When we were invited to check out the offices of one of Canada’s biggest design firms, I was SO nervous. When I learnt that I would have the opportunity to chat to principal Alan Boniface, who has pretty much designed half of Vancouver, I felt sick. This guy has so many post-nominal letters, I had to google what most of them meant. The man I got to meet, once I had calmed my nerves, is not only SERIOUSLY qualified and knowledgeable, he is also a genuine, down-to-earth and totally unpretentious guy.
I went on to ask him some questions about his work, and the architecture and design scene in Canada; here is what he had to say:
First of all, I notice that you are an entirely integrated design firm. Was this always the shape of the original team?
Not exactly. We are a firm of merged firms, which is very Canadian in that sense in that everyone came together to collaborate. This Vancouver studio was an architecture and planning studio when I joined it - we then joined a firm that was integrated, merged four partner firms into it, and then decided who we would be.
Was this a conscious decision right from the outset, to have such a collaborative structure?
Yes, it was. I was involved in the merger a lot. One of the things that was happening in the marketplace at the time was that big international firms were coming into Vancouver, and taking projects that we thought we had rights to be doing. We realised that we were going to need to change who we were a bit, in order to exist, even in Canada.
You have an incredibly impressive portfolio of projects, both in architecture and public space design; what has been your favourite to work on and why?
I would say Memphis, which is a project that is in its completion stages now. It synthesises all the things that I care about. The space covers a million and half square feet in an old 10-story 1920s art deco warehouse. It sat vacant for over twenty years, in a depressed neighbourhood, in a very depressed city. The folks that approached us were artists and professors and other people that decided they were going to bring this thing back to life. But they didn’t know how. So we came in, not just with the architecture, but also with some social engineering, thoughts on bringing the neighbourhood back, things that most firms don’t do. There is not a lot of architectural ego in it. It’s a push together of everything my career has been about.
Do you have a personal design philosophy? Is there something that is fundamental to your practice and process?
There are all sorts of pieces that keep floating throughout my career, some that rise in certain times and certain projects. I really believe that design at its best can change people’s lives. I like to apply that, and I really love doing it at scale. City wide. If there is a project in the city we are working on, I don’t want it to be simply about housing, or retail - I want it to be about how that changes the city.
What do you feel is the most challenging part of being an architect in the industry today?
First of all I think people underestimate the growth of the world. Underestimate the growth of the population of the world in our lifetime. It used to be that three or four magazines covered world architecture. Today you couldn’t cover world architecture if you tried. With that unfortunately comes the commoditisation of design. So most projects are like, here’s the bottom line, here’s your fee, make it pretty. That’s how the majority of buildings are being made. And it’s really hard to fight against.
How do you fight against it?
I am a big believer in brand. I think humans become attracted to things for reasons they don’t fully understand. If you are trying to appeal to someone to try and sell them who you are, your story and your service, I think you need to appeal to them on levels that the rest of the design community doesn’t understand. But of course it has to be authentic.
Do you feel like Canadian design has, or is starting to, develop an aesthetic that is uniquely it’s own?
I would say no, for a number of reasons. When I think “Canadian design” and when I sell “Canadian design” it’s about the social side of things. Canada is a massive country, with huge regional differences, in both culture and climate. Buildings in Toronto are very different to buildings in Vancouver, aesthetically, because they have to be. In the early days, architect designed houses and buildings in Vancouver, had a real West Coast aesthetic, that was linked to both Californian design, and Japanese design, with indoor/outdoor relationships. But now some of these houses have had to be restored three or four times because they are rotting, because the nature of the design doesn’t really work here where it’s very wet. So architecture can’t be ubiquitous.
What do you think distinguishes Canadian design from US design?
There is an extreme social difference for sure. Looking at American history we see a fear of the cities, a flight from them. In the downtown areas of US cities, architecture was, throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s (and to some extent even today) all about defending yourself from the street. The mentality was “it’s a dangerous place, we need walls.” The evolution of the gated community in America is all about that, so you end up with this fear based design mentality. Canadian architecture is the exact opposite. Vancouver, for example, has a design ethos that embraces a really active retail element to the streets, so your eyes are on the street and there is constant engagement. The irony is that the streets are safer. The crime statistics are better because everybody is involved. That’s the fundamental difference. In Canadian cities, because of the way our politics work, the architecture and design response is also much more sustainable than in the US. We can go to the states as leaders in sustainability.
What do you expect we will be seeing more of, across all aspects of design, over the next few years?
There is a whole bunch of massive changes coming, the automobile being one of the most significant. Vancouver is a city that abandoned the idea of freeways, and now has gone further by taking out tonnes of traffic lanes and putting in bike lanes. It will change the way we think of cities. The second part would be sustainability. If the world gets serious. We are doing a lot of district energy, where we plan a site, and over time, something from that site that has grown enough will support its own energy use. Like food waste, for instance, or heat from sewers. In any sensible world, that stuff has to start happening. And soon!
For more on Dialog Design, visit: www.dialogdesign.ca
Photography: Martin Polley
Written and Styled by stylist and TLSE Contributor, Jackie Brown
Jackie is a photographic and interior stylist specialising in creative concepts and set design for editorial and commercial clients; she has regularly contributed to several of Australia’s leading lifestyle and interiors magazines, as well as styling homes and lifestyle features for editorial publication.
Jackie is currently living in Canada, where she is seeking out the best of the best in Canadian design, and sharing them through TLSE.