At a time when architecture too frequently seems to be divided into high style obsessed with image making and a mundane form of practice with few ambitions and value engineered into bland conformity it is extremely encouraging to see the course charted by the work of Montgomery Sisam Architects. Their work is refreshing to see and experience—engaging, resourceful, putting users first, making us at home in our world, enhancing our daily life experiences, not showboating but elegant and cheerful. Aren’t those the key roles of architecture after all? According to Vitruvius solid useful and beautiful.
This is a practice that from the outset and ever since has consistently focused on the needs of the vulnerable—the aged, the infirm, the sick and mobility impaired—in buildings including an impressive range of healthcare facilities and residences. In each case these architects have with great ingenuity and care sought to dignify daily life activities and routines, meeting demanding functional requirements while providing grace notes and places for sociable encounters that were not necessarily called for (or budgeted for) in the programme.
Accessibility in all senses is made a priority well beyond the requirements of the Disabilities Act for unencumbered movement. Access to daylight and greenery and the glimpses of life in the city are constant features of their repertory. By thinning the plans of residences from the earlier Belmont House to the recent Ronald McDonald House, they can be molded to shape landscaped courtyards enlivened by water, artworks, and gardens, both inward facing and open to the surrounding streets. These space-forming buildings exhibit a sophisticated urbanity providing privacy and intimacy for their inhabitants while making a valuable contribution to their neighbourhoods. Creature comforts, and sensitivity to climate and great attention to the thresholds between the inner and outer worlds are all hallmarks of the work of this firm. Their highly useable courts and gardens provide access to the outdoors both at street level and on roof terraces and balconies with shading and coverings that enhance their comfort and expand the territory available to their inhabitants.
The work of Montgomery Sisam also pays a particular attention to the in-between and often forgotten spaces inside buildings—the corridors and hallways that are often the target of efficiency experts seeking to optimise the net-to-gross floor area ratio and squeeze the most programme space out of limited budgets. Yet it is often these ‘unassigned spaces’ that are the places we meet and greet and socialise in, providing opportunities for the limited ‘street life’ that can be enjoyed by those with reduced mobility. From strategically stretching and widening these spaces, providing daylight and views with well-placed windows, places to sit and chat, and doorways with small shelves or ingenious chalkboards (in the case of Ronald McDonald House), the occupants have opportunities to personalise their ‘stoops’ and initiate communication or simply make their presence known.
There is great art and resourcefulness in getting more out of less, struggling with limited budgets on these projects. It requires working with simple materials and getting elements to do double duty. This is where the inventive powers of the architect are tested to do more than ‘stylise’ a known quantity, but to combine things in new and unexpected ways. A prime example is the spare but welcoming light and bright shared open kitchen and dining facility in Ronald McDonald House, where residents under great stress are invited (but not obliged) to share the activity of breaking bread in a wonderful setting that may help to momentarily ease the strain.
The search for welcoming forms and hospitable detail is evident throughout the range of projects of this firm. Notable examples include the Humber River Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge whose wonderful landmark arch provides a delightful place of pause and repose for walkers, runners and cyclists at the mouth of the river, and the handsome new visitor pavilion at the entrance to the Toronto Botanical Garden.
In all these respects, Montgomery Sisam Architects are heirs to a valuable strain of modest humanism in architecture which has too often gotten submerged, not getting the acknowledgment it deserves. By skillfully overcoming the barriers and obstacles to full participation with full and productive lives at all stages and in all conditions, their work is making an important contribution to the creation of an inclusive urban environment that can generously accommodate an increasingly diverse society.
Ken Greenberg is an architect and urban designer and principal of Greenberg Consultants, which focuses on campus master planning, regional growth management, new community planning and the rejuvenation of downtowns, waterfronts and neighbourhoods. He is former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto.
The preceding was excerpted from the new book Place and Occasion: Montgomery Sisam Architects, (c) 2013. Used by permission of the publisher, Artifice Books. www.artificebooksonline.com