Get big, get small or go RAW

To cite an oft-quoted business mantra, “Get big, get small or go home.” So what’s a midsized architecture firm to do? Roland Rom Colthoff, director and owner of seven-year-old sole proprietorship RAW Design (the acronym stands for Roland’s Architectural Workshop), had long pondered how to get his firm noticed.

“We’re known as the mid-rise guys,” the architect, clad in designer black, said during a recent interview at his 32-person firm’s downtown Toronto office. “Most of our work is mixed-use in the urban setting. We’re pegged at that.” Indeed, his firm’s condo designs, more imaginative than most, often grace the weekend newspaper real estate sections.

However, he added wistfully, “We think it would be nice to be known for other things as well. It’s very difficult to break into institutional [work] because you have to show how many of whatever it is you’ve done in the last five years and we’ve done zero. The [same big firms] just keep getting all that that work and we have no entrée to it.

“We had to come at it from another direction. That was the idea for entering competitions and then starting our own. We find competitions engaging, exciting and great for the staff. Our art installations also fell out of this desire to do different things in the office and have a variety of scales to work at. We don’t want people to come here and say, ’I don’t want to work here because all you do is condos.’”

In 2014, RAW won an international competition to create an installation they dubbed Prismatica for Luminothérapie, a winter exhibition of interactive public art in Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles cultural district. They erected 50 two-meter-tall illuminated acrylic prisms coated with dichroic film, which refracts light so that the prisms change colours and shimmer as one moves, while splashing spectral ribbons onto the plaza’s snow-white backdrop. The triple-pane construction propagates infinite internal reflections, further mesmerizing visitors as they gaze at the prisms and spin them on their low-friction bearings.

The $250,000 budget allowed RAW to hire a structural engineer to ensure that the prisms would withstand gale-force (87 kilometers per hour) winds. “We needed close to 1,900 pounds of concrete to hold these things down,” added staff architect Aaron Hendershott. “We use these installations as an opportunity to do research on unconventional materials or methods of fabrication that we don’t normally use when we’re doing permanent buildings.”

The preparation required to win such public-art competitions has helped RAW win more bread-and-butter work. “The discipline that goes into convincing a jury that ours is the right entry helps us in presenting our architecture,” Colthoff said. “Almost every week there is a meeting where I have to present the ideas for our building. The more clearly we can do that, the better off we are.”

Then there are those glorious serendipitous moments when a RAW public-art installation raises RAW’s profile among the movers and shakers. Colthoff recalled, “We were just short-listed for a very major tower competition in downtown Toronto with three other firms. During the presentation, the conversation wandered to Montreal, where they [the judges] had seen Prismatica. They were all over it, saying how cool it was. Prismatica certainly helped us win that competition.”

Likewise, Hendershott allowed, “The City of Mississauga came to us after our Winter Stations competition last year, inviting us to take part in a competition for public art in the forecourt of a new community centre.”

RAW is so smitten with public-art competitions that for two years it has hosted its very own Winter Stations international design competition, at its own expense (with funding from developer-client friends). The goal is to transform and brighten up lifeguard stations at eastern Toronto’s Beaches district that would otherwise languish desolate and abandoned, except for local dog walkers. This year’s theme, Freeze/Thaw, reflecting the changing seasons while the installations are in place, drew nearly 400 international entries.

Colthoff skilfully harvests the buzz-factor of installation art, applied on a more informal basis and shorter time scale, at each summer’s social event. RAW’s yearly summer party is a high point of the A&D social calendar. True, it functions as that familiar fixture, the client-appreciation party, “But who wants to have just a bunch of guys in suits standing around?” he asks. Part hipster rave and Sixties happening, the events showcase something provocative from a design perspective. The past three years’ themes, for instance, were Energy, Material and Canvas respectively.

So in lieu of the proverbial bunch of guys in suits, some of the approximately 1,500 guests at RAW Canvas donned Tyvek suits and shot paint-filled squirt guns at each other to create ad hoc Jackson Pollock masterpieces on the walls and floor of an industrial space that is the future site of Daniels Corporation’s new mixed-use project City of the Arts.

Grander gestures included a crane-suspended, 50-foot-square canvas by a local graffiti artist depicting the Toronto skyline; a sapphire-blue labyrinth; and murals—including one with figures and colours charmingly reminiscent of Matisse’s iconic The Dance—painted before the event by 50 invited artists.

The parties take place in a big black-box space, such as an empty storage locker (as was the case for 2014’s Material). As Colthoff points out, “When you have these diverse spaces, you need surfaces for people to put their drink or to sit down. We always have to create the furniture that goes into it.”

Thus do the summer parties give staff yet another venue to exercise their creativity. When the party took place on the roof of a parking garage (2013’s Energy), the roof’s five-percent slope was the stimulus to build a dual-use piece of furniture evoking a railway truss that functioned as a flat surface at one end for guests to sit on and a counter-height bar area at the other end.

And who knows? Does any manufacturer offer a product like the clever ganged yin-yang table-bench—it’s the same unit, right-side-up and then turned upside-down—that sprawled across the RAW Canvas party floor? Yoo-hoo, Teknion, Haworth, Knoll.