Economical Architecture
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Economical Architecture

Thea Haines’s textile work.

It’s not often you see a textile artist take part in an architectural exhibit. But Thea Haines’s installation fits perfectly at Building for the Economy, the latest in Harbourfront Centre’s series of untraditional and interdisciplinary architecture shows. Dispelling the notion that an economic downturn need only spell doom and gloom, her repurposing of tea towels and napkins of all types and colours—some still stained—suggests we rethink what we consider luxury versus necessity and return to a time when “making do” was common. The recession can, Haines suggests, provide artists and designers opportunities to seek beauty in frugality. That each piece of linen is embroidered with a single letter to spell out synonyms for “save” that are both contemporary (“scrimp”) and archaic (“stint”) suggests looking to the past to solve present-day concerns. These are all themes addressed by the three participating architectural firms.


The Breathe Architects installation.

Green living sometimes brings to mind technological innovations to improve sustainability, such as high-tech climate control systems for our homes. But in Big Ideas….Small Footprints, Breathe Architects recreate a room from the turn of the twentieth century—complete with wood-burning stove, antique bicycle, and fold-out desk—to look back at how grandparents and ancestors kept their homes comfortably warm without compromising beauty. It could be achieved by families simply wearing cardigans and slippers at home to, as the artist statement says, “achieve a personal micro-climate.” Or, as can be seen in the black-and-white photos that line the walls, it could be done by adorning rooms with floor-length curtains over windows and doors to control air flow. Taking inspiration from the latter, Breathe Architects have devised a decidedly low-tech solution to control any chill from the gallery’s windows: tapestries made of recycled felt, woven with cardboard rolls wrapped in newspaper. On the floor around the stove, sturdy ottomans, constructed of pods of densely packed rags belted tightly together, further reinforce the aesthetic beauty of recycled materials in sustainable design. It’s a reminder that small steps toward low-cost sustainability begin at home.

The Lapointe Architects installation.

Recycled materials are also a key element of (re)source Pavilion by Lapointe Architects, who used local, reclaimed, and donated materials for the construction of an outdoor tasting pavilion for the busy Fifth Town Artisanal Cheese Company. Lapointe decided to treat the project as an organic exercise, an opportunity to experiment by doing. And, with Harbourfront’s invitation coinciding with the pavilion commission, the installation offers enlightening insights into the creative and construction process by retracing the firm’s steps from conception to completion of the pavilion.
The centre piece of the installation is a scaled-back pavilion constructed in the gallery, giving a close-up view of the materials and methods used. Given the unconventional nature of the pavilion, which still had to meet the approval of a structural engineer and Ontario Building Code, Lapointe had to research unconventional fastening systems like Band-It and the cinder block alternative of Durisol blocks. Volunteers were called upon to complete the project over a series of weekends in exchange for the knowledge gained (and a bit of cheese).
The budget grew from ten to fifteen thousand dollars, however, with the necessity of purchasing supplies like connectors, bolts, rebar, and metal brackets. As little heavy machinery was used as possible, but the sheer weight of lifting logs—culled from the client’s nearby woodlot—into place proved too much for human labour alone, so a backhoe was called in. This was typical of the trial-and-error approach Lapointe used to overcome the challenges of the project—all of which are documented in the installation. The result is an innovative, low-tech structure that complements Fifth Town’s existing LEED Platinum certified factory (also designed by Lapointe Architects).

The AGATHOM Co. installation.

Unfortunately, the third installation, AGATHOM Co.’s Urgencies of Modesty, is a let-down. The artist statement sets lofty goals about rethinking the architect’s role to find beauty in modesty and economy, and addressing how we relate to the land. But the installation’s concept—a series of miniature, angular walls with images of nature hidden within—is so opaque that it doesn’t seem to match the statement. It’s particularly disappointing because the work of Adam Thom and Katja Sachse Thom elsewhere, including sustainable cottages and boathouses, is so interesting and engaging.
Building for the Economy runs until September at the York Quay Centre.
All photos by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.