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Alexander Josephson votes for bold architecture

Partisans co-founder Alexander Josephson has created an upstart architecture firm that breaks all the rules, from hiring new talent straight out of school to designing ‘politically relevant’ buildings.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

When living in Rome, working for acclaimed Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas, 30-year-old Toronto native Alexander Josephson was impressed by how well informed Italians were about architecture.

"Everyone knows about it, even the guy on the street," says Josephson, which perhaps isn't surprising considering that Rome has a rich architectural heritage, with magnificent buildings from the Roman Empire, Baroque and Mussolini's Fascist eras surviving to the present day.

When he returned to Canada to finish his master's degree at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont., in 2010, writing his thesis on Islamic architecture, the scion of the Josephson Opticians business, founded in 1935 by his grandparents, was determined that his brand of architecture would feel similarly alive to Canadians.

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It was a political mission as much as anything else, inspiring Josephson to name his Toronto-based architecture and design practice Partisans. "It's a young upstart design company that is breaking all the rules," he says of the firm he co-founded with Pooya Baktash, a former Waterloo classmate and Tehran native. "We actually have the naive notion that architecture can be politically relevant. We think it can have an impact on ideas."

The firm's mandate is to think boldly and hire young (the average age of the 10-member staff is 26), often recruiting talent straight out of grad school.

"That's not the way architecture is usually set up," Josephson points out. "Often young architects have to work for others for a long time before they can express their own ideas. But we're part of a new wave of design school graduates who are at the prime of their lives and who want to go at architecture while at a young age, to inject it with energy."

There's so much energy swirling around Partisans that making buildings is definitely not enough.

The firm also creates contemporary furniture pieces and the interiors of stores, fabricating them themselves as a way of maintaining complete control over their own designs.

It is also helping with an interior design of Union Station in Toronto as part of a massive $665-million restoration project scheduled to be completed over four years. "We're about to reverse 250 years of train station making," declares Josephson in describing Partisans' revolutionary approach.

"We're not just doing schematic drawings of buildings. We're creating identities in things by blending design and architecture into one. We're creating a new visual language."

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