Book Review: Places—Public Architecture

By HCMA Architecture + Design. Edited by Alexandra Kenyon. ORO Editions, 2015.

While many monographs tend to showcase the radical theories of the eponymous architect or catalogue a firm’s many completed projects, it is refreshing to find a publication which hones in on a specific sector in which the firm excels.

Here, Vancouver- and Victoria-based HCMA Architecture + Design focuses on their large public projects across a spectrum of sectors including libraries, schools and fire stations. Rather than a chronological list, it lays out the firm’s ethos towards urban planning—specifically around what public spaces should and could be—then selects seven projects that demonstrate this in action.

Fittingly, everything here is accessible to a broad audience. The book, and clearly HCMA, remain grounded outside of the theoretical by highlighting the community need at the heart of all their designs.

Essays by both educators and HCMA principals explain and add context to existing work, contrasting the unique challenges presented by public plans that enable large groups of people to interact informally, versus those of private builds which accentuate isolation.

This is made clearer by letting us peek inside the firm’s workplace culture, which consistently develops knowledge on topics essential to modern public projects, from industrial design solutions to sustainability and user research. A truly collaborative environment, all team contributors understand the social potential of these projects to integrate into people’s emotional and functional lives. Instead of assuming that life will adapt to their designs, they create designs well-suited to real-life needs.

Jon Scott Blanthorn is an architecture writer and critic based in Toronto.