The past seven months have given way to the largest investment in public infrastructure in generations. As the country incurs unprecedented debt during COVID-19, the Canadian government promised in June that it will accelerate payments to cities of $2.2-billion under the Gas Tax Fund for areas including “public transit, wastewater infrastructure, local roads and bridges, disaster mitigation, broadband and connectivity, culture, tourism and recreation.” This is in addition to the $200-billion earmarked for long-term investment in infrastructure in 2016 under the provision of a Canada Infrastructure Bank. In many ways, the next 50 years will be defined by this federally funded, locally enacted transition to sustainable economies driven by major public works. Let’s make sure our dollars go the distance. To get out of the pandemic, we will have to build our way out. But let’s not build the status quo.
There needs to be a significantly innovative legacy to this historic investment – across financial, cultural and generational lines. The novel coronavirus, climate change and the BLM and BIPOC movements have underlined the need for us to think carefully and intentionally about how we create public spaces; the results have both material and symbolic ramifications. In essence, we are talking about building a national identity that makes us more resilient in terms of public health, ecology and community – and we had better get it right. And yet there is not a single architect or design visionary at the side of our political leaders, nurturing a “vision tomorrow.” It’s time to change that.
In the middle of this crisis, it is more important than ever to inculcate design as part of decision-making processes. Architects – informed by and working in tandem with the needs and desires of the community – help to imagine the urban realm and maximize the quality and effectiveness of the built fabric at all scales. They know what the highest level of architectural achievement looks like; informed by public engagement, they are the natural conduits for channelling the changes demanded by this historic moment and its various stakeholders. Which is why they can no longer stand in the background awaiting their turn – there needs to be a direct role for architects within policymaking when it comes to shaping our cities, nay, country, for the better. Especially during a crisis that makes us reconsider our priorities, we need to double down on innovation in design.
A few years ago, my studio, Partisans, began campaigning for the creation of a City Hall position synonymous with a Chief Design Officer, a Chief Architect or a Chief Creative Officer. From London and Los Angeles to Mexico and even Edmonton, cities around the world that have undertaken meaningful transformation all have a version of this pivotal role. It’s time to double down on that previous call.
But the current situation makes it clear that we need to go much further: We must codify design oversight at the federal level in the current conversation around rebuilding our country’s infrastructure and identity. We need to envision public works that make our lives better and are pride inducing. Hydro-electric dams, for instance, ought to be beautiful; we should make them worthy of celebrating. In projects like the Salt Shed in Manhattan by WXY, Norman Foster’s Millau viaduct, the Porto cruise terminal by Luís Pedro Silva Arquitecto, Zaha Hadid’s Danjiang Bridge and Edmonton’s Borden Park projects by GH3*, architects have proven how vital and indelible the role of infrastructure, especially the awe-inspiring kind, is in the urban fabric. We also need to consider the potential for more fully democratizing our often-privileged public realms.
Rather than the typical Canadian practice of spending money to solve one problem at a time, design-based approaches allow for solving multiple problems at once. Earlier this year, MP Adam Vaughan expressed, it is “time for Canada to have a Chief Architect to support the government and the country achieve design excellence across all departments.” He is absolutely right.
Such a role would be effective in the following realms:
Imagine if Canada were a leader in design innovation and the world started coming to us for ground-breaking building solutions. Beauty emerges when design misbehaves, not when it follows everyone else’s lead. Hybridity, especially of form and program, is a hallmark of our time and the cornerstone of current advanced architectural practice. Bjarke Ingels Group’s waste-to-energy-plant incorporating a ski-slope is a perfect example, as is Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Shed in Manhattan.
To be a nation of truly great cities, architecturally, uncommonly innovative design has to be rewarded. Embracing the unfamiliar takes courage but it’s what is required if we are interested in legacy building. Architects in governmental roles would be able to credibly determine which projects hit the mark and which ones don’t and, therefore, fight the regular fight to reward hard work and ambition.
To move forward, we need to leapfrog our prevailing expectations for our cities. We must aggressively embrace the technology that architects and engineers use to model the world around us and be open to the unfamiliar forms and aesthetics that these radical technologies give birth to. We also need to execute work efficiently: BIM (building information modelling) allows for architects to quantify a project’s ecological footprint during the ideation process; CIM, or city information modelling, allows for the creation of digital twins of our cities – broader, interconnected visions based, hopefully, on ambitious resiliency goals – to be shared among all stakeholders. Sustainability is not just about implementing green-power systems and lower-carbon finishes in structures; it is about efficiently building out our infrastructure and planning for growth not two decades out but 100 years into the future. Architects are best situated to help bureaucracy understand the usefulness and potential of these tools – as well as to maximize their results.
Information is power, and we would be wise to take full account of the lessons learned in Toronto’s ill-fated interaction with Sidewalk Labs about how to address data management policy in order to rally forward with a digital infrastructure policy. The role architects play in adopting technology as a tool to build or design our cities cannot be underestimated. The types of software used by architects to design our buildings and cities are part of the architect’s important everyday act of drawing and communication – which is also central to creating a vision, locally and nationally.
Every building has to adhere to building codes. To discuss these codes, many of which are rightly driven by safety – especially in the context of structural integrity and fire prevention – implies going into the weeds. But we need to nerd out here, because the nuances are what prevent progress in building construction technology. Building codes determine what we can achieve within the law based on existing techniques from yesteryears – and they are heavily influenced by industry lobbying that favours certain construction practices over others. A good example of this is the longstanding aversion to heavy timber design. We are slowly adopting cross-laminated and mass-timber – a sustainable, carbon-sequestering alternative to concrete and steel – but we are doing so inefficiently compared to other countries.
Architects are uniquely placed to fill the knowledge gap between urban planners and material innovation in design and construction. They can provide insight on how to be more creative with the codes (while simultaneously ensuring safety measures are met) and bring about more cost-effective modes of construction, such as using “stick” (lightweight lumber) on top of a concrete podium to build missing-middle buildings – the residential projects that will help us bridge the affordable housing gap. By moving in this direction, we could also bolster an industry that we let go of in the march towards globalization and begin to again manufacture products with our natural resources. All of this will also require challenging and changing the codes that are in opposition to that effort.
Building great architecture is a manifestation of our societal and cultural brand – our values writ large into poetic physical experiences. Canada’s architectural community has so much to offer. Yet it is not only the present moment and all the uncertainty of it that threatens the industry, it is also the long-reigning, if unofficial, policy of outsourcing our most valued design opportunities. We need the courage to invest in our homegrown architects – especially those in underrepresented groups, as diversity is our nation’s greatest strength – to design the kinds of landmark architecture projects we admire in other countries (whose firms we tend to hire to design the highest-profile projects in Canada). If we build our capacity for appreciating what our own architecture teams can create – and cultivate the belief that our talent can do it better than the rest – we can then export that passion and expertise abroad.
Enacting a policy of open competitions based on ideas – and not fees, as our current procurement culture emphasizes – would incentivize Canadian firms to vie for projects at home and position them to go abroad. In light of the crisis, Canadian firms should be offered these opportunities first, even as a temporary measure; we have to focus on ourselves for the time being and then, once we have built a rock-solid base, open opportunities to the rest of the world. Just as when Canada enacted the forward-looking Centennial policies, which brought about such remarkable projects as Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, the nation could once again realize the tremendous value in building our own identity as a leader in design and architecture globally.
We are at a critical juncture and, instead of waiting for all of the COVID-19 noise to dissipate, we need to come together and actually talk about a progressive vision for our cities and country now. Let’s prepare. If we are going to build a country of the future, a diverse group of architects need to be at the table with mayors, planners and the Prime Minister. Let’s plan the future, set the vision, and make the improbable possible.
The pandemic has proven that we need a big vision at the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government to leverage architecture and design within decision-making processes, argues Alex Josephson of Toronto firm Partisans.