Leadership Studio at Muskoka Woods

(David V. Snell, Architect in association with HOK Architects)


The Leadership Studio is the home of a program developing leaders for the future located at Muskoka Woods children’s camp on Lake Rosseau, Ontario. The client came to the architects with a wealth of ideas and programmatic requirements that needed to be accommodated in a small building with a modest budget. The challenge was to distill the ideas into a concept powerful enough to allow the building to act as an educator and source of inspiration. The concept of leadership as a journey was identified as one that could be naturally translated into architecture. Related to the journey was the idea of a labyrinth in which people must find their own way through to a goal but must sometimes circle back to reflect on the past before being able to move forward.


Key programmatic elements were identified including a large open teaching space, an eat-in kitchen with bread oven, a fireplace gathering area, an art studio, a small library and a screened porch. It was discussed that the building should provide a feeling of warmth and intimacy but at the same time awaken the senses and create a moment of arrival, a sense of awe. It should accommodate a variety of teaching methods but never feel like a traditional classroom.


The design of the Leadership Studio started with an intimate understanding of the sloping wooded site with its relationship to the lake, the sun, an adjacent cliff, and a nearby creek. A conceptual path representing a journey of discovery became the central idea for the building. The site is located along a dramatic change in geography between sheer granite cliffs and a gently sloping lowland area. A spectacular cliff-top view of the lake became the conceptual goal of the journey.


The beginning of the journey was established as a path from main camp through the woods to a pedestrian suspension bridge crossing a creek and leading directly to the Leadership Studio. The path continues inside the Studio where the idea of a labyrinth is invoked by a series of ramps and display nooks leading to the art studio and library on the upper level. It is possible to then continue outside, cross another small bridge and follow a path that climbs up to the top of the cliff where one is rewarded with a view of the lake as well as a view back down to where the journey was started. The idea of moving forward with moments of reflection was key to the development of intimate and yet connected spaces within the building.


The movement and split in the geography of the site was reflected in the architectural design by the path going through the building splitting it into distinct but connected volumes on either side. The change in level enforced this idea and provided the opportunity for amphitheatre style seating facing the main gathering space and a large framed view of the lake to the south. An open kitchen and dining area was created as an extension of the main gathering space with smaller framed views to create a more intimate feel. An inwardly focused “nest” or hearth was created as a culmination of the interior experience which was connected to the outdoors by way of a screened porch. The entire building was designed to move upward from east to west following the topography of the site and reinforcing the idea of moving toward a goal on the leadership journey.


Credit – David Snell with David V. Snell, Architect and Warren Mack with HOK Architects