case in point. The building is relatively simple looking from the outside, but the design brief is hugely complex. A primordial ethical dilemma of our times comes to a crux here, for this is the place where UBC and affiliated groups conduct animal research. It’s an entity whose goals – including the advancement of medicine and zoology – are noble, but its means are necessarily grim, which makes it a potential target for activists and vandals. It is the most contentious activity on campus, presenting unique and discomfiting design challenges. In a twist from the usual pro-branding mandate, the architects had to work toward sublimating any overt signs of the structure’s very presence and purpose. The building is strategically low-key, from its understated massing to its bas-relief signage. The designers worked with the centre’s director, Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark, on “animal-welfare-friendly” approaches for the hundreds of monkeys, rodents, rabbits, swine and other doomed residents. The animals’ quarters are designed with indoor/outdoor access, access to daylight, exercise space, and specialized bedding. The business argument for animal-welfare-friendly design is that it reduces animal illness and therefore veterinarian bills, improves staff morale and therefore reduces employee turnover. The ethical argument is self-evident. 

The architects strategically placed the mechanicals into rows of skylights jutting from its roof, resolving both the practical placement of ducts and the monotony of simple flat rooflines. From inside the building, the skylights read as triangular spaces that pour daylight onto the workspaces below. From the outside, it presents rows of rectilinear steel burrows. “It’s a lift from Louis Kahn,” says
Wakelin with a smile. “In almost all of Kahn’s work, he had what he called ‘served’ and ‘servants’ spaces.” 

The project was a joint venture of Public and the venerable firm Cohos Evamy (now Dialog), in keeping with the UBC selection committee’s policy of nurturing a variety of emerging firms as well as the tried-and-true. The UBC architect committee chair Gerry McGeough has been a huge support, says Wakelin. “He told us: ‘This is perfect: you guys are young and punky; they’re grey-haired and established.’” McGeough, blushing only slightly, is quick to clarify his comment: “We thought it was a great partnership. Cohos Evamy had the depth of experience, the expertise in facility design. Public brings a lot of thought to the contemporary nature of the campus, and, given their own experience on campus, what it means to be at UBC. So there’s two generations coming together in this design.”

The projects keep coming. Public’s current UBC gig, a mid-century-flavoured renovation of the existing Faculty Club, is slated for completion by the end of this summer (the building is now known as the Leon and Thea Koerner University Centre). For the somewhat frowsy and bleak restaurant-cum-lounge, the designers are creating a new brand identity and logo along with the slick new surfaces and seismic upgrades; it will be known as Sage Bistro. “One of the things we reminded them of is that in the 1950s, modernism was pretty cool and that we should return to that again,” says Wall.  Public’s interior of the New Westminster Museum & Archives will be finished in two years. And a slew of smaller boutique projects for theatres and public spaces keep the firm’s name in, well, the public realm. 

At the same time, Wakelin, Wall, Mavor and their eight associates are beginning to explore the possibilities of, gulp, non-government for-profit clients: businesses, offices and mixed-use complexes. “We had someone ask, ‘So, will you change your name to ‘Private’? Well – no!” laughs Wakelin. “We advocate for whatever architecture gives back to the city as a whole.” Not everyone gets it, though. “Some developers joke that they’d never hire us because of our firm name,” says Wakelin, who then wryly adds: “That tells us we’re doing something right.”   cI