Shane Laptiste and Tura Cousins Wilson have had a year for the books. Over the early months of 2023, the co-founders of Toronto’s
It called for a wider-spanning conversation. A couple of months later, a group convened in Azure’s office with senior editor Stefan Novakovic. Laptiste and Cousins Wilson were joined by fellow multihyphenate designers Farida Abu-Bakare and Reza Nik, as well as urban planner Cheryll Case and — via FaceTime from Munich — visual artist and musician Curtis Talwst Santiago. As the conversation unfolded, the tally of vital connections quickly mounted, and the names of their frequent collaborators — from Tiffany Shaw to Tei Carpenter — kept coming. In a field where competition is fierce and authorship and acclaim are jealously guarded, the mutual passion for sharing credit and amplifying the power of community feels refreshing, even transgressive.
The openness to collaboration also reflects a distinctly vocal, civic-minded sensibility. From teaching and mentorship to public outreach and professional engagement — whether through
TURA: Something that Shane and I have been talking about recently — which ties into collaboration — is operating from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. If you’re operating from scarcity, you hoard opportunities. Yet I think there is actually a lot of work out there, and especially if you’re expanding upon what might be seen as traditional work for an architect to be doing. Our work on Alexandra Park, for example,
SOCA is also designing an exhibition at the Gardiner Museum [
CURTIS: Tura and I met through Dr. Kenneth Montague, too — he was actually our dentist. He’s retired now and he’s full-time in the art world. And then we really got to know each other through music. We’d sit together in a room and sonically just create, create, create. It’s so nice to be at ease with someone to allow your creativity to just go; it’s not something that can be forced or really orchestrated. It’s all been a natural progression since then.
FARIDA: Art is also so much more fast-moving than architecture. It’s able to be more temporal and to meet the moment. I think of the social movement of 2020, and redefining the African diaspora identity globally, and everyone pivoting and translating that into contemporary art. And contemporary African artists were transforming their work from 2D to 3D to pavilions and structural elements. Seeing
But creatively, Canadian design still feels restricted, because we’re not allowing communities to define what our environments should look like. And I think if we reach out to more artists and collaborate with them more locally, the future of Canadian architecture starts to become more forward-thinking and more exciting.
SHANE: It also means connecting — and collaborating — with communities and breaking out of the moulds of academic practice. We [SOCA] taught a studio last semester at McGill, working in a historically Black neighbourhood in Montreal. Until then, many of the students never had an opportunity to actually think about the role of an architect as someone who’s listening to people — and then using those conversations to think through what spaces can be and how they can be supported.
CHERYLL: One of the greatest gifts that architects bring to us urban planners is visualizing what the future can look like. To conceptualize and imagine something is one thing, but to lay that down in a drawing or rendering is very empowering for communities.
Much of the work that I’ve been doing with SOCA — in Toronto’s Little Jamaica, for example — and with Reza, as well as with other architects, is about allowing communities to see how what they’re imagining can be made real. And design is an important tool to engage the community — and even the government — and say “This is what we want to do.”
REZA: Something that always bothered me was the insularity of the architectural profession — a culture of making things for other architects to look at. People look for architects to praise other architects’ work without regard for what the general public thinks, or the communities that you’re building for. But I think there’s growth happening, and I hope it’s finally starting to change.
FARIDA: It’s tough to break out of that. But even just trying to spend more time within your community and finding more time with family and the people you love and finding joy — that allows you to create so much more.
SHANE: You need privilege to make it in architecture. And it starts at school, because it’s a career where you’re not going to make a lot of money — and you need connections to actually start something. And there are all of these structures that basically ensure only people of significant means can thrive.
REZA: One of my students was telling me today, “I work every day.” She’s supporting herself with a job, and that takes her out of the equation of pulling all-nighters, and so she can’t put the same number of hours into it.
FARIDA: It’s this militarization of architecture. I remember that mentality of “You can’t not be here.” You need to be in the studio full-time and fully committed to this experience, which needs to take up all your time. That’s what we were all taught.
TURA: We had these T-shirts with the slogan “Sleep is for the weak.” And one time I actually fell asleep at the band saw, making a model.
FARIDA: So we have to be committed to a little bit of activism, a little bit of academia, a little bit of art — and of course community. A big part of BAIDA is championing architects and designers of diverse backgrounds. My dream is having Ghanaian students and people from West Africa come and complete school in Canada — anyone who has their master’s — and be able to pursue working here. But there are lots of additional hurdles for foreign-trained architects.
REZA: And then you look at the exploitation happening in architectural labour. Part of what we’re trying to do with the Architecture Lobby is to figure out how to collectivize and unionize the profession, to help expand bargaining power for architectural workers. And the other aspect that I’ve been interested in is sharing the knowledge about starting your own practice, which is something I’m trying to do through my practice,
CHERYLL: As someone starting out with an independent practice [
TURA: Once you start a practice, there’s definitely a lot of barriers. There’s this whole crisis in architectural procurement and how to make room for the smaller fish. And then as we’re having all of these conversations about missing-middle housing, I think there’s also a missing middle of clients in North America. So you get really amazing architects that get stuck at the private residential scale, which is the type of work that’s least able to address social issues. You’re basically doing kitchen renovations, or if you’re really lucky, a home addition. And then there are the big projects like apartment towers, institutional buildings — which are very difficult to break into — with not much in between.
REZA: Something like
And then Tei Carpenter from New York’s
CHERYLL: The public sector has a responsibility to create these types of opportunities and to support the creativity of those who’ve been traditionally excluded. The Bentway is a great example, but it can start small. In Little Jamaica, for example, they have a farmers’ market every Sunday in the summer. And I think that’s another critical way that the city has been able to support groups and create cultural opportunities, and it creates economic opportunities as well.
TURA: Seeing these kinds of changes also opens you up to the amount of possibility here in Toronto. I don’t know if Toronto will necessarily ever be an architecturally beautiful place — it’s kind of a cheap city, to a large degree, and there are a lot of problems — but there’s a special energy here. Whether it’s what’s happening in Little Jamaica, or even new community land trusts in Kensington Market, there’s a very grassroots, entrepreneurial spirit. Reza, you started your own thing. Cheryll, you just graduated from school and started doing it.
CHERYLL: I only started my own company because I couldn’t get a job! Nobody would hire me. And if they hired me, they wouldn’t give me anything to do. But you know what? It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me.