Creative project by the architecture and design agency Partisans, based in Toronto

Architects create beauty through unruly design

April 15, 2019

With a mission to craft beauty on its own terms, architecture and design agency Partisans creates spaces that fuel the imagination. In the same way our hotels are dedicated to creating perfect moments for guests, Partisans is devoted to crafting moments of beauty that resonate across times, places and cultures.
A man drawing sketches on a wall in a workshop

Even the greatest creative projects are often marked as much by what goes off-script as what goes to plan (not for nothing do project managers talk about ‘herding cats’). But for the architecture and design group Partisans, the surprises they encounter during projects aren’t just welcome — they’re the whole point.

This willingness to embrace the unexpected lies at the heart of the company, which counts the phrase ‘beauty emerges when design misbehaves’ as its mantra. As founding partner Alex Josephson explains, for Partisans, ‘misbehaviour’ leads to true innovation — the kind that marries technology and craftsmanship to invent new processes and produce works of artistry.

“The objective is not to have a solution before the process is actually complete,” says Jonathan Friedman, a partner at the firm.

The art is in the details

“We love the big vision, but then there are people in our studio who use craft to develop human-scale design,” Josephson says. “They get down to the detail of a finger interacting with an object, or designing a garbage bin that is safe for security.”

As the firm’s mantra has led them from work on bars and private residences to train stations and master plans for entire neighbourhoods, the world has begun to take notice: In 2017, their audacious design concept for a ferry terminal in Seoul was awarded the American Architecture Prize Design of the Year for Transportation. Their work, on the surface, may seem to be about wondrous moments and rule-bending forms, but it’s what leads to those moments that drives the firm – discovering new tools, working with engineers and fabricators, and using technical limitations to generate unconventional works of intricate beauty.

Close up shot of rolls of paper on a table in a workshop

It’s an unknown adventure that we’re going on with the client, and there’s going to be surprises for all of us.

Jonathan Friedman Partner, Partisans

At the studio, one sketch shows the evolution of Quetzal, the second collaboration between the firm and the star Toronto chef Grant van Gameren, following on from Bar Raval, a tribute to Spanish Art Nouveau. Walking into Bar Raval, you feel as if you’ve left Toronto and wound up in the lair of a mythical Iberian creature. It’s an intimate space that clearly demonstrates the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into Partisans’ designs — with no straight lines, the luxurious mahogany curves in every direction; the windows are lined with steel, meticulously milled to replicate the patterns of Spanish tiles.

The curves, however, are not just for awe. With nine kilometres of grooves precisely milled by computer-numerical controlled machinery, they also become functional, as small indentations become bowls and waves become armrests. For this, Partisans worked with engineers to write software that would allow the fabricators to use the CNC as a sculpting tool.

Though the milling process is not unusual, achieving this level and scale of craftsmanship was entirely new. When the American Institute of Architects gave the project an R+D award in 2015, the juror Marc Fornes called it “an exquisite application of the technology.”

The gifts of serendipity

Over at the newly built restaurant Quetzal, a 65-seat space with a high-end regional Mexican concept, all cooking will be done with wood fire on a huge indoor grill — an idea van Gameren had without fully thinking through the monstrous ventilation system all that smoke would require.

Partisans’ solution? Hide the system’s guts behind a low, undulating ceiling. This simple detail turned what could have been a disastrous limitation into an intimate ‘moment’, achieving what Josephson describes as the feeling of being ‘inside a soft market tent’.

Wooden interior, with a low and undulating ceiling of the restaurant the Quetzal
Close up shot on a red ceiling light in a bar

The idea was to do an art piece within four walls.

Grant van Gameren Chef and owner of Bar Raval and Quetzal

Partisans was born when Alex Josephson teamed up with his fellow student Pooya Baktash at the University of Waterloo. They set out on their own from there, with a series of provocative private projects and conceptual experiments. Six years later, they’ve been joined by their fellow architect Jonathan Friedman and the writer and producer Nicola Spunt in a four-way partnership employing 11 others.

A “constant relay race” is how Josephson describes the team dynamic. “You need to be able to hand the baton off at certain points and let responsibilities ebb and flow,” he says. The union that has evolved is one largely of equals, though it’s not without its tensions. Adds Baktash: “If you’re not passionate, you don’t fight for what matters.”

Hands drawing and sketch, with a yellow tape measure on the side

It’s that willingness to explore those constraints and go into the unexpected, and remain curious about what can emerge out of those new processes and tools.

Nicola Spunt Director of Content & Culture, Partisans

Four architects discussing around a table with a white 3D mock up in the background

For the group, digital technology serves as a powerful tool for invention. Lately, the firm has been involved in more conceptual projects, from its temporary overhaul of the vast interiors of the decaying Hearn Generating Station — the largest enclosed space in Canada — to writing and designing Toronto’s bid for Amazon’s new headquarters. Now, they’ve been tapped by Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs, which is transforming a vast swath of Toronto’s lakeshore into a living laboratory for the data-driven smart city.

Partisans’ role in the experiment is to design shelter structures that promote ‘outdoor comfort’ in collaboration with the engineering firm RWDI. Together, they are devising a deployable system that will adapt year-round to the harsh demands of the Lake Ontario waterfront. “We are using microclimate data to dictate and automate the design so that it responds to the environment,” says Baktash. “The goal is to create comfortable moments for humans, at a human scale.”

“I feel like as long as we are genuinely inventing tools,” he says, “the resultant forms, spaces and experiences that those tools generate will always be unexpected.”

Whether it’s innovation at the forefront of urban planning or adapting the complex, hand-sculpted lighting installations they’ve designed for retail by the Barcelona lighting house Parachilna, Josephson remains obsessed with creating ideas and ways of working that haven’t been seen before.

This content was produced by T Brand Studio and previously appeared on The New York Times.

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