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Architects producing outstanding work that aims not to stand out

A few days ago, Atelier Kastelic Buffey (AKB) was nudged into the spotlight when it was named the province's top emerging architectural practice for 2014. The vote of confidence from the Ontario Association of Architects suggests that a young firm has the moxie to go to the end of line. If it's right, we will likely be hearing more and more about the doings of AKB in the near and long term.

Until now, you may have heard little or nothing at all about AKB. There are reasons for this.

For one thing, it's tiny: At any given time, founding partners Robert Kastelic, 43, and Kelly Buffey, 42, share their handsome, industrial-strength studio on Morrow Avenue with just two or three employees.

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Also, AKB's portfolio is slender and weighted toward residential projects outside the city, in spots the architecturally curious do not usually seek out.

And the office's house style is deliberately underwhelming; hence, not the stuff of headlines in either the professional press or popular media. A typical AKB dwelling is restrained and unsensational, strongly grounded in its surroundings, whether a dense urban neighbourhood or rolling Ontario farmland. Especially if this typical structure is in the country, it graciously tips its formal hat to such old building forms as the chalet and the barn.

Mr. Kastelic came to architecture from a tradition of theatrical set-making that holds the set to be always background, never the commanding object of audience attention; and Ms. Buffey arrived from a career in interior design. The legacies of these previous lives show up in everything AKB does – in the retiring "background" character of its exteriors, for example, and in the details and drama of its interiors. AKB's output has not been prolific since the completion of its first house seven years ago, but what it has done is notably solid, and well-rooted in the history of architectural spaces.

So what does a critically successful, up and coming office look like these days? To find out, I dropped by AKB's west-side place of business last week, and asked Robert Kastelic and Kelly Buffey why they thought AKB was the OAA's pick from this year's crop of emerging practices.

"We ask ourselves that question," Ms. Buffey replied. "What edged us out over the great contemporaries and peers who are working alongside us is that our work feels good. People like being in the spaces we create. We're tapping into that emotional response from people."

I asked her what makes the visitor or resident sense that an architectural space is "right."

"It's a combination of things," Ms. Buffey said. "We could be very boring about it, and talk about materials and colours and palettes and details, because they definitely impact a space. But I believe architecture comes from intuition, which you have to trust. You are drawing on your history and on the spaces and streetscapes you've been to before, coming out of what you've gathered up to this point in your life.

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"Our work is not form-based. When I look at what some friends are doing, I think they are lifting images, there's no soul in the work. It's lacking character and any real presence … even if it's visually stimulating."

In its first commission, a rural residence finished in 2007, AKB took on the challenge of overcoming an "image" with "presence."

Both the client and the covenant between client and community stipulated that the chalet had to have a gabled roof. Mr. Kastelic and Ms. Buffey worried that a pitched roof might bring along the whole load of nostalgic, sentimental associations attached to the word "chalet."

"The parameters were very prescriptive," Mr. Kastelic recalled. "They challenged our notions. This being our first album, we didn't want to throw a hundred songs at it, then have nothing for our second. We were very conscious of editing what we wanted to put into the project, since it would inform the work we would do afterward." So, AKB evolved "this archetypal form, starting with a volume that we carved away at, keeping a dense core, carving away. We realized the power of editing, calmness, quiet."

The result of this struggle with the traditional chalet format was a cedar-clad, copper-topped building that indeed had a gabled roof, but that also had contemporary clarity and simplicity, and no warm fuzzies. Creative ingenuity of the kind AKB applied to the problem of the pitched roof, the architects said, has been at the core of the firm's work ever since, especially in the residential designs that have put bread on the table since the beginning.

Both principals, however, stress that architecture is finally about not cleverness but the production of certain feelings, such as the stripped-down and alert calm of a glacial valley, or the refreshment of complexity-jangled nerves by something very plain and simple.

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"Architectural haiku," Mr. Kastelic said. "That's what we want our work to be like."

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John More

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