DOTY 2018 Photo Credit: Carlo Ricci

Architectural Designers of the Year 2018: McLeod Bovell

Lisa Bovell and Matt McLeod of McLeod Bovell create striking residences that captivate attention.

“We don’t do this sort of thing,” says Matt McLeod, who works alongside Lisa Bovell as one of the rising architectural stars behind McLeod Bovell Modern Houses (MBMH), this year’s Designers of the Year in Architectural Design. The “sort of thing” McLeod is referring to, of course, is media attention. If true—and the fact that McLeod Bovell has been featured in magazines ranging from Wallpaper* and Dwell to, of course, Western Living, colours us skeptical—we offer some sage advice: Get used to it.

Kicking back in a glassed-in mezzanine space in their clean-lined Gastown studio, both exude a slightly nervous energy that spills into their conversation. Like a married couple (they’re not), they finish each other’s sentences: thoughts slide into thoughts, occasionally buttressed by a handwritten set of talking points whipped up to ensure they stay on message—like, say, discussing the building site as an integral design element.

“Yeah,” says Bovell, “I mean, that’s—”

“That’s our thing,” says McLeod.

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The G’Day house was commissioned by an ex-pat Australian couple, who asked that the design of the home help them support a relaxed attitude toward daily living and that it would re-connect them with a warm-weather lifestyle—thus, indoor and outdoor spaces here hold equal priority. (Photo: Ema Peter)
In the G’Day house, a reflecting pond and fence connect a generous side yard with an open terrace to the south and an enclosed garden to the north while creating privacy from the street. (Photo: Ema Peter)

MBMH doesn’t do classic West Coast modernism: mid-century-style homes designed to disappear into their surroundings like a moss-covered tree in an overgrown forest. Rather, their signature is bold, striking and strong-lined residences that are hard to ignore. Cantilevered outcroppings hang precipitously over rocky cliffs; smooth, hard surfaces connect inside and out, creating an elemental flow that extends interiors to exteriors and the surrounding grounds. Glass glazing walls disappear almost magically, while the occasional blast of colour plays counterpoint to the dominant neutral palettes. This is not for fans of “contemporary” design—they are, says McLeod, “unabashed modernists.” Yet unlike some modernism, where an “ornament is crime” philosophy trumps all else, there is a warmth to McLeod Bovell’s vision. You can live in their homes. You want to.

Positioned to capture the open ocean views to the west, the Sunset house is a celebration of materials: the board-formed concrete walls mimic the texture of the natural wood. (Photo: Ema Peter)
(Photo: Ema Peter)
Despite the Sunset House being on a steep site, stair runs are no more than a half storey in any one place. (Photo: Ema Peter)

All of which was noted by this year’s judges. “Their work is very site specific and responds in beautiful, thoughtful and poetic ways to the site and landscape,” notes architect Michelle Biggar of the Office of McFarlane Biggar. “The work has a consistent sensibility while each home remains unique.” Architect James Cheng agreed, citing McLeod Bovell’s “impressive and consistent body of work” and, more granularly, their innovative use of sliding partitions “to blend the interior and exterior, and expand the spatial perception” of their homes.

Before making the jump to architecture, McLeod, who was raised in Chilliwack, B.C., was considering graduate studies in evolutionary genetics. But being a scientist (“I was facing a future doing mating trials using fruit flies,” he says) paled next to the possibilities offered by doing the other thing—exploring a budding interest in architecture. Bovell travelled a similarly roundabout route. Born in Jamaica, she went into geography as a UBC undergrad but ended up in the architectural program, where one of the first people she met was the man who would become her business partner—eventually. After trying for two years to entice McLeod to join her fledgling practice (he was happy working with Battersby Howat, winners of our 2011 DOTY award for architecture and this year’s Landscape Designers of the Year), Bovell issued an ultimatum. “I basically said, ‘You have a week to decide if you’re going to be my partner.’” McLeod took an extra 24 hours. On the eighth day, McLeod Bovell was created.

The Esquimalt house was designed for a couple who requested that the home function both as a space for religious gatherings for their community as well as a private home. As such, quasi-public areas are on one side of the property and private living spaces on the other. (Photo: Martin Tessler)
(Photo: Martin Tessler)
(Photo: Martin Tessler)

The first home they designed together, the Esquimalt house, has no elevation: since the roof of the home is level with the street (the site drops down from there), even the rooftop factors into the overall design. A more recent home, the G’Day house—designed for expat Aussie clients, naturally—erases the barrier between interior and exterior to the point where one is never quite sure where inside stops and outside begins. The extended roofline seems like architectural sleight of hand, but underpinning the illusion is deft engineering: an unseen steel beam spanning the full width of the building is buried about 30 inches deep into the rock below to provide stability. The result is dramatic. “The trick with that house is that the structure extends beyond the side yard,” notes McLeod. Bovell agrees. “It’s part of the house but not really part of the house,” she says.

Of all the hallmarks that compose MBMH’s architectural vision, perhaps the most significant design element is not of their own making. MBMH has an attraction to—and a reputation for taking on—challenging sites: so far, West Vancouver’s often ridiculously steep and craggy lots have almost exclusively provided the backdrop. To McLeod and Bovell, these are not simply “landscapes” to be navigated. Instead, they are topographies—a distinction that isn’t merely semantic. Whereas “landscape” implies the natural world surrounding a man-made structure, they explain, “topography” also encompasses the artificial world. A stand of old-growth trees exists next to a half-hidden rock retaining wall, or the expansive Gulf Islands view that, from certain angles, also includes a neighbour’s overbuilt pink stucco—that, too, is part of their design equation.

Like with so many artistic endeavours, parameters imposed upon their process can end up being inspirational. “We’re looking to create environments that are unique, and in that we’re obviously helped by the topography that we inherit,” says Bovell.

“Anything that can inject idiosyncrasy is good,” adds McLeod. “That’s the kernel of creating work that can ultimately have character.”   

2018 Designers of the Year ▸▸▸

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