architects—Alliance (a—A): The art of building Canadian hotels (+ cities)

ARCHITECTURE feature from the FALL 2023 issue of STAY Magazine


“Architecture is a record of where a city and a culture [is] at a particular time … The exceptions in the urban framework articulate the city.” —Peter Clewes, Canadian architect and principal at a—A on the role of architecture in the city

A VISITOR ARRIVES IN A STRANGE CITY AND TAKES IN THE SKYLINE, a series of disparate forms amidst the thrumming energy of people and vehicles. The city’s shape in her memory will be locked in its current iteration. The architecture around her appears to be static, the flow of building and rebuilding paused. In reality, it is anything but—over the course of years, the skyline changes, growing in slow motion in comparison to the headlong pace of its inhabitants. She returns at night to her hotel. This building will inform the core of her trip, the place she returns to each day, the base of operations for her travels. Here, she unwinds her experiences, gathering the sights, sounds, and tastes of the city into memory.

Often a city’s hotels are some of the most intrinsic shapes in its skyline. They are integrated into the landscape beside office towers, parks, churches, and museums. In so many cases, the (re)imagining and building of a hotel involves requisite historical context coupled with a deep understanding of contemporary needs: those of the hotelier and the visitor.

One of the most fascinating elements of the Canadian hotel sector is the very act of building the structures around which the hospitality industry revolves. From concept to design to coordination to consultation to construction, architects are the master planners without whom the hotel industry would disintegrate.

architects–Alliance is a name you will find yourself bumping into while researching architecture and hotels today. The firm is based in Toronto, the very city it has helped to shape over the past 25 years. However, the professionals at a—A have an impressive and diverse portfolio stretched across the country that includes the Chateau Laurier addition, the former Thompson Hotel & Residences (now 1 Hotel and Residences), and the Four Seasons Hotel & Residences, as well as expansions and renovations to the Hotel Vancouver, W Hotel Toronto Toronto’s Sheraton Centre and Sheraton Airport Hotel.

The firm describes itself as a design practice of lowercase and uppercase architecture: thus a—A. To learn more about these two distinct but complementary classifications of architecture—where the lowercase ends and the uppercase begins—STAY Magazine spoke to senior associates Rob Cadeau and Blair Robinson, and a—A’s business development director, Mary McIntyre.

“What's important in the design of a hotel and the concept of a hotel,” says Cadeau, “is [building spaces] that create a sense of place specificity and a sense of event.”

Cadeau explains that, for any hotel project, it is incumbent on the architect to familiarize themselves with the hotel’s brand, which is expressed explicitly in the interiors and programming and more generally in the architecture. Some brands have a very young feel to them, which lends itself to a very contemporary, modern style of architecture. “Then again, we also work on projects such as the Chateau Laurier or Hotel Vancouver, which are national icons, part of Canada’s cultural heritage.”

In the latter case, Cadeau says there’s a very delicate balance between serving the operator’s brand and respecting the significance of the existing building; adding onto it in a way that refreshes the image of the building and its facilities, while preserving its heritage and legacy. All of these considerations—the building’s history and a hotelier's ambitions—must receive equal attention.

“The W Hotel is integrated into the Hudson’s Bay facade,” says Cadeau. “For a long time, it looked quite dated. The project was an opportunity to refresh the public identity of the property. From the initial brief to renovate the existing Marriott hotel, it evolved into a complete gut of the interior and reimagining of the exterior as well.

“We saw the roof as an opportunity to create a new terrace and bar. It offered a new vantage point overlooking the intersection of Bloor and Yonge, which is the heart of the city. To emphasize this aspect, we developed the idea of an external elevator that lets you see and be seen from the street. The shaft is cloaked in frosted glass and the elevator cab is in a bright red-orange cladding. At night, you see this glowing element rising from the street to a transparent rooftop pavilion that leads to the bar. It's like an art installation, and creates a unique sense of place for the hotel on Bloor Street.

“There was an internal courtyard embedded in the core of the building, a feature that hadn’t been capitalized on, aesthetically or functionally. Now…you leave behind the noise and activity of Bloor and Yonge and enter this new glass-enclosed sky lobby. It gives checking-in a sense of serenity and significance.”

Robinson adds another example: the renovations to the brutalist/modernist Sheraton Hotel Toronto, another iconic build in the cityline located directly across from City Hall.

“That was a very interesting project,” he says. “It opened in 1972, but over the years had had various renovations that didn't necessarily respect the original architecture. When we were brought in to work on that, we wanted to return to and respect the original modernist design by John Parkin—one of the few Parkin buildings that remain in the city.”

To do this while creating a structure that fit the hotel branding, met the city’s needs, and checked the boxes when it came to planning and zoning, meant navigating through design teams, engineers, city officials, and at the time, pandemic restrictions and closures.

But, points out McIntyre, this is par for the course when it comes to architecture.

“As someone who isn't an architect, but who works with architects, I never cease to be amazed by the way that they look at a project,” she says. “They examine it from the client's strategic perspective and business model. They look at municipal concerns regarding planning and infrastructure. They ask: What does this building contribute to a city? What does this building mean as an object in an urban environment? They have to think about it culturally, sociologically, historically. Architecture is not like any other profession. It's not like engineering. It's not like interior design. It's not like landscaping. But it interfaces with all these genres of design.”

With these words, McIntyre seems to pinpoint what a—A means by “lowercase and uppercase” architecture. When it comes to building hotels, the lowercase carries as much weight as the uppercase; bathroom tiles matter as much as the pure form of the building on a skyline.

Blair Robinson and Robert Cadeau of architects-Alliance



Left to right: W Hotel Toronto by Michael Muraz, Four Seasons Hotel Toronto by Ben Rahn, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel by Jess Baumung

“Our practice spans quite a broad scale,” agrees Cadeau. “It does span from the master planning to the interiors, but at the core are those values that we hold very dearly as a design-driven practice.”

“The hotel is where you go when you visit a place you've never been before,” says McIntyre. “Often, you'll identify your experience of the city by the place you stayed. We're very conscious of that.”

a–A as a firm is intimately engaged in the project of the city and in exploring nuanced ways of defining and redefining it; articulating and advancing its development through thoughtful responses to today and tomorrow’s urban questions, big and small.

Whether working in a major metropolitan centre, or across the country and other geographic borders, a—A project team members are oriented towards a careful and rigorous interrogation of built form.

Architects and designers at a—A ask how they might take a simple geometric form and give it a sense of material presence specific to its location. They research, experiment, and look for inventive ways to address the relationship of the building to the street, and public space and find character in form and materials. With attention to context and community, use and user, their work aims to strengthen the bridge between people and place.

a—A continues to create new and interesting spaces in the Canadian hotel-scape. Their catalogue of projects has grown steadily, and with each build, they leave new shapes on the ever-adapting skylines of our cities and our history.

02 Sheraton Waterfall Garden View from Lobby
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