It’s a little different today, but for roughly the first 35 years of Patkau Architects’ existence, an observer might have looked at the Vancouver firm’s extraordinary but scant output and thought, gosh, is that all that these people produce?

patkau architects
Credit: Martin Tessler

Patricia and John Patkau, photographed at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver in June 2021.

Well, that observer should be congratulated on their perceptiveness, because it can now be revealed that the seemingly merely brainy, creative and detail-obsessed team assembled by John and Patricia Patkau was in fact an elaborate front for a mad-scientist operation conducting esoteric and even violent experiments with building materials and assorted other stuff that might someday have the potential to become building materials. Moreover, their innocent-sounding Material Operations has recently resulted in not just a book from Princeton Architectural Press, but also in a slate of projects that draw upon those investigations.

polygon gallery
Credit: Ema Peter

The Polygon Gallery features a sawtooth roof, which allows for northern light to flood the gallery from up high, with minimal shadows.

As an illustration, you could take the primeval-looking temporary skating shelters the firm concocted for Winnipeg’s river valleys using a material called bendy ply, or the astonishing Temple of Light on Kootenay Lake, which makes too many other examples of organic architecture seem like student projects. There’s also their work on the revolutionary 14-storey wood-frame academic tower currently in design development at the University of Toronto. But instead, let’s choose Whistler’s Audain Art Museum, which added to the firm’s traditional awards haul with not just their 19th Governor General’s Medal (by far the most of any Canadian firm), but also one of nine 2018 citations from the American Institute of Architects and one of 20 international awards selected by the Royal Institute of British Architects. It has also led to five residential commissions in Vancouver, Victoria, Whistler and Bowen Island—all currently under construction and employing wood in imaginative ways.

audain art museum
Credit: James Dow/Patkau Architects

The Audain Art Museum in Whistler won the firm their 19th Governor General’s Medal. Because it’s located within a floodplain, the museum is elevated a full storey above the ground and features a steeply sloped roof to better cope with Whistler’s enormous snowfall.

Museums, along with homes, schools and libraries, have always been a Patkau focus and are particularly well-suited to a firm that prefers rigour to showiness yet recognizes that memorability and experience are crucial parts of the formula. The awareness is in evidence at the fine new Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver, as well as a museum awaiting construction in Thunder Bay, Ontario. With its dark metal roof, Whistler’s Audain recedes into its forest setting, suggesting at first glance a well-executed structure of the contemporary minimalist sort, a case of modulated expectations that is then blown to smithereens by an intriguing wood entryway, a soaring wood atrium and the exquisite hemlock cladding on soffits and overhangs.

audain art museum
Credit: James Dow/Patkau Architects

The Audain Art Museum.

That, at least, is the effect the Audain seems to have exercised on the several prospective homeowners who contacted the architectural firm after the museum’s opening. The houses now under construction will have to await future editions of the magazine, but none will be derivative of the Whistler landmark or, well, anything at all, believes architectural critic Adele Weder. “So many other architects who reach this level of success have become victims of their own renown, rehashing or even exaggerating the same forms that made them famous in the first place, but the Patkaus have never fallen victim to that,” she says. “They draw on timeless principles of design to create architecture that is authentic, contemporary and unique to every site.”

A quick spool through three of the firm’s most recent residential completions confirms the observation, and how.

audain art museum
Credit: James Dow/Patkau Architects

The Audain Art Museum.

The Linear House on Salt Spring Island stripes 276 feet across its meadow site, a model of minimalist restraint yet one that resembles from above a Christo installation more than a standard-issue residence. The three-dimensional (if not more) Hadaway House in Whistler is downright expressive for a Patkau home, “a spaceship in the middle of log cabins,” as described by John Patkau. And the Tula House on remote Quadra Island is a rigorously plotted and hyper-engineered marvel that cantilevers over a cliff, with the glass floor to prove it, yet deftly shrinks into the landscape, all but invisible to passing boats.

Interviewed in the firm’s Vancouver office, the husband and wife team make for a fine blend of yin and yin, he admittedly a bit more effusive, she speaking up primarily to add detail about why specific sites were selected or design solutions pursued. A couple of things become especially clear. Four decades in, the firm is the busiest it’s ever been, with sufficient work locally that it now almost completely restricts itself to projects in B.C. And despite nudging toward an output that can no longer be described as scant, the mad scientists remain very much at play.

To read about more great people, designs, homes and innovations that shaped Western Living, click here.