Follow their work over a period of time and, in fact, you'll notice some of the same materials used and detailed in dramatically different ways. Their familiarity with weathering steel—originally developed for highway bridge construction—began with the fabrication of a table that was also a sundial. Later, they shaped a ton-and-a-half piece of steel into a flying roof for a garden pavilion. At Toronto's Ledbury Park, the steel is structural, supporting a footbridge that ice-skaters glide beneath. More recently, it's been used as cladding for a suburban house that backs onto a ravine. Constructed as a rainscreen, the panels are held away from a waterproof membrane on vertical channels that define recessed joints.
Shim and Sutcliffe like weathering steel because it's made with higher copper levels that react to impurities in the air, gradually taking on a rich leathery patina. “The idea is that it's always changing and is never static or inert,” Shim says. At the steel-clad house, “it becomes part of the landscape of the ravine.” Of course, the architects were also making a point about the use of honest materials in a context where Disneyesque architecture has become routine. “Within this pseudo-world of suburban buildings that look like stone chateaus and keystones that are made out of stucco, it's being clear about what is skin and what is structure and not trying to conflate the two,” Shim says. “It's not an old building, but one of its time.”
Sutcliffe makes a similar point: “At a profound level, we try to figure out what the real issues are, and sometimes that means being sympathetic to a tradition of building but exploring it with a new vocabulary.” The Muskoka Boathouse—two hours north of Toronto on Lake Muskoka—replicates the 200-year-old construction culture of boats and marine buildings, but it's made modern with its proportions, spatial relationships, and refined inner layer. The project's contractors actually cut holes in the ice and sunk timber cribs filled with granite boulders onto the lake bottom to form the foundation. Heavy timbers also form the above-water outer walls that shelter three boat slips, and an inner sleeping cabin finished in mahogany and Douglas fir is as finely crafted as the inside of a yacht. “We think of the project as a sophisticated heavy overcoat—a heavy timber outer layer and more boatlike inner layer, and you move between the two layers,” Shim explains. “As opposed to seeing it stylistically, we were looking at ways wood has traditionally been used in this area and trying to make it more evident and understandable.”
Nearly every residential project includes the creation of furniture, and some of those pieces have made it into production. Two years ago the architects launched their HAB line—a table, chair, and bug lamp based on ones they designed for the Muskoka Boathouse. The chair, with wide arms that are ample enough for a laptop, is a modern interpretation of the rustic Adirondack chair. Brian Carter, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, notes that Shim and Sutcliffe's careful consideration of how things are made translates to a directness in their architecture. “Because they're interested in the way things are put together, they are able to make things that somehow have a direct quality about the material, which has to do with designing things you could make yourself,” he says.
This endless interest in materials and making beautiful connections is often shared with students, too. Carter recalls that as Martell Lecturers at the University at Buffalo last spring, Shim and Sutcliffe chose to showcase a house that was in the midst of construction, rather than a polished project. The Integral House exhibit included construction drawings, full-size pieces of handrail, and 12-foot-high glazing sections so the students could see the link between idea and detail. The architects also accompanied students on a visit to the construction site, and the contractor, client, and fabricators participated in a lecture they gave. “It's very unusual to have this in a school of architecture, but it's brilliant,” Carter says. “Often those relationships can be adversarial, and it speaks to that collaborative dimension that's interesting about the way they work.”the lay of the land
New clients can expect to be invited into those multilevel explorations, too. People who come to the firm are usually architecturally savvy and have seen the built work, so they have some idea what it's about. In the studio, the partners and their staff work together to develop and refine ideas using hand sketches and large-scale models of both the site and building, which help clients grasp the big concept that knits the two together. “It's not like I talk one way to our clients and another way when I give a lecture,” Shim says. “It's about the power of an idea, and many times building and site are mirrors of the same idea.” Sutcliffe, too, describes their buildings as landscapelike, with a foreground, middle ground, vertical elements, and planned points of view. “They're pure architecture but tied to a feeling of landscape,” he says. “You need to move through them.”
Often, Shim-Sutcliffe's buildings are literally embedded in the land. At the Island House, a five-acre parcel with agrarian roots on the St. Lawrence River, the partners used a low, 200-foot-long concrete retaining wall to carve out space for a water garden around a glassy wing of the house. The entire property was seeded with a clover mix that blends with the house's planted roofs, and the reflecting pool—filled with indigenous water lilies and bulrushes—visually connects the house to the river.
Even from the time of their earliest projects, the architects have had an affinity for water. “We try to create a condition where water informs your understanding of a place,” Shim says. “Water is something that connects us to nature in a different way; it reflects the sky and has different qualities throughout the day.” They've used it in urban settings—as a centering device, for example, for their own house and tiny garden on a Toronto alleyway, where they live with their two sons, ages 9 and 12. In a city that grows by 100,000 people a year, this was an experiment in making something out of the city's underused, leftover pieces of property—creating density on a smaller scale. “It was important for us to commit to ideas we believe in,” Sutcliffe says. To get the house built, the couple not only battled derelict site conditions—six abandoned cars, waist-high weeds, and difficult access—but nervous neighbors and city zoning ordinances that prohibit building a house behind a house with no street frontage.
After the Laneway House was completed in 1993, Shim and her students began to look more closely at the issue of building on laneways as an alternative to razing parts of the city for high-rises. She notes that many city houses have an existing stable or warehouse that could be converted for residential use. “The work we've been doing with students on laneways has created a different understanding of it at the planning level, and there are more and more precedents to work with,” Shim says. Indeed, a masters-level studio she led at the University of Toronto resulted in the 2004 book Site Unseen: Laneway Architecture & Urbanism in Toronto.
High-value homes on pristine landscapes are the projects that often receive the widest publicity, but they're only part of the firm's range of work. A group of Catholic nuns recently hired Shim-Sutcliffe to design their living quarters in Toronto, and as the practice matures, the partners will continue to explore options for creating low-cost, sustainable urban housing. As an extension of the firm's wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, Shim is active on the lecture circuit, having taught courses at the Yale School of Architecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. “Architecture is a pretty complicated business,” Sutcliffe says. “Between the two of us, Brigitte and I cover a wide range of skills. Even though we have different backgrounds, we've developed a view of the world together.”