Peter Sampson Architecture Studio Inc.
“We are ultimately building for future generations, people who will inherit these projects 50 years from now. Current owners are like conduits for future occupants, and perhaps not the end goal of one’s work. This is a difficult discussion to have, but every architect knows that their work will live beyond the current demands of program, user, and place. In our work, we look less to current trends and style as a means of making work, trying our best to prioritize the timeless over the timely.” — Peter Sampson
Based in Winnipeg, Peter Sampson Architecture Studio provides architectural, interior, research, and urban design services to an impressive portfolio of public and private clients, given the age of the firm. Recently, they collaborated with Will Bruder Architects and were short-listed in the international design competition for the Inuit Art and Learning Centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The studio, known locally as PSA Studio, approaches architecture through questioning, not just designing buildings upon request, but analyzing these requests, and creating designs that build upon the contextual and social fabrics surrounding them.
Peter Sampson, the Studio’s founder, has been engaged with architecture since the early 1990s, and from The Canadian Business Journal’s discussion with Sampson, he plans for his studio’s architectural projects to reflect the inherent yet productive nature of questioning that is embedded in the studio format of his practice.
While Sampson has worked with several renowned architects in both Toronto and Winnipeg, and taught architecture at the Universities of Manitoba and Waterloo, in 2008 he launched his own practice to focus on projects that required architecture’s capacity to develop solutions through innovation. Analyzing and reinventing existing infrastructures in favour of social functionality and delight is one such consistent interest. Preserving a derelict chimney in a residential makeover, or yielding to a known footpath across an urban site are some of the strategies he has explored. “Some may call our work ‘sustainable’ or ‘ecological’, but these words are all a bit too broad to describe what PSA Studio is about. I’m interested in the narrative aspect of ecology, what story about sustainability we might be trying to tell in a given moment. Cultural or social sustainability is a rich concept to me, but I don’t really know what it means to our work yet. I just see that it is always present, somehow. Maybe it is part of thinking about the soft and hard infrastructures that support the act of architecting, and a desire I have to see architecture reformulate or nurture those infrastructures within an optimistic framework,” says Sampson.
One project that describes well what Sampson is getting at is the Bike Lab at the University of Winnipeg. This is a mini-infrastructural project that converts a shipping container into a volunteer bicycle workshop which supports maintenance, expands seasonal ridership, and builds support for cycling in and around the University community. Originally, the University wanted to create a transit hub, but PSA Studio restated what the university ‘thought’ it needed. “The University did not need a transit hub — it already was a transit hub. The problem is that the various modes of transit do not integrate well.” The architect offered improvement to the existing bus infrastructure by bringing a bicycle hub to the transfer station and located it next to a new bus drop-off. The idea grew into Bike Lab, and Sampson describes it as a new kind of service station supporting light infrastructure in the city. In the end, the University changed the site to make way for a new sports complex, but this has had little impact on the success of Bike Lab. It is this approach in the projects’ consideration that makes PSA Studio a unique architectural firm — analyzing the existing infrastructures at a visionary level.
According to Sampson, PSA Studio is not driven by form and style but invention.
“We tend to look at projects sideways, as opposed to head on. We look at the backside of the question – ‘Why is it this question that is being asked of us and not another question?’ So we look around the question, discover the root of the problem that is being presented to us, even consider how deeply rooted the problem may be. And whether the problem presented is in fact the one that we should be looking at,” says Sampson. “It can a be frustrating process, but it can also save time and money. What if the solution is actually much simpler than the solution presented originally, Bike Lab being a case in point?”
Along these lines, Sampson talks about the newly proposed Gillam Town Centre, a project he is doing in joint venture with Calnitsky Associates Architects of Winnipeg. Here, they are proposing a mixed-use development that draws upon residential, retail, commercial, and institutional programming. However, the original idea proposed by the client was to build a new shopping mall, and this is when Sampson asked not whether the town “wanted” a shopping mall, but whether it “needed” it. Sampson reformulated the question: “Does the town need a shopping centre? Maybe Gillam needs a centre upon which it can establish itself as a town. Not so much a town centre, as a centre to town.” They won the commission.
From here Peter Sampson Architecture Studio and Calnitsky Associates worked with the Gillam community to decide the appropriate architectural response that addressed their needs. “We are actually building a downtown for Gillam, an idea borne out of our ongoing discussions with the Town and people of Gillam, Manitoba Hydro, and the Fox Lake Cree First Nation, all of whom are major stakeholders in the project.”
According the Sampson, being an architect is not about being a draftsman of other people’s ideas. Architecture is a critical and culturally engaged profession by nature in which the architect is constantly bound to ask questions. “It does not make us very popular, does it?” he asks. “It can be threatening, I suppose, although it is not intended to be. Like any architecture practice, we are building places and spaces today, in a city or site which others will inherit. Projects in future places we live in today, it’s kind of unstable, isn’t it? But the mindset is ecological. It encourages us to consider the physical and social resiliency of a solution, asking whether it can remain relevant for generations to come. I suppose, that’s the goal.”