By Jenny Ford
Architecture has been a long internship for Winnipegger Sotirios Kotoulas. It began by helping his father with masonry projects, using a magnifying glass to find hairline cracks in the Golden Boy during restoration, and has taken him to New York City and back again to Winnipeg.
“For me, my education hasn’t finished,” admits Sotirios, 34. “Traditionally when you studied architecture you had to study surveying, you had to study painting, you had to study music, theory and harmony … It takes decades before architects really get to that place.”
Now, his most major project in his hometown has set off a firestorm of controversy about his designs, vision and background. Sotirios is currently the project designer behind the pumphouse high-rise development on James Avenue near Waterfront Drive. He’s also working toward becoming a licensed architect in New York State, where he spends much of his time.
Regardless, his goal for all his buildings remains the same: create sustainable spaces that connect with a community. “How do we build communities; healthy communities, sustainable communities and communities that can really build a city and create an urban environment?” he says. “The architect is endowed with creating an other-worldly experience.”
The pumphouse development has thrust Sotirios into the spotlight. The 24-storey building planned for the historic James Avenue Pumping Station was designed by Sotirios along with a team of 10 other designers, engineers, consultants, and architects. It’s a mixed-use space, he describes, that includes a grocery store, a public space he calls the “machine” garden, a restaurant, rental units, and condos.
“The team didn’t come together to build a tower,” he says. “The team wanted to save the pump station. Having gone through the history of all the failed projects, it became very obvious to us that we had to go vertical.”
The pumphouse development has had many vocal critics, especially local residents who say the building violates the eight-storey height restriction along Waterfront Drive, doesn’t fit with the historic surroundings and will overshadow other buildings in the area.
“What’s very important is that (the development) is a democratic process. For me, the whole experience of hearing residents’ opinions was humbling and educational. I wanted to hear everyone’s concerns,” he says.
The pumphouse design, he believes, is the perfect way to commemorate the historic building. Thanks to the pumping station, firefighters could fight fires over two storeys, allowing for the construction of taller buildings. “If you’re going to monumentalize the pump station and define it as an orientation device within the city, you build a tower,” he says.
The team is also working with residents to bring much-needed amenities to the neighbourhood, such as a grocery store and more parking.
There have also been questions about Sotirios’ credentials, since he isn’t a licensed architect yet. The team has a lead, licensed architect, he says, who reviews and oversees the entire design process, including Sotirios’ designs. The licensed architect is also insured and liable for the project.
Building globally and locally
The pumphouse aside, Sotirios has helped design buildings all over the world – China, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, the United States and many more. These experiences have taught him to connect with a community, its surroundings and its needs.
He’s worked for companies in New York designing skyscrapers and for other companies designing housing and restoration projects. These projects were much more challenging than the pumphouse tower, he says – mixed-use spaces combining grocery stores, office space, hotels, condos, apartments and other stores. The challenge is in designing functional, beautiful spaces with the right vibe while lining up all the piping, vents, and so on.
One of the most memorable projects, he says, was working on a design for the first Palestinian settlement in Israel, a highly politicized project. He worked on a team with other designers in New York for seven months designing a square with a church, synagogue and mosque, as well as accessible health care and high quality education. The project eventually fizzled, but it taught Sotirios about building sustainable, healthy communities in tense situations.
“It was a village that had geo-political intentions. It was speaking to a very tense situation in the region and it was trying to address certain missing elements,” he says. “You’re trying to figure out how do people live in these areas and how do you accommodate for that.”
Winnipeg has also influenced his work and outlook on architecture. Although he left the city to pursue studies at the prestigious Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York City and later at McGill University in Montreal, Sotirios says he still feels a strong connection to his Manitoba roots.
He’s returned to help his father, Konstantinos Kotoulas, president of Alpha Masonry, on projects such as the Wuskwatim hydroelectric dam and a current development at 267 Sherbrook Avenue. He even designed a home for his parents on the Red River north of Winnipeg. The city is also a source of inspiration for other projects.
“In the end, when you build architecture, it’s for the people,” he says. “What inspires me about Winnipeg is the people. It has one of the most incredible cultural communities. The amount of brainpower and creativity in that city is out of this world.”
While Sotirios has an apartment in New York City, he is currently based in Winnipeg while he works on the pumphouse and the 267 Sherbrook development. He’s also teaching courses at the University of Manitoba, inspiring the next generation of architects.
“The most important thing for me is that my students learn how to think,” he says. “Learn how to think so that we can create meaningful architecture. It’s not about problem-solving only, because today’s solution is tomorrow’s problem.”
Aiming high and dreaming big is also important advice he imparts to his students.
“Shoot high, dream big. You can lead projects in many different ways,” he says. “Architecture isn’t made by one or two people, it’s made by a team.”