Architect Stephanie Robb on Incorporating Art into Architecture

Stephanie Robb's innovative designs marry art and architecture

Stephanie Robb, Gabe Daly and Bill Pechet embrace creativity in their home design projects

Former design duo Stephanie Robb and Bill Pechet combined their fascination with art with their architectural work

Stephanie Robb of Vancouver’s award-winning Pechet and Robb Art and Architecture Ltd. considers art and architecture to be one and the same.

Robb and former partner Bill Pechet have created a diverse portfolio that showcases their signature style of infusing art into architecture, whether within private residences, cemeteries, public art exhibits or furniture.

Did your company have a unifying theme?

We’re interested in developing environments [that] bridged the worlds of art and imagination in everyday life. Bill and I studied fine art in university before architecture, and have infused it in our work ever since. We chose projects we could approach with a sense of delight and creativity.

How does this translate into home design?

Residences often allow for far more design exploration than other buildings, although today’s market has diminished much of this due to overriding concern for resale value. Homeowners were more open to customizing spaces in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. We work at both ends of the spectrum, from high- to low-end projects, depending more on the client’s outlook than on budget. 

Memorable Projects

The Exeter residence is one of Robb and Pechet’s most extensive projects. (Image: Martin Tessler)

Describe a high-end project you have worked on.

The Exeter residence in Victoria’s Oak Bay neighbourhood is U-shaped to capture the surrounding’s spectacular Garry oak trees and bedrock outcrops. These defined the home and determined the decision to create numerous areas that blur boundaries between interior and exterior. 

The contemporary house has sliding glass curtain walls and massive windows with a view of the courtyard garden – the focus for the kitchen, dining room, foyer, living room and master bedroom. A 700-square-foot custom fibreglass canopy that overhangs the patio has pine needles from the trees above imbedded into it and is translucent to allow in sunlight. Countertops are in aqua coloured rice paper suspended in plastic resin to look like sheets of watercolour. 

What is a memorable low-end project?

My own East Vancouver residence is a completely refurbished “Vancouver Special.” The original 1,100-square-foot house was gutted, and partition walls were removed. We added 50 square feet to the front with a contemporary bay window and storage, and a 150-square-foot space on the back with a window wall to take advantage of the view.

Since the focus is privacy in this home, which sits very close to its neighbours, the new space adds a mask-like overhang to the front entrance. We removed ceiling joists and added skylights to the open ceiling for an informal, sun-drenched studio look, and designed lots of built-in furniture. 

Why did you renovate rather than rebuild?

It was a cost-effective option at that time. It seemed wasteful to tear down a structurally sound house. We were interested in discovering what could be done with a Vancouver Special. It garnered much media attention because it was one of the first to be renovated, and was featured on The Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Vancouver Special Tour.

Recognizing a Job Well Done

The house was described as “simple, boxy and unpretentious,” and it won a Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia Innovation Award for Architecture.

There are hundreds of Vancouver Specials in this city. Demonstrating how these homes can be reinvigorated for a new generation was innovative. Although at 1,400 square feet, it still can be a tight fit for our family of four.

Tell me about the art installation/heating plant project that won the Lieutenant-Governor Award for Architecture.

The False Creek Energy Centre is an innovative heating plant that produces domestic hot water and heating for Southeast False Creek, extracted from sewage. We were retained to design emissions stacks for the natural gas boilers. We shaped the five stainless stacks like a stylized hand, and at the top of each of the finger-like stacks is a fingernail-like LED light fixture, activated by the facility operations to glow either blue/cool or red/hot. 

Why did they have to look artistic?

Since it is sited in the heart of Vancouver, the emissions stacks needed to be creative and functional. Because residents gravitated toward the art, it helped to make them feel more comfortable about the engineering concept.

Projects with a Purpose

SweaterLodge, Robb’s latest art installation, is a commentary on a First Nations sweat lodge. (Image: Gabe Daly)

Your company designs cemeteries. Any interesting experiences?

We’ve never seen ghosts. These projects are built for living people who come to pay their respects. As far as we’re able to know, the deceased don’t care about the surroundings, but those attached to the deceased care very much. 

We’re currently working on a cemetery project called Little Souls Garden in Royal Oak Cemetery in Victoria, which is a memorial specifically for deceased unborn children. There’s a need for parents to commemorate the child, so we designed little concrete houses to represent each individual, and eventually a little village will appear as more are placed there. It is very satisfying work; it incorporates the needs of diverse cultures and requires high-quality materials and interesting forms. 

Your new Museum of Vancouver art exhibit called SweaterLodge is bold and outrageous.

It’s a brilliant orange Polartec® fleece sweater, made from recycled plastic pop bottles, that measures 40 feet on the body and 87 feet from sleeve to sleeve – 18 times human scale. SweaterLodge is suspended like a tent, and it is a play on a First Nations sweat lodge. Professional sewers assisted in designing the huge fleece zip-up, complete with Velcro tabs, grommets and a tag reading “SweaterLodge, XL, Made in Canada.” 

It is designed as a warm, sacred space with contemplative music, and 2,500 bottles [are on display inside] to show the amount used to manufacture it. SweaterLodge first appeared at the Venice Biennale of Architecture as an emblem of Canada’s West Coast and our paradoxical love of nature and mass consumption. 

Do you always have so much fun at work?

I’ve always had a creative imagination; art was my favourite subject a school, but all projects require 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration. It also takes considerable courage and experience to build creative installations. The first ones launched for public display are absolutely terrifying.

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.