An Ethical Plan


This past November, Gregory Henriquez of Henriquez Partners Architects in Vancouver released a book entitled Towards an Ethical Architecture. The book, published by BlueImprint, the fledgling Vancouver architectural press, is not so much an examination of the work produced by Henriquez as it is a discussion of the role that architects can have in society. The various chapters examine ethics, activism and critical commentary within contemporary practice. The following interview is a reflection of some of Henriquez’s attitudes regarding the development of his career and how he is learning to master three significant themes that are raised in the book: a fear of collective amnesia, trusting one’s own experiences, and exploring a sense of authentic expression beyond conventional style.

When reading through your book, there seems to be a chronological order in which your approach to architecture developed, beginning with your experiences as a student of Alberto Prez-Gmez at Carleton University. Did Prez-Gmez provide you with a foundational approach to social sustainability because of his focus on history and memory?

GH The key to what Alberto taught us was a critical examination of the world around us. There are a lot of things that people take for granted: social structures, political structures, and one’s personal perception of history. Alberto took us back through history to show us how we arrived at where we are today. Architects have tended to be afflicted by a collective amnesia. We’re professionals just like everyone else but our role in society was once much more profound. Alberto taught us to examine our role in society to try to find a way to make it meaningful for ourselves.

What prompted you to create this book?

GH I wasn’t planning on doing a book. My father just had a wonderful folio published of his own work over the past 40 years, so I wasn’t interested in doing a book on my own work. Dimiter Savoff, a young publisher who is about my age walked into my office and asked me if I would like to do a book. I’m only 43 and I haven’t created a huge body of work up until now, but because of my father and the practice, I’ve had a lot of advantages. I wasn’t interested in doing a life folio of my work, but the thought of making a book that would become a mini-manifesto turned into an opportunity to reflect upon a series of meaningful ideas. Initially I wanted to be an academic. I went to graduate school at McGill for history and theory. I even tried teaching at UBC in 1990-91 but the experience wasn’t very positive. I was probably too young or maybe it was because I was just returning from McGill and I was far too serious–I was perhaps a bit too zealous. So, I threw myself into my father’s practice, and this became part of a desire to link architectural dialogue with architectural practice. The real sorrow that I have in my soul is that theory and practice have become so divorced. The challenge for those of us who have an interest in both is to find a way of integrating at least ten percent of our dreams into practice.

Once Arts Umbrella (1987,1998) and specifically the Bella Bella Community School (1993) came around, you began to see the social gaps that exist within a variety of communities, whether on the Lower Mainland or in First Nations communities like the Bella Bella Band Reserve on Campbell Island. What does it mean to be a Canadian architect who has discovered the importance of working with these communities?

GH Bella Bella was a huge turning point where I tried to instill a mythological program in a building. The problem was that one would initially think that an isolated native community living with nature and surrounded by ravens would be very excited about the idea of mythology. In fact, they wanted more computers for their kids and they had social issues that went far beyond the idea of a mythological project. I became the only person who was pushing for the indigenous culture while the local community was more interested in the tangible, such as the preservation of language issues. Representation through architecture was the last thing on their minds. I realized that I was appropriating past cultures. I had to step back and understand why the goals that I was carrying from my training at McGill were not being embraced by the world, especially by people in a region that were trying to reinstate their own place within their own community with their own cultural roots. This was a real eye opener for me.

You seem to have grown out of your father’s own narrative approach to design to apply a particular social ethos to your own practice methods. How has this evolution helped develop your own method of making architecture that serves the community while bringing out its members’ own identities and stories?

GH We share a desire for the narrative, but it is a matter of whether you can find your own inspiration for that narrative. The paradigm shift came when I worked on Bruce Eriksen Place (1997) in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. I realized that the social project of architecture was abandoned in the ’60s. The social project was really about dealing with disadvantaged and marginalized people in our society. If we are going to redefine our new collective and identity in the absence of God, how are we going to achieve this with such a large percentage of the population living in poverty, with children going to school on empty stomachs? So, there is a whole shelter component to this that needs to be added to the poetic and mythological dimension along with a societal and community-based approach toward issues, all of which need to be knitted together. We must learn how to make architecture whole again.

From Bruce Eriksen Place to the Lore Krill Housing Co-op and now the redevelopment of Woodward’s, you seem to be entering upon greater orders of magnitude that will test and develop your approach to community design. How will you and your firm evolve to improve the community’s appreciation of its own experiences? What are the next steps?

GH Woodward’s is a wonderful archetype. It is a public-private partnership in the best sense of the word. The public is representative of the public. We have a community advisory council involved in the design process. The City of Vancouver is taking a real leadership role. We also have enlightened developers who want to do the right thing–such as Ian Gillespie and Ben Yeung. Together you can accomplish a lot because you can create inclusive communities which aren’t ghettos. For Woodward’s you won’t have ghettos for the wealthy, or for communities with very few resources. You have a real city. You have a city where everyone shares a common ground while having their own space at the same time. Everyone is part of the same complex. What I’ve learned is that the new partnerships are really economic partnerships between communities, the City and the developers such that we can provide mixed inclusive environments that are a win-win for everyone. Developers are permitted more height which allows them to pay for more amenities which can then subsidize social housing, community benefits and cultural facilities.

What about the political support that you’ve garnered along the way?

GH None of this could have happened without the leadership of Vancouver. This was driven by a political process that was embraced by a planning process and supported by the real estate community. There are people like Larry Beasley, Michael Flanagan and Jim Green who are at the core of making sure that this was about the community, and all the issues that needed to be dealt with were dealt with properly.

Who took the photos in the book? The photographs reveal a sensitivity on the part of both photographer and architect towards the inhabitants and users of
each building documented, and an embracing of the specific community in each project.

GH We searched a lot for photographers. Conventional architectural photography tends to be devoid of people and when there are people, it looks like staff from the architect’s office walking through the frame. Often, the photos are more about fashion images and the ideal of what the architect had in mind. We wanted to capture the space between the buildings and people. We looked at filmmakers and documentary photographers and finally arrived at Christopher Grabowksi, who travels the world for magazines and newspapers. Christopher goes into a community for two weeks and after a few days he starts shooting pictures. He meets the people and doesn’t take the camera out right away. His photography is intuitive. What we ended up with in the book is a series of activities taking place that capture the daily space of these people’s lives.

Do you see yourself as an architect who consciously protects heritage?

GH Yes, our past has to be respected but we also have to be visionaries for the future. Vancouver is very different than Toronto. There is so little heritage here that the history is almost more about the stories than the buildings. Woodward’s was the Wal-Mart of its day. The building is quite unremarkable but the collective memories that people share about going to Woodward’s has to be respected. At Woodward’s, we have an interpretive program that includes a giant 30 * 60 mural by Stan Douglas which will be a vivisection of the building. There will also be a series of fragments of the building that will form part of this program of sharing stories of both the neighbourhood and the department store. Therefore, the architecture becomes more than just a fossil but a living, breathing interpretive project that we hope will continue so that these installations can be remade year after year.

You also seem to be influenced by your clients, like Jim Green, who has helped you sharpen your role as a facilitator or an enabler of projects like the Woodward’s redevelopment. How can a client be a mentor to you?

GH Clients can be mentors if they are leaders. Architects without leadership often struggle to do anything that is meaningful. Jim Green is very rare. He is a politician, bureaucrat, university professor, longshoreman and activist. He’s done everything and is extremely knowledgeable about architecture and the issues surrounding the Downtown Eastside. He taught me that everyone has the same desires for beauty and community. Part of our role is to go into these communities and talk to the people who are being housed in these projects as your client, just as a developer is your client. You should treat these people with the same respect and seriousness as you treat any client’s concerns or desires. When dialogue and respect exist, a community develops, much like Lore Krill which is a mixed community where 40 percent are on social assistance, 40 percent comprise the working poor and 20 percent live in market housing. These people work together to create a community that enables them to have a place on the earth which they can call their own.

What about the influences of being a father and a principal of a firm? How do these relate to and inform each other to evolve your own concerns about community?

GH Being a father has profoundly changed my life. I have always said that rather than male and female, there are the breeders and the non-breeders. This allows you to get some perspective on the “aesthetic art project” within the architectural world. There is a real fashion component to contemporary architecture–the whole Modernist rebirth–which is very empty and shallow. If you live in these antiseptic worlds devoid of children, people and community, then the images alone won’t have any substance. So where do you find your meaning? You find your meaning in your relationships which start with family, your parents, your spouse, your children. I think that this realization has had a profound effect on me.

What has the response to the book been so far?

GH It’s been a fabulous experience. More architects should do books. It should be part of everyone’s practice. There is a lot of support from the Canada Council these days. We’ve had an amazing response in Vancouver and we’ve enjoyed the interface with the public. Some people have been calling me a bit of an activist but I look at this as a challenge to the community. Everybody does different things in their practices, and we receive incredible education as architects, and thus have more opportunities than to just become service providers. This is what we are trying to get across. We have to broaden our role and encourage more architects to do the same, to ensure that there is no distinction and specialization, that we are only a part of the process. It’s essential that the community experiences the poetic, the beautiful, and the ethical.