Architectural Fiction

Posted Feb 11th, 2022 in Design, Business of Architecture

Ian Ellingham

It was late November, and Antoine surveyed the wreck of his Ottawa office. So it was with his recent life. The office was filled with drawings and models of past projects - some quite distinguished, but things were so quiet now. Everything - the office, the models, and even himself, seemed part of an almost-forgotten past. He wondered what had gone wrong, and, at the age of 70, was there any possibility of some sort of redemption? He was sure that his design talents should find further fulfilment.

Twenty years before things had been great; he had a delightful wife, two precocious children, an almost-mortgage-free house, and enough clients to keep his ten-person staff fed.

That was all before he met Peter Smythe.

It had all began innocuously. A local developer, for whom Antoine had designed a number of rather undistinguished suburban office buildings, had acquired a quite intriguing small, but very high-profile site, with a magnificent view of the Ottawa River. Antoine prepared some sketches for a rather audacious project. The developer did not develop much enthusiasm for it, and busied himself with other projects and protracted holidays.

At an international architectural conference, Antoine had met San Francisco architect Peter Smythe, and they had immediately felt a rapport. Perhaps inevitably, the matter of the site was discussed. Smythe had a growing reputation as an architectural superstar, and over a stand-up lunch at the bland conference hotel they discussed possible design strategies.

Peter was great to work with. Ideas were pushed back and forth, and Peter frequently came to Ottawa to confer. Together they developed the initial design concept into a statement of progressive architectural thought. It was anticipated that the design would focus the world’s attention on all those associated with the project. The developer was fascinated, but recognised his own financial limitations and inherent conservatism, so sold the site (together with the scheme) to a major technology company. The developer was happy - he had made a nice profit, and the technology company was happy - they had a high profile site upon which they were going to put a high-profile building. The architects were overjoyed.

Things were changing in the office. As the project proceeded Antoine found his staff was becoming less co-operative - most of them simply did not understand the vision, and the need for Peter and Antoine’s control over the details, and some left to join other firms. Antoine pitied them - they often ended up in firms that did retail fit-outs, designed suburban strip plazas, care facilities, and (ugh) did pedestrian work for the less adventurous government agencies.

The bid prices were somewhat high, but construction went well, and the building was completed and occupied, albeit accompanied by grumbling from the client’s facilities management people and some of the company’s executives who had expected to move into something a bit less... well,... less something. But they had no real choice, the office space simply came with their jobs, so they settled down and continued to manage, write software and do deals.

As expected, the architectural press celebrated the building and published rave articles (except OAA Perspectives, which at the time of its opening, featured yet another odd, broken-down, insul-brick clad Ontario Place). Peter always acknowledged the equality of their partnership and the widespread attention paid by the architectural press, which always carefully credited the building to both architects. Amazing new projects from around the world were coming Peter’s way - art galleries, government buildings, and even an opera house. Antoine did not seem to receive any of these, and his local clients seemed to appear with less frequency.

Things were not happy at home. He found his wife was having an affair with a real estate agent, who, while he had been in his office toiling away on the project, had secretly flown with her off to exotic destinations: Antoine had never been to Monte Carlo. And she said she had been busy with global charity work! The following marital split-up was a big financial hit for Antoine, and although he kept the house he designed so many decades before, he was forced to remortgage it.

Over the next couple of years, bit by bit, Antoine found it necessary to ask his staff members to look for other employment. He found this inexplicable. As co-designer of a widely acclaimed building it was only reasonable to expect adventurous clients seeking his design skills and innovative way of configuring the built environment. Worse, his usual clients no longer came by. Even the developer who had originally come with the site was using another firm.

As the cash flow diminished, Antoine sold the house, and rented an apartment in a not-very-sought-after part of the city. After a couple of years, his apartment seemed too lonely, so he gave it up - it was that or the office - and found it not unpleasant sleeping in the room that, in the old days, had accommodated the diazo machine. The lingering whiffs of ammonia reminded him of the time when the machine was always busy.

Antoine wondered. He looked over the office at his sole remaining staff person. Barry had worked with him as a draughtsman since the office had been opened. It was fortunate he collected seniors benefits and had an unhappy marriage, as he had not been paid for a couple of months, but still came into the office every day.

Antoine felt himself at the peak of his capabilities - what had happened? And why did it seem all to come back to that first meeting with Peter Smythe?

Originally published in OAA Perspectives, Spring 2016, Vol. 24, No.1