Bruce Kuwabara doesn't compromise. From the start, when the Toronto architect founded Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB) in 1987, he and his partners Thomas Payne, Marianne McKenna, and Shirley Blumberg wanted to be synonymous with the best practices in architecture.
"We wanted … for the work to speak for itself," says Mr. Kuwabara, who won the 2006 RAIC Gold Medal, awarded for a significant and lasting contribution to Canadian architecture. For the group, every project matter, he says. "A lot of architects do some kind of work just to keep the cash flowing," says Mr. Kuwabara. "They're always waiting for the next big project where they're going to do exactly what they want. [But]it never happens."
To keep at the top of your game, Mr. Kuwabara says to constantly sharpen your approach and form a team so that's fluid and has a sense of direction. "You don't do that by doing one kind of project and then switching and saying, 'Now we're doing our A-level project," he says. "All of our projects are at the highest levels, regardless of size or type."
As the design partner for Canada's National Ballet School - a joint venture with Goldsmith Borgal & Company Ltd. Architects - as well as the Gardiner Museum and the Bell Lightbox for the Toronto International Film Festival, Mr. Kuwabara's firm has won numerous international awards. Recently, the Gardiner Museum was bestowed the 2008 Royal Institute of British Architects International Award and the Chicago Athenaeum Award. The firm has also bagged 11 Governor General's Awards, Canada's highest architectural honour.
Mr. Kuwabara believes one key to success is understanding the difference between what's very good and what's excellent. "A lot of Canadians don't understand that difference," he says. "They understand something that's good or bad, but in my field of architecture, the difference between what's very good and what's really amazing is the biggest gap of all.
"You really have to elevate your game to have something that has value and meaning to a lot of people over a longer period of time."
Mr. Kuwabara sees himself as a cultural leader in Toronto. For instance, he sees the National Ballet School not just a dance school, but a functional and beautiful platform for life. It's also where he spends Saturday mornings munching on cinnamon buns with his son while his six-year-old daughter takes dance class.
"I think what we're doing is investing all of our professional capabilities creatively in forming these platforms for culture," he says. "Other people take them over and develop educational performance programs, but at the end of the day, the benefit is that my children go to these buildings and they love them. Those cultural experiences are what makes life worth living for me."
When people disagree with him, Mr. Kuwabara says he asks for an intelligent debate.
"I spent my entire childhood debating with my two sisters who wanted to curate my life - what to eat, what I was wearing, what they were wearing, what school to go to," says Mr. Kuwabara. "What matters is not the fact that someone has a different point of view, it's how that point of view gets articulated and put forward."
When competing for projects, he says what matters is playing to win and getting a fast start.
"It's very hard to win a relay race if your first runner is last," says Mr. Kuwabara. "Often the most creative ideas are formed within the first 20 minutes. After that, there's a huge amount of time that's invested in evolving an idea.
"Our strength is that we've been able to be quick. I'm a very quick read on a lot of complex information."