A Mind for Design with Erica Sangster of D’AMBROSIO

D’AMBROSIO architecture + urbanism is widely considered one of the city’s most thoughtful, innovative architecture firms. As the firm’s well-known principal Franc D’Ambrosio prepares to step back from operations to focus on design, he’s shifting the spotlight to longtime colleague and architectural kindred spirit, Erica Sangster.

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Erica Sangster at the D'AMBROSIO designed Reliable Controls' HQ in Victoria. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.
Erica Sangster at the D'AMBROSIO designed Reliable Controls' HQ in Victoria. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Erica Sangster can probably thank her mother for her career choice.

Newly minted as a partner and principal with Victoria’s D’AMBROSIO architecture + urbanism (though she’s worked for founder Franc D’Ambrosio for 17 years), the 46-year-old architect has fond recollections of snooping around real estate open houses with her mom on weekends, soaking up how rooms were designed and houses were structured.

Strong in math and arts at school (she attended SMUS, got her undergrad in engineering physics at Queen’s and her masters in architecture at Harvard), Sangster’s work on projects like The Atrium and 1515 Douglas Street, is the result of seeing eye-to-eye with D’Ambrosio, creating places and spaces that activate the street, engage the public and suggest architecture is not separate from urban design.

“Our philosophies align,” says D’Ambrosio, “as does our dedication to a profession which we see as having a fiduciary role in society, ecology and culture.”

D’Ambrosio praises Sangster’s architectural and organizational skills and compliments her work as thoughtful and articulate.

“In architecture, we finish each other’s design sentences.”

Sangster will start to take over the day-to-day company business as D’Ambrosio looks to dedicate more time to designing projects.

“It’s been such a gradual evolution of my relationship with Franc and my role in the firm,” she says. “Franc is very generous in giving people opportunities.”

Douglas talked with Sangster about women in her industry, city planning, and architects’ responsibility for public good.

I can list numerous famous male architects (Rem Koolhaas, I.M. Pei, Arthur Erickson, Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, etc.), but I can’t name a celebrated woman architect. Does architecture have a gender-equity problem?

Zaha Hadid is pretty much the only one … I am hopeful that it’s changing right now. I think it’s because it’s been recognized that there is such a huge drop-off of women from school to working as architects (as much as 50 per cent). Maybe it’s just the way that we see the famous architects as being these sort of celebrities. Maybe the women practitioners, for some reason, just haven’t been in the spotlight as much. That’s not saying they’re not doing the work and making an impact.

Vancouver architect Marie-Odile Marceau posed the question: “Is the mind of a female architect different from the mind of a male architect?”

I don’t think the mind is different. I think it might be more of the perception by society around architects, which is a holdover from the past when opportunities were more limited for women. This is changing as more architects are from practices that are non-traditional, more interdisciplinary and collaborative. I’m hopeful that more diversity in practice forms will go hand in hand with more diversity of successful architects.

What about in your own practice?

Our practice is a fairly traditional studio, but we have a level of flexibility that helps with the work/life balance for both men and women in our office. Generally, I see gender being less and less of an issue, especially as we work with more women engineers, and we’re starting to see more women in the construction trades. 

Why don’t we design cities for women, not just men?

It’s not just women [we should design for]. It’s children, it’s seniors, it’s refugees and immigrants, people with disabilities … There’s a movement now to take into account making everything more accessible for everybody. There’s also a movement away from architecture as an icon … to an idea about helping our cities be more vibrant, more sustainable and how city supports community.

In an interview in our sister publication, YAM, former Victoria city councillor Pamela Madoff suggested there’s nothing admirable, architecturally speaking, in our downtown. Do you agree?

Comparing where we’re at now from when I grew up, how many surface parking lots do I remember from when I was a kid that are now buildings? I’m super excited about how vibrant downtown Victoria is now. I remember when everything shut down at six o’clock! It was like a ghost town in the evenings … The densification of the city, which has been very rapid in terms of all these new residential buildings, [is] really important in terms of bringing vitality to the city. Whether they’re architecturally inspired or not, I think we’re building fabric here, and how those buildings meet the ground and relate to the sidewalk is really important.

Madoff also said developers should not be leading the conversation about urban planning and design.

I do agree, absolutely. The City should be taking direction on that. And part of it is [as] Franc [D’Ambrosio] says, we shouldn’t be developing in a leapfrog way. You need to have a cohesiveness of direction for the city, so you’re not setting the direction one project at a time in an isolated way.

Your partner, Franc D’Ambrosio, has said Victoria is not a city of towers. It’s a walking, cycling town, more like Copenhagen than New York. Do you think we’re getting away from that with unchecked growth?

The City put a lot of work into their Downtown Core Area Plan, which, at a high level, is intending to demand an appropriate response at the street level and provide for setbacks to make sure that we don’t end up overshadowing the streets in a burdensome way, and don’t end up with towers so close to each other that they’re not really livable buildings anymore. The City has put guidelines in place to try to protect the quality of life in the city while we densify … and I think that’s working quite well.

Franc also said a great building lasts a century, not 20 years. Is that driving the way you do things?

Absolutely. I think that has a couple of aspects, one being sustainability. I wouldn’t say we’re pushing our projects to the absolute, most sustainable, limit that we could. We’re pressing on the boundary. We’re doing the most we can for the market.

What’s your thought on the Inner Harbour being little more than parking lots?

It’s such a key part of the city, so when we talk about vitality, that’s bringing in a vibrant mix of uses where you’d have civic space, a cultural centre, park space. We’ve done a scheme for a public market on the waterfront. I know we’re all impatient for something to happen, and it is an eyesore, but part of me thinks when it does happen, we’re going to have the benefit of so much more awareness around resilience, and a more serious commitment to sustainable design. I’m hopeful it will be worth the wait.

What should architecture be focusing on at the moment? Affordable housing, sustainability, climate change?

I think those are the main ones. Definitely sustainability and, on the West Coast here, affordable housing. Reconciliation is another part as well.

Is there anything unsatisfying about contemporary architecture?

I wouldn’t say it’s with our own work. We’re lucky to have really great clients that allow us to create buildings we think are exciting. If there’s one thing I wish Victoria was better at, it would be designing in a contextual way that’s not mimicking our heritage.

What is “contextual fit” and how does it apply to Victoria’s built form?

It’s a driving factor for us in terms of building the fabric of the city. Not to say that we want our buildings to be invisible, but in some ways we want them to feel like they are inevitable, like that’s what should have been in that place.

Are architects responsible for the public good?

Yes, I think we obviously have a responsibility to our clients, but along with that, there is responsibility to do no harm, and we try to not only accomplish all the goals of our clients, but also have a positive impact on people just passing by.

Can truly “green” buildings be successful within today’s commercial market?

It appears to be the case. Our buildings like The Atrium and the new one by City Hall are examples. The new one by City Hall is LEED Platinum targeted, so it’s going pretty far. LEED’s been really great as an education program and successful as a brand, but our building codes now are catching up in large part. Everyone’s going to be required to design office buildings to be very efficient, energy wise.

Do we need to be aware of making places, rather than just making structures?

Absolutely. Part of why we’re architects and not video-game designers is we get our satisfaction out of making real places that take on their own lives, by virtue of people occupying and the sun playing on them. They become places when they’re real. We don’t get satisfaction out of just ideas on paper.

Is there an architect who you hold in esteem?

Probably the architect that I look to most frequently would be [American architect] Louis Kahn. His work is very geometric, very pure.

What’s your favourite architectural style?

I come from pretty serious modernist training. I think the modernist approach to expressing tectonics and functionality is still a useful vocabulary for me. Folded into that is my focus on urbanism and human scale, which contextually kind of tempers it a bit and that comes from working in Victoria.

Historian Beatriz Colomina wrote that “Architecture is deeply collaborative, more like moviemaking than visual art,” but is rarely acknowledged as such.

It’s so collaborative … really most of what we do is work with people. It’s mostly relationships and communications, especially on commercial scale projects. I’m not going down there and building a single thing. There’s so many people involved. We’re more of a director than a maker.

Do you have a dream project, maybe where money is no object?

[Laughing] I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me, but money [being] no object would be my total nightmare. I just have an innate sense of economy that makes me really uncomfortable.

This article is from the June/July 2019 issue of Douglas.