Patkau Architect's Design Influence

For 40 years, Vancouver’s Patkau Architects have been pushing the design envelope—and they show no signs of stopping.

Imagine a suspended walkway that leads you through a canopy of towering trees, or practising yoga inside a giant lotus blossom. Such ideas are not the stuff of whimsy but the architectural imaginings brought to life by Vancouver firm Patkau Architects Inc.

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Audain Art Museum

For almost 40 years, the firm, founded by John and Patricia Patkau, has designed public buildings and private residences that give shape and context to our local and national urban and rural landscapes. From the Audain Art Museum at Whistler to the Newton Library in Surrey, their portfolio of projects showcase a commitment to melding functionality and beauty.

“The secret to the longevity for the firm has been its ability to adapt to all the different parameters that projects bring to the firm,” says Greg Boothroyd, principal at Patkau. “So rather than kind of basing designs on a predetermined vision or idea about architecture, they really come from working through the project itself.”

PA Tula House
Linear House

Part of that adaptability can be attributed to what they call the research projects where they truly imagine possibilities outside the box—and produce those ideas. The projects range from creating functional art—outdoor skating shelters for a lake in Manitoba—to solving fabrication dilemmas for a specific design—creating a curved effect from straight lumber for the recently completed Temple of Light at Kootenay Bay.

“Those skating shelters were an early research project we did and since then we’ve done a whole series of research projects,” Boothroyd says.

PA Tula House
Tula House

“We have a couple of people in our office who are really great at building things. So we often start with an idea, maybe a small idea with a piece of paper or plastic and then that gets scaled up to something larger. We keep experimenting and scaling up and getting bigger and bigger. Then at some point we have to involve a fabricator because it’s too much for our little shop to handle.”

The research projects began five years ago and have attracted international attention. Replicas of the skating shelters—the original plywood structures weren’t meant to be permanent—were exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from July to November of this year. And Patkau is in discussion with a local gallery to display some steel works in 2018. Boothroyd says there are no guarantees what will result from a research project: sometimes it becomes something but other times nothing. There are other times when a project produces an amazing result such as creating a tool that allows steel to be bent in two directions simultaneously.

PA Linear House 2
Linear House

Patkau has, to date, generated enough successful research ventures to recount them in a book: Material Operations (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017).

“The characteristic of our research projects is that they take a material—often an ordinary material—and then perform an operation on it to make it spatial. … With the skating shelters, we took a sheet of plywood and by bending it you create something spatial and through further sets of refinements we’re able to give shape and form and make it constructible.”

There is only one building in the book (The Temple of Light in Kootenay Bay) because it’s the one building that utilized one of the research projects for its construction.

“One of the things we were researching in a few of our different projects was the ability to make evocative curves form using straight pieces of lumber. So this temple is designed to be like a lotus blossom but it’s all built with straight lumber and you wouldn’t know it from looking at it.”

Skating Shelters
Winnipeg Skating Shelters

As important as the research is to Patkau, research is what happens between their client projects. The most recent local project is the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver. There they were presented with an urban site down at the waterfront. Yet it is on sites filled with natural beauty that their unique perspective serves to create a synergistic balance between the structure and the land.

The Audain Art Museum in Whistler is a public example of that approach and the Tula house on Quadra Island is a private version. Both, says Boothroyd, were informed by the sites.

For the Audain project, it had to reflect the British Columbian landscape—as it would be housing Michael Audain’s collection of British Columbian art—but also deal with the practicalities of being built on a flood plain. For the Tula house (pictured on the cover of this issue), it was about incorporating all the beauty of the site and not just focussing on the spectacular ocean view.

Temple of Light, Kootenay Bay
Temple of Light, Kootenay Bay

“That project grew very much from the idea of experiencing the site in a sequence. … It’s a house that grew out of very careful observations of characteristics of the site. It’s a site on which it’s kind of hard not to look at the view—because it has a spectacular view and prominence—but at the same time there is a lot of beauty that’s embedded in the site besides the view.”

And once all the site characteristics are considered, they look to the next important factor: light. Something that is evident in all the Patkau projects.

“Natural light is really the first consideration and the consideration before materials are even thought of. We always start with space and light,” says Boothroyd.

With every project that Patkau takes on, Boothroyd says the objective is always to do something remarkable and ultimately result in a structure that’s both functional and inspirational.

“One of the most satisfying things for an architect is when your work can spark the imagination but it can create a social situation that creates a community. It can inspire someone to think something as beautiful or cause someone to see something in a different way. All of these things you hope for when you design something.”

Winnipeg Skating Shelters
Winnipeg Skating Shelters

Experience a Patkau Project:

A visit to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler is to experience the Patkau design philosophy while seeing the stunning art work that showcases British Columbia’s story—from pre-history to contemporary times.

The reception rooms reflect the combination of air and space that celebrates the natural environment while the exhibition rooms are restrained and understated to solely showcase the art.

The museum is open six days a week, except Tuesdays and is walkable from anywhere in the Whistler village.

For more information visit

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