The Library as Third Place

Morten Schmidt spoke at the Museum of History this week. Schmidt is a partner at the renowned Danish architecture firm, Schmidt Hammer Lassen (SHL), best known for their libraries. For context, they have proposed a new central library for Ottawa, recently, together with Toronto’s KPMB architects.

Full disclosure, my employer, the NCC, put on the event together with Carleton’s Azrieli School for Architecture and Urbanism, for whom I recently taught an urbanism studio.

Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s library in Halifax recently won a Governor General’s award here in Canada,  and they’ve been recognized for their work all over the world. They recently won library commissions in Christchurch, New Zealand, and in Shanghai, China, and have built more than 50 libraries worldwide.
The NCC’s Dr. Kristmanson and Andy Fillmore, MP for Halifax, who is also a planner and urban designer, introduced the speaker. The Hon. Mr. Fillmore talked about his experiences and challenges getting Halifax’s stunning new library built. The entire downtown was rezoned by 2012, to try to spur growth, setting the stage for the new central library.

Schmidt’s focus is what he calls ‘democratic architecture’; one that invites the entire public to enjoy it, and is designed using a thorough consultative process. He shared the firm’s work including several libraries and a few other cultural buildings.

Today, he says, the libraries play the role of a ‘third place’, where people gather; between work and home. In our digital society, human minds are changing; based on using phones all the time to look things up and navigate though cities, we don’t use our memories as much. But despite changes in technology, the need for libraries continues. Our access to information is also today increasingly being controlled by companies like Google and Amazon. The public library should be an answer to this issue.

Copenhagen’s Royal Library, for example, designed by SHL, holds the nation’s archives, but is also designed as a social place, and is completely open to the public. This library is both a civic and cultural centre.

The most important function of the library today is to allow people to reinterpret the world around them. Besides museums, libraries are among very few truly public spaces today. Involvement and empowerment of individuals and communities is key to today’s library.

In Halifax, the public was intimately involved in the design process, over a period of six months. In consultation with the local kids, who were “Harry Potter mad” what the designers heard over and over was that it should be like Hogwarts. The designers decided to watch the movie again, and the moving stairs in the movie became a source of inspiration. Library attendance has been much higher than expected in Halifax, and the library is considered highly successful.

In Aarhus, SHL created a new library on the waterfront, the result of a design competition. The library doubles as a transit hub, with a light rail station and automated parking garage in the building. Kid friendly play structures surround the library. Inside, public performance spaces and contemplative quiet places abound.

In Shanghai, Schmidt is designing a very large new library with massive interior public spaces.

SHL broke ground on a library for Christchurch New Zealand recently. A lot of buildings are missing in that city today, because of the recent devastation by an earthquake. The library will be the first major public building. Maori traditions are being incorporated as a key component of the project.
The Hon. Andy Fillmore and Mr. Schmidt sat down after the lecture to speak more informally about the work, and take audience questions.

As an architect and urban designer myself, I find Schmidt’s work inspiring. Having received a presentation like this I’m struck that North American public buildings have a long way to go to be more ‘democratic’ and welcoming to the public, but also more aesthetically successful. 

Minimalist Art and Architectural Space

Ottawa’s National Gallery of Art is honestly one of the things I appreciate most about living in this City. It had been a couple of months since I’d been there when I visited last weekend, which meant there was plenty of new things to take in. 

The Chris Cran show is surprising and witty. Some of the governor general’s award winners were on display. 

Overall, though, one of the things that made the experience most rewarding was a realization I had about modern art and space. I’ve always been on the fence about the value of minimalist art, but standing in the room with pieces by Rothko and others, I realized that the value of paintings and sculpture like that, for me, is the way they contribute to space.

I recall the discussion around the most recent addition to MoMA being the way the building was planned around specific art pieces, and the success of the addition being its interaction with the art.

I assume when Moshe Safdie associates designed the room that showcases ‘Voice of Fire’,for example, the space was purpose built for the painting, but I don’t know for sure. If readers know the story I’d love to hear it.

Minimalist art on display in one of the National Gallery’s most successful spaces.

Sketching As A Tool for Communicating Ideas

In the age of all things digital, being able to quickly sketch out an idea is more important than ever. This was reinforced when at the OAA conference in Toronto last week I toured Cisco’s new innovation centre on Queen’s Quay. As Cisco’s William MacGowan explained to us, they’ve placed whiteboards all over their offices for exactly this reason – they want employees to communicate ideas visually. 

Cisco’s Bill MacGowan talks to a group of architects about Cisco’s new innovation centre. 
The benefits of being able to communicate with clients and colleagues through use of quick loose sketches are widely known among designers especially, but are becoming understood beyond that among the business community in general.

I hadn’t expected this year’s OAA conference to reinforce sketching so clearly as an important tool. I did, however, sign up for a day of sketching thinking that it would be good to brush up. 

With instructors Joel Berman and Anne Milchberg we spent a full day re-learning the art of sketching on Friday. I was surprised and pleased how much I learned from this experience, even though one of the reasons I became an architect is that I always enjoyed drawing and sketching. 

Looking at the group’s sketches.

We started in the classroom where Joel and Anne talked about the importance of drawing what you ‘see’ rather than relying on symbols. When drawing a human head, should the nose always a wedge shape attached to the face, for example. We did a few simple drawing exercises, then headed out of doors to try our skills. We sketched various architecturally significant locations in the city and tried line drawing, one and two point perspective, and working with value to express ideas. One of the best exercises involved sketching the same sculpture garden scene about six times, starting with a 24 minute sketch, then cutting the time by half in each successive sketch, trying to simplify and still communicate the ideas. 

I learned a lot on Friday, but perhaps the most from this last expercise. Expressing a concept simply in a few minutes is the most effective way to communicate ideas, and being able to do this with facility is something I will continue to use with clients and colleagues. 

Sculpture Garden, 2 min sketch.

Sculpture Garden, 1 min sketch.

Sculpture Garden, 30 s sketch.

Sculpture Garden, 15 s sketch.

The Spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright Lives On Maui

The elegant King Kamehameha Golf Club is a stunning piece of architecture that graces a hillside in Maui, even though it was not purpose designed for the site by Wright himself. I recently had the opportunity to visit the building and take a few pictures. I hope you enjoy them.

Painting As A Way of Driving Design

Innovations often come through  developing a way of being. With the recent death of Zaha Hadid we’ve lost one of the most significant architects working today, but also someone who looked at making buildings from a surprising and different point of view. She developed a way of being and an identity as a designer though her artwork, and her paintings fed the building design process especially before she had any major clients.

Her paintings are recognized as art in their own right and some of the best were done for an early design competition in Hong Kong. Her work is influenced by the Russian Avant Garde and a movement called suprematism.

  A painting Zaha Hadid created for The Peaks design competition.

Design is Disruptive

Good design is often about doing things in a completely different way than they’ve been done before. And when you’ve innovated and found a better way you really can’t go on doing things the way they’ve always been done. In this way, design is disruptive to the status quo. CBC and Matt Galloway have created a new series about brilliant Canadian designers and their work, called Disrupting Design, and I’m very pleased that a project I worked on, Bridgepoint Active Healthcare, is featured in episode 3. 

I think you’ll agree that the series is very well done, and makes a compelling case for design innovation. In episode 3, Greg Colucci and Marian Walsh talk about the patient centred design innovations that took place at Bridgepoint and how they have improved patient outcomes.

As is often the case with hospital architecture, the design team for Bridgepoint was extensive including multiple firms; KPMB, Stantec, Diamond Schmitt, and HDR made up the architectural team. The project has recieved many accolades for design excellence including from the American Institute of Architects, the Ontario Association of Architects, and others. 

The video is available here. Bridgepoint segment begins around minute 8.

 Images are stills from the CBC tv series Disrupting Design.  


Zaha Hadid 1950-2016: She Changed The Face of Architecture

Zaha Hadid. Image from Dezeen.

When I met Zaha Hadid in 1995 or 1996, at a lecture at the University of Michigan, I had no idea the contribution she would make to architecture. At the time she had completed the fire station for Vitra in Weil am Rhein but very few other buildings. I remember her slide show was mostly comprised of photos of her paintings and drawings. She had ideas for building that broke with convention and charted new territory, and was only then just getting started.

Fire Station, Weil Am Rhein. Image from Encyclopedia Britannica.

She died this week and has left a legacy of buildings all over the world, both beautiful and difficult, that challenge ideas about what architecture should be. This week she has been eulogized by the other luminaries of the profession and the press alike. Perhaps most noteworthy is that a Muslim woman, born in Baghdad, has changed the face of a male dominated profession. 

 Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan. By Zaha Hadid Architects. Image from Dezeen.

The Netherlands and Belgium Are Rich in Art and Design Culture

Northern Europe, especially the Netherlands have become a nexus of art and design culture. With events in Belgium recently, many will cancel trips to this part of the world, and it seems inevitable that tourism in this part of the world will drop. Some friends had planned to visit The Netherlands soon and I hope they will still go. When I mentioned there’s a lot of art and design culture there, he suggested I do a blog post about it. So here it is. They have plans to visit Amsterdam, at least for a day, and to connect with family in Rotterdam. 

Amsterdam’s Eye Film Museum. image from Wikipedia .

I always begin my own travel planning by looking for New York Times’ 36 hours travel guides. Their Amsterdam edition does not disappoint, even though it’s from 2011 and it is probably a good idea to check out some these destinations online before going. The focus on recently developed neighbourhoods around the harbour is great and underlines the changing face of this vibrant city, and its focus on art, design, and innovative culture.

The Van Gogh Museum features the largest collection of this well known Dutch painter anywhere. I’ve been plotting a visit to this museum for some time, myself. Van Gogh paintings are best viewed in person.

The Eye Film Museum is worth a visit both for the architecture and for the exhibits. The waterfront building was designed by Delugan Meissl architects who are known for their buildings that appear to be in motion.



The monumental Markthal, a Rotterdam success story. Image from Archdaily.

Rotterdam is one of Lonely Planet’s best places to visit in 2016. It’s been on my own radar for some time as the spiritual headquarters of Dutch architecture and design. The presence of Rem Koolhaas‘ office has spawned a lot of other good firms here, as his trainees open their own shops.

Markthal, a unique horseshoe shaped building designed by one of those firms, MVRDV is a striking indoor and vibrant food market on the waterfront. Called by some the ‘Sistine Chapel of Food’, its success is partly due to the impressive marketing effort put into the place.

Rem Koolhaas’ Vertical City offers amazing views from its top floor restaurant and is a really unique piece of contemporary architecture.

Rotterdam’s Vertical City. Image from Dezeen.

Further afield, the Belgian cities of Ghent and Bruges are two smaller cities that I’d consider visiting, maybe as a day trip. They’re both close to Rotterdam and have a lot to offer.



Ghent by day and by night.

Despite being a small city Ghent has become a tourist destination in its own right, with its upbeat character and unique culture. This city has drawn my attention because of its world class architectural illumination. The city has become a true ‘night city’ and is a place of wonder and beauty after dark.


Bruges. Image from NYT.

I visited this city as a teenager because of the medieval art that attracted my parents there. It was cast as a boring place in a very good movie called In Bruges, but has evolved into a very interesting place recently. 

Recipes For Great Cities

Arts, culture, and sophisticated design ideas are key ingredients to making great cities. This week the NCC hosted an event in its Urbanism Lab called The Art Of City Building.  Dov Goldstein, a principal at Lord Cultural Resources and Mark Robbins, CEO of the American Academy in Rome talked about their experiences with these key ingredients in making vibrant cities.

Toronto’s Hearn Generating Station. Image from Illuminato.  
Each speaker gave a short presentation highlighting their experiences where arts and culture have changed cities. Some of the more interesting examples included the use of Toronto’s Hearn Generating Station as a venue for cultural events including  for Luminato this June, and Mark’s work in support of reinvigorating downtown Syracuse when he was dean of the architecture school there. He commissioned some excellent architecture projects, and his work was chronicled by The Architect’s Newspaper. Examples include the Syracuse University School of Architecture by Gluckman Architects, and the Syracuse Center for Excellence by Toshiko Mori.

Syracuse’ School Of Atchitecure plays a role in reinvigorating the city. Image from Gluckman Tang Architects.  
One project Mark worked on that was of particular interest to me was the sustainable homes competition that he organized for Syracuse in 2008. I hadn’t heard about this competition and it’s very much similar to one I participated in in Chicago in 2004. 

Factor 10 House was one of the homes that was constructed in the Chicago competition and it was selected for an AIA top ten award. Working on that was the beginning of my interest in sustainability. I completely agree with Mark that competitions of this type can contribute greatly to a City. In Chicago it was initiatives like this that helped build that City’s reputation for green building in North America.

One of the sustainable houses resulting from a design competition in Syracuse. This one was designed by architect Richard Cook. Image from Dwell. 
In any discussion of reinvigorating a city, New York’s Highline inevitably comes up. Dov brought some new (to me, at least) information to the table, though. I was not aware of the extensive rezoning along the high line that enabled its creation, and spurred development along its extent. The Highline as spawned other people oriented infrastructure projects even in New York which I was aware of, but not how interrelated they are. The proposed Low Line and Bjarke Ingels’ Dry Line are two of these.

Bjarke Ingels’ Dry Line is a recreational amenity for New York that doubles as a flood protection barrier.  
An informal discussion and audience questions followed the presentations. One of the better questions that was discussed, at least for me as an architect, had to do with whether architects are ‘multidisciplinary’. I really appreciated Mark Robbins’ answer. He firmly asserted that they are, by necessity. Architects have to join together art, craft, and psychology [and other disciplines]. Typically the issue is the clients, who tend constrain projects. Mark pointed toward his involvement with the well known Mayor’s Institute on City Design, describing it as being about educating the clients of design. He intimated that it provides an opportunity for Mayors to admit that they rely on others to guide building projects because they understand so little about the issues. The main goal of the institute as he put it is educating Mayors to become better design clients.

Self Promotion For Those Who Hate It


I grew up in a fairly creative family. Both my parents are creatives who put their ideas out there, but who mostly hate self promotion. My dad has had some success with his paintings and my mom with writing

Both have worked really hard for their achievements but I think both of them have mostly focussed on ‘products’ rather than on being seen creating. At our house the basic understanding was that you work hard and that creativity and products of creative work are the outcome. Being seen making things and putting the process itself on display was never a focus. I always felt there was something missing in this equation.

This is why I find Austin Kleon’s New York Times bestselling book Show Your Work! so compelling. He’s made a very good case for being out there as a creative person; for being open about what you do and being seen doing it. When I read his book, one reaction I had was “…of course, this is so obvious …” because in fact what he’s talking about are the reasons I started a blog in the first place. But he has a lot to offer in this book including ideas about what makes good content, how to address your online audience, focussing on process, and myriad other useful ideas. It’s a great read.

Mr. Kleon’s ten ways to put yourself out there, to keep doing it, and to deal with criticism: