This article was originally published in the 2021 Winter Issue of Invest In Style Magazine.
Alexander Josephson sees Toronto as just coming of age architecturally. The co-founder of Partisans is leading a revolution–one that is fighting for creative freedom in a discipline that’s long been known for its barriers. Here, the future he envisions for Toronto and the path that led him to it.
“My family was just this cauldron of energy,” says Alexander Josephson of growing up in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood in a creative family whose notoriety spans art, fashion, design and science.
When I speak to him, he’s looking out from his ninth-floor apartment in the Colonnade in Yorkville, one of Toronto’s earliest mixed-use buildings constructed in the 1960s. “This city, from my window,” he says, “hasn’t even started.”
Josephson co-founded the renegade architectural studio Partisans in 2012, with Pooya Baktash, and partner Jonathan Friedman joined the firm two years later. “I saw architecture as much more than pragmatically solving the problems of our clients,” says Josephson, “I saw it as shaping the world, differentiating your client, and creating a dream at all costs.”
Josephson attended the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, building his pedigree by globetrotting for the better part of a decade–from LA, where he worked at Barton Myer’s office while living in a home owned by psychoanalyst Esther Benton and designed by Ray Kappe, to studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, to life-changing assignments in NYC and Rome.
“Somehow, on a lark, I got a job at Massimiliano Fuksas’ office in Rome.” Josephson wound up staying for almost five years, becoming one of the inaugural masters students for the program associated between the University of Waterloo and Roma Tre University. Then a fellowship at the Van Alen institute in New York, a storied, architectural think tank and foundation, coincided with the financial crisis and lack of job opportunities.
So it’s no wonder he sought refuge in a self-motivated project in his hometown, returning to Toronto in 2010 and building a loft above his family’s bookshop: the Cookbook Store.
“I came back to Canada and all the experience I had gotten abroad wasn’t recognized from a regulatory perspective,” he says, “and I had to basically start from scratch.” Josephson wound up back at Waterloo to fulfill course requirements–a fortuitous forked road that brought his collaborator and Partisans co-founder, Pooya Baktash, into his life.
“We need to build on what is already an incredible culture of design and architects in Canada,” explains Josephson. “I think this is our opportunity to define ourselves not only economically but culturally,” he says, emphasizing that talent shouldn’t be sought outside of Canada – but encouraged and supported on home-territory: “Canadians have the skill-set to compete with internationally-recognized architects and designers, and we should give opportunities to this talentpool in order to build on the Canadian legacy – instead of outsourcing our best opportunities.”
About the changes wrought by the pandemic, Josephson says, “Covid is forcing us to look inward and say we have to invest in ourselves. We can’t outsource the ideas, we can’t outsource the vision–we have the potential, the ability, and the expertise.”
As a lecturer for the past eight years and now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Architecture, Josephson seems most satisfied with being a part of this academic family–something he calls a huge privilege. His willingness to entice young architects to rethink the city skyline and beyond, is both steadfast and inspiring.
For him, it was a Toronto Star feature on his thesis of a temporary mosque at Queen’s Park that first won him accolades, as have many of Partisans’ most daring award-winning projects in recent years. “It was proof that architecture could be a powerful symbol of social cohesion,” says Josephson, “and also, aesthetically potent to the point where it’s art.”
Seeing architecture itself as a process of change and activism in new design, Partisans decided early on to take on roles and jobs that weren’t considered architecture in a traditional sense, like the repurposing of a decommissioned power plant for Luminato at the Hearn and the curved mahogany of Bar Raval–a nod to Spanish Art Nouveau. “We’re architectural freedom fighters in a certain way–we fight for the best possible architecture in improbable contexts,” says Josephson.
From Windsor’s Riverfront Festival Plaza to redesigning Innisfil, Ontario, as a smart community that’s futuristic and bold, Josephson notes that Partisans’ desire is to build architecture that is extraordinarily varied. “We don’t want to repeat ourselves over and over again.”
Believing that architecture has social, political and human relevance, the Partisans team is fortunate that work has remained steady–and even grown–despite the pandemic: a testament to the innovation and experimentation of its three leaders and everyone at the studio. “It’s a miracle, it’s luck, it’s hard work,” says Josephson, “and it’s been a huge team effort.”
Also in this issue, read how PARTISANS is re-imagining the traditional log cabin on page 74.