Light, Wood, Water, Steel

Volume 46, Issue 2 :: by Karla Cavarra Britton

Works by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects

Bet Ha’Am, exterior, night view. Photo: James Dow
‘The Jack Pine,’ Tom Thomson, 1916.
Bet Ha’Am, elevation section, showing curved ceiling. Courtesy: Shim-Sutcliffe Architects
Bet Ha’Am, interior, with illuminated bible positioned on the bimah. Photo: James Dow
Massey College Chapel, interior view with altar and wood ceiling. Photo: Bob Gundu
Sisters of St. Joseph, rendering of chapel interior with altar, view to exterior. Courtesy: Shim-Sutcliffe Architects
Atherley Narrows Bridge, perspective rendering of the bridge with pathway over marsh and clouded sky. Courtesy: Shim-Sutcliffe Architects
Don Mills Garden pavilion and reflecting pool. Photo: Raymond Koch
Landscape Memorial, North York, image from Shim-Sutcliffe website

A core question can shape an entire creative practice. Behind the work of the Canadian architecture firm, Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, stands the question, “Is there a place for nature and the culture of the local within the modernist project?”1 Brigitte Shim’s and Howard Sutcliffe’s manner of investigating this question is strongly informed by their preoccupation with “the enduring question of light and its role in a northern latitude.” Their design process overall is shaped by a self-conscious focus on research into “geomorphology, climate, and cultural history”2 and with an overt motivation to address the nature of materials—especially wood and steel—as this may change through contact with light, water, and the demands of a particular topographical condition.

Given the mythical narratives in which light and landscape may be employed, it is not surprising that Shim-Sutcliffe’s architecture has increasingly focused on what may be classified as the “sacred,” understood through diverse programs carried out at a variety of scales—from expansive landscapes and a complex network of waterways, to the intimacy of a small cemetery memorial. Although Shim-Sutcliffe’s practice is not defined by a concern for specific building types (such as the synagogue, church, or residence), the work nonetheless addresses the manner in which diverse functions may fulfill the need for built environments today to confront the issues of solitude, serenity, contemplation, and the mythical.

To classify much of their architecture as “sacred” thus requires a broad definition of the image of the mythical. Such a classification easily includes designs for overtly religious buildings such as the synagogue for the Jewish Reform Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland, Maine; the renovation of the non-denominational St. Catherine’s Chapel in Massey College at the University of Toronto; and a chapel and retirement home now nearing completion for the Sisters of St. Joseph in Toronto, as well as an unbuilt project for the Fung Loy Kok Place of Worship (Daoist) in Toronto.

Yet the classification of “sacred” also includes projects that more indirectly form mythical narratives through the image of nature, and water, and light. This grouping includes several small landscape projects, such as a contemplative garden and pavilion in Don Mills, and a landscape memorial in North York, both in Ontario. It also includes the as-yet-unbuilt Atherley Narrows Bridge, a symbolically charged terrain along the Trent-Severn Waterway that pays homage to the cultural landscape of the fishing grounds of the Chippewa First Nation.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1958, Brigitte Shim studied architecture at the University of Waterloo, then worked for the Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, whose professional model remains embedded in her understanding of architectural practice. Howard Sutcliffe, born in Yorkshire, England in 1958, also studied at the University of Waterloo and worked in other Canadian firms before forming a practice with Shim in 1994, based on a shared passion for integrating architecture, landscape—and furniture. The firm has achieved significant recognition both in Canada and internationally.

Shim-Sutcliffe’s talent for inflecting new construction with attention to the local, and their commitment to the craft of building, are especially evident in their so-called Integral House (2009), built on an escarpment overlooking a shallow ravine north of downtown Toronto. Designed for mathematician James Stewart, the house is situated so that at street level only two levels are visible. On the ravine side, however, the house cascades down five levels, enclosed by an undulating curvilinear wall of glass and wood “fins” that provide it with its most distinctive feature: a musical performance space large enough for 150 people.

This project exemplifies the architects’ attentiveness to the demands of the topography, and to their choice of materials and construction details.

The Chapel and Residence for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto (2013), now in its final stages of construction, is in many respects influenced by the intrinsic curvilinear character of the Integral House. Set between the ravine and the city along the Don River, the focus here is on mediating between two distinct features: the urban fabric and the natural surroundings. Conceived as a retirement home with 58 residential units for nuns aged 75 to 93 years old, the building both accommodates an active residential religious community and meets the needs for palliative health care for the infirm. All the residence’s various programs are brought together around a circular chapel with a reflecting pool—the building’s “soul.”

Shim-Sutcliffe’s approach to architecture as a craft or largely manual skill, both within the studio and on site, is reflected in the exceptional quality of their built work. This makes their work an exemplar of what the architectural critic and historian Kenneth Frampton has described as a practice that achieves a “poetic of materials” through attention to the expressive tropes of “landscape, material, structure, craft, space, and light.” By including them in his anthology, Five North American Architects, Frampton places Shim-Sutcliffe within what he describes as a “school” of practice that shares not only a consistent manifestation of these tropes, but also a “propensity for typological invention,” whereby program and form come together to “transcend their separate geneses.”3 These five architects have a common awareness of the sensuous as well as the acoustical experience produced as the body transitions through entry and ascent, moving through hard and soft, dark and light. Moreover, the treatment of light by the architects in this “school” of practice is perhaps its most important —and most elusive—attribute.. As Frampton writes, “the varying quality of light … is possibly the most ineffable phenomenon engendered by architecture; one that is often correctly perceived as being inseparable from the aura of a building. One may think of it as a fluctuating essence within a given work arising out of the interplay between topography, structure, space, craft, and material.” Indeed, the ability of Shim-Sutcliffe to achieve such an essence in their own architecture is what gives it such expressivity, their sacred works in particular.

Shim and Sutcliffe describe their architecture as being determined by two principal sources of inspiration. The first is the Canadian landscape, in particular the territory at the bottom edge of the rugged Canadian Shield, the stone “necklace” of ancient metamorphic rock left by retreating glaciers that wraps Hudson’s Bay. Integral to the collective cultural imagination of Canada, this landscape has both geomorphic and mythological dimensions: in the 1920s and ‘30s, artists known as the “Group of Seven” depicted this raw and rugged wilderness. For example, Tom Thomson’s painting, The Jack Pine, has been read as shaping in part a national perception of the Canadian landscape. Shim has written of how the paintings of the Group of Seven “re-presented Canadians with a new and authentic vision of the land not filtered through European eyes.”4

The second source of inspiration for Shim-Sutcliffe’s architecture is derived from the various ways architects such as Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn, and Arthur Erickson integrated bold modernist forms with the distinctiveness of local sites. In her essay, “Nature, Culture of the Local,” Shim quotes Erickson’s conviction that architecture is a means of “unifying the duality of site and building—which implies that the building cannot be removed from its setting and studied as a separate entity. It is the dialogue between buildings and setting that is the essence of architecture.”

LIGHT

The significance of typological invention for Shim-Sutcliffe is immediately apparent in the material basis of their sacred works, and one may in some sense read each of these projects as a study of a particular material element, whether it be light, wood, water, or steel. The cadence of light through time, for instance, is the emphasis of Shim-Sutcliffe’s Congregation Bet Ha’am Synagogue (2009), which won a Faith & Form/IFRAA award in 2012. Here one sees how the architects are particularly attuned to the unique qualities of light in northern latitudes: the seasonal variations in duration and intensity of light are more dramatic, and the harsh climate makes the sun’s appearance all the more welcome. The architects’ vision for the synagogue was to create a place of peace in a suburban environment. To achieve that vision, natural light itself becomes an essential building element, informing the spatial exploration of the building as one passes from the exterior into the social hall, and on into the sanctuary. In this regard, the architects note that the Bet Ha’am project drew on the practice’s previous explorations in the Craven Road Studio in Toronto (2006) of the daily and seasonal shifting of light within a single room—a project that explored the “amplification and articulation” of natural light, tracking its transformations.

A reform Jewish community, the Congregation Bet Ha’am desired a building that, according to its statement to the architects, would express the common values of warmth, openness, accessibility, unpretentiousness, egalitarianism, and spirituality. The congregation already owned a schoolhouse that was being used at full capacity, and resolved to construct a new sanctuary/social hall, library, and offices on the same site. In the new addition, the visitor arrives in an entry courtyard, where the sweeping roofline of the sanctuary and social hall evokes the tents of Israel in the wilderness, or as some have said, the form of the arc of the covenant that journeyed with them. One gains access to the sanctuary through the social hall, which has a canted skylit wood-clad wall, upon which light plays according to the time of day and season. As the architects describe the effect: “Depending on the time of the day, the time of the year, and the angle of the sun, one registers the light in front of the wooden baffle or behind it. Natural light bathes the wooden clapboard walls, creating thin horizontal shadows that transform rapidly from day to night, continually registering exterior as well as interior shifts.”5 The section through the building is asymmetrical, with the deeper west side capturing and embracing the setting sun while the east side holds the morning light. Upon the visitor’s arrival in the sanctuary, “Every individual is aware of the time of day demarcated by natural light from both a linear skylight and a linear clerestory window washing its wood-clad walls. The journey from the street to the sanctuary allows every visitor to shed their daily concerns and prepare to enter a sacred precinct. [The] sculpting of light and shaping of view of the sanctuary garden aid in this transition from the everyday to the spiritual. … In this project, light and landscape are intertwined with the experience of the sacred.”

WOOD

If light is the dominant motif of the Bet Ha’am synagogue, wood asserts itself in a particularly prominent way in the renovation of St. Catherine’s Chapel at Massey College (2006). The college is a graduate residential facility associated with the University of Toronto. (Shim herself is a Senior Fellow of the college, and the firm has done a number of renovation projects there.) The college buildings were designed according to the Oxbridge model in 1963 by Ron Thom, who later created the master plan for Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Thom’s design is an interweaving of elements reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright, within a modernist red brick structure with prominent wood detailing. Among the public spaces, the college includes a small ecumenical chapel whose interior was originally created by the stage designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch.

The chapel is focused on a “traveling” wooden 17th-century Russian iconostasis, which hangs on a blank, deep-blue wall behind the small altar. In an architectural setting that already values refined woodwork, Shim-Sutcliffe chose to retain the original Canadian white-oak arches that sculpt and give texture to the intimacy of the space, which is otherwise enclosed by brick walls. Extending on the material richness that is thereby created, the architects added a meticulously crafted white oak ceiling, evoking the spirit of a traditional wooden Russian chapel—a reference made all the more apparent by the presence of an icon of St. Catherine. The lighting of the wooden vaults and ceiling from above and below creates glowing panes of light that shape the main gathering space of the chapel.

WATER

For Shim-Sutcliffe, water is often treated as a building material: not just as an extrinsic element, but as an integral part of the whole composition. This interweaving of the aqueous with the structural is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Atherley Narrows Bridge project, part of a commemorative landscape park and trail system intended to preserve the Mnjikaning fish weirs, dating from the Late Archaic period of some 5,000 years ago. Now under the stewardship of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation, these complex underwater wooden fences were first constructed as a means of cornering and harvesting fish. The site became a place of meeting for aboriginal people to exchange goods, seek healing, and conduct sacred ceremonies. It had not only practical but sacred value, representing a bond between the Creator and all living things as they come together in one place. In the telling of the creation of the world by one native people, the Anishnaabeg, each species of living things was given a purpose to fill. In the case of fish, they were told to come together at certain times of the year and hold council, a time when the people could thereby more readily harvest them for food.

The approximately 12-acre narrows connecting Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching in southern Ontario were designated a national historic site in 1982, and in 1993 the Mnjikaning Fish Fence Circle was formed by community members and local residents for the purposes of preserving the weirs. The site consists of all the water and wetland areas within the channels between the lakes. The flowing water, the bed and its resources (including both fish and weirs), are understood to be integral to the totality of the site. Shim-Sutcliffe was asked to develop a five-part strategy for rehabilitation of the site, including preservation of the weirs themselves; restoration of the landscape; building a platform for sacred ceremonies proximate to the remaining fish weirs; constructing a new bridge to cross the narrows and connect the Orillia and Ramara First Nations trails (part of the TransCanada Trail); and beneath the bridge, providing a glass-walled interpretive center.

The bridge itself will be built on existing foundations of an old railway bridge over the narrows, and will therefore require no new intrusion into the fragile waterway and weirs. The proposed bridge—whose design process included a studio project taught by Shim at the Yale School of Architecture in the fall of 2010—is a reverse Fink truss structure. It will serve not only pedestrians and cyclists, but also winter snowmobilers. The bridge is approached by a curving path from which one has a view of the striking silhouette of the bridge’s web of vertical stainless steel elements. The design of the bridge incorporates both the concept and the historical significance of the fishing weirs. As Shim says, “In a way, the structure itself simulates the vertical elements and the repetition of the elements. The widening and narrowing of the bridge abstractly represents the weirs.”6 The bridge thereby both provides safe passage over the symbolically charged waters, and directs one’s attention to where the remnants of a sacred and life-sustaining practice lie submerged.

STEEL

Although not sacred spaces in a ritual sense, two of Shim-Sutcliffe’s early landscape projects clearly touch on the themes of life, death, and quiet meditation: a Contemplative Garden with Pavilion (1989), and Landscape Memorial (1995). The architectonic garden is situated at the edge of a lush forested ravine in Toronto. A series of concrete retaining walls channels water through the various levels of the reflecting pools, as steps lead from one level to another and eventually over a wooden bridge to a small open pavilion. Ten slender colonettes hold up the pavilion’s canopy, which is made of sandblasted weathering steel and in whose fabrication Sutcliffe himself took an active role. Within the pavilion a single, fixed wooden bench provides a welcome opportunity for repose. The garden’s seamless integration of concrete, water, wood, steel, and vegetation creates a space of great serenity, one that the architects describe as “an expressive orchestration of form and material.”7

By contrast, the Landscape Memorial is a “garden room” in a cemetery, intended to contain the graves of ten members of a single family. The placement of the site is established by the excavation of a level, rectangular gravel-covered surface from the gently sloping hillside; its boundaries are marked on one side by a low concrete wall, and on two others by half-inch-thick angled blades of weathering steel. The fourth side serves as the threshold, and is marked by a gate also made of steel framed by a hedge, including the name of the family. For a tombstone, a single piece of rough-hewn green granite with both English and Hebrew inscriptions was split in two, then reconnected with bronze rods. Cut into the corner of the stone is a small shelf to receive the traditional memorial stones left by those who visit. The site is of utter simplicity, yet dominated by the steel gate that has metaphoric overtones of crossing over as one has to make the physical effort to open it. The architects explain their attraction to weathering steel: they are intrigued by its organic properties; it weathers, “it creates a rich, rustic color that shades progressively from orange to russet to brown. The weathering of the surface makes reference to the material’s existence over time …”8

In describing the practice of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, Brigitte Shim has situated their distinctive work between the “two extreme conditions of the unpredictable forces of nature and the controlled processes of contemporary fabrication.”9 In the variety of sacred spaces included in the corpus of their work, the evocation of the spiritual is made precisely through a sensibility for this interplay of the natural and the human. Material is acknowledged as both a gift of nature and an object for refined manipulation, and the elements of light, wood, water, and steel become evocative of a meeting point between the ineffable and the material.

  1. Brigitte Shim, “Nature, Culture of the Local,” A+U Architecture and Urbanism, 11/458 (August, 2008), 14-19.
  2. Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, “The Craft of Place,” in Kenneth Frampton, Five North American Architects: An Anthology (Zurich : Lars Müller Publishers, 2012), 41.
  3. In addition to Shim-Sutcliffe, the architects that Frampton includes in the anthology are Stanley Saitowitz and Steven Holl on the West and East Coasts; Rick Joy, who currently practices in the American Southwest in Tucson; and Patkau Architects in Vancouver.
  4. Shim, “Nature, Culture of the Local,” 18.
  5. Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, “Project Information, Congregation Bet Ha’am,” unpublished text.
  6. Gisele Winton Sarvis, “’Beautiful’ Pedestrian Bridge Plans Unveiled,” www.orilliapacket.com. Accessed 15 April 2013.
  7.  Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, “Shim-Sutcliffe Architects,” www.shim-sutcliffe.com/info.pdf Accessed 15 April 2013.
  8. 8 Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, Shim-Sutcliffe, Michigan Architecture Papers 9 (University of Michigan, 2002), 77.
  9. Shim and Sutcliffe, “The Craft of Place,” 41.

Karla Cavarra Britton is a lecturer in Architecture at the Yale School of Architecture and the Institute of Sacred Music, and the author of several books on sacred architecture.


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  1. […] Shim Sutcliffe Shim Sutcliffe has matched KPMB’s 12 Governor General Medals for Architecture in their 20 years of existence — quite the feat considering their small size (only 11 people). They’re well-known for their residential work, but architecture-hounds can visit U of T’s Massey College, where the firm’s touch is everywhere — particularly in the Robertson Davies Library and the arched ceilings of St. Catherine’s Chapel. […]

  2. […] Shim Sutcliffe Shim Sutcliffe has matched KPMB’s 12 Governor General Medals for Architecture in their 20 years of existence — quite the feat considering their small size (only 11 people). They’re well-known for their residential work, but architecture-hounds can visit U of T’s Massey College, where the firm’s touch is everywhere — particularly in the Robertson Davies Library and the arched ceilings of St. Catherine’s Chapel. […]

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