Alex Josephson, co-founder of Toronto-based architecture studio Partisans, is no stranger to bad behavior — and that’s by design.
“We have this saying at Partisans,” says Josephson. “Beauty emerges when design misbehaves.”
Since 2012, when Josephson founded the firm with his fellow student at Waterloo’s School of Architecture, Pooya Baktash, his team has attempted to break out of the typical trajectory of architecture and design studios. They’ve crafted unusually curvaceous interiors, converted Toronto’s abandoned Hearn Generating Station into a temporary arts venue, and even penned an anti-condo manifesto with critic Hans Ibeling.
Sidewalk Talk sat down with Josephson to learn more about his criticism of — and love for — his home town, the lineage of dynamic architecture that inspired Partisans’ design for the “building raincoat,” and the message he’d like all architects, developers, and city-dwellers to take to heart.
For those who might be unfamiliar with Partisans, could you describe the studio?
We explore extraordinary projects for clients with big visions. It’s our job to help our clients articulate and achieve those visions. Invention drives a lot of our work, whether it’s a new tool, material, process, or product. So if, to make the surfaces or forms that we need, we need to write our own software language to make that happen, then we do that.
Our goal is to do work that makes the world a better place, that questions the methods, practices, and assumptions that inform architecture and design — and we have fun in the process.
You wrote a book on condos in Toronto and described them as poor quality, in terms of aesthetics and performance. Why?
It’s not news that the buildings of Toronto represent a very homogeneous, unimaginative architecture. Our skyline is not beautiful. We decided that we were going to fight back.
We called the book Rise and Sprawl because we’ve replaced poor quality suburban horizontal sprawl with a vertical version of the same. In the book, we juxtaposed dozens and dozens of projects as well as the developers and architects responsible for those buildings. We put all their marketing materials and slogans into the book. We collaborated with Hans Ibelings, one of the world’s great architecture critics, and created this response to the status quo — of architecture in general, but also the Toronto context specifically. The response was great. I think it’s pushed the city, the architects, and the developers to another level.
When you think of Toronto’s public spaces, how would you characterize the aesthetics and performance?
Just like many of our buildings, they don’t respond to the context, which is heavily determined by climate. Very few public spaces are performing from a comfort perspective, not to mention from an aesthetic, physical or environmental perspective either. There are very few places to sit down and have a coffee, there are very few places that make you feel comfortable. We’ve made our public realm inhospitable because we’re trying to make sure that homeless people can’t sleep in benches or skateboarders can’t skateboard, and so on and so forth. It creates brutal public spaces. We are not doing our collective best to create welcoming urban spaces.
That said, I do think the city is getting much better. But it’s one thing to do the pretty building here and there or a pretty park from time to time. It’s quite another to rethink the entire scape of the city, which is what we’re advocating for!
Don’t get me wrong — I think Toronto is an extraordinary city. I really do. That’s why Pooya and I set up our studio here. We just see so much potential and want to do better.
When I see the Sharp Centre for Design at OCAD University, by Will Alsop, or the TD Centre by Mies van der Rohe — those are incredibly important pieces of architecture in Toronto. They were, for their time, a reinvention of architecture’s possibilities. With the OCAD building, for example, it’s, “Let’s build a building in the sky because we don’t have the space on the street. And let’s establish the possibility of architecture that has a different relationship with the ground.” It’s playful and yet performs on so many levels.
Toronto is an opportunity; it’s a city that has so much potential. There’s prosperity, there’s culture, there’s diversity, there’s economy. So as much we’re being critical, it’s because we love the city and recognize there’s so much more we can do.
You’ve proposed a “building raincoat” for the Sidewalk Toronto project. How did you come to design it? What is it a solution for?
So the problem at hand is: How do you make the outdoor realm, the immediate adjacency to buildings, and public urban spaces more useable and programmable, to accommodate people being comfortable, walking around or hanging out, potentially 365 days a year? In a place where people don’t normally think that’s possible?
We started by looking at other examples of architectures, like pavilions, inflatables, and other temporary structures, that are open-air and experimental, all over the world. And we started to come up with some ideas. Tons of possibilities were designed. In the end, we landed on key qualities that would drive the design—organic, folded, tensile—and designed a dynamic, attachable arcade that we called building “raincoats.”
Raincoats can be part of a new building design or can be attached to an existing building. They can be rolled out dynamically to create a sheltered space between the front of a building and the public realm, kind of like the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris.
We’ve chosen ETFE as the material because it has the right ratio of flexibility, translucency, and adaptability for the climactic context. It’s also a long-lasting, sustainable material—it’s not something that decays easily. It holds up in extreme, swinging weather conditions, including rain, sleet, snow. Also, it’s a beautiful material, and there’s a bit of history of using it in other really high-performance architectures around the world.
Most people think of architecture as being static. Except for stadium ceilings or roofs, and things like garage doors, architecture doesn’t typically move. We’re imagining a dynamic, responsive system that solves the issue of being open on a sunny day and closed on a rainy, cold, or windy day.
From the beginning, we’ve been testing these ideas in collaboration with RWDI, an amazing engineering firm that specializes in climate and sustainability. So it’s been a combination of designing and testing, and designing and testing, and then simulating and measuring comfort based on dynamic computer modeling.
Is that unique to this project, experimenting and doing computer modeling?
This kind of collaboration is sort of unheard-of. Most of this kind of stuff, like wind modeling, usually doesn’t happen at the outset of a project, if it happens at all. We’re coming up with all these potential structures and systems that operate like a toolkit, so that no matter the weather, they are able to respond.
Of course the proof’s going to be in the pudding. Once the prototypes go up, at different site conditions, we’ll be able to tell whether they were a success or not. But giving rigorous consideration to orientation, prevailing winds, temperature early in the design process will ideally make all the difference.
How can this type of architecture be successful? Haven’t attempts at dynamic architecture failed before?
Where these things fail is where people make hypotheses that are assumption-based and aren’t examined under the microscope of functionality, data-testing, modeling, and simulation the way we’re doing. We are flipping the process upside down. We’re testing things beforehand and prototyping them before going to build. And I know that sounds crazy, but most of the time when things are built there isn’t this degree of testing.
So, will it fail? Maybe. And that’s okay. The point of building prototypes is to fail. And that’s important because unless you’re actually willing to throw it all out and do something even better as a next step, then you’re not really prototyping. This is real experimentation where the scientific method meets design.
In a previous Q&A, you said that you think a lot about the Athenian oath. What is that and why does it resonate with you so much?
In Athens there was this thing called the “citizen.” And not everybody was a citizen. Citizens had to own land; they were the privileged. And the oath that the privileged swore was to leave the city they were bestowed better than when they arrived. More beautiful, more functional, essentially more egalitarian.
This goes back to — why did we call ourselves Partisans? We’re all here on the planet for a short period of time. Some of us have been blessed with the privilege and the fortune of being able to work in a context where we’re very passionate.
And so shouldn’t that also be a mantra for the privileged today? Leave the world a better place than the way you found it.