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. 

Cross Laminated Timber and ‘the Timber Age’

Cross laminated timber, for some reason, has always been the most popular topic on this blog. The most read article on the blog in 2016 (and ditto for every other year I’ve been writing) was about this unique building material that seems to be challenging pre-existing notions about what can be built with wood. 

Some readers are apparently well versed and seem to be seeking out information about this product, but for those who aren’t as familiar, cross laminated timber is a wood product that is engineered to create panels that are much thicker and stronger than typical ply wood. These panels can be insulated and use to build walls and even structural elements in buildings. Wood in general is considered an excellent building material from a sustainability point of view because of its low embodied energy, renewability, and the fact that forests absorb carbon. 

So what’s being built these days, using cross laminated timber? The answer is all kinds of buildings including some of the greenest buildings being built today. Some examples can be found here, in this Dezeen article about the ‘age of timber’.

Density Can Be Done Well

Issues in North American cities today include housing affordability, unpredictable energy costs, climate change, aging population, public health, placelessness, and identity. There are answers and they are part of city building. This is the main message of Brent Toderian’s presentation today at the Canadian Institute of Planners. 

Doctors and health practitioners are starting to speak loudly about the importance of walkable and dense neighbourhoods to public health. Sprawl has real economic cost too. Even conservative analysts now admit that sprawl costs more in terms of delivering services like sanitation to municipalities.
Cities and suburbs are changing, not because of ideology but because of better math. 
Simple innovations will save our cities, like wheeled suitcases and wheeled shopping bags. This much more so than driverless cars.
Demographics are pointing toward more urban living for families and for millennials. The narrative that families don’t want to live in urban situations is simply not true, if the appropriate services are provided. 

Vision, will, and skill are the basics that cities need in order to innovate around providing increased density. Vancouver is proving in scores of ways, that density makes good cities. Calgary, though, too is making a lot of the right decisions. 

Medellin and Bogota have good transit and increased attention on urban mobility, public space, and social equity. But the key urban problem in all these cities is sprawl. The key problem with sprawl is automobile dependence. If you can’t get anywhere except by car, you live in sprawl. 

Brent is working with aging malls to retrofit dense urban living on these properties. 
“Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” – Lewis Mumford, 1955

Vancouver and all the other ‘cool’ cities are tearing down freeways to restore neighbourhoods. Toronto had the opportunity but failed recently [with the Gardiner Expressway].

Vancouver has changed the prioritization of modes; it designs for pedestrians first, bicycles second, transit third, moving goods fourth, and cars last. If you design a city for cars it works for no one. If you design a street for people, it works for everyone, including cars. 

Density done well includes consistently high quality of design both in terms of landscape and architecture. Vertical sprawl is car reliant neighbourhoods with taller buildings. This is not urbanism. Great design creates value (see photo). 

Brent Toderian talking about how great design creates value in cities.

Density done well requires a diversity of amenities. These should be requirements for good development. Density done well requires innovative green development. Vancouver’s South False Creek with its district energy plant is a great example. 

Neighbourhoods change. This is a reality. We need housing types that fill in the gap between single family and mid-rise development. 
We need to get from NIMBY to QUIMBY – QUality In My BackYard.
Brent closed by saying that making it real takes vision, will, skill, and follow though!

In The Q & A, one of best questions was about adding requirements for three bedroom units in developments. The person asking indicated they didn’t have a legal basis to make this a requirement, yet it’s broadly known that families would be more likely to move into the city if there were larger units available. Brent responded by talking about how when proponents request zoning changes, Cities can absolutely set requirements that are backed up by facts.

Toderian UrbanWorks


Health Care And Design Excellence Can Coexist 

When I started working in architecture I remember a mentor telling me not to get involved with healthcare. The logic was that hospitals are generally large bland buildings where design is driven by too many factors that have nothing to do with making good buildings. This is part of the reason I’m so pleased about last week’s announcement that Bridgepoint Active Healtcare, a project I had the privilege of working on, has recieved a Governor General’s Award for Architcture. 

With this recognition and a recent AIA Award, Bridgepoint has joined an elite group of recent North American hospitals and health care facilities that are being recognized for their superior architecture. In the case of Bridgepoint, this means recognition that not only is the building beautiful but it’s design is in the service of patients. 

Thanks to the initial vision of Bridgepoint’s CEO, Marian Walsh, ideas about patient-centered design were carried throughout the project. Light, air, views, healthy interior spaces, and myriad other features all contribute to making a place where patients can really feel better. I’m very pleased the GG Awards’ distinguished jury saw this, and confirmed that Bridgepoint broke the blandness mold that so many healthcare buildings are cast from. 

Images below are from the GG Awards website.

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 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.

Sports Venues Should Be Better Neighbours

When President Obama visited Cuba recently Sports Center took it  as an opportunity to point out the poverty around the baseball stadium in Havana to get some exposure on Twitter. A few quick minds responded sharing Google street views around some US stadiums and highlighting that we in North America have very little to get on a high horse about. In fact some US baseball stadiums are actually in what would appear to be in worse off neighbourhoods than the one that Sports Center made so much of.

 While the central issues here are poverty and perceptions we North Americans have about other countries, it got me thinking about what is it that makes an exemplary baseball stadium, or sports venue. The best ones really contribute to their neighbourhoods and are part of the urban fabric around them.

The urban designer in me is always looking for an exemplary condition, in any country. One of the best baseball stadiums in terms of its relationship to its neighbourhood is Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The neighbourhood its in is called Wrigleyville and the stadium and the neighbourhood have a very interesting relationship that you can read about here. I lived within biking distance of Wrigleyville for a few years after college and I can say that baseball stadiums and sports venues everywhere could gain from studying the relationship between this venue and its neighbourhood. 


Wrigley Field, above. Image from Chicago Traveler.
Wrigleyville’s Alta Vista Terrace, above. From Chicago Walking Tours website.


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.