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Challenging the status quo

Stephen Kopp

Published Thursday August 11th, 2011 in the Telegraph Journal
Photo: Kelly Lawson

Dave Veale interviews Stephen Kopp, Founder of Acre Architects as part of the Leadership Unleashed series of interviews with leaders.

Acre Architects have already made an impact on the Saint John landscape.

I have been hearing and reading about some unique projects that are pointing back to Stephen Kopp and his firm – there’s an award-winning patio at Happinez Winebar, a television project in Newfoundland with a celebrity comedian, being selected as one of Canada’s top emerging firms in Canada for Twenty Change, and, most recently, a Canada-wide public art award for a 90-metre-long sculpture at the Saint John Transit Commission that reinterprets the language of the road. If you haven’t heard of Stephen Kopp, who shares the same title – co-founder and partner – with Monica Adair, you soon will.

Stephen holds a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Environmental Design from the University of Manitoba. His architectural work began abroad in Germany, followed by a period in Winnipeg. After graduation Stephen worked in Toronto and New York prior to moving to Saint John.

My first question was based on my curiosity … I asked Stephen what he thinks is behind all the great press he’s been receiving lately.

A: When I arrived from New York we had been working there for a couple years and I suppose architecturally that is sort of interesting.

Q: What would be interesting about that?

A: I believe people see Saint John as a city of potential. So having someone who is inspired to do something here opens conversations. The press has been very interested in what we’ve been doing and the first thing we actually did was a small patio at the wine bar on Princess Street. The architectural dialogue seemed to have just started from there.

[Tweet “I believe people see Saint John as a city of potential. – Stephen Kopp”]

Q: You mentioned Saint John being ‘a city of potential,’ what do you feel your firm’s experience and perspective brings to this region?

A: I think there can be a tendency toward paralysis of thinking beyond the historic aspect of the city. The heritage community has done a good job of preserving history but that can create an arrested development in a way. We’re definitely contemporary minds, we wanted to respect that building typology and, at the same time, create something new. It’s that combination of new and old and maybe jogging people’s thought process to what could be.

Q: Is there a lot of opportunity to merge the new and the old in New Brunswick, in your opinion?

A: Definitely, especially in Saint John. Each city has something special but in Saint John there are lots of little gaps between the old, where a version of new can take place, and it’s more interesting than replicating something that’s already past.

Q: What else do you believe happens when merging the new and the old?

A: I think it’s a way we can attract young professionals and people who are going to do something in this region.

Q: How do you feel about the fact that you can help influence what the future looks and feels like?

A: It is a big responsibility, which is why we feel like we have to keep learning. We don’t want to assume by any means that we know the answer because the city is incredibly complex. I think we have a lot to add and we’re passionate about the possibility of being able to add buildings that will have a positive impact on the community.

Q: You mention Saint John quite frequently. What geographic area does your firm serve?

A: We think of ourselves as Atlantic Canadian and we do have a project in northern Newfoundland right now.

Q: I understand your work in Newfoundland is a high-profile project.

A: It’s going to be a TV show on the W network – the first season of the show is not coming out until next year. Our client is an actor and comedian who is building an eco (ecologically friendly) hotel in his hometown in Newfoundland and the W Channel is making a documentary. We are a small part in that but the building of his small eco hotel is the goal. He’s woven this incredibly narrative, complex story and we are the characters within it.

Q: Are there any examples of unique support you feel you have received building a new business in New Brunswick?

A: I was lucky enough to get into the Wallace McCain Institute Entrepreneurial Leadership Program. I think that’s not only going to be helpful for this year but for as long as our business exists in New Brunswick.

Q: At this stage of your business, what are the toughest decisions you make?

A: I think we are in a constant dialogue right now about growth. New Brunswick is small province and Atlantic Canada is relatively small in terms of population and the amount of building dollars. We don’t want to grow too fast or beyond our natural size for the province. Another challenge is recruitment. There is no architectural school in New Brunswick. We have been lucky so far with finding employees but not everyone jumps at the chance to move to Saint John.

[Tweet ” I think we are in a constant dialogue right now about growth. – Stephen Kopp”]

Q: Is there an award or accolade that stands out as representative of you as an individual or as a company?

A: Hmmm. That’s interesting. We’ve won some awards and we were recognized in the last two years as one of the top 20 young design firms in Canada. I also worked as a project architect with Murdock & Boyd on the qplex for three years and I am quite proud of that project. But, you know, even though it’s small, we’re most proud of the wine bar patio project.

[Tweet “Even though it’s small, we’re most proud of the wine bar patio project. – Stephen Kopp”]

Q: What does that patio symbolize for you?

A: Even though it’s only 100 square feet of wood and glass it did help transform that street and showed what an impact a small, well-designed and well-managed client project can do for a city.

Q: How would you finish this sentence? ‘A leader’s job is to … ‘

A: A leader’s job is to see the big picture and help motivate others to reach that vision.

Q: What’s your vision?

A: Our challenge is to see if we can help put New Brunswick architecture back on the national scene. To do this means challenging the status quo at every turn.

Dave Veale is a business and leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John. He can be reached by email at Dave@VisionCoachingInc.com.

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