“Architecture has to anticipate a way of life and foster new ways of living within the environment.”

Bruce Kuwabara explains how provocative design decisions—150 parking spaces for 2,000 people, for instance—can completely shift cultural norms

Twenty-five years ago, Bruce Kuwabara, Thomas Payne, Marianne McKenna, and Shirley Blumberg found themselves in transition as their boss, Barton Myers, announced that he was moving his business to Los Angeles. Rather than polish their resumes, the four decided to pick up where Myers left off. They went into business for themselves as KPMB Architects, and after renegotiating a few contracts, they completed all the projects in progress at the time of Myers’s move. Their work spoke for itself, and before long KPMB was one of Canada’s premier architectural design firms. Its portfolio includes work at such notable universities as Yale, MIT, and Queen’s, and such lauded endeavors as Manitoba Hydro Place in Winnipeg. We spoke with partner Bruce Kuwabara about the firm and his personal views on life, architecture, and the importance of sustainability. 

We believe that each project is important, regardless of size. A lot of our work is about creating public spaces and civic buildings. With every commission, an architect has an opportunity to express the urbanity of a city as he envisions it. We’ve done that consistently over a long period of time. We work to make buildings that matter.

The population of Vaughan, ON, has grown sevenfold in the past 20 years. Its new city hall, designed by KPMB, exemplifies responsible development by prioritizing daylight, natural ventilation, and underground parking.

I love going to see other architects’ buildings. One of the pleasures of being an architect is appreciating the extraordinary work being done around the world. It’s important to get out of the paradigm that good things only happen in North America, especially in sustainability. Europe has been the front line for sustainability for years, and it’s where most of the advanced thinking has developed. I think architecture has to anticipate a way of life and foster new ways of living within the environment and new ways of thinking about cities and buildings. If it doesn’t, architecture will no longer be relevant.

Up Close and Personal

 

What was your first job? Landscaper. Worked from dawn until dusk. I was exhausted and filthy.

If you weren’t an architect, what would you be?
A filmmaker. I can see how it taps into similar ideas about creativity and storytelling. Film has the power to change the way we look at things. That’s what great architecture does.

What inspires you?
My children, seven and eight—the questions they ask and the way in which they engage the world with limitless curiosity and creativity.

Describe yourself in three words.
Flexible, reflective—because I do a lot of deep thinking alone— and quick—because I am able to respond to design challenges quickly.

What is your hidden talent?
I’m a very good pool player. Also, I love to play chess. The beauty of the game is it’s about strategy, not winning. Nothing else sharpens the mind the same way.

My motivation comes from my Japanese-Canadian background. In Canada, people of Japanese descent—my parents included—were discriminated against and treated unfairly during World War II. I’ve always been passionate about making [right] the injustice that was done to them and others. I’ve dedicated my life to making a meaningful contribution that I hope is relevant and significant.

At Manitoba Hydro Place in Winnipeg, we provided only 150 parking spaces for 2,000 people. Seventy percent of employees now take public transportation to work. That’s a big shift in the modal split. Also, the building is designed to deliver 100 percent natural ventilation through a system of atriums, a double-wall cavity, displacement ventilation, and a solar chimney. This has resulted in employees having fewer sick days. Manitoba Hydro is recording reduced energy consumption [of] 66 percent below our model national energy code. It’s projected to go to 70 percent once the geothermal heating-and-cooling system is fully operational and commissioned. As a result, we’re on track to achieve LEED Platinum certification.

We won the Vaughan City Hall project in a design competition. It achieves natural ventilation and daylight autonomy through the incorporation of tall central atriums of transparent glass, passive solar shading, and chocolate-brown terracotta panels and louvers. NAK Design Group developed the landscape strategies associated with our project for the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. It’s in a residential neighborhood. The residents didn’t want an office building in their neighborhood, so the landscape design is sensitive to that and is in scale and rhythm with the residential gardens up and down the street. It blends in rather than stands out.

We approach every project collaboratively with open minds. We work with integrated design teams, including clients, consultants, and contractors. Everyone has a voice at the table. We focus on what each building should be, and we set clear goals.