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. 

Reimagining Urban Waterfronts 

Jelle Therry of West 8 presented their internationally acclaimed work recently week at the National Gallery and for the NCC staff. This dutch landscape design firm has been involved with some of the most interesting urban design and landscape architecture in North America recently. These are some notes I took when Mr. Terry spoke at the NCC’s Urbanism Lab to a group of architects, landscape architects and planners. He presented a series of the firm’s recent projects, providing insights about how the work was developed and the importance of the public realm. 

Toronto Central Waterfront

The inner harbour had some real environmental problems in 2006 when the project began. Pike (the fish) were absent from the water and Toronto street trees weren’t well planted or cared for and typically survived only 5 years. West 8 created a master plan for Toronto’s central waterfront. One of the key problems historically were the ‘pinch points’ where pedestrian movement was constricted by very narrow sidewalk widths along the docks. The now famous curving wood ‘wave decks’ provided an elegant and compelling answer to this problem. 

Wavedecks were the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the fact that if the wavedecks cost $5, then $4 of that amount was spent on improvements to the ecosystems in the harbor; a part of the project that you don’t really see when you visit but is very important to the ecology of the waterfront. Within 5 years the pike was back living along these harbour front locations. 

The promenade was expanded and is now 18 m wide. Below the walking surface, eventually, will be a system for cleaning storm water before it enters the lake. 

Pedestrian bridges have been designed that will be implemented some day. 

The traffic flow along the waterfront has been improved. Cars have been moved to the north  side of the streetcar track. Along 1.7 km of lakefront, the public realm has been completely rehabilitated. 

Property values have improved along queens quay. What was a $200 k condo is now a $350 k condo. Mr. Terry attributes this partly to the infrastructure and public realm improvements along the Quay 

Mr. Terry closed by saying that in Toronto, strong leadership has been the genesis of these ideas. Chris Glasiek and others have really provided a vision for improving Toronto’s public realm.

Madrid Rio

The mayor was looking for re-election and identified the river and getting the public access to it as a campaign winning idea.

The ring road was buried, making way for public space. Trees and paths were added.  Today it’s a zone for playgrounds and for recreation. The royal palace has been reconnected to the river. 

Maxima Park: Utrecht, NL

West 8 did a master plan for this major urban park on the periphery of Utrecht. The park was built in phases, beginning with a bike path around the periphery. The overall build out will take 20 years. 

Jelle says that one key to the success of West 8 is that they are always collaborating with other designers. 

A natural lake has been brought back to the heart of the park. Today people swim and boat on it. 

A concrete pergola creates opportunities for creativity in the park; it acts as something to plant against, and something to create space with. It’s used to make gates. 

Governor’s Island, NY

When West 8 won a competition to  redesign this place, they were very excited to propose a new green space between Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. 

Today the island has a lot of paved area and is in poor condition. 1800 trees are proposed. The landscape is raised to create planting places for these trees, above salt water, both today and in the future. Topography and hills provide views of Manhattan and frame views of the Statue of Liberty.

Some of the most compelling elements of the project are the whimsical ones; a grove of trees supports hammocks, curving and very steep slides provide fun for kids of all ages. 

It’s All About Water

The way Chicago and Quebec City are connected is all about the 2000 mile Great Lakes watershed. 80% of North America’s surface water is here. Yet we still don’t look at this as a resource, but mostly a way to move waste away from Cities.
Phil Enquist, an architect and partner at SOM, presented a keynote last Friday at the Canadian Institute of Planners conference in Quebec City. He showed us some of the work he and his firm have done on the Great Lakes basin. He titled the project “Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin.” I’ve captured some of his talk here.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Initiative is an organization of mayors along this watershed. 

At the Chicago Architectural Foundation, an exhibit raises awareness of what the Great Lakes Watershed is, and what can be and is being done to protect their s resource. Questions asked include “What can basin cities learn from each other?”
Drought is a major issue for the US. Great lake levels will probably be reduced in coming years due to increased evaporation as the earth warms. 

Phil Enquist’s project on exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Photo from SOM.
Other challenges for the region include shrinking cities and the prevalence of non-renewable energy use (coal) that is adding Mercury to the lakes. 
The project has been renamed “The Great Basin Century” in recognition that it’s about more than just the lakes. 

Can we see this region as composed of “innovation belts” both past and future? A great example is south Chicago’s Theaster Gates. 

Can we look at connecting this region with high speed rail? The potential exists to connect the entire east coast and Great Lakes Basin in this way. 

Copenhagen puts 4% of its waste in a landfill. Chicago today puts 90%. We can do better. 

Growing food better is key to cleaning up our water. Recent algae blooms have been the result of not so careful agricultural practices. Here too we can do better.

The Brookings Institution has studied the economic benefit of environmental clean up of the Great Lakes. Essentially the pay off would be double the investment cost.

The Calumet watershed is a case study undertaken as part of the Great Basin project. Roughly the size of the San Francisco Bay Area, this is a lakefront area with really no vision. The first step is to regain the lake front. Next, protect green space. Thirdly create innovation hubs. 

The second case study Phil has undertaken is Detroit. Together with a French Landscape architect, they’re studying turning Detroit’s public lands into wetlands that help clean the city’s water before it goes into the river.

Phil asked the planners in the room to be brave with their proposals. Think in a utopian way, even when clear financing strategies aren’t yet known. He says we need the US and Canada to work together in new ways. 

What Is A Smart City?

The city of the very near future will be a place where citizens are both content users and providers. It will be a place where street lights and fire hydrants and transit systems communicate back and forth with smart phones. It will be a place where decision making is shaped by all kinds of streaming data from traffic conditions to weather to pedestrian movements. It will be a much more sustainable city because of innovations in technology.

One of the best presentations I attended at last week’s OAA conference was the “Toronto: Smart and Connected” tour led by Waterfront Toronto’s Kristina Verner, Bill MacGowan of Cisco,  and Joy Henderson of Cityzeen. Together they introduced the architects in attendance to the mind expanding ways in which Toronto’s waterfront is developing.

Kristina Verner compares the scale of Waterfront Toronto with other similar developments. Photo by the author.

Kristina talked about the role of Waterfront Toronto in these developments. They currently require what she called LEED Gold ‘plus’, for new buildings, bringing their requirement close to Platimum. Their new CEO, William Fleissig is an architect from California and has experience leading cutting edge  sustainable developments. Watch this space for innovations in the sustainability realm. 

Waterfront Toronto housing has 1 gbs upload and download speeds to ensure that residents can be both content users and providers.
The Toronto lakefront has become an innovation corridor stretching from the Central Waterfront to Pinewood Studios
Public space is key to the new waterfront and 24 new parks have been created. 
Queens Quay has been updated to feature a new bike lane, dedicated streetcar lanes, and granite paving. Surprisingly, it works better today than when it was four lanes. 
So far, $1.26 Bn investment has generated new private sector development valued at $9.6 Bn.

The smart city is literally under development at Cisco’s  new Innovation Centre on Toronto’s waterfront. Bill MacGowan showed us some of the high tech ideas they’re working on including smart fire hydrants, remote charging for devices, smart lighting that is controlled by a smart phone. 

Cisco’s Bill MaGowan talks about intelligent infrastructure.

What Makes A Good Sports And Entertainment Complex?

Going back to ancient Rome, the best venues for sports and entertainment have always been urban and embedded in the fabric of the city. The Roman coliseum,  one of the wonders of the world, was during the time of Rome’s domination of the known world, a major contributor to public life in Rome.

Crowds at the Roman coliseum. Image from pop

The Roman coliseum in its urban context. Image from abroad

One of the primary objectives we put forward for Canada’s capital at LeBreton Flats, initially, was that it be a vibrant public place, and a contributor to public life in Ottawa in all four seasons. Of course public in this case refers to the outdoor public experience. Everyone knows that Ottawa has four real seasons, and all the more reason why we were looking to create a place where the outdoor experice works in winter as well as the rest of the year. This might sound challenging to anyone who lives where there’s a ‘real’ winter, but there are a lot of strategies that can be employed to make a city work well in this most challenging season. 

Image from Rendezvous LeBreton.

I’m glad that the team selected to execute this project has embraced the idea for this very important public place that will be at least in part, a place of sports and entertainment.

Ottawa’s Lansdowne is a another reasonably good example of a recent sports and entertainment complex that works for winter, but it’s only the beginning. Cities  in Northern Europe have begun to embrace the concept of winter cities and of making their colder cities better for outdoor use and we could and have learned a lot from what they’re doing.

So what’s wrong with building a giant indoor complex that swallows up multiple city blocks? It’s certainly one approach to building in cities with unfavourable climates, and places like Las Vegas continue to build in this way, partly because the casinos want to control their guests entire experience. Their new hockey arena is well underway, and despite this trend, I’m happy to report that it seems to provide at least some limited exterior public space. The issues around building are myriad, but the most important thing is that cities should be accessible to all. Interior space, even if it’s public or semi-public, does not by itself a real city make, and the fact that access is controlled and limited also limits who can benefit. Of course one could argue that creating a large indoor sports and entertainment complex in one corner of a city won’t really impact the city as a whole, but in fact a cities’ sports teams really can either contribute greatly, or actually detract from the public life of a city. Any city considering a new venue for their sports team should ask the question; “In what way do we want this team to contribute to life in our city?” 

Washington DC’s Verizon Center, the home of the Capitals hockey team is a great example of a sports venue that, while architecturally unspectacular, is embedded in and really contributes to the life of that city. There are more factors than just the sports team, but the Chinatown neighbourhood around that arena, at Gallery Place Metro, has become vibrant and a real economic engine for DC. The sports complex is considered a driver for the revitalization of that neighbourhood. When I moved to DC in 2001 the renewal of the city around Verizon Center and 7th Street was only beginning, but it’s thriving today. In Washington, the number of businesses and other entities that have profited from this renewal is staggering. Other cities should take note of these examples and make sure they’re building sports venues that contribute to public life in their city in all seasons.

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.

How To Build A Sustainable City

What is sustainability? How can it be measured? What is a sustainable city? Berlin architect Vanessa Miriam Carlow addressed these questions and more in a well attended talk this evening at the National Galery of Art in Ottawa. 

Visiting Ottawa as a juror for the Governor General’s Award for Architecure, Ms. Carlow is a professor at Technische Universitat Braunschweig, and principle at the firm COBE Berlin. She is an architect that has focussed on urban design and public buildings. Surprisingly, given the unreliability of design competitions as a business model, most of her firm’s work comes from her many successes in winning urban design and architecture projects through entering competitions. 

In the Architecure school’s studio at TU Braunschweig, along with her students, she has chosen take on collaborative projects tackling real life urban problems. 

Ms. Carlow began her talk by highlighting the increasing importance of cities. In 2006, 2.6 billion people lived on earth. It continues to grow, and in 2100, population projections figure a global population of 11.2 billion. Vanessa is convinced that a result of this population increase will be that cities of 2 billion people will emerge. In Guy Lefebre’s book, The Urban Revolution he suggests looking at how people use space rather than looking exclusively at built form, an unfortunate tendency of contemporary urban design that Ms. Carlow stands strongly against. She predicts two types of cities will emerge in coming years. In high population growth countries, in Africa, for example, cities will notfocus on creating new urban areas (rather than slums). 

While European cities are considered by some, given population projections, to be “95% complete”, issues facing European cities are multiple. They include climate change, diversity, and the right to a livable and sustainable city 

Vanessa’s work seeks to address cultural issues in Northern Europe. She showed a library in Copenhagen where immigrant communities gather to enjoy books. 
Interkultur, a book by Mark Terkessidis is influential to COBE’s work, and documents Germany’s struggle to become an inclusive society.

Vanessa’s firm designed a new harbourfront development for Copenhagen. IPCC, Denmark’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified a future where sea levels will rise 2 m. The project creates a sustainable, public oriented development. 

By the end of the decade, Copenhagen predicts 50% of all trips will be made by bike.

Vanessa’s quite proud of having reducing the amount of road used for cars in favour of trees, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks.

‘The 5-minute City’ is basis of much of Vanessa’s design work. Individuals 

DGNB – German LEED type standard. Applied in many cities and countries. 

In Senegal, Vanessa worked on a city for 125, 000 houses. The average Senegalese family has 8 people, so in effect the goal was a city of 1 million inhabitants. Similar sustainability principles were applied to this project as were applied in Berlin. Creating a city where most things people need are within 5 minutes’ walk. Creating a ‘blue, green, and healthy city’ was a goal; with access created between water and green space. Agriculture is planned for a ‘green’ band around the city. Streets are designed to channel water into the lake. No storm water pipes are proposed; saving time and money.

A city for 125,000 houses near Dakar, Senegal. Image from COBE.  
While there were many sustainability proposals seem viable, the type of community consultation that Vanessa was involved with in Europe seems to be lacking with this project. Interestingly Vanessa said that her lecture recieved a comment in Toronto that the street trees she showed in the project didn’t provide shade. She says they are changing to deciduous trees for the project. 

An excellent lecture, really enjoyed it. More at

Biophilia: A Way To Build Better Cities

Humans have an evolutionary need to affiliate with nature. This is the premise of a book published in 1984 by Edward O. Wilson, called Biophilia. In my own life I find this to be true, and I’ve often felt frustrated living in larger cities like Chicago, Washington DC, or Toronto where access to nature is hampered by long travel times and congested freeways. 

Permit me a little civic / capital pride in saying that Ottawa, by contrast with some of these cities, has an excellent balance of urban and natural settings within 30 minutes’ drive from its core.

Ottawa from the air. Photo from NCC. 

Skidmore Owings & Merril’s urban designers together with University of Tennessee have put the principles of biophilia, as Mr. Wilson set them out 30 years ago, to work in addressing the challenges of contemporary city building, sustainability, and co-existence with nature. Led by SOM partner and architect Philip Enquist, they have proposed nine principles that are intended to drive urban growth in harmony with nature. I’ve listed them below:

1. Livibility; happy and healthful urban living that creates a sense of place and local identity.

2. Economy; broad based prosperity for the city or region.

3. The food principle; offering access to locally grown fresh edibles.

4. Mobility; providing efficient networks for movement of people, materials, and information.

5. No waste; focuses on designing cities Tom minimize garbage.

6. Safety; ensure streets can be used comfortably by all types of users.

7. Water; protect and enhance natural hydrologic cycles.

8. Resiliency; design cities that are able to withstand extreme weather and adapt to climate change.

9. Energy; power cities with clean, renewable energy and reduce consumption.

Enquist’s Chicago Lakeside Masterplan. Image from SOM.


Ralph Burton on LeBreton

Ottawa painter Ralph Burton, who died in 1983, has left us with some strong imagery depicting life on LeBreton Flats prior to 1960. His well executed oil paintings show a now lost neighbourhood in Ottawa in the years before the land was expropriated. With the recent announcement of two competing bids to redevelop the area it’s an interesting time to consider what once was, and what might someday be.
Lett Street toward Fleet Street. Image from Urbsite.