Canadian Architect

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Pocket-Sized Tour Guide

Digital tools are changing the way we experience architecture. Here's a roundup of download-worthy apps, podcasts, videos and interactive websites that inspire a new appreciation of the built environment.

June 13, 2017
by Shannon Moore

I’ll never forget my first trip to Chicago. Nineteen years old and studying architectural history at the University of Toronto, I planned to see as much architecture as I possibly could.

It started with a boat tour through the city. As I sat on a damp bench and flipped through my paper map, a tour guide pointed out landmarks like the Willis Tower and Wrigley Building. The next day, I hopped a bus to the suburbs and embarked on a walking tour of Oak Park. The tour, which involved a flimsy headset and a monotone, pre-recorded narrative, began in Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio before leading me along the neighbourhood’s streets, where Wright designed numerous houses.

I can’t help but wonder how my architectural experience would differ had I visited Chicago for the first time today. With the development of mobile technology, there are a growing number of ways to explore, interact with, and experience architecture. Here’s a selection of digital tools that go beyond traditional guided tours, offering new paths for engaging with architecture.


Charge your phone

Today, there is a mobile application for just about anything—apps that can help you learn a new language, keep track of your fitness goals, even find your lost car in a busy parking lot. In the world of architecture and design, mobile apps help users experience their surrounding built environment in unique and valuable ways.

Portrait Sonore, an independent, non-profit organization, has developed a series of “pocket documentaries” that guide listeners to locations in various Canadian cities that are marked by modernity—including Toronto, Vancouver, Quebec City, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Halifax and Montreal. Often highlighting little-known buildings, the engaging documentaries combine interviews, archival images and music. www.portraitsonore.org

The Toronto in Time and Vancouver in Time apps—both part of the Cities in Time series developed by John H. Marsh, Editor in Chief of the Canadian Encyclopedia—detail the history of particular locations of interest using photos, slideshows, stories and tours. Material is searchable by theme, neighbourhood, maps or trails, inspiring connections between places and their history. www.citiesintime.ca

Drawing on a user’s current location, the Google-powered app Field Trip draws attention to interesting buildings, natural wonders, historic sites, restaurants and more within the vicinity, anywhere in the world. For architecture lovers, the app pulls data directly from sources like ArchDaily, Architizer, Dezeen and the American Institute of Architects, providing information on the surrounding built environment when-ever the mood strikes. www.fieldtripper.com

Similarly of interest to international travellers, PocketGuide offers audio tours of more than 150 cities worldwide (including Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal). Designed to encourage exploration on foot, the app pinpoints landmarks of interest while narrating the history of specific buildings and nearby neighbourhoods. Once audio tours and maps are downloaded, the app can operate in offline mode—ensuring full access to content with zero roaming charges. www.pocketguideapp.com


Grab your headphones

For those who would rather tune out the world around them while contemplating topics in architecture, podcasts are the way to go. Though not always tour-based, these episodic audio files can help both architectural aficionados and seasoned professionals alike learn more about the intricacies of design.

The Archispeak podcast by Evan Troxel, Cormac Phalen and Neal Pann presents casual conversations on a variety of design topics, ranging from the current state of architectural magazines, to climate change in the architectural context, to how architecture can make a difference in everyone’s lives. www.archispeakpodcast.com

The Halifax-based Planning and Design Centre’s Cities Alive podcast tells the stories of citizens, change-makers, experts and artists from Canada and abroad. The thematic episodes raise awareness of grassroots efforts while inspiring listeners to exchange dialogue and pursue positive change. www.pdcentre.ca

Originally produced from his bedroom, Roman Mars’s 99% Invisible podcast takes a quirky approach to the discussion of architecture. With almost 300 episodes and more than 150 million downloads, Mars’s podcast inspires listeners to contemplate the unnoticed architecture and design that surrounds us, with episodes including “The Accidental Music of Imperfect Escalators” and “Unpleasant Design and Hostile Urban Architecture.” www.99percentinvisible.org

First broadcast from her office in the Empire State Building, Debbie Millman’s Design Matters podcast—which is nearing 300 episodes—presents conversations with designers, writers, artists, curators and musicians, exploring contemporary thinking on creativity. Awarded the Cooper-Hewitt People’s Choice Award in 2011 and recognized with a personal congratulations by Michelle Obama in 2012, the archive includes interviews with architects from around the globe. www.debbiemillman.com


Put up your feet

Not all experiences need to happen on the go. In fact, you can access a variety of architectural content from your computer. While not always adhering to the traditional “tour guide” format, these videos and interactive websites offer a unique glimpse into the world of architecture.

Google Earth recently relaunched its platform to include 2D and 3D virtual tours of buildings and sites around the world. Titled Voyager, the platform allows users to explore museums, architectural and natural wonders, and other areas of interest, while “Knowledge Cards” offer tidbits of information on the locations themselves. earth.google.com

Inspired by the arrival of Canada’s urban era—characterized by wealth, opportunity and big city growth—the team at In-Context travelled the country to report on the impact of recent architecture on the evolution of Canadian cities. The seven resulting multimedia stories travel from Waterloo to Winnipeg, challenging viewers to consider how design affects Canada’s competitiveness, sustainability and social inclusion. www.incontextvideos.com

The National Film Board of Canada’s website contains an impressive collection of archival videos and interactive projects related to architecture. Farewell Oak Street (1953) for example, documents the original redevelopment of Toronto’s Regent Park, while the Emmy Award-winning interactive film series Highrise explores the lives of apartment residents around the world. www.nfb.ca

Canadian architects Michael Green, Moshe Safdie, Siamak Hariri and Frank Gehry are among those featured in TED Talks. Presented since 1984, TED Talks provide inspiration in videos of 18 minutes or less. The architecture category is quite robust, including talks on craftsmanship, sustainability and more. www.ted.com

YouTube channels offer another useful form of video content. The University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, for ex-ample, posts lectures and roundtable discussions, while the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s channel features talks by prominent figures like Douglas Coupland and David Suzuki. www.youtube.com 



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