Architecture for the Rest of Us

Miss-hit on Google for “Telus Centre for the Performing Arts”

Miss-hit on Google for “Willow Court”

I came across Trevor Boddy’s 2010 article on James K.M. Cheng for The Canadian Architect here and proceeded to read with interest my friend and former professor’s archiography of a well known figure in our community. Boddy makes the observation that it is James Cheng who deserves credit for the tower-and-podium bricolage which some—including Boddy—have championed as ‘Vancouverism’. Time magazine had already parodied our glass tower condominium craze as ‘Hong-couver’ back in 1989 [1].

In the article, Boddy laments some of the 2010 Governor General’s Award choices. The medal is the Canadian Oscars for design, functioning more or less the same as the Hollywood extravaganza. Boddy makes the point that there is something going wrong in Canada’s architecture and urbanism. In passing he cites some exceptions to the criticism citing works like Telus Centre for Performance and Learning in Toronto, designed by Marianne McKenna of KPMB Architects. He sees it among “significant acts of city-building by any standard, but depressingly …actually designed in the 1990s.”

More depressing still, my Google-Image hits for these citations sometimes turned up the wrong works. Adding insult to injury, in some cases the wrong ‘hits’ were more palatable than the ‘true’ search targets. For example, the leaning tower in steel-and-glass pictured at the top of the post  that came up on the “Telus Centre” search. I don’t have the slightest idea what it is, whether the designer is Ghery or one of the new star-chitects, or where it is built—it could be Toronto or Helsinki or hell for that matter.

The second—an ordinary builder suburban—was included under “Willow Court”. The bungalow pictured sits uncomfortably on a lot of ever decreasing size. The sidewalk is a minimal concession to an activity that doesn’t take place. No one walks here since there is nowhere to walk to in the automobile oriented suburb. Half of the front yard is taken up by a driveway as impervious to water penetration as the asphalt on the road fronting. The other half is used for growing grass that is mowed every five days, cuttings placed in plastic bags, and sent to the landfill. Neither the front yard nor porch betray any sign of family use. Its functionality is purely symbolic, yet what it represents to us today is the completely wrong way of building community.

Together the miss-hits illustrate a widening gulf turning into full chasm separating architecture culture and popular taste, each one pursuing misguided aims in its own particular manner. It is not so much that I am a cheer-leader for Bran Flakes Pop, but rather that I find myself in strident opposition the kind of city we have been building since about 1915, one misconceived project at a time. Plainly obvious to any objective observer neither the shish, nor the camp hold any clear idea of how to build cities that work for ‘popular use,’ for people plain and simple. Along the way our conception of the private and the public has been blurred to the point where the principles underpinning the social contract are being questioned. On the on hand, the private corporate tower usurped the monumental scale and privileged space once reserved to public institutions that spoke to and signified the shared ideals of the community. On the other, public infrastructure works have turned into a mega-projects advantaging both crooked politicians, and a select few enormous corporations. In the meantime, the delicate balance between what was designed for community to use and what was given over to fuel free enterprise is coming unhinged. Both the private and the public sectors have lost sight of the social project their valorizations account for the price of everything and the value of nothing.

These are the twin challenges that confront us today as we build out into the new century. On the one hand, architecture as means for authentic expression of social aims and private dreams. On the other, the recovery of the public world (as another professor, Robin Blaser, put it) with the revitalization of our cities to support social mixing, human interaction and shared delight.

[1] Graff, James L. “Canada Prosperity and Parochialism”. Time Magazine (May 22, 1989).
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