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Impossible sites, soaring cliffs: repeat winners Matt McLeod and Lisa Bovell of McLeod Bovell Modern Houses have proved again that they can't (or won't) be stumped.
They may have won our Architectural Designers of the Year award back in 2018, but this second win doesn’t feel like a repeat for McLeod Bovell. In three years, they’ve changed, evolved, adapted, grown: to win for the work they’ve produced as McLeod Bovell 2.0 is a victory as sweet as the first.
Of course, as the projects have become more ambitious, as the team has expanded (currently to a crew of 10), as the budgets and scope and ambition have grown, the heart of the Vancouver-based residential design firm has stayed the same: principals Matt McLeod and Lisa Bovell are still creating dreamy, modernist visions out of concrete, glass and sheer audacity. And they’re still finishing each other’s sentences, as they’ve been doing since they first became friends and collaborators at UBC.
Though they certainly didn’t set out to do this when they first founded their firm in 2008, their specialty has somehow become tailoring sleek residential forms quite comfortably onto irregularly shaped lots and death-defyingly steep land masses.
The first two houses they worked on just happened to be on challenging lots, so McLeod and Bovell learned as they went. “We got educated…” says McLeod, as Bovell jumps in: “…really fast.” One West Vancouver site was so steep, portions of it weren’t even walkable. But the landscape set the tone for the designers to find a careful solution to every siting consideration, every decision, and to become unfazed by even the steepest, rockiest of topographical challenges.
And so, over the past several years, the daring designs have kept on coming. For instance: situated on a granite rock 40 metres above the shore, the Black Cliff House acts as a gathering spot for a family scattered across the globe. Two wings are separated by a shared outdoor terrace; a shifting spatial geometry at the intersection of the main and upper floors creates a compelling visual void. (“It feels a little bit unexpected,” says McLeod.) Views and light stream in from the southwest, while a reflecting pond at the entrance foyer and a bamboo courtyard bring a hit of nature.
The Container House is similarly precariously perched, though the floor plan is more modest than Black Cliff: a two-storey split level for a nearly retired couple. Bright, open and airy, the layout connects spaces horizontally and vertically. Elsewhere in West Vancouver, the recently completed waterfront Four and Four House (located, yes, on a steep lot) references a regional tradition of post-and-beam construction. The upper level (home to the bedrooms) covers the outdoor living room like a bridge. The site’s generous width allows for four distinct courtyards; inside, a fully glazed gallery is the intersection between the living spaces and the outdoors.
Obviously, McLeod and Bovell can’t be credited with the landscape or the views that are the signature of each of their recent projects—Mother Nature takes the W on that one—but their gift for framing said views, for putting million-dollar vistas on display with a disappearing wall here and a gliding floor-to-ceiling window there, is unparalleled. A McLeod Bovell home is connected to its surroundings at every turn: with the wall-to-wall windows, of course, but also with volumes that intersect and cascade in playful, thoughtful ways along the landscape.
Their masterful approach to siting and structure has earned them plenty of accolades—and has impressed our architecture judges, too. Judge and architect Omar Gandhi called their execution “absolutely brilliant,” praising both the “scale of the site and the scale of the detail.” Fellow judge and architect Anne-Marie Armstrong, meanwhile, praised their holistic approach: “there’s so much coherent expression from outside to inside.”
At this point, that’s the way they like it. Even for homes that are on a more traditional urban lot—read: flat—their team takes the same principles, sensibility and skill set and puts them to work. There may not be the slopes or views to play with, but “whimsy becomes a driver, even when we don’t have to,” says McLeod. Does it have to sit flat, or can it hover? Can a corner lift up? They can’t help themselves. “Maybe It’s just us now. Maybe we’ve just changed,” says Bovell.
And at this new stage of their career, they’ve got the chance to focus in a whole new way. “We’re in a phase where we have an opportunity to be more reflective,” says McLeod. “We’ve got a different way of completing the projects, not just in how they happen, but how we work.”
The 2021 McLeod Bovell goes through more cycles of iteration than the 2018 edition. Like for a skilled surgeon or elite athlete, time stretches out in a new way for the pair. They stop, they shift, they anticipate the consequences faster, and the results are all the more special for it. That’s not to say the art of it all has been abandoned: the mystery of architecture is still alive and well at their studio.
“You do stumble through a miasma when you’re designing,” says McLeod. “You’re going on your brain and your intuition, but there’s a fog. Certain bits start lifting and clarifying, and then: it appears.” And, with each project, the fog rolls in again.
To paraphrase Eduardo Souto de Moura: Design is like an emergency. You show up on the scene. You triage. You figure out what to do. And Matt McLeod and Lisa Bovell have proven—once again—that they’re the ones you want on the front lines.
Because, after another three years of blood, sweat, tears and architecture, tackling impossible site after impossible site, they know there’s always a solution—no matter how thick the fog feels in the moment. There’s an innate optimism to this approach… or, from another angle, a stubbornness. “I had a professor describe my architecture as ‘willful and obstinate,'” laughs Bovell.
“I don’t think you’d look at either of us and think, oh, there’s a couple of optimists. But we are optimists,” says McLeod. “Even in moments of design turmoil.
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