It seems that countries known for their vast natural landscapes produce architects with an extraordinary sensitivity to site. Think Australia's Glenn Murcutt, whose buildings sit lightly on their fragile ecosystems. Or Brian MacKay-Lyons, FAIA, who's known for plainspoken materials and forms that draw on the rural building traditions of his native Nova Scotia. Over the past decade, another Canadian firm—Shim-Sutcliffe Architects—has made a name for itself by designing architecture that is on intimate terms with the land. Brigitte Shim, FRAIC, Int'l Assoc. AIA, and her husband, Howard Sutcliffe, MRAIC, live in Toronto—a multicultural city surrounded by rugged wilderness, where freshwater lakes fill basins gouged by glaciers that melted more than 10,000 years ago. These vivid backdrops set the stage for the dual themes that often converge in their work: the mythic and modernist, the rough-hewn and refined, the handmade and manufactured, the practical and poetic.

Since their earliest collaborations, the couple's work has attracted attention. One of their first joint projects, a pavilion and reflecting pool in north Toronto's Don Mills neighborhood, received a prestigious Governor General's Medal in Architecture—one of eight now in their collection. Other medal-worthy projects have included a remote boathouse/sleeping cabin they've dubbed a “wilderness hut,” a steel-clad suburban house that seems to dissolve into the landscape, and two residences that are urban experiments in creating compact dwellings on Toronto's network of back alleys, or laneways. For all their variety, these residential projects share common traits—an appreciation for craft, the sculpting of a surrounding landscape, and a strong metaphorical and physical link to place.

“Many of the sites we start with are not that stunning,” Shim says, “but by the end, the location of the house or what it's doing brings into focus what is already there and somehow transforms the site beyond what it was originally.” Their ideas about revealing the spirit of a place were partly inspired by the Group of Seven, a band of Toronto-based landscape painters who embarked on a painting tour of the northland in the early 1900s. In contrast to the prevailing taste for the soft, misty landscapes of old Europe, their work depicts the terrain as harsh, wild, and romantic. The artists are credited with helping Canadians discover the beauty of their own country, and in turn, ushering in a more modern self-concept for the new nation.

For Shim and Sutcliffe, it's an intellectual idea that also raises practical questions about how things get built and the role of materials. “As much of the world becomes increasingly placeless, so we find that the particular characteristics of the natural landscape become more and more important,” they wrote in a published lecture given at the University of Michigan in 2001. “In Canada both the vastness of the actual landscape and its mythic qualities are part of the national psyche.”

globe-trotting It happens that the architects came from very different landscapes, though they've lived in Canada for almost as long as they can remember. In fact, the trajectory of their early lives was uncannily parallel. Shim, 47, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to parents who immigrated to Toronto when she was 6. Sutcliffe, 48, moved to a small town outside Toronto at age 7 from his birthplace in Yorkshire, England. Their paths converged at the University of Waterloo, where they met as freshmen and spent their formative education together, receiving degrees in environmental studies in 1981 and architecture in 1983. Growing up, Sutcliffe thought he would become an artist, but in retrospect, he says, “studying architecture seems like one of those casual decisions you made as a teenager that turned out to be the right thing to do.”

Traveling together during school and after graduation provided a design education that extended far beyond the classroom. “We traveled through Scandinavia, Italy, Hong Kong, parts of North America, and Spain, understanding how each country has had to simultaneously address these questions of both the vernacular architecture and Modernism,” Shim says. For Sutcliffe, this exposure was an extension of his childhood enthusiasms. His family had spent time outdoors exploring, and he liked making things—boats, paddles, sculptures, suits of armor. At age 12 he toured the cathedrals on a trip to England to visit relatives. “I thought it was quite profound,” he recalls. Later, a semester in Rome offered another epiphany. “Having grown up in small-town suburbia, seeing the layers of construction and deep history made me understand what the concept of city was about,” he says.

Shim, too, had a keen interest in both art and architecture, and early in her career she worked for architects who challenged her thinking. A stint in Arthur Erickson's Vancouver office while participating in the University of Waterloo's six-and-a-half year co-op program taught her how to integrate building and landscape using a modernist vocabulary. “His work on the West Coast was very different from work he's done on the East Coast,” she observes. “It was much more particular and connected to the landscape.” Upon graduating, she signed on with Baird/Sampson Architects in Toronto and served as research assistant on George Baird's book The Space of Appearance, a critique of Modernism and Post-Modernism over four decades.

Meanwhile, Sutcliffe's first job as a fledging architect took him to the Thom Partnership, headed by Ronald Thom in Toronto. He spent a year there before landing a job with Barton Myers, FAIA, an American architect who had moved to Toronto in 1968. Sutcliffe says the two firms exposed him to a broad range of architectural thinking. “Ron Thom was very much a kind of humanist and quite poetic,” he says. “Then going to Barton's office was the antithesis of that—very cerebral and rigorous.” However, by 1984 Barton Myers had begun shifting the firm's operations to Los Angeles, and in 1987 Sutcliffe transferred to Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB), also in Toronto.

As with many fresh-faced young graduates, Shim and Sutcliffe spent their post-university years accumulating a variety of experiences and following their restless intuitions. By 1986 Shim had left Baird/Sampson to devote time to her own explorations, and in 1988 she also accepted a faculty position at the University of Toronto, where she still teaches a design studio. All the while, the pair continued to collaborate on small-scale projects. They married in 1989, but it wasn't until 1994, when Sutcliffe left KPMB, that they made their business partnership official.

material matters Shim and Sutcliffe, along with four staff architects, work in an old garage in downtown Toronto that had been converted to photography studios. It's a laboratory for turning out sketches and models, yes, but many aspects of their designs are also hammered out in the metal- and woodworking shops of Toronto's talented fabricators. From the beginning, the Shim-Sutcliffe alliance has produced small-scale pieces such as furniture, hardware, mailboxes, and lighting; they use those objects as formal experiments in what specific materials can do and how those materials might be appropriate to a particular project or site. “We don't say, ‘We want to use this material just because we like the look of it,'” Shim says. “It's a series of longer experiments that lead you to an understanding of its properties and possibilities.”