Frontier Architects

With clean, modern designs, architects Jack Kobayashi and Antonio Zedda — aka KZA — are dragging the Yukon out of the gold rush

AMID A SEA OF BEIGE SIDING AND TWO-CAR GARAGES, Jack Kobayashi’s house emerges like a towering middle finger. “It’s a little bit in your face,” he concedes as we pull into the driveway. Half his squarish duplex is a matte grey with an odd, jutting yellow panel and matching door; the other side is a windowed Kensington-blue with a red door. Kobayashi’s home is a nervy response to the blandness of neighbouring dwellings in Whitehorse’s latest suburb, and a reminder that houses needn’t look like they came off a conveyor belt.

“None of these places even acknowledges the view,” he says, motioning toward the mountain vista. The 43-year-old architect is so relaxed that at first he seems wistful, almost sad. He is compact, and like his designs, clad in clean lines and dark shades. When he built his home roughly three years ago, he tells me, he got the expected reaction – neighbours cringed and some local realtors rolled their eyes at yet another Kobayashi design that blatantly ignores – even seems to spite – its surroundings. He just smiles. “I know I’m doing something right if these guys are mad at me.”

The marks of KZA are as conspicuous throughout the Yukon. Antonio Zedda, the “zed” in KZA, partnered with Kobayashi eight years ago, and since then they’ve been either annoying or delighting Yukoners with their modern, streamlined structures, which another local architect described as “lopsided boxes.” With minimalist condos, cultural centres and schools, they’ve been eagerly interrupting a landscape cloaked either in the trappings of modern suburbia or the cobwebs of the gold rush.

For their culturally sensitive and eco-minded designs, the duo earned this year’s Professional Prix de Rome, a big-league architecture award granted annually by the Canada Council for the Arts. With the $50,000 prize money they’ll dash around the circumpolar world observing how other Northern architects deal with variable light and a hostile climate, in their quest to figure out – as Zedda puts it – “what architecture means for this place.”

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I ALMOST HAVE TO JOG to keep pace with Antonio Zedda. The 39-year-old Italian walks with heavy, committed steps, bent slightly forward as if fighting the wind. He has dark, wavy hair and a thin Roman nose and wears what seems like the KZA summer uniform of shorts and sandals, and, when he’s on site, a KZA ball cap. We reach the lot of their latest downtown condo project, “Bling” – mischievously named by Kobayashi in reaction to meaningless townhouse monikers like Park Palisades. The contractors have just poured the foundation for the cluster of four-plexes and duplexes. Construction has barely begun, yet 70 percent of the one- and two-bedroom units have already sold.

“People want to live downtown,” Zedda says. “And there aren’t many options here but crappy houses.” Zedda’s observations ring sad but true. For a population of roughly 23,000, the city is enormous, more than 400 square kilometres that require a car to traverse in good time. Most Whitehorse residents live, not downtown, but in one of a couple dozen suburbs widely scattered along the Yukon River valley. Houses are a mix of government-built 1950s-era duplexes, country homes on spacious, wooded lots, and the infamous vinyl “cookie cutters”  in suburbs like Copper Ridge, where Kobayashi built his home.

KZA’s solution to Whitehorse’s growing waistline: dense, mixed-use downtown condos, like Bling. “It costs so much to live here in terms of energy and the environment, so we think that people should live way more compactly,” Zedda says. “There’s a reason Europeans consume half the energy per capita of North Americans. A lot of it has to do with a denser environment.”

KZA continues on its quest to artfully pack people into denser dwellings, first in their Latitude 60 Loft Condos, built in 2003, and the following year in New Cambodia, a 12-unit townhouse-commercial mix that sold like concert tickets. (The name refers to an infamous Whitehorse party house that once occupied the lot, dubbed Cambodia because a tenant had painted one of the rooms in a camouflage hue.) Former Copper Ridge resident Patricia Daws gushes about her unit. “My house is full of nice angles and there are no dark spaces,” she says. “It’s so secure, too, because there’s businesses there during the day.” The complex includes four ground-floor commercial units, one of them a Yoga studio owned by Zedda’s fiancé, Juliette Anglehart.

WHEN NEW CAMBODIA first went up, Remax realtor Darryl Weigand remembers hearing a lot of “oh my gods” – not necessarily glowing reviews. “People don’t accept change well,” he says. “And it’s a generational thing – older folks would say New Cambodia is an ugly, shed-looking thing with a strange name. But I think KZA is making Whitehorse bigger, more cosmopolitan. Their bold, adventurous, other-world style reflects a new generation of people moving to this city.”

Kobayashi is puzzled by negative fuss. “It’s not our goal to make condos because they have condos in Vancouver,” he says. “The condo revolution has happened everywhere because it makes sense. With New Cambodia and now Bling, we’re taking 28 homeowners destined for lots and putting them onto five properties. Think of all the driving and gas that saves.” New Cambodia was Kobayashi and Zedda’s second crack at developing and selling the units on their own. And it was the first time they took on the general contracting as well. “Design-build is risky,” Kobayashi says. “As a designer you don’t have to put things on the line, but in contracting you could lose everything.”

While selling New Cambodia units was a breeze, building them wasn’t. The $1.8-million project became a stagger to the finish line. As the general contractors, Kobayashi and Zedda were exhausted from being constantly on site, fumbling their way through hiccups – and there were many. A week before residents were to move in, a flood caused by an inexperienced plumber ruined three units. “That job definitely took a chunk outta me,” Zedda recalls. “I remember walking into the first unit: It was so humid, and water was dripping from the ceiling and the laminate flooring was floating. I opened the storage-room door and water just poured out.” New Cambodia opened four months late, leaving its architects wearier and wiser, but no less excited about building.

“I don’t want to sit in the background while the work is being done,” Kobayashi says. “Construction seems more real; the problems are intense and solving them is more gratifying. And I think because we immerse ourselves in construction and take control of the whole building process, our designs are more functional.” On our trek back to the office, Zedda and I pass the Hawkins House B&B, a frilly building that looks straight out of the Victorian Age. Zedda stops at the empty lot beside it. “Here,” he says, “we’re going to build the most modern, minimalist building.”

BOTH ZEDDA AND KOBAYASHI first started noticing spaces while hunched in church pews as kids. Young Zedda used to count the courses of painted concrete blocks in his Winnipeg church and imagine they were skyscrapers. In Montreal, “bored out of his skull,” Kobayashi studied the wood in his Japanese church. “There were so many kinds, I remember being obsessed by it,” he says. Kobayashi and Zedda also both studied architecture at the University of Manitoba, although they were never friends. Kobayashi was three years ahead and remembers Zedda as “the guy who always wore a pillbox hat.” Zedda knew of Kobayashi as “the guy who could draw.” (As a kid, Kobayashi sketched his first floor-plans of a police station in his four-volume “Book of Cops” – and, according to his mother, always used a ruler for the lines.)

It seemed in the cards that Zedda would end up at U of M, where his father was caretaker of the fine arts building. On Saturdays, while his mom worked at one of Winnipeg’s many clothing factories, his dad took Zedda and his brother along to the school, where little Antonio would spend hours ogling “the models and miniature worlds students had left on their desks.”

After finishing school, the two made their separate ways to the North. Kobayashi arrived in 1991 to work as a facilities planner for the territorial government, a sedentary job he quickly tired of. He came to the Yukon, like many, expecting to live in a bare-bones cabin and get a lot of reading done.

Zedda had similar preconceptions. “I thought the Yukon would be barren and windswept – I had no clue.” In spring of 1995, Zedda and his then-girlfriend packed up their Nissan Micra and drove to Whitehorse from Vancouver, where Zedda had been designing social housing units for a one-man firm. After a summer of much-needed loafing he went to see Kobayashi, who he’d heard was in town and was partnered with a German architect named Florian Maurer. There wasn’t much work for a third designer, but Kobayashi was impressed. “When someone that talented walks into your office, you can’t let them get away.” Zedda came on board, and two years later was partner. The threesome worked together, sometimes inharmoniuusly, to pull off the controversial and widely publicized Tr’ondek Hwech’in Cultural Centre in Dawson City. “Threes don’t often make for a good partnership,” Zedda says. “We had different philosophies.”

In 2000, Maurer jumped ship at exactly the worst time. Kobayashi had just left town to tend to his cancer-stricken wife, leaving Zedda to run the office on his own. Kobayashi returned six months later, lacerated by his wife’s death, but invigorated to take the firm in a new direction. He and Zedda raised more than $100,000, designed and oversaw the building process of a chemotherapy room for the Whitehorse General Hospital. They named it Karen’s Room, after Kobayashi’s wife.

DAWSON’S TR’ONDEK Hwech’in Cultural Centre raised eyebrows from the get-go. In 1996, Zedda came up with the concept and preliminary design for a space that would “tell the story of the First Nations,” who, he adds, “were essentially kicked out of Dawson when the white people came. And this was their first opportunity to reclaim the waterfront.” At first, some business owners and heritage advocates were against the idea of a new building on the shore of the Yukon River, especially one that looked wholly incongruous, almost absurd, amid Dawson’s false-front hotels and casinos with names like Bonanza Gold and Diamond Tooth Gerties. After all, the town’s frontier look is guarded by strict heritage-design controls meant to protect its status as a Parks Canada national historic site. But Kobayashi, Zedda and Maurer couldn’t conceive of a First Nations centre built in the flavour of the Klondike. “Why would we work in a style that defines greed, corruption and destruction?” Zedda asks. “Why would we memorialize a fraction of time in the North’s history that basically celebrated the displacement of the people that were living here?”

The three architects had pored over historical drawings of traditional fish-drying racks and hunting camps to come up with a modern take on a traditional time, long before the gold hype. Others eventually conceded the architects were right. Art Webster, Dawson City’s mayor at the time, recalls, “We thought it odd, a bit ironic, to impose these guidelines and restrictions on a First Nations building – after a style of building that carved land out of their wilderness. KZA was trying to do something representative of the North, and I think they succeeded.” The resulting riverside museum, theatre, café and cone-shaped exhibition hall won the 1999 Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia award of merit and was short-listed for the Governor General Awards for Architecture. For a while, some people called it “the funny building on the waterfront,” which the architects took to be a good thing. “You can’t worry too much about whether you’re going to be right all the time,” Zedda says. “Part of experimentation is just going out there and being a little forceful. The ultimate goal is to do something that’s hopefully better.”

ON A DRIZZLY THURSDAY morning, there’s one more project Kobayashi wants to show me. Coffees in hand, we end up at city hall, a 1960s-era stone building that shows no outward signs of KZA influence. “This was probably the cheapest job we ever did,” he says, leading me inside to a wide entrance way. “They just wanted us to tear down one of the stairways and replace it with a wheelchair ramp.” Instead of banging out a serviceable plywood ramp, Kobayashi had the contractors salvage and use the steel supports and heavy fir planks that formed the original stairs. “I wanted to keep to the same look, and keep this beautiful wood.” The resulting ramp looks like a funky boardwalk, and seems, as Kobayashi intended, as though it had been there all along. I ask him what the client thought of his improvisation. “Ah,” he says, “I don’t even think they cared.”

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