Envisioning Architectural Space in the Landscape

In a career that has brought me around the world I have designed a diverse range of projects from the scale of a small home to an entire university campus.  For every project I’ve always considered the buildings context as an important part of evaluating how to approach each design.

A building rarely stands alone and when it is viewed with its surroundings the design is either observed with the other buildings or viewed within its landscape setting and in most cases it visually interacts with both.  When I was asked to give a talk at the Quest Art Gallery within Midland Cultural Centre I thought it would be fitting to bring this aspect of architecture into focus, especially since in my practice this is an aspect that drives most of my initial design decisions when presented with a new architectural project.

The talk, ”Envisioning Architectural Space in the Landscape” will showcase images that I have created during the design process as well as drawings and photographs that document the work afterwards.  These images represent my attempt to give visual representation to an architectural idea, which I am calling envisioning.

To give the talk a coherent structure I have separated the examples of projects I have designed into three distinct components.


The first section of my talk focuses on the large-scale work of my practice which has been for projects located primarily in Asia.  This part of the talk I have entitled “Envisioning Architectural Space in the Urban Landscape”.  In these large, urban designs the spaces are defined, or enclosed, by the buildings and in some cases landscape elements. These vegetative enclosures may be as diverse as a simple forest clearing or the use of a bosque of trees to define an edge of an otherwise architectural enclosure.

For the NiMi University Campus in Chengdu, that I designed for B+H Architects, the main outdoor space is the great lawn which is enclosed by the 19 academic buildings of the campus.

1-Chendgu University

Initial Sketch of the atmosphere we intended to evoke with the design.

Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia was our inspiration (yes, the former president of the United States was also an accomplished architect).

2-University of Virginia

Areal view of University of Virginia, Designed by Thomas Jefferson

We designed a staccato rhythm of academic buildings and landscaped courtyards, connected by a continuous covered arcade that defined three edges of the rectangular lawn.

3-Chungdu - Aerial

Aerial view of NiMi University Campus-Designed with B+H Architects

In Jefferson’s original design for the University of Virginia (which has since been compromised with the construction of a building along the fourth edge), he had envisioned that this open ended lawn would be seen a metaphor for the unrestrained exploration that he wanted the students to feel in attending the school.

4-NiMi Campus

Aerial view of NiMi University Campus shortly after completion

In my design at Chengdu this open-ended space faces the Nobel Peace Park and a riverside walking path.  Students are encouraged to explore these paths during their time at the university to engage with nature and step away from academic life, if only for a moment, to gain perspective and recharge.


The second part of my talk entitled “Envisioning Architectural Space in the Pastoral Landscape” focuses on the buildings I have designed in Simcoe County, which is just north of Toronto.  This region of Southern Ontario is characterized by its landscape of small to medium sized towns which are often adjacent to water, set in a pastoral landscape of forest and fields.

One property that holds great fondness for me is the Orr Lake residence that was initiated by one of my clients who wished to recreate a farmstead, with a home that recalled the former barn and farmhouse that stood on the property at her youth.  On this site we created two distinct approaches to the organization of the landscaped areas of the property.  From the roadside a curved entry drive leads to an enclosing “Farmyard” which is carved out of the forest.


The garage and garden sheds help enclose the space with gardens occupying the center of the vehicular turn-around. In this space three sides of the square opening in the forest provides enclosure and comfort with the red facade of the home defining the fourth edge.

At the rear of the property a raised lawn, which conveniently covers the septic bed, contrasts the overgrown orchards that surround the property.

From this raised plateau the views are broad and directed across and over the forest and fields of the 82 acre property to Orr Lake beyond.


Except for these two areas adjacent to the building, the site is left to return to forest.  Walking paths are maintained throughout the property and are mowed intermittently with a brush trimmer.


The last section of the talk entitled “Envisioning Architectural Space in the Natural Landscape”, focuses on a passion project of mine for a forested site I have recently purchased in Muskoka near the small hamlet of Dorset.


Within the boundary of the property is an entire lake, a smaller beaver pond, one of the highest points in this region of the Muskoka Highlands and numerous waterfalls and rock outcroppings that exist along two streams that flow into The Lake of Bays.  Here, the architectural interventions are designed to be clearly distinct from the natural world.  The 200-acre property is organized to include nature walks that encourage the exploration of the site’s most important features.  Eventually these walkways will incorporate art installations, arranged as follies located throughout the site.  This approach to placing engaging works of art and architecture in the landscape were a common feature in many historic English Gardens.  In the property near Dorset the artworks will terminate long vistas, while also providing interest and places to rest along the walking paths throughout the forest.

The first building on the site will be the entry gateway and will set the stage for the unfolding experiences that lay ahead.  Designed as an object, earthwork and environmental sculpture, it announces to visitors that they have entered a metaphorical journey, one inherently tied to the physical characteristics of the place but also to my own personal vision for the site.

The gateway is an architectural garden folly that was designed to convey the permanence of  human interventions on the landscape yet also reveal its ephemeral quality.  I wanted to contrast those elements in the composition that would last beyond a lifetime and leave an enduring mark on the landscape and those that may disappear within the course of a day. A monument and a stage to host an event simultaneously, it marks the passage of time and becomes unique for each guest. Its most commanding feature is a granite wall reclaimed from the foundation of a historic barn. A circular opening within the wood deck facing the main roadway is designed to hold a large “forest bouquet” during special occasions.

2019.07.17 Gateway Elevations

Venturing deeper into the forest, guests gather to begin a tour of the site on the forest walks at the site’s visitor center located within an oval forest clearing at the end of the entry drive.

Its cross shaped plan and the simplicity of the oval clearing were selected to clearly mark this part of the site as distinct from the naturalized, more picturesque elements within the remainder of the grounds.

2019.03.29 winter perspective HQ

The majority of the 200-acre site is maintained in a natural state with the main cabin placed within the forest without the typical grass surround.  Instead, the manicured areas of the site are confined to the oval entry courtyard, enclosed by the surrounding trees.  

The plan turns the typical suburban relationship of man and nature upside down with the forest being the protected from the encroaching domestic landscape by an enclosing fence.  The natural landscape is unbound and continuous while the human settlement is artfully contained and in direct contrast to it.  The plantings within this precinct are purposefully decorative and meant to contrast the vegetation of the surrounding forest.

The placement of buildings, pavilions, art pieces and monuments on the remainder of the site have been arranged to create a sequence of unfolding experiences to reveal to the visitor the unique characteristics of this ecosystem.  In these areas, embedded deep within the forest, the buildings are placed in an informal arrangement based upon specific site conditions and to act as beacons on the walking paths.

2019.03.07 hilltop cabin

Throughout this summer Julia White, an artist currently showing at the Quest Art Gallery within the MCC, and I have talked about how appropriate her pieces would be if located on one of the walks within the Dorset site.  In the gallery the materials and composition of the sculptural pieces contrast with the white walls.  In the Quest Gallery she has installed motion sensors to fill the space with the sounds of nature as the viewer moves throughout the gallery.

Within a natural setting her pieces contrast with their surroundings.  At the Dorset property the scale of the totems would appear smaller and upon closer inspection their intricate, hand-woven construction would reveal their human touch.

My talk on July 20th 2019, will expose you to my design process for projects that are diverse in size and building program.  A common theme that is woven throughout the talk is how each project is intimately tied to its landscape setting.  I’m hoping the images alone will keep you engaged for the hour and that they will inspire you to look differently at the constructed outdoor spaces, enclosed by nature and architecture, that surround us.

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