You went to the University of Waterloo to study architecture. What brought you back to Hamilton?
Just serendipity. I never really planned to come back to Hamilton, I never thought there’d be an opportunity here. I just assumed I’d be in Toronto forever. After I came back from working in Pittsburgh, I was looking for a job and I came upon a firm from Toronto that had an office here and they offered me a job. I really wasn’t expecting it or thinking of Hamilton. It kind of just fell into my lap.
Walk us through your journey as an architect. Before TCA, what firms did you work for?
I worked at a smaller firm in Hamilton that’s gone now and then I worked at Garwood-Jones, which was the firm in Hamilton for decades. All the best architects in Hamilton came out of there and we were all there at the same time, it was a pretty phenomenal group to work with.
Then I went on to Toronto to get big firm experience at Bregman & Hamann. While there I worked on the CBC headquarters and some hospital and office buildings. So that was my big firm experience, but I didn’t enjoy it. Then I toughed out the recession at a couple of smaller firms in the early 1990s and then did some contract work for CBC that really wasn’t much fun.
After that I worked for a firm that did high-rise condos in Toronto, Rafael + Bigauskas, which was really good experience. I took a sabbatical for a summer of studying and travelling in 1997 sponsored and paid for mostly by Prince Charles, which was a life changing experience and I realized that I needed to experience more, and to work and travel elsewhere for a while. So I went to the US for a couple of years and worked at a big New York firm called Perkins Eastman in their Pittsburgh office, although I wish I went to Europe or somewhere less tight-ass.
When I came back I ended up in Hamilton at a firm that since went bankrupt, Moffat Kinoshita, and then after a brief stint running some independent projects through my friend Rick Lintack’s firm, I ended up reluctantly opening up my own firm (TCA/Thier + Curran Architects Inc.) in 2005. And here we are now, 12 years later. I don’t know how it happened, really, just a lot of serendipity.
What are some of the biggest challenges of being a principal architect of your own firm?
Being in Hamilton makes a difference, it’s a very different place than Toronto or Pittsburgh. It’s smaller and we have less sophisticated clients here; we have a lot of small-minded people, or people that think they know better than an architect. It’s a little frustrating, perhaps there is too much Shelter Porn on TV and Pinterest that makes people think they have design skills. We’ve been blessed with finding or being found by some really great clients who collaborate with us on our finer work. What I like about
practicing architecture in Hamilton is you have to be diversified and the variety keeps us nimble. So we do everything, every kind of building and interior, and we work geographically from Windsor to Ottawa, all over the GTA, and into Niagara. You go where the projects take you, but we still have our roots in industrial Hamilton, which is in my DNA.
I think of all the other challenges of running a business in a place where the economy is still retooling, and it’s just nice to see that things are getting appreciably better. It’s pretty encouraging. I just didn’t think the work would be here, because when I left the economy was plummeting with the loss of the steel industry and it’s taken decades to recover. But we still struggle with trying to convince people that design quality matters, even here in a market where the bar hasn’t been high enough, and to trust us to produce good design for them and to compensate us fairly for our services. Another opportunity that presents itself in Hamilton is that with real estate prices here (compared to Toronto) that we’ve been able to do some of our own development work, and we’re on our fourth project now. It’s satisfying and it allows you the opportunity to do things that your clients wouldn’t let you do. Most clients tend to be conservative and we’re always trying to push them to be more adventurous, and trust us to do more interesting and exciting things. It’s an on-going challenge!
Speaking of your own development, we’re currently in 7-11 Brock Street. Can you tell us more about this project?
It’s a just a lovely little building I had my eye on for a while. It was a vacant tool and die shop that was producing US patents for machine parts, weigh scales, and different kinds of tools from the 1890’s. It’s a storied small Hamilton business in a nice little building by the harbour.
We found it has had a checkered history. Someone put a ramp to the basement decades ago, probably in the 1930s, the kind of ramp you’d roll whisky barrels down, so I presume it was used during Prohibition. At some point someone added two walk-in safes, which are unusual for a tool and die shop. How much cash does a tool and die shop need? So I presume it was a large scale cash business. Then somewhere down the line, probably in the 1960’s, someone added 100 phone lines into the building. Which again is an odd thing, but I guess it was some sort of boiler room operation they were
running out of there. More recently it was the Complete Rent-Alls warehouse when we purchased it.
It was the classic ugly duckling of a building that looked really terrible and our goal was to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear. It’s not really a spot for offices or a restaurant. So we thought we’d turn it into residential, so we severed it into 3 units and now they’re each going to be freehold townhouses that are pretty unique. It’s the character of the
building that makes all the difference. We’re almost there, they’ll be sold in the next couple of months.
Can you tell us about some of your other projects on the go?
We have the Diamond Estates Winery in NOTL that will be opening to the public on May 17th. It’s a new tasting building and retail shop, which we’re pretty excited about, although it’s very modest. We used the Japanese temple technique of charred cedar siding called Shou Sugi Ban and it has some unusual lights and finishes in it, and we’ve poured a lot of heart and soul into it. We’re also doing several other projects for Diamond, we have a large addition to the production building just starting construction this week that needs to be ready for the fall grape harvest, and we’ve also got two more additions and another hospitality building coming for them in the next year or two that have already completed preliminary design. So that will be a nice little addition to Niagara-On-The-Lake.
We’re designing a new ‘townhall’ for Haldimand County in Cayuga. We’re doing a new community building down in St. Thomas, near London, to house social services offices and housing on a full block downtown, and we just finished up a large $40 Million affordable housing apartment building with a very unique youth shelter on the ground floor in Richmond Hill that’s has been generating some positive attention, called the Richmond Hill Hub. Keeping the seniors in the apartments apart from the youth was a real challenge.
We’re working on reimagining two Hyundai dealerships: one on Upper James and
one at Parkdale & Barton. We just finished a wonderful small house (Ridge Residence) out in Prince Edward County, that’s a wedge of black corrugated metal, which is quite unusual. Our most senior architect, Steven Gacesa is building a strawbale
house for his family on Tally Ho in Dundas. It’s going to be quite different, and it is already framed and the straw bales go on in a month or so. We have a modest but nice addition to the fabulous Gasworks on Park St. N. awaiting City approvals, Grey Matter Brewpub in Kincardine is in construction, we have some school additions and renovations underway in Hamilton, Haldimand and Norfolk counties and at McMaster, a unique new cottage on a great waterfront site in Muskoka, a wonderful new waterfront park coming soon in Crystal Beach, a funky new infill house coming soon on
Market Street at Caroline N., and we’re redeveloping a mixed use building on Barton near Wentworth Street. Barton is the next big thing to happen !
We’ve also designed a really unusual office building on a unique property back in the Beverly swamp for a great company that does mechanical contracting for sewer and water plants, Bennett Mechanical, which will have no drywall or t-bar ceilings. And we’ve got Merit Brewing that’s going to open shortly at 107 James North, where the old Mex-I-Can used to be. It will be Hamilton’s first real brew pub, with a bar and restaurant in the front. The brewery is already brewing beer in the back. It’ll be exciting for downtown and a great addition to James North, although a simple, modest building.
What do you wish to see happening in Hamilton, architecturally? I know we’ve talking about laneway housing before.
Laneway housing is such a no-brainer! It’s allowed everywhere but Hamilton, it seems. It’s been a huge success in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Toronto, for example. We did a report to show it is here and working, and the potential for it for the Planning Department 6 years ago and nothing has happened since then. We’d love to see that everywhere and we’d love to see some good quality high-rise development happening, but we’ve got all the wrong people interested to date sadly. So hopefully a good developer from outside with a proven, higher quality way of doing things will come along and do some first-rate buildings. We’ve got a good opportunity at Pier 7 and 8 and hopefully the City will sell it to the right developer and then get out of the way. But I think high-rise housing will happen, we just need to get the right developers. We need more small, infill housing projects everywhere.
So going back to your work. I see the influences of Michael Graves, Carlo Scarpa, Shim-Suttcliffe, KPMB, and even Teeple in your work and philosophy. What are some other architects that have influenced you?
Those are definitively some of our major influences, and I am a huge fan of Zaha Hadid, the British/Iraqui architect who tragically died last year. But the most important architect of our generation is a North End guy, Bruce Kuwabara, and a friend. Another former Hamiltonian whose work I admire is Tania Bortolotto, who practices in Toronto. There are a number of small firms whose thoughtful, subtle work I admire, like Machado Silvetti out of Boston, Tsien+Williams and Steven Holl from NYC, BCJ from Philadelphia and Konig Eizenberg and Brooks+Scarpa from LA. There’s Saucier + Perrotte out of Montreal that are a really fabulous firm and the Patkau‘s from Vancouver, and Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple and Susan Fitzgerald from Halifax who do fantastic work. There’s a Scottish architect that I’ve had the pleasure to become friends with, Richard Murphy, who’s doing some fabulous work all over Scotland and Ireland. And there’s a litany of other small firms that do the same kind of work with the same kind of high design content and really good quality form and space.
So that’s what we aspire to do in our work: Buildings that transcend the ordinary and raise the bar in terms of the quality of the environment and the quality of the building in the cityscape, and that contributes to building a better place for people.
I’ve taught undergrad design studio for over 20 years, and lectured and been a guest critic at several schools of architecture, and teaching has really made me a better architect. Explaining design ideas, critiquing design work and talking about pure design ideas with students has been a huge influence on me. I love teaching, and learn at least as much as I give
This one is a two-part question. What’s your favourite building in Hamilton? And what’s your favourite building that you can think of?
One building that I really admire is Harmony Apartments on Bay and Barton. It’s a really lovely little immigrant pride success story. I really think that it’s a showstopper in terms of the quality of a modest apartment building. I also love the original TH&B station up at Hunter and Hughson. I think it’s a real prized work in Hamilton by some esteemed NYC architects. And I love the interior of Hamilton Hall at McMaster University: The James Stewart Centre for Mathematics by Bruce Kuwabara. I think it’s a pretty magnificent interior and a great example of how the contemporary can mesh perfectly with a very powerful, historic building.
It’s so hard to pick favourites when there are so many great ones out there! I’ve recently visited the Fondation Louis Vuitton by Frank Gehry, which is a two-year old contemporary art museum in Paris. Last summer I also visited an older contemporary art museum, the Fondation Maeght by Josep Lluis Sert in the hills overlooking Nice, built in 1964. Both buildings are wonderful and a great contrast and pairing of one era versus another. I’m a devotee of anything by Carlo Scarpa, especially in Venice, and I visit them repeatedly. It took me five years but I finally got a tour of the Maison de
Verre by Pierre Chareau, a stunning 1928 urban house in Paris and a real highlight to visit. We have some of Chareau’s light fixtures in our office.
Two buildings that everyone must see at some point is the Chapel of Ronchamp
near Besacon in eastern France, and Villa Savoye in the west suburbs of Paris. They are two of the icons of modern architecture that have had and continue to have a huge influence on world architecture.
What is some advice you have for young aspiring architects?
I’d say to learn to draw by hand and to travel as much as possible. Drawing is the essence of communication for us and a lot of students lately are learning to draw by computer and they’re not developing their hand skills. In our office it’s mandatory that everyone has a roll of sketch paper on their desk and it’s mandatory that people draw by hand. If you’re not good at it, you’re not going to get better by not doing it. The more you draw the better you get, like any other skill. I think it’s a critical skill. Any drawing is good drawing.
You must get out and see architecture. You can’t learn architecture from Google images. You have to experience it in the four dimensions. You have to see as much good architecture as far afield as possible. Spend time in it, don’t just take a selfie and move on. You have to sit, look, feel and ponder to experience a great building or public space and visit them time and time again to understand them properly. I still have my first architecture book that was a gift as a teenager. It is all black and white photos that are about one inch by one inch. I remember how uninspiring or limiting it was. Then I saw a cathedral for the first time, and I was so blown away. We are so lucky now that colour books are standard, and we have the Web and Google Earth where I can ‘walk’ a street
in Venice or Tokyo, but you still have to get out and travel. It is essential to travel.
One of my favorite quotes is from Italo Calvino:“Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
You’re a huge foodie. What’s your current go-to restaurant in Hamilton? And what is your favourite dish?
I think the best restaurant today is The Heather on Barton Street East, it’s a fabulous place. I don’t have a favourite dish here, because every time you go you get different dishes. But whatever Chef Matt is cooking there is always phenomenal.
In Toronto my favourite restaurant is Canoe and my favourite bar today is Bar Raval.
It’s just sublime at Canoe, great Canadian food in a fabulous setting high up in the skyline of Toronto. We need more good bars in Hamilton! I like Toast a lot, and Fisher’s and the Brain, and we have a new bar coming called Capital Bar at 973 King E. near Scott Park that we are excited about.
To see more projects and learn more about TCA visit http://www.tcarch.ca/