Renowned architect Bruce Kuwabara receives U of T honorary degree

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One of Canada’s most distinguished architects, Bruce Kuwabara has designed some of the country’s finest structures. An accomplished city-builder, he is also a valued campus-builder – a University of Toronto alum who has helped shape the university’s development and contributed to the success of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.

Today, for his superlative architectural and design sensibility, and for his outstanding contributions to the university, Kuwabara will receive a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from U of T.

Born in Hamilton, Ont in 1949, Kuwabara earned a degree in architecture from U of T in 1972. After graduating, he joined the teaching studio of architect George Baird, whose interest in public spaces, Jane Jacobs and Scandinavian urban design influenced how Kuwabara thought about city-building. (Decades later, Baird would serve as dean of the Daniels Faculty.)

Following the apprenticeship with Baird, Kuwabara joined Barton Myers Associates, where he worked for 12 years. When Myers left in 1987, he handed over his Toronto practice to Kuwabara and two of his fellow associates at the firm – Marianne McKenna and Shirley Blumberg – and a friend, Thomas Payne. Together, they created the new firm KPMB. (Payne ventured out on his own in 2013, but the remaining principals kept the “P.”)

As an architect – and a citizen – Kuwabara is deeply engaged with how architecture and landscape design can work together to bring about a more diverse, equitable and sustainable city. In his projects, he aims to marry performance with aesthetics in ways that improve people’s well-being, while also being kind to the planet. His philosophy is visible in the evolution of Waterfront Toronto and U of T, where he has helped steer design choices to create a greater number of beautiful and vibrant public spaces.

His work in Toronto includes cultural and academic institutions such as the Gardiner Museum, the Rotman School of Management, Canada’s National Ballet School and TIFF Bell Lightbox, in which he often blends contemporary details with historical elements. His designs for Kitchener City Hall, Richmond City Hall and Vaughan City Hall have all won Governor General’s Medals in Architecture. “What’s important to [KPMB] is to be very consistently good,” Kuwabara told the Globe and Mail in 2014

Larry Richards (who has also served as dean of the Daniels Faculty) wrote in Canadian Architect that “Kuwabara’s agenda is not just about making objects and places of great beauty but something more active, more profound. Something that is simultaneously both culturally stabilizing and transforming.”

As part of his creative process, Kuwabara still sketches every day, putting ideas onto paper at every stage of design. In an interview with the CBC earlier this year, he described what he does as a “tug of war” between his “intuition about what things should be like” and “the reality of not having it all figured out…. For me, it’s a way of tracking thought.”

His colleagues have tried to convince him to switch to a computer or tablet, but he prefers the old-fashioned way. “The key,” he told the CBC, “is to find a way to slow things down so you can actually make a really good decision … There’s so much flux, there’s so much confusion, there’s so much thrown at you every single day.”

In Kuwabara’s body of work, it’s difficult to discern a single, unifying “look.” Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic observed two commonalities in his 2014 article: “an intense attention to the public realm” (such as creating spaces for people to gather) and “carefully conceived details and material choices.” 

“Those two impulses – to look out to the city and inward to small things – have been KPMB’s since the beginning,” Bozikovic wrote.

Even before climate change became the high-profile issue it is today, Kuwabara found ways to integrate sustainability into his practice. As the principal designer for the Canadian Embassy in Berlin, he studied international strategies for reducing energy consumption, and continued to put the ideas into use when he returned home.

The foundation for his commitment to sustainability formed early. In his 2006 acceptance speech for the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medal (the country’s highest award for architecture), Kuwabara made a connection between the tropical fish he kept as a child and his green mindset: “Aquariums are finite ecologies, fragile environments within which everything needs to be balanced and maintained,” he said.

In his convocation address to this year’s architecture graduates, Kuwabara encouraged them to think about the challenges of the day. “We have a collective responsibility as architects, landscape architects, urban designers, visual artists and foresters to engage with the issues of our time. We can only be contemporary. Your area of study will be meaningful if it serves the needs of society and the world.

“Develop your natural intelligence while asking what you can do to enhance the lives of others. Keep working towards making the world we want. Keep reminding yourself to move beyond ‘what’s good for me is all that counts.’ Keep thinking and acting in citizenship.”

Kuwabara is an officer of the Order of Canada and, in 2005, was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. His firm, KPMB, has won 18 Governor General Awards, with Kuwabara himself the lead partner on 14 of the winning projects.

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