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. 

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.  


Jeanne Gang’s Work: Truly Innovative Architecture

Innovation comes from research and openness to both new and old ways of doing things. For me that was an important take away from Jeanne Gang’s talk at the National Gallery of Canada this week. Gang is a Chicago architect who was recently named Architect of the Year by the UK’s Architectural Review for her work on a modest university building in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, located on the quaint campus of Kalamazoo College, is an architectural achievement that comes from Gang’s tireless research and willingness to look at problems in unique ways. The building provides an elegant contemporary space for a campus mostly characterized by colonial style buildings, but one of the true innovations here is the use of a local building method Gang rediscovered and calls calls ‘cord wood masonry’. More on that construction method here.

The Arcus Center in Kalamazoo, MI. Image from Studio Gang.  
During the course of her talk, Gang showed many examples of her research method and how it uncovers unique solutions. Two of my favorites include an unbuilt project called Polis Station and a theatre building in Glencoe, Illinois. Polis Station showed her taking on the social issue of better policing that the Obama administration has studied this year. As we all know, Chicago has had some very real policing problems recently. Gang used community consultation in an effort to improve a Chicago police station and propose some new community spaces that are intended to bring the neighbourhood on to the site on a daily basis to interact with officers in a social setting. More on that project here.

 Polis Station. Image from Studio Gang. 
In Glencoe, Studio Gang’s research has uncovered another unique mid-west wood construction technique and deployed it to great effect. The Writer’s Theatre employs a unique way of joining thin wood elements to wood beams to create a beautiful ‘lattice’ structure on the outside of the building. 

Exterior wood lattice at The Witer’s Theatre, Glencoe, IL. Image from Studio Gang. 

What Is It About California?

There are certain places in this world that have real and special significance for an individual. For me California, even though it’s a huge state, is one of those places. Every time I visit, something inside me says this is a good place. My family is from there, both parents having grown up in Los Angeles. I spent a year in LA as a kid and grew up vacationing at my grand parents’ and with family there. The result is that while I haven’t lived in California as an adult, I do have a special relationship with that state.

This week it was announced that the California firm I worked with for a couple of years after finishing architecture school (at their Chicago office – long story), EHDD, recieved an AIA 25 Year Award for their Monterey Bay Aquarium. 

This high honour confirms the lasting impact that institution has had and the role its innovative approach to everything oceanographic has played. For example the institution is a world leader in sustainable fisheries and healthy oceans, and that innovation is expressed as architecture; in what was at the time a ground breaking adaptive reuse project. 

When they built the building the architects transformed derelict  cannery row into a place of education and inspiration becoming, in the words of the architectural jury “…a benchmark and an role model to aquariums everywhere.”
The type of innovation the aquarium typifies is definitely something I associate with California. It’s that famous ‘left coast mentality‘ that brought us Hewlett Packard (the family behind the Monterey Bay Aquarium), Disney, Tesla, and Apple. My great grandfather George T. Chapman was, in an interesting way, part of this culture of California innovation as general manager of the pioneering soy foods company Loma Linda Foods. Today soy foods are a multi billion dollar industry in the US.

EHDD, led by my former boss Marc L’Italien and others, continues that California style innovation it started at Montery, leading today as an innovator in sustainable architecture.
Images of Monterey Bay Aquarium are from Architecture. Photos by Bruce Damonte.   

The Answer to Ugly Wind Turbines 

A reader shared a project recently where some Dutch architects have proposed a building that is both habitable and generates electricity from wind. The project provides a compelling answer to the visual blight that single purpose wind turbines can be.

While the building is immediately reminiscent of the blade less fan developed and marketed by Dyson, it works on different principles. Architects Doepel Stijkers designed this 173 m tall building to quietly produce 1 Megawatt of electricity.

Image: Doepel Strijkers


How To Drive Innovation Culture In Sustainable Building

Architectural Record and software maker Sefaira presented a webinar last week about the challenges of leading in this complex and continuously changing field. One of the most salient analogies for leading and innovating compared car maker Tesla and their method for opening up room for innovation to that employed by the building industry. It’s interesting that the approaches are opposite. Tesla, whose batteries we’ve blogged recently, has had the luxury of starting off with a very high end niche product with few or no compromises (their luxury electric car) and then building the brand by creating lower cost vehicles that model their aspirations but for a broader market. 

One presenter, Premnath Sundharam talked about how the building industry, counter to Tesla’s method, has relied on incremental change to innovate in creating high performance buildings. He said that 2030 Challenge is his preferred tool for setting a sustainability agenda in his and his firm’s consulting work, largely because it has clear goals and deadlines. One approach they use is creating ‘net zero ready’ buildings when clients or budgets don’t allow for meeting meaningful high performance goals. In this approach, buildings are designed such that equipment for on site energy generation could be installed at a later date, bringing the building to net zero performance.

Another presenter, Jeffrey Till of Perkins and Will (P & W) had some good insights into his firm’s culture of innovation. They’ve created an internal focus group on high performance buildings and regenerative design; focussing on improving human health and productivity. AREA is a P&W web site that they’ve created to hel communicate their ongoing high performance buildings research to the world.


Van Dusen Gardens visitor centre, a net zero building. Image from P& W.


Anastasia Huggins, of Gensler, and Roger Chang both spoke underlining approaches to building innovation culture within their respective firms. Anastasia outlined a step by step approach to sustainable building problem solving and Roger provided insights into some common pitfalls that impede innovation.

Wood Construction for Towers

Canada is leading the way in the use of wood construction for tall buildings. Case in point is the wood tower under way in Prince George, BC designed by architect Michael Green that when complete will be the tallest wood building in North America. However, it is a recent study by Chicago tall building specialists Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill whose reputation for designing the world’s tallest buildings moves this construction technique closer to broad acceptance.

The interest in building with wood stems from the reduced carbon footprint that this technique represents, when compared with traditional concrete and steel: up to a 75% reduction. As an article co-written by the editor of and Andre Albinati outlined, Canada should be leading in wood construction as in Prince George, and should consider implementation of green building ratings that further recognize this building material.

Economist: Plyscrapers Building A Green Canada Brand

North America’s Tallest Wood Building

Canada Continues to Lag in Energy Efficient Buildings

Canada’s record with energy efficient buildings continues to underwhelm. outlined this issue in in an article published in iPolitics in 2011, proposing that Canada raise it’s standards for green buildings and develop its own rating systems or risk losing any chance of competing on the world stage with its green building technologies and products.

Leading Canadian architect Bruce Kuwabara echoed this sentiment recently while addressing University of Waterloo architecture students, going as far as suggesting that most Canadian ‘green’ building is laughable when compared with the European competition in particular.

A couple if noteworthy recent projects referenced in this blog serve as exceptions. These include Kuwabara’s own design for Manitoba Hydro and the new CIRS building at UBC. These projects and a handful of others highlight Canada’s potential to compete in the sustainable building arena and give hope for future competitiveness.

Canada Lags Building A Green Canada Brand

China Pushes Innovation Agenda

While some say little innovation remains on the table at this point in history, China pushes forward with a strong agenda intended to fuel seven specific types of innovation: alternative energy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, biotechnology, advanced information technologies, high end equipment manufacturing, and ‘new’ energy vehicles.

A 2009 article published in the online magazine iPolitics pointed to Europe as leading in sustainable building technology. It may be that with this re-allocation of government spending focused on ‘green’ innovation, China will soon too be one to watch on this front.

iPolitics: Building a Green Canada Brand

Architect: China and Innovation