Meet Canadian architecture's unlikely new idols
Uros Novakovic, Nicolas Koff and Sebastian Bartnicki – who run Toronto's Office OU – won an international design competition to plan a National Museum Complex in South Korea, a triumph that could put them on the global map of contemporary architecture
"Canada's architectural idols, Office OU, a trio of young Canadian architects, brings the ease and comfort of being at one with nature!" Reading this quote from a Korean news site, Uros Novakovic busts into laughter; across the cafe table his business partner, Nicolas Koff, giggles over his green tea latte.
I have to laugh as well. The two don't seem like any sort of "idols." They are bearded and hoodied young architects, obscure in their home city of Toronto and at home among the freelancers in this downtown café.
And yet in South Korea they have won a very serious victory: Office OU, the firm that they run with their partner Sebastian Bartnicki, triumphed in an international design competition to plan a National Museum Complex in the new administrative capital city of Sejong. They beat out 80 other firms from 25 countries for the job, which includes master-planning a two-million-square-foot complex and then designing three buildings, including a national children's museum. The project is at the scale of Museum Island in Berlin or the Smithsonian in Washington.
It is a significant win for a firm of any size. Their competitors included globally prominent architects Zaha Hadid Architects and Morphosis. And the three Canadians, each of them 31 years old, won an upset that could put them on the global map of contemporary architecture.
"In Korea," Novakovic says, "There is a combination of surprise and fascination about how someone like us could have gotten this job."
Their proposal won on the merits: The competition, run by an agency of the Korean government, was open to anonymous submissions from architects around the world. After making a shortlist of five, they teamed up with Junglim Architecture, a large Korean firm, and got the commission. This sort of truly open process, which does not happen for public projects in Canada, provides a huge potential opportunity for young designers with fresh ideas.
Office OU does, indeed, have fresh ideas: Its thoughtful scheme represents an important thread in contemporary design, the integration of architecture and landscape.
Dubbed Sejong Museum Gardens, the scheme places the dozen or so museum buildings in the complex – the precise number has not been decided – around a central green space. This is conventional. What is less conventional is the nature of those buildings and how they are derived.
In the scheme, each of the museums begins with a certain selected element in the landscape, which generates a material, which animates the building. For example, the Children's Museum connects to fruit trees in the vicinity; the design's main material is wood, and an urban orchard of fruit trees extends into its courtyard and even on its roof.
In the same way, the architects imagine a planned museum of natural history to be made principally of rammed earth.
Against this, the forms of the buildings are radically simple: They are thin-framed pavilions, with a common palette of white steel interwoven with those specific materials (such as wood) and pierced by forecourts and courtyards. The buildings "are as simple as we can possibly make them," Koff says. They are vessels; it is the conversation between landscape and building, and varied interpretations of the nearby natural and cultivated landscape, that are at the heart of the design.
This cuts against the dominant mode of object buildings, the kind of complex and showy buildings that have come from so-called " starchitects." The word "iconic" is frequently applied to such buildings. Yet: "I think the competition jury appreciated that our buildings are not iconic in themselves," says Koff. "They only become iconic in relation to the surrounding landscape, which we think is already spectacular."
They are primarily architects – all three partners are trained as architects, and met at the University of Waterloo's architecture school or while working together at Toronto firm Zeidler, and have all worked internationally. Yet their work shares a strong interest in landscape.
Koff also studied landscape architecture, at the University of Pennsylvania's distinguished program, and worked at one of the world's leading firms, Field Operations. (It is most famous for its design of the High Line in New York and is working on parks in Vancouver and Toronto.)
Out of this, Koff gained some expertise in horticulture, which is rare for architects. But more importantly he learned something about process and time.
"In landscape, there is in some way a cumulative vision," Koff says, "where you know it's not finished when your work is done; it's only starting. And in this case the buildings are going to keep growing – you can't imagine all of what your building is going to become."
Indeterminacy and flexibility are important when you're working with natural systems. They're also important in a murky political context. The venue of the Office OU project is Sejong, an "administrative city" that was imagined as a satellite to the historic centre of Seoul. The construction of Sejong, which now has 300,000 people, has been politically contentious; at this point some government ministries have moved from Seoul, while others will not. The museums on the site are being formed, as institutions, right now. Clearly, politics might yet reshape the museum campus. Office OU's nimbleness has helped it.
And to Korean eyes, it seems very Canadian. "They see Canadian values in our work," Novakovic says. Why? "Our design is at ease with itself, and unflashy, and also that there is a strong connection with nature. To Koreans, Canada is mostly landscape." (More laughter, over the sound of the espresso machine.)
"To us that is interesting," Koff adds, "because two of us weren't born here and our partner is first-generation." Koff was raised in Paris; Novakovic's family left the former Yugoslavia and came to Toronto via Prague. Bartnicki's parents are both immigrants. "Perhaps there is something very Canadian about that, or at least very Torontonian."
If diversity and flexibility are Canadian, the idea of an open competition for an important urban project is not. Quebec has had a culture of design competitions for public projects, which has produced brilliant work but also has detractors. The fact is that competitions can change cities and make careers – as winning the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1971 helped launch the young Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers to global prominence even as they altered the landscape of Paris. In Canada, big projects are awarded to architects who already have done similar projects, creating a scenario that stymies competition and creativity.
Will Office OU actually get to complete and build its vision? It is busy working with its partners, Junglim, to refine the master plan. "This is a real project!" says Junglim senior director Moon-ki Bae. But you never know: "It's 85 per cent likely," says Koff. "Well, 75 per cent," says Novakovic. One thing is certain: Canadian architecture has some unlikely new idols.