Architecture, Interior and Eco Designer of the Year 2014: AA Robins Architect
Tony Robins won an unprecedented three categories. It won’t take long to understand why.
Considering that Tony Robins is almost pathologically incapable of repeating himself, it’s surprising the way the Vancouver architect’s recent work leads to such a consistent response from others. A house, inspired by origami and covered in rusted steel, that snakes along the seaside for 180 feet, yet is almost invisible from the water: Wow. A master bedroom with a glass cut-out in the floor that allows waves in the infinity pool below to be reflected on the ceiling: Wow. Three completely independent juries in three widely dispersed fields plucking out the work of Robins and his tiny, ever-shifting band of collaborators from among many other superlative entries: Wow.
Adding further irony to victories that make Robins the Designer of the Year in each of the Architecture, Interiors and Eco categories is his own reluctance to embrace the wow factor—which is practically a prerequisite in many architectural circles these days—as a professional goal or business-plan bullet point. Instead, the blend of profundity and niftiness on view in his projects stems more from his fascination with infinitesimal detail and a relentless pursuit of creativity. How infinitesimal? His commissions always encompass every aspect of a house, including the landscape and interiors, often with custom-made furniture, lights, fabrics and art. How relentless? For extended periods during a career that has spanned more than three decades, Robins has largely abandoned architecture to paint and to write a novel and several screenplays.
Long an architect’s architect with little in the way of public profile, his name bounced briefly to the fore in 2005 with the opening of the Watermark restaurant on Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach, which he designed with intern colleague John Hemsworth. Its instant embrace as a civic landmark opened a lot of eyes to the central role and aptness of modernism, not to mention the potential of the city’s waterfront to be more than a mere strolling route. But there had been terrible battles to even get the place built, let alone take the form of something other than a timber-frame tchotchke, and they took such a toll on Robins, both mentally and financially, that he retreated more to writing and painting.
Since then he has had two screenplays optioned, completed a novella (with an extended novel-length version to come) and painted, and sold, many canvasses. But one of his first projects back on the architectural scene was a house near the University of British Columbia campus in 2010. And as this home illustrates, art and literature’s gain would have been architecture’s loss. The home glories in architectural minimalism to an extent rarely before seen in Canada. Robins based the design on a Japanese tradition of making spaces to be more about the building itself, rendering the role of inhabitants less to use the home than to admire and contemplate it. Thus, for example, a sculptural staircase, a feast for the eyes but irrationally disconnected from separate stairs that lead to living areas below.
Robins’s 2012 Tofino house is equally significant architecturally, but it also represents another achievement as one of the first on the continent to be factory-built to final specifications—right down to tiles and light switches—for some components of it, then barged and trucked to the site to be bolted together and, just like that, moved into. Environmentally, prefabrication is a superior approach, as marshalling labour and materials in a centrally located industrial area requires less transportation, and wastage of materials is all but eliminated. Quality can be more easily controlled, and there are considerable time savings.
Whereas the UBC house took its cues from an age-old Japanese tradition, the Tofino house was organized in part around something a lot newer and shinier: a site-specific chrome surfboard sculpture designed by Robins’s friend, Douglas Coupland. In this house, the five bedrooms “fly,” as the architect describes it, above a courtyard and pool, supported by stilts that mimic surrounding trees. Great care was taken throughout to edit and frame the rugged ocean and forest views. That attention to detail didn’t go unnoticed by architecture judge Patricia Patkau. “Tony’s interest in details is a kind of embedded quality of his work,” says Patkau. “He uses materials with a great deal of restraint, allowing the more ephemeral aspects of architecture (such as light and shadow) to emerge and engage us.”
And then there is the Gulf Islands residence, finished just this year. Beguiling and mesmerizing, if not downright astonishing, it stretches more than 180 feet along a sheltered waterfront. The structure arrived on its site on 23 trucks after being barged over from Robins’s Vancouver-area factory, where in fact it had been previously assembled in a test run deemed necessary to produce the steel exterior. (Another example of Robins’s obsession with details: he journeyed to the steel supplier’s plant in Kansas to ensure that the rust finish would precisely match the bark on the arbutus trees that proliferate on the site.)
At 62, Tony Robins is at a career stage that often sees architects doing their best work. On one hand, he confesses to looking longingly at the seemingly more leisurely lives of some of his artist friends. On the other, he’s recently taken on commissions that seem destined to produce several more extraordinary one-offs like these. Or to state the case more accurately, almost completely unlike these.