Interview : Phil Vandermey of SPECTACLE Bureau for Architecture and Urbanism

Ted Whitley |

mC:t    2014.10.29   #isCalgaryMobile


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Phil Vandermey is founder of an up and coming architecture and design firm in Calgary, and has vast experience in architecture across the globe. He is currently teaching at the University of Calgary, while running his growing firm SPECTACLE Bureau for Architecture and Urbanism. Having recently started his firm over a year ago, I decided to sit down with him and pick his brain on architecture and urbanism.


How did the firm, SPECTACLE, come together?

My partner Jessie Andjelic and I worked for notable architects in Calgary (Jeremy Sturgess and Marc Boutin) before working for renowned firms in Rotterdam (Powerhouse Company, STAR Strategies and Architecture and Barcode Architects) on a range of project types located around the world. While we enjoyed the high quality work we were a part of in those offices, we were also intrigued by the idea of putting roots down in a place that is our home, and contributing to the emerging architectural culture here in Canada. So, we decided to return to Calgary and start a firm. We are interested in contributing to architecture and urbanism discussions and ideas locally, while also projecting Canadian ideas internationally.


What is the relationship between your international experience and local practice?

Calgary has always had strong architectural elements. We’re interested in improving urban deficiencies such as sprawl and the way we plan and program our cities. We recently submitted an entry for the Canadian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale. We’ll see if we’re successful or not… Our research concept is related to the ultra-strict planning rules and controls that guide development, and the way that these rules seem to create a game-like basis for companies and institutions to build whatever they want. The city becomes an ad-hoc and rather unplanned outcome of competing individual interests. We don’t really have master plans, or a long term vision of how the city can develop over time in terms of urban form, public space and program mixes. So, we are concerned about this situation, but we also think it’s quite exciting. From a purely cynical point of view, the city becomes a kind of pure, beautiful and completely ruthless economic game.


Who is responsible for the urban qualities of the city? Do you think there needs to be more collaboration between urbanists and architects?

I would say that our preliminary research is at a very early level of detail, so any of my comments should be taken with some skepticism, but my feeling is that most cities in Canada are not planned by spatial designers. They’re laid out with the goal of organizing the city in terms of vehicular transportation and zoning, but don’t address the vision of the city. In other words, what will be the identity of our city and it’s public spaces? How will our cities stand out as examples of our unique culture and ambitions located in specific and beautiful locations in the world? We have many advantages in Canada so it seems that we should have extremely advanced and continuous high quality public spaces. The fact that our cities are driven by processes of renovation, demolition and development maximization is very exciting; they are systems that are always searching for optimization. The question is, how can you create a format through which you formalize or direct that energy into recognizable cities; cities that celebrate their location in the world, their landscapes, their histories, or whatever kinds of inspiration the context has to offer?


How does your work celebrate Calgary and our region of the world?

Well, I think that all of our projects try to celebrate their location. We’re currently working on projects in Calgary, Medicine Hat, Venice and London, and our team at SPECTACLE has recently worked on projects in New York, Rio de Janeiro and Vancouver. In each case we try to find something about the location, whether is be the culture, history, landscape or responding to the existing urban infrastructure, to draw from.

I think that our location doesn’t mean that we approach local work in a different way. Rather, it gives us the opportunity to be further involved in the community. We volunteer with organizations involved with transportation, preservation and planning, and so within those roles we try to influence our city from means other than as spatial designers. Teaching is another way that we are locally invested.


Does architecture form the backdrop of urban life, or does it have the capacity to influence urban life?

I mean, this is a figure-ground question; urban life can’t really exist without an urban condition, but just because you have piles of concrete and steel doesn’t mean you have urbanity. What I also think you might be getting at is the relationship between background architecture versus landmark buildings. I think that you need both in a city. You don’t want to have too many of one, and not enough of another.

Take a look at Dubai. It’s all landmarks and no background buildings. Take a look at the Dubai Renaissance building by OMA. It is such a background building, but because the rest are landmarks it becomes a kind of hyper-landmark.

We have to be careful to develop cities that are generic enough to allow urban life to have its own identity, and yet also influence and enhance that urban life. In other words, architecture forms the backdrop to urban life at the same time that it embodies the aspirations of our cities and cultures. Historically our ambitions are represented in monumental buildings, like public institutions or the headquarters of a great company. You need a balance of both. A city that is all-background is dull. A city like Dubai is all noise, just distraction.


What is the future of SPECTACLE?

It’s a funny thing, because you may have certain aspirations for the types of projects you want to create and the types of ideas you want to explore. When we undertake a research project, it’s mostly an area of study that is under our control. With the Delugional Calgary project, we applied for funding and were denied. But, we thought the ideas were important enough that we would undertake the research ourselves. At that scale, you can do what you want. When it comes to larger projects, anything larger than an installation, small renovation or object design, you’re dependent on the type of work you’re awarded. We have ideas about the types of projects we’d like to undertake, but our successes as architects, and therefore our direction, is also somewhat accidental. You might have a very strong idea for a project and lose, while another project wins and that’s the type of work you’re doing. In a way, architects need to be adaptable and work with the opportunities that we’re given.



River Boulevard SPECTACLE’s contribution to Delugional Calgary. Courtesy of SPECTACLE Bureau for Architecture and Urbanism

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