Architect Joanne Gates's practice finds both elegant and creative solutions to classic design problems.

Joanne Gates is a problem solver. Her designs—from a bathroom renovation that gives a wall surprising dimension to a physiotherapy studio that’s evocative of a West Coast rainforest—are striking in their simplicity, but, as any great designer knows, simple isn’t easy. The Vancouver-based architect’s work starts with one central problem in a space: that bathroom is full of echoes and noise; this physio office has no natural light. And then she gets to work.

Even her own firm’s name was chosen to address a problem: she runs a company that’s in a field dominated by men, so decided the name Gates-Suter Architects would help potential clients feel confident in the size of her firm. The decision to keep her firm small is the solution to a problem, too: as a solo operation, her time is at her own discretion—Gates takes on a carefully curated selection of projects so that family and teaching at UBC are also given the space they need.

When the problems are architectural, it’s inevitable that Gates will find her solution in a deep dive into materials, a process that started back when she first worked on towers with Henriquez Partners after graduating from the University of Manitoba. “It was a great experience to work on such a huge scale,” says this year’s winner of the Arthur Erickson Memorial Award for an emerging architect. “Because it came down to materials and details at the scale of the tower, which was pretty exciting.”GET TICKETS TO WL DESIGNERS OF THE YEAR 2018 For a bathroom renovation, Gates designed an unusual sculptural surface on the walls to create soundproofing and buffer noise from the adjoining room. (Photo: Andrew Latreille) (Photo: Andrew Latreille) With the renovation of Sitka Physio, Gates was directed to make a low-ceilinged room feel as airy as a West Coast rainforest. The solution was in the ceiling: corrugated white-painted screens allow light to filter through and create an illusion of height and natural light. (Photo: Shane O’Neill)For the bathroom, the solution to the noise problem was in Corian: Gates found that the material could be manipulated into a bumpy, rolling surface that would confuse the echoes in the room and create a stunning architectural surface at the same time. (A first test of the surface is now an Arctic landscape for her son’s Lego).

For the lightless physio studio, Gates researched and sourced perforated metal panels to place on the ceiling, just below the lighting. She then had the screens corrugated and painted white—an ingenious solution that would allow uplit light to reflect off the white ceiling above and filter down through the perforated panels as though through a skylight. They’re examples of the “well-executed details and unique material applications” that judge and architect Michelle Biggar lauded her for and that judge and architect James Cheng described as “poetic.”

Ultimately Gates is a modernist, but practically so—and her take on how modernism fits into her designs has evolved over time. “There are projects out there that look similar when you go into them, and you think, ‘Where do I put my keys and my book?’ because you might spoil the space when you put something down,” she says. “Having a family has certainly taught me to enjoy stuff—I always think of the Eames house and the collection of things that the Eameses had around them. The strength of the house wasn’t taken away by any objects. Great architecture accepts people in all their ways—while keeping the integrity of the space while you do it.”   

Gates kept the palette simple with this Southern Gulf Islands home: white walls, concrete floors and, a few steps down, dark oak. Those dark oak floors reflect the water outside. “It’s magical,” says Gates. “I love those remarkable moments, when something transcends what you thought it was going to do.” Architect Joanne Gates with her dog, Rex, at her home office.

2018 Designers of the Year ▸▸▸