Architects' best makes complexity functional

Substance Over Spectacle: Contemporary Canadian Architecture

Curated by Andrew Gruft. At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until June 5

Curated by retired UBC architecture professor Andrew Gruft, Substance Over Spectacle is a complex survey of the recent work of 27 critically acclaimed Canadian architectural firms. Projects range from major West Coast public buildings (Hotson Bakker/KPMB's Richmond City Hall; Patkau Architects' Strawberry Vale elementary school near Victoria) to private Atlantic Canadian homes (MacKay-Lyons's Nova Scotia coast houses), as well as more speculative projects that flirt with aspects of landscape architecture and civic planning (Pierre Thibault's lyrical Winter Gardens, which recall the work of Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy, or George Yu's multilevel alteration of Richmond's orderly grid of suburban streets).

Each architectural firm is represented at the Belkin gallery through a written project description and an architectural maquette or other documentation. Patkau Architects' Strawberry Vale school is depicted by several sculptural maquettes-one detailing the innovative, light-drenched building's massing on the site, the other providing a more comprehensive view of the interlocking planes and wooden "fins" that make the school so distinctive from afar-as well as a series of well-composed photographs of its interior halls. Similarly, an intricately detailed model of Henriquez Partners' BC Cancer Research Centre is lit from within, and its petri dish-shaped windows glow like stained-glass tondos.

Hotson Bakker's award-winning Richmond City Hall is also a standout. Its long terraces are adorned with running water and native plantings that refer to the dikes that lift Richmond out of the sea, and to the agricultural lands disappearing under waves of new condos and single-family homes.

Other firms document their projects in more experimental ways. Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg's Janus-faced Le Quartier Concordia appears in a video portrait that presents quick glimpses of the building's faí§ade, juxtaposed with street-level, time-lapse portraits of Montreal pedestrians and vehicles passing by the construction site.

This simple project paradoxically provides a multilayered analysis of the social space the building inhabits. The video is also immediately accessible and compulsively watchable, a nice change of pace from the dense and unengaging work of more theoretically inclined architects like Calgary's Marc Boutin, the creator of a loud, obnoxious, and socially estranging "multimedia portrait" of an Edmonton theatre renovation. On the day I visited, the Boutin project's bright lights and annoying soundtrack of white noise made it almost impossible to focus on other works nearby. My instinctive dislike of Boutin's work only mounted after studying his dull, jargon-laden writing in the exhibition catalogue ("anticipatory infrastructure", "open-ended, non-prescriptive spatial matrix", et cetera).

Fortunately, as projects like Hotson Bakker's Richmond City Hall and Patkau Architects' Strawberry Vale school elegantly prove, theoretical complexity and functionality are not mutually exclusive. As Gruft's exhibition makes clear, most ambitious Canadian architects maintain a strong interest in site and context, one that only deepens their intellectual engagement with critical or theoretical issues.