i + D - March/April 2020 - 45
ICONic Profile - By Ambrose Clancy
Jennifer Mallard is recognized as one of the
world's most accomplished architects working in
the realm of public spaces and buildings, with a
focus on performing arts venues, libraries, colleges,
and universities. Her work has been hailed as
dramatic but welcoming, and always suited to the
needs of those interacting with the space.
A principal at Toronto's Diamond Schmitt
Architects-which also has offices in Vancouver and
New York-Mallard took on the daunting task of
transforming a cultural touchstone for Canadians:
the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa.
She remade the 1969 Brutalist building into a
lighter and more graceful symbol of her country
while retaining the power of the original structure.
It was completed in 2017 for Canada's
Mallard's numerous other accomplishments include
Allard Hall at University of British Columbia's
Peter A. Allard School of Law and Sidney Harman
Hall at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's
Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C.
Currently at work on a project for Toronto's
Humber College, Mallard lives in Toronto with her
husband, Stuart Elgie, also an architect, and "two
20-something kids who are home sometimes and
away at university sometimes."
i+D: Do you and Stuart compete for business?
JM: We're both with large Toronto firms, but he
focuses on healthcare and I focus on performing
arts and community buildings. But, there are things
we can't talk about at home.
i+D: When you were a child, what influenced
you as a person who would someday become
involved in design?
JM: Travelling with my parents. I saw new places,
and from a really young age I drew house plans.
I still have a stack of sketches. I would build little
models before I even knew what I was doing.
Image: Danilo Agutoli
i+D: What was your first experience in
a theater like?
JM: Oh, it was going as a child to music events on
Sunday nights with my mom. She had a subscription
to the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. My dad,
as a true Canadian, would go curling, and my mom
would take me to the Philharmonic.
i+D: You sound excited just remembering it.
JM: Hamilton is a great place, but it's an industrial
city. My parents both were hard workers, and
Sunday was my mom's night out. I could see how
much she just loved it, how delighted she was. I saw
it transform her. That power of transportation is
what carries us now as we approach theater design.
You're taken out of your every day, humdrum life
in a theater-whether to see a play or music or
any kind of performance. Your sensibilities shift-
and that's powerful, taking us out of our place and
expanding our minds.
i+D: When you wake up, how long does it
take before you look at your phone?
JM: Five minutes?
i+D: That's not bad. For a lot of people, it's
a matter of seconds.
JM: I think about work, though, the first thing
when I wake up. I think about work even before
I know I'm awake.
i+D: Is that good or bad?
JM: Good for me. We're defined by what we do,
and I'm lucky to love what I do.
i+D: Did transforming the National Arts
Centre to something lighter and with more
texture keep you up at nights?
JM: Yeah, it did. We had drawn things up and
reviewed them initially and revised them with
Ottawa's heritage advisory committee [known as
the Built Heritage Sub-Committee] to look at the
project because of its magnificent location near
Parliament Hill. Originally, the feasibility study
we were hired to do for the NAC was to
make a new front door. In that Brutalist fortress,
finding the door was a real problem.
i+D: I would guess so.
JM: We had to, essentially, turn the thing inside
out and open the building to the activity of the
street. That lent itself to the transformation and
contrasting the heaviness with a lighter, more
i+D: Is there still a place for the Brutalist
idea in public buildings?
JM: Sure. When the NAC was designed in the
1960s, it was for Canada's centennial, a time when
Canada was emerging on the international stage.
The zeitgeist then was forward-thinking, and it was
a very strong impression of what Canada was. It
has a very interesting political context. Anything we
did on the new part of the NAC hearkens back to
the original. The bones of Brutalism-though
we don't call it that anymore-are fascinating.
i+D: What's the most common misconception
people have about designers and architects?
JM: That they all have huge egos.
i+D: That's a misconception?
JM: (Laughing) Sure, there are people with egos.
But especially in theater design, there is such a
collaboration among the architect, the theater
designer, and the institution-it's like a three-legged
stool. If there's no consideration of others, it
won't be able to function. We all have to work
together to make something excellent.
i+D: Your firm has a history of being committed
to producing environmentally sustainable
buildings. Are enough people in the field taking
a leading role in what's happening? Or are they
just talking a good game?
JM: On the Humber College School of Creative
and Performing Arts project, we're raising the bar,
pushing boundaries, totally committed to making
more sustainable designs. And we're so happy to
be working with clients who are raising the bar as
well. It's the responsibility of all of us to join in
i+D: Do you run into clients who, if sustainable
design costs more than the same-old,
sometimes accuse you of not keeping your eye
on the bottom line?
JM: Yes. But often to justify spending for sustainable
initiatives, we have to look at the long-term. At
Humber now, we're making a robust, super-insulated
building envelope so the depth of insulation on the
outside is deeper, using triple-glazing, and spending
money to keep the energy use intensity very low.
Clients see their energy costs go down. Plus, it's a
good story for them as an institution to spread the
word that it's important to them.
i+D: Is it as easy as that?
JM: There are always budget considerations so
we have to justify those. But I find-and maybe
this is a difference between Canada and the United
States-that some regions are more committed
or aware of climate change. We have water levels
rising in the Great Lakes around Toronto. There's
a reason for that.
i+D: What are you reading?
JM: I have this stack of books on my bedside table.
On top is The Cockroach by Ian McEwan-my
husband and I bought the same book for each other
for Christmas; we have two copies now.
i+D: What was your first paying job?
JM: Serving meals in an old-folks' home when
I was in 7th or 8th grade.
i+D: Was it fun? Awful?
JM: It taught me that I didn't want to be in the
service industry for the rest of my life. But it
also taught me that tiny things can have a huge
impact. They were delighted to see a fresh face.
i+D: What's the worst advice you've ever
JM: When I was in high school, I told my
physics professor I wanted to go into architecture.
He laughed. Not really advice. A challenge.
is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter
and a novelist, nonfiction author, and
journalist. His work has appeared in GQ,
The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.
i+D - March/April 2020
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