Five easy pieces

Le Corbusier’s dramatically sculptural chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronchamp, France, has again and again ignited the imaginations of people who have seen it. But few visitors, I suspect, have been more decisively affected by the place than Johnson Chou. Now, at 51 an award-winning Canadian designer, he went there as a student of architecture in 1987. 

 “I had been to other European churches, but had seen nothing like this,” Chou recently recalled. “Ronchamp synthesized all my thoughts about the plasticity of forms, the story of forms. It is a narrative of the Bible at one level, and, at another, it has emotion, motive power. It’s telling a story with spatial juxtapositions that even now I try to experiment with. Architecture should be like this, a search for the elemental.”

In the 15 years since he founded his independent multidisciplinary design office, Chou has done luxury apartment interiors, smart and punchy corporate headquarters, sleek retail shops and restaurants and condo presentation centres, pop-up modular living units intended for mass production, and even a food bank. The visual ideas at work throughout this various output, however, are wisely limited in number, and nearly all spring from his admiration for the art of Le Corbusier and of other high-modernist artists and architects. 

Take the clean-lined austerity that Chou typically brings to his interiors and their appointments. During the discussions that led up to the design of his highly successful Yolles Residence (2000), for example, Chou was told by his single male client (who had grown up in a house cluttered with art, and didn’t want his own digs to be) to “think penitentiary.” Which Chou did, producing a loft that interprets simplicity with hard edges and stretched horizontal planes, and with unadorned surfaces washed by focused light. 

But into this serious, impersonal plainness, however, the designer infused distinct chic and complexity appropriate for the nest of a sophisticated young urbanite. Sightlines are long and uninterrupted, as they would be in jail -– sitting in the tub, one can visually take in the whole apartment -– but materials and finishes are luxuriously elemental. Le Corbusier similarly enriched the concrete bulk of the church in Ronchamp with many civilized and civilizing touches. “There is nothing worse than austerity that is simply mute,” Chou believes. “There has to be some transformational poetics, some programmatic invention, an intensification of the program, of the existing story that I am rewriting.”

Transformation is, in fact, often the back story in the tales Chou wants to tell. High-rise living in Canada, for one thing, has changed in recent decades, becoming a matter of kitting out and dwelling in spaces smaller than those widely available in times past. To address this contemporary trend toward compactness, Chou created (in collaboration with AyA Kitchens and Baths) the super-efficient modular residential unit known as Base for Toronto’s 2013 Interior Design Show. 

This expandable and contractible prototype features a kitchen, dining table, bed, bath and storage, all fitted together, says the designer, with the precision of “a Swiss Army knife.” Base reflects Chou’s Corbusian preference for dealing with “architecture as apparatus” and as a “stage set for the performance of everyday life” – though here, as in the Yolles Residence and elsewhere, his urgent minimalism is tempered by urbane styling. Base is certainly spiffy, but it’s also suave. 

Less literally than it does in Base, in a more richly developed symbolic way, “transformational poetics” plays a key role in Chou’s most fully elaborated works. The exquisitely spare sales centre for the downtown Toronto condo development called Sixty Colborne, for one – Chou’s scheme was named 2012 Project of the Year by ARIDO – is everything this fusty Victorian corner of the city is not, but will presumably become – sleek, savvy, achingly stylish, smartly postmodern – when the condos’ mostly young, affluent and kid-free occupants move in. The centre is an artistically effective and intelligent invitation pitched to very new men and women, the proletarians of the information age, the core population of the downtown towers. 

These people – “I have a gut feeling about who will come,” Chou says – pursue fast-paced lives, and they pace their lives according to the pulse of mass and digital media. It’s hardly surprising, then, to find that firms catering to this briskly consuming clientele – I am thinking of Grip Limited, the cutting-edge advertising agency, and Red Bull Canada, the local franchise of the Austrian-based high-potency soft-drink manufacturer – have turned to Johnson Chou Inc. when in need of strong identities for their head offices. 

For its part, Grip wanted something that communicated what Chou describes as the “minimalist, witty and clever sensibilities” of its creative team. Among the slogans informing the company’s culture is this one: “The journey must be enjoyable.” The designer played off these ideas, crafting (in 2004 and 2006) a bright, mostly white work environment accented by swatches of vivid orange (borrowed from the corporate logo) and by various architectural gestures intended to delight and surprise. 

Vertical circulation between two levels in Grip’s three-storey downtown Toronto studio, for example, is offered by a handsome steel cascade of steps and bleacher seating – but also (for employees and clients unconcerned about dignity) by a big orange playground slide and a fireman’s pole. In another move meant to discourage taking everything too seriously, Chou installed a meeting area in the form of a large, sunken, orange-lined hot tub. 

Viewed as a total composition, the office is a collection of such sharply focused moments – bridges; a pumpkin-shaped, fabric-walled waiting room with a humourous rococo chandelier; the hot tub; and so on – that add up to a flexible, continually interesting site.  The ensemble that Chou fashioned speaks, as it was intended to do, of high-energy exchanges, of the collision of bright ideas in Grip’s crucible and the outflow of persuasion, the company’s principal product.

Change is a central element, yet again, in the work Chou has done for Red Bull Canada (2010, 2011). In this case, the management wanted its Toronto offices to celebrate both the boost provided by the very popular drink it makes and its corporate encouragement for pop-cultural endeavours ranging from extreme sports to hip-hop. Chou’s intervention took “vessels for transformation” as its theme – a wide-angled reference to bodies galvanized by strenuous activity and pepper-uppers such as the soft drink, of course, as well as (more prosaically) the cans Red Bull comes in, and the intimate, container-like architectural spaces (such as meeting rooms) necessary for carrying on the company’s business and cultural sponsorships. 

The design freely interprets the idea of transformative vessels in several ways. The visitor to the office, for instance, comes off Queen Street West, out of the city, and enters Red Bull’s territory, not abruptly, but via a tunnel-like corridor flooded by tinted light. 

Emerging from this mysterious transition, he finds himself in an open reception area that, like the corridor, points beyond itself. In one direction lies the lounge, outfitted in the anti-chic style of a rustic cottage’s living room – perhaps Canada’s most familiar icon of being away from it all, re-creating oneself, exchanging artificial city identity for one that’s more “natural.” In a different direction, there is yet another “vessel of transformation”: a freestanding spiral stair, wrapped in metallic gauze so that it resembles a Red Bull can, winding its way up toward the meeting rooms on the second level. 

Each of these glassed-in, curved-walled meeting places (originally set up by Chou to be recording studios) is different. One is lined with blonde wood that sweeps up from the floor and arches overhead; another, this time surfaced with red fabric, is more like a sunken living room. Despite the variety, the atmospheres Chou has devised for all these rooms are comfortable, but not cozy; relaxed, but serious. These are pod-like spots, the designs tell us, where important matters are talked over, where decisions are made, and where Red Bull encounters the leaders in sport, music and the other activities it backs. Where, that is, the dynamic transformations that figure powerfully in the company’s image of itself are developed and set in motion.

“There is an old saying that design has to improve life,” Chou says. “But for me, it articulates life. It makes us reflect on what we are, what we do, and design describes the person using it. Which is why I am obsessed with metaphor and movement, with creating narratives that resonate with those who use the spaces. It’s the challenge of making something, not just beautiful, but also multivalent in both form and function. I’ve always loved the James Bond movies from the early ’60s, in which cars change into submarines. Watching things change, move, transform. Those are the things that engage me in other people’s work, and that engage me in my own.”  cI