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. 

How To Build Canadian Cities Back Up

I’m working on a white paper about fixing Canadian cities. The last ten years have left them shabby and investments have been sorely lacking. With a new government in place that has signalled an interest in infrastructure, it may be a good time to rethink some of our policies. So far I’m thinking that the outline might look something like this:

  • Invest 
  • Build Infrastructure – bridges, more rail, and housing that addresses the broad demographics that Canada boasts
  • Focus on making Canadian cities great; figure out what makes each particular city uniqueand figure out how to build on that
  • Focus on transportation types besides the automobile
  • Put our money where our mouth is on design excellence. 
  • Consider enhanced protections for our built heritage
  • Consult the public especially on the big moves
  • Build consensus 
  • Do real sustainability that meets high international standards
  • Learn from Quebec City; one of the most visited cities in Canada that has set a high standard for caring for and building on what they have

This is a start. Feedback welcome.

Image is a photo of Toronto by Klaus Lang on 500px.


What Is Design Excellence?

This week the City of Ottawa handed out its annual Urban Design Awards. Some of Ottawa’s best projects were recognized and I really enjoyed being in a room full of people that take the built environment seriously. The event touched on a question that I’ve been working on, though. What is design excellence?

A lot of people and organizations espouse design excellence when it comes to architecture and urban design, but it’s very hard to pin down what that means. 

In contemporary culture, we tend to build things increasingly quickly and sometimes it seems everyone in the planning and building design industry has won a bunch of awards for their work. Personally I’ve always sought to work for designers, architecture firms, and organizations that have a high standard when it comes to design, but what does that mean today with our uber quick projects and demanding construction timelines?

One place to look for a definition is in the words of design juries. What are those who are asked to adjudicate design excellence awards really looking for? The jury citation for the 2015 Prtizker Award winner Frei Otto says that his work, especially the tent structures of his early career achieved grace and originality, going on to say that much of his work could be characterized that way. He won the award for a lifetime of innovative thinking and for an approach to design that delivered excellent work. He applied a unique creativity to his work and was fortunate enough to have clients that were looking for that. 

The Pritzker prize is an international prize for architecture and it’s easy to look at that and dismiss it having limited relevance to places where real world budgets and time constraints apply. Also, the focus of the awards event I went was urban design more than architecture. A relevant question might be what are North American urban design design juries looking at as design excellence?

The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada recognizes urban design projects annually for contributing to quality of life and sustainability. The American Insitute of Architects in its Honour Awards for Regional and Urban Design cites factors like innovation, boldness, sophistication, and clarity for selecting this project by Bjarke Ingels Group for an award. 

Closer to home the Ottawa urban Design awards characterize excellence in urban design as being related to how buildings, landscapes, and adjacent public spaces function together to enhance the public realm. 

Taken together these various criteria could be assembled to form a reasonably good definition of urban design excellence. I think this survey raises questioms about whether North American capitals like Washington and Ottawa are getting the urban design excellence they’re asking for or deserve.  Comments please. 
Image: ‘The Big U’, an urban design project for Manhattan by Bjarke Ingels Group. 

More About Health Care And Design Excellence

I’m a bit of a skeptic about design awards. It seems like any reasonably big architecture or urban design project will have achieved recognition by some organization for something and small projects often struggle to impress anyone. 

Lately I’ve been very much interested in the subject of design excellence in architecture and urbanism because a lot of people talk about it and opinions about what it is and how to achieve it seem wildly divergent.

I wrote a piece recently about Toronto’s Bridgepoint Health, where I outlined three main components that helped that project achieve a high level of architectural design. At the time I cited its 2014 award from the Ontario Association of Architects for Design Excellence as evidence and in spite of my skepticism I think that’s a reasonably good argument, given that’s a peer reviewed award and the field is quite broad. 

This week I learned that the project received recognition for Healthcare Design from the American Institute of Architects. It was one of eight projects that received recognition in 2015 and the only built work with a budget above $25 M to be recognized. In my opinion, receiving recognition of this type; a national award from a country other than the one the project is built in, is much more significant than a regional award. More meaningful still, the jury commented specifically on the use of views and natural light in creating an ideal health care environment for both those that recieve and give care in that environment. Also gratifying is the fact that this award focuses on Health Care, an architecture project type where it’s difficult to do something unique and well thought through.

As the features of Bridgepoint continue to be recognized by broader audiences and the impacts of early design decisions become better understood by the health care community and those that use the building let’s hope that it stands theses tests and that we can learn something about how to make better spaces for healing.

Image from the OAA Website. 


Three Key Ingredients for Design Excellence In Healthcare Architecture

A friend recently sent me a blog post by Witold Rybczynski where he points out some of the shortcomings of McGill’s new health centre. He says there were too many cooks in the kitchen for this project and the result is a building that is mostly just ‘big’. He complains appropriately that the design vision seems to have been non existent or to have gotten lost. Having driven past this project a few times, I couldn’t agree more. 

But it raises the question how to achieve good design for this type of architecture. Built as a public private partnership and being of a massive scale this building was challenged to achieve design excellence, but I put forward (a project I participated in) Bridgepoint Health in Toronto as an example of high design with similar constraints. The Ontario Association of Architects recently gave the building a Design Excellence award and I believe the building sets quite a high standard for Canadian hospital architecture.

So what’s the difference between Bridgepoint’s process and McGill’s that led to such different results? There are three critical components that made the difference. One is the client, another is the design team and the third has to do with the procurement model. The hospital’s CEO, Marion Walsh set out an initial vision for a cutting edge hospital, and steadfastly insisted that it be so throughout the project and that was probably the biggest factor in getting a high level of architecture for this project.

The second component is the design team and here I’m referring to a large group of team members. One could complain that as at McGill there were too many cooks in the kitchen, but it really makes a difference who the cooks are and how the conditions are set for them to either succeed or fail. In this case the team setting the high bar for design in initial stages was KPMB and Stantec. KPMB in particular is known especially in Canada for their innovative and rigorous architecture. The execution team led by PCL Constructors included designers who are similarly known for rigour and setting high standards, DSAI and HDR.

The procurement model, a public private partnership (PPP), contained a critical component which guaranteed the high level of design excellence: the initial design was designated an ‘exemplar’ rather than an ‘illustrative’ design. This meant that the execution team had to implement every element of the initial design. 

Design excellence is possible in healthcare architecture and even in the often maligned PPP model and the three elements that were employed at Bridgepoint went a long way to making the vision for a quality healthcare environment a reality. Now, the rest is up to the professionals that implement high quality patient care on a day to day basis at Bridgepoint. 

Images of Bridgepoint are from Diamond and Schmitt’s web site.


We’ve Gone Beyond The Point of ‘Buildings Should Do Less Harm’

Buildings should contribute positively to the environment, not just be efficient. We’ve gone beyond the point of ‘buildings should do less harm’. This important environmental message was a point of consensus among a panel of Governor General’s award winning architects at Friday’s Ottawa Architecture Week event at the NCC’s Urbanism Lab.

Panelists included Colin Neufeld, Monique Asselin, Alar Kongats, and Diarmuid Nash. Maria Cook of the RAIC moderated.

The subject of the event was Design Excellence and equally interesting debate occurred around this subject. Colin Neufeld has wowed the award juries with his studio’s low cost buildings, and he asserted that “… design excellence is an approach, and not a matter of project cost.” Alar Kongats was perhaps more cautious, saying that “… we do have to commit a certain amount [of money] to making excellent things.” He advocated avoiding being too clever about project budgets and that we avoid spending public money on things that don’t last.