Books (March 01, 2011)

REVIEWED BY Brendan Cormier and Ian Chodikoff

Bracket [On Farming]
Edited by Mason White and Maya Przybylski. Barcelona: ACTAR, 2010. 

Bracket is a new yearly publication put together by Archinect and InfraNet Lab and published by Actar. Composed of a diverse and changing editorial board coupled with globally sourced contributions from architects, designers and academics, the publication aims to document overlooked issues at the intersection of architecture, environment and digital culture. The inaugural issue’s theme is farming, a choice that seems to ride the current zeitgeist of architectural speculation and popular interest in food production methods. Divided into six themes–seeding, hybrids, allotments, yield, combines and sequence–each is concluded by a member of the editorial board with an essay tying that theme into a greater historic architectural context. Natalie de Vries of MVRDV reflects on her firm’s past farming projects, Charles Waldheim looks back on three seminal urban-agrarian visions by Wright, Hilberseimer and Branzi, and Mason White discusses an alternative reading of architecture as a “productive surface.” Maya Przybylski’s essay is especially illuminating as it places into proper context the full significance of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Project contributions are equally stimulating. Ryan Lingard puts forth a beautiful piece waxing poetic on the evolution of a poplar farm in Oregon. Neeraj Bhatia and others present an adjustment strategy for the typical Chinese urban village, and Craig England debuts his farm-planning tool FoodMatrix, a simple series of flash cards which describe different crop yields, demands, inputs and outputs. Bracket [On Farming] is thorough, diverse and insightful, making it an essential read for anyone looking to probe the limits of architectural-agricultural speculation. BC

Body Heat: The Story of the Woodward’s Redevelopment
Edited by Robert Enright. Vancouver: Blueimprint, 2010.

It demands a great deal of effort, heart and soul from a diverse range of people to improve a neighbourhood. Guided by architect Gregory Henriquez of Henriquez Partners Architects, such a complex group of public and private interests have succeeded in turning around one of Canada’s poorest postal codes with a large-scale urban project intended as a catalyst for change–the recently completed Woodward’s mixed-use redevelopment in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The story has been brought to life with Body Heat: The Story of the Woodward’s Redevelopment, a richly illustrated account of the redevelopment process leading toward its realization, told through an insightful collection of 23 essays documenting one of the most socially and culturally sensitive Canadian urban redevelopment projects in recent memory. As architect and educator Chris Macdonald describes it, Woodward’s was “the perfect storm of architectural capacity, political will, community support, client commitment and–unquestionably–historical moment.” First opened in 1903, the Woodward’s flagship store on Hastings Street finally closed its doors in 1993, sealing the fate of its Downtown Eastside urban context which had already been deteriorating for several years. Economic and social problems manifested by drug use, prostitution, homelessness and declining commercial activity was increasingly prevalent in the area. After the defunct department store’s imposing building was abandoned, the site was purchased by a developer in 1995 who immediately sold the attached parking garage to the City and made a failed attempt to build 400 market condos. This marked the beginning of a series of events that coincided with the creation of the Woodward’s Cooperative Housing Society, more failed real estate proposals and further protests. By 2004, Westbank Projects Corporation and Petersen Investment Group, along with Henriquez Partners Architects, were selected to redevelop the block. By 2007, construction began on the one-million-square-foot redevelopment comprising 200 units of low-cost housing, art and theatre facilities for Simon Fraser University, municipal and federal government offices, shops, and 536 market condos. Body Heat‘s collection of interviews and photo essays include many of the individuals involved in the project–from developer Ian Gillespie to Kevan Losch, a crane operator. Other voices represented include municipal leaders, social activists, housing experts, and consultants who dedicated countless hours to the project, which was eventually completed in 2010. The closing interview with Gregory Henriquez reinforces the role of his practice as a facilitator and negotiator for achieving socially responsible architecture. The book’s odd title is derived from an expression used by Henriquez at the outset of his involvement in the project; Robert Enright explains Henriquez’s view that “body heat” is “5,000 people a day doing any number of unexceptional things: attending classes, watching a film, going to the bank or drugstore, shopping, hanging out. Body Heat is a narrative of conventional urban life; it is a story of living and working in a neighbourhood.” This book is a rare document that gives a voice to countless individuals responsible for bringing new life to an old neighbourhood. IC

Grounded: The Work of Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
Edited by Kelty McKinnon. Vancouver: Blueimprint, 2010.

There are several issues which become apparent when reading Grounded, an overview of the work of Vancouver-based Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg (PFS), one of this country’s most highly recognized landscape architecture firms. The first issue that comes to mind is the realization that relatively few landscape architecture firms consistently produce highly designed and technically complex projects in Canada compared to the number of architecture firms practicing today. Studying the variety of public landscapes that PFS has completed over its nearly 20-year history is astounding. Their work critically defines the historical and cultural characteristics of place, such as Richmond City Hall and the restoration of the Vimy Memorial in France. Clearly, the skill sets of landscape architects are considerably different than those of architects. Learning about and appreciating these differences through the work of PFS and their collaborators is extremely enlightening. To deepen the understanding of the complementarities and commonalities, essays by Bruce Kuwabara, Ken Greenberg and Julian Smith demonstrate the respect and collegiality amongst colleagues who have worked with PFS. Other contributors, such as Michael Van Valkenburgh and Douglas Paterson, provide words of wisdom from an esteemed peer and mentor respectively. A second issue that surfaces in the book is the way in which PFS’s work represents a highly unassuming yet effective response to both Vancouverism and landscape urbanism–“coined terms” whose continued mention in the design profession and popular press in recent years has grown tiresome. When it comes to Vancouverism, most architects tend to look skyward at the many high-rise developments in Vancouver over the past two decades, yet PFS’s work on Coal Harbour, Langara College and the forthcoming Cates Park/Whey-ah-Wichen Park illustrates a far more complex relationship between cultural and climatic aspects of the West Coast and Vancouver’s urbanity than what many architects in BC often fail to achieve. As for the discussions relating to landscape urbanism, PFS exemplifies what it means to engage with the city while understanding its formal and ecological components. The firm’s own approach to landscape urbanism moves people in, out and through both public and private spaces taking into account such considerations as shade, seating and the precise deployment of trees and plantings necessary for order and la
yering. To wit: Toronto’s Sherbourne Park. As simple a lesson as it might seem, Kelty McKinnon, Grounded editor and senior landscape architect at PFS explains: “Without architecture, landscape is illegible–its spatial qualities dependent on its circumscription. As demonstrated by Rubin’s vase (the famous double image of a black vase and two white faces), the eye is only able to perceive either figure or ground at any one time, never simultaneously. One occludes the other.” Indeed, architecture and landscape architecture need each other to flourish, and Grounded clearly illustrates this point. IC