Riding the Wave in Tofino

From surfing spot to modernist mecca, Tofino is a pro at reinvention.

Jeremy Koreski is waiting for a wave. He’s bobbing around in the 12-degree swell that has made Tofino, British Columbia, one of the chillest surf spots in the world. Then a big one finally rolls in. But unlike the surfers who pop up on their longboards in a snap, Koreski hangs low. So low that he can capture the dudes inside the barrel breaker with his wide-angle lens. Who needs a board to embrace the force of nature when you’ve got swim fins and a camera?

The connection to wildness – to the impatient Pacific Ocean, the swaying rainforest, the unwavering rocky headlands – is the main draw for photographer Koreski and his pro-surfer friends, who literally immerse themselves in the natural world on this rugged outside coast of Vancouver Island.

Backcountry Hut rendering

Backcountry Hut Company’s vision for a coastal dwelling. (Photo rendering: Backcountry Hut)

The same is true for the harried city folk who increasingly come to Tofino seeking respite from asphalt, noise and traffic jams. Once there, they find award-winning food and upscale hotel accommodations – the district has developed into a popular getaway destination, especially in the past 10 years.

Once an isolated trading town known for its winter storms, Tofino’s image transformed with the arrival of surfers and campers in the 1960s, and then in 1972, when it welcomed the only paved road to the open Pacific Ocean in the country. With a permanent population of just under 2,000 people, the town has managed to retain a laid-back, worry-free vibe that makes it feel like you’ve travelled back six decades, when in reality you’ve only driven six hours from Vancouver.

“I owe a lot of my success to Tofino’s popularity as a surf spot and the fact that, when I started out, I was the only one shooting this type of stuff,” says Koreski modestly.

Prefab house, AA Robins Architects

A prefab house with cantilevered wings from AA Robins Architects. (Photo: Nic Lehoux for AA Robins)

Tofino, transformed

Over the years, Jeremy Koreski has seen a tide of people arrive in his hometown. Many come to visit – whale-watching, hiking, fishing and (of course) surfing – others to stay, but all are changing the landscape. Along with internationally recognized restaurants and award-winning lodges, modernist architecture is finding its place here, in nature, with minimalist buildings cropping up among cedar and spruce.

Tony Robins, the principal of Vancouver-based AA Robins Architect, is no stranger to designing homes that make the most of nature by blending in, including the house he dreamed up for a surfer and his family on a hillside overlooking Rosie Bay (widely considered the best beginner surf spot in Tofino). Built around a central courtyard, the structure floats on pillars.

Backcountry Hut Company surf shack

Plans for a surf shack from Backcountry Hut Company show how it will blend into the shore. (Photo: Backcountry Hut)

“The design is very contextual. The galvanized-steel columns and the cedar deck pick up the silver colour of the tree trunks around the house,” says Robins. A roof draped with mosses makes the home fade into the background when seen from above, and an infinity pool reflects the trees and frames the view of the ocean, a mere 15 metres away. “But when you’re standing on the beach, you can barely see the house,” says Robins. “Good modernist architecture can fit in anywhere, whether it hides in the woods and is more like nature, or is the opposite of its geographical context.”

Backcountry Hut Company

A helicopter helps Backcountry Hut Company build deep in the wilderness. (Photo: Backcountry Hut)

Nature by design

Integrating architecture with nature while respecting this unique setting takes many different forms, from the sleek, dark lines and rectangular volumes courtesy of Robins, to the rustic cedar cabins that have stood like upturned boats at Ocean Village on MacKenzie Beach for more than 40 years. What unites such formally different projects (other than their rainforest backdrop) is a sense of timelessness.

Ocean Village opened in 1976, and while it has a slightly hippie feel (which seems more to do with the Tofino vibe than with the era it was built in), it still fits in its context. Aging gracefully is also the goal of the newest modernist structures on this stretch of Vancouver Island. The Surf Shack, a prefabricated structure that can be configured as a one-person cabin, a small family cottage or a bunkhouse for a group of surfers and their gear, depending on how many prefab modules the client chooses to put together, is designed with longevity in mind.

Ocean Village cabins

These retro Ocean Village cabins have stood at MacKenzie Beach for more than 40 years. (Photo: Tara Hurst)

“The Surf Shack is an adaptation of our backcountry huts,” says Wilson Edgar, the founder (together with architect Michael Leckie of Vancouver-based Leckie Studio) of the Backcountry Hut Company. The firm started with the idea of creating mountain cabins that would be relatively easy to transport and erect in challenging and largely inaccessible terrain. “Modernist modular structures are usually a square box,” says Edgar, “but at high altitudes, you can easily get 10 metres of snow. A flat roof would never hold up to that, so we decided on a peaked roof.” This design also allows for lots of natural light: The almost eight-metre-tall structure has high ceilings for air flow and windows high up to let light flood the interior. Clad in black metal for zero maintenance, it is also built to last 50-plus years.

“The idea for the Tofino Surf Shack came after that,” says Edgar. “Backcountry Hut co-founder Michael is a surfer. He loves the coast and the Tofino area. He suggested a hut for coastal regions and modified the backcountry hut as a front-country surf shack that would feel more like a home.”

Explore the coastal temperate rainforest

Even surfers will want to head inland to explore the coastal temperate rainforest.

Like the mountain version, the front-country shack is also built to last. But instead of a metal facade, it’s designed with cedar siding, which not only fits in with the coastal environment where cedars grow but is also a necessity, since metal would rust as a result of the constant exposure to salt in the air. In Tofino, architecture can’t survive without embracing (and braving) the force of nature.

Back on the beach, as the tide rolls out, Koreski reiterates the importance of this relationship at every level, explaining that when people come, they let their guard – and shoulders – down. “Sure, Tofino is busier than it was 10 years ago,” he says. “But where else can you spot a pod of orcas from your kitchen window? It’s magic.”

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