Linebox Scales Up

With huge contracts for Shopify HQ and the Saint-Charles church site in Vanier, plus restaurant work for chef Matt Carmichael (El Camino, Datsun, Riviera), Andrew Reeves — head of architectural firm Linebox Studio — is popping up everywhere in Ottawa. Check out the original article for his straight talk on city building, densification, and fake trees.

You could reserve a whole magazine for the word “context.” It’s an extremely under-thought, under-exercised topic. Let’s understand a house in the context of the street: where it’s going, where it is, where it has been — and not be too biased toward one side or another. It’s okay to have individuality and character, because last time I checked, no one said cookie cutter housing worked. It’s got to be case by case — there is no magic rule.

The whole idea of the El Camino and Datsun restaurants is to be the exact opposite of each other. Camino is dark, whisky, loud, tacos. The other side is white, light, delicate. It’s really cool to see them next to each other.

Ottawa Mag Andrew Reeves-32-Edit copy

The volume and the character of the building [the former Imperial Bank of Canada Building on Sparks Street] — demand respect. Subtly, there is a lot going on, and it’s challenging because of the materiality of it: the pink marble walls, the granites, the limestone coloured floors, the off-white columns — how do you inject something? We’re trying to figure out how to design Riviera [Reeves’ latest restaurant collaboration with chef Matthew Carmichael] with floating booths that don’t touch the walls, so they can breathe. We’ll introduce some delicate lighting to keep the banker vibe, with brass lights at the tables. It’s a cultural reflection back to a time when banks used to build these things and engrave their name in stone. Now they’re looking for the cheapest corner unit in some strip mall.

The design intent was to have cross-pollination. Even though they’re big, there would always be the opportunity for people to accidentally run into each other, pull over, and have conversations. They were adamant about that, and they wanted the office to have layering degrees of privacy. So you have large pods, breakout spaces, nooks where you can go with your laptop, or private telephone booth-type things where you can go and code in silence.

We’re doing their Montreal office as well, and they want it to be very distinct. It’s a different culture. It’s 30,000 square feet on one floor in a brand new corporate tower, which is a bit of a struggle for us. How do you bring in some fun and character? We decided to be a bit subtler on theme. It’s about these little expressions of the city. We have a light room and a dark room that is like a little underground jazz club. We have spiral stairs with a little nook so people can sit on them and work with a laptop. It’s called The Stairway to Nowhere.

We went to see Facebook and Google before we started the first project for Shopify. My initial struggle for Shopify was not to have every floor be like Disneyland where there’s a Nature Floor with a bunch of fake trees. I wanted to be conscious never to get cheesy, so we use real materials, real trees, real stuff that has tangibility and texture. If you’re going to do a wood wall, then use wood.

St. Charles Market [on the grounds of the former Saint Charles church in Vanier] is a real mixed use of stuff, almost like the Distillery District in Toronto. The church is the heart of everything. We’ll have a wicked restaurant in the back, and we’ll have small booths with cheese shops and then stairs to the basement where we’ll do another ring of vendors, kind of like St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. At the front end of the church will be a coffee shop. The building will be filled up by people that we’ve worked with or we feel do cool stuff. We want to make sure we’re always part of the community that is doing really cool things in all industries.

There are definitely little Lineboxy-type things. There’s nothing wrong with having whimsical things that identify your expressions, but they’re not totally random. You’re responding to the site. If we put long horizontal windows somewhere, it’s because there’s a bathroom behind it and you still want to see the sky. I’m leery about saying “a signature” because that means I put a stamp on each project whether it belongs there or not, and that’s an arrogant move. I’m not interested in making sure everyone knows our buildings.

Everything is connected to everything else. We’ve never done a competitive proposal for work — it’s always been this relationship building over time. Like Shopify: we designed Tobi [Lütke]’s home, so in that process, he saw how we work and that’s how they started growing a trust. There was an insane amount of risk on their side; the mayor called after they gave it to us, wondering if we were able to follow through. I shook his hand after and reminded him of it — he gave me a look and a smile.

Photo by doublespace photography.