Explorers ply the seas in search of new trade routes.
Chefs cross continents in search of new ingredients and spices.
Whitehorse architects Jack Kobayashi and Antonio Zedda circle the globe in search of everything else.
Thanks to the Priz de Rome, a $50,000 architectural prize awarded to the pair in mid-2006, they have been travelling to northern communities in a bid to gain a greater understanding of international design processes.
On the pair’s radar has been a diverse sample platter of the northern latitudes: Greenland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Northern Japan and NWT.
In their voyages of design exploration, Kobayashi and Zedda say that they don’t engage in “worshipping” any one particular architect or design process, rather, their interest lies in the finer points of design.
And apparently, there’s nothing finer than Scandinavia.
The two had originally travelled to Scandinavia in order to disprove the common notion that it was a central Mecca of design.
Mercilessly scouring the Scandinavian landscape in search of a single design fault, joy overcame them upon discovering a coffee cup with a faulty handle. However, upon turning the cup over, it read, “Made in Italy.”
“We went there because we were sick of hearing about how everything ‘worked’ in Scandinavia … we came back and realized that everything there does work,” said Kobayashi.
Northern Japan also stood out, especially in terms of washrooms.
One particularly unique innovation was prefabricated bathroom units — entire public washrooms that would be manufactured in a factory and then installed in a new building.
“In North America, we typically associate prefabricated with ‘poor quality’ and ‘cheap.’ But here it was actually higher quality,” said Kobayashi.
Zedda even described a unit that was combination sink and toilet. After washing one’s hands in the sink, the water used to rinse the hands would then be used towards the next flush of the toilet.
What impressed them most was the “accessibility” of good design in those countries.
Good design exists in the United States, but it is often only accessible to the rich, said Zedda. In Japan and Scandinavia, good design is in the public domain.
“The nicest washrooms I have ever visited have been in Japan — and they’re public washrooms.”
At one roadside public washroom, Kobayashi described a old woman doing ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) over the urinals.
“Not that we should be striving for (washroom flower arrangements), but there’s a design there that flows through society that is accessible to everyone, not just the privileged few,” he said.
The harshness of northern climes is always an excellent contributor to good design, they agreed.
“I firmly believe that the more barriers we’re presented with for different things, the more it forces you to be creative,” said Kobayashi.
With intricate design scrutiny already being devoted towards energy efficiency, heating and winter lighting, it’s usually only a short step to ensure that a building is also ergonomically well designed for its tenants.
Kobayashi and Zedda saw amazing feats of “consideration” in the buildings they viewed abroad. Many Japanese hotels, they noticed, even built their lobbies in such a way as to minimize places that could collect dust or dirt.
In Scandinavia, every stairway is equipped with ingenious flat “runner” tracks to allow the easy conduit of bikes and strollers.
Russia, however, remains the exception.
“Russia’s still a bit behind,” said Kobayashi.
The oppressive stain of seven decades of communism mixed with a current unstable climate of “capitalist robber barons,” has left Russia with little time for design, they said.
What does all this globe-trotting research mean for the humble city of Whitehorse?
Kobayashi and Zedda had no specifics, seeing their research as more of a way to increase their “feel” for good design.
“We do a lot of things without really thinking them out ‘why’ ahead of time,” said Kobayashi.
“Sometimes we get into trouble for not thinking things out totally. (We) just sort of get a gut feel for something and then we do it. We don’t study things to death, we’ll just come up with an idea and go with it.”
Operating in Whitehorse since 2000, the pair have always taken pride in a fun approach to architecture and design, a philosophy that matches easily with their comic-bookesque name.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” said Kobayashi.
New Cambodia, a condo unit built in downtown Whitehorse, got its name from a notorious party house that previously stood on the site.
In one of the house’s particularly wild parties, it became painted in camouflage colours, earning it the namesake of the war-torn Southeast Asian nation.
Even ‘Baked,’ the pair’s Main St. café, is a clever double-meaning; ‘baked’ also being a common euphemism for being high on marijuana.
When the name was first announced, Kobayashi said that he was anxiously confronted by the staff, who feared that he was unaware of the dual definition.
“I’ll never forget the look on their faces,” he remembered with amusement.
With the territory’s expanding roster of Kobayashi and Zedda construction projects, many have pointed out that Yukon buildings seem to be getting a stronger dose of corrugated sheet metal.
The increasing presence of the shiny, wavy material has quickly become a recognizable signature of Kobayashi and Zedda. Most notably, the pair’s recently completed addition to the MacBride Museum is coated almost entirely in sheet metal.
Viewed as an unwelcome “modern” influence by some, Kobayashi and Zedda assert that, in modern times or in the gold fields of the 1890s, sheet metal has historically been an ideal Yukon construction material.
“It’s appropriate for the climate, it’s easy to transport, it’s relatively inexpensive and it’s maintenance free,” said Zedda.
“Those are all things that are important when you’re building up here in the North.”
“The same reasons that stampeders used it is the same reason that we use it,” said Kobayashi.
“Wood is actually very fragile in this climate,” said Zedda.
Over the firm’s eight-year history, a main priority has been the development of downtown as both a living and a recreational place.
“We deal with the fact that Whitehorse is a sprawling city, but we don’t necessarily support it or like it. We much prefer a more compact kind of development.”
In everything from their condo units to their café, they have sought to make the Whitehorse downtown more community oriented.
“A few tables and a few people talking on the street and it changes everything,” said Zedda.
One of the most surprising and simplistic revelations abroad was that Scandinavians do not close their outdoor patios during the winter — they simply supply them with blankets.
“For a city to see coffee tables out in January with blankets on them, it just feels like a place that is inhabited,” said Zedda.
Blankets and year-round outdoor seating will now be a permanent feature at Baked, they said.
“Blankets. How low-tech can you get?” said Kobayashi.
In 20 years, will Whitehorse soon be host to its first prefabricated bathroom unit?
“Sooner,” said Zedda.