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Learning from nature, libraries and Las Vegas

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Nature has always been one of the great sources of architecture - and it's one resource Canada has in abundance. Vancouver-based husband-and-wife team John and Pat Patkau has made a virtue of this superabundance in its work, as John explained to a capacity audience at the Manchester Society of Architects Master Series lecture last week.

His wish, as he said, to 'work everywhere - locally' seems to be coming true with recent projects in LA, Houston and the Canadian Pavilion at the 1996 Venice Biennale. Such official recognition is welcomed by the Patkaus. For a country with limited historic architecture to draw upon, the desire to create an architecture particular to Canada, rather than be forever Colonial, is a strong one.

Examining selected projects from the last 10 years - from Seabird Island School of 1988 to the current Nursing and Bio-Medical School for the University of Texas - the consistent themes of sensitivity to site and cultural conditions are coupled with a ruthless exposure of construction in the Patkaus' work. Layers are peeled back to reveal the tectonic character while also becoming the decorative elements of the architecture. This seeming contradiction between sensitivity to place, and the desire to explore a formal rational language, creates in the work a tension between the ideal and the real.

The Patkaus apply the same lessons to the urban environment with the design for Newton Library, Vancouver. 'It's the building we're least comfortable with, ' they admit, perhaps in its inability to form a strong relationship with the natural environment? While arguing that 'we don't want to compete with the urban', nonetheless the library's relationship with the architecture of the strip is entirely successful and demonstrates that we can still learn from Las Vegas - only in the hands of the Patkaus we are learning different lessons.

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