December 1, 2014
by Elsa Lam
“Who Builds the City?” asked a recent symposium led by Ryerson University. Organizers Colin Ripley of Ryerson and Brendan Cormier of the Victoria and Albert Museum set out to highlight the institutions that put quality architecture in the public eye—and on city streets. The question is especially pertinent for the Greater Toronto Area, projected to grow to 8.9 million by 2036, and for Ryerson, an institution in the midst of densifying its downtown campus.
A first answer: governments build the city. The reference case for many is the Netherlands, who in the early 1990s set out to improve the quality of the built environment. The government strategically commissioned young firms to design embassies and municipal buildings, and created travel, exhibition and publishing opportunities to nurture innovation. As Robert Kloosterman, Professor of Economic Geography and Planning at the University of Amsterdam explains, this resulted in the advent of the so-called Superdutch firms, and the emergence of design as a valuable export commodity.
Brussels is similarly attempting to put architecture at the forefront of city-building. Chief Government Architect Peter Swinnen heads two programs to that end. A biannual Open Call invites local and foreign architects to submit their portfolios for a roster of public projects; 10 firms are shortlisted and each client is invited to choose five of them for a paid design competition. The newer Pilot Program initiative works one-to-one with public-sector clients looking to push the envelope of a site. Swinnen’s program pays for the cost of a master plan by a strategic design team. “The goal is to enlarge the scope of policy using architecture,” he explains. In one instance, he is working with a client to develop a land bank; other partnerships focus on exploring new possibilities in the housing and health-care sectors.
Schools are another player in city-building. Richard Sommer, Dean of the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, sees schools as a “test kitchen” where research can be developed in preparation for dissemination. He points to his faculty’s involvement in the Global Cities Institute, which is currently collecting standardized data from 255 cities across 82 countries. This will serve as a rich databank for analytics, visualization, and planning and design exercises. Schools such as Columbia University are also venturing abroad for new insights: its Studio-X program is a global network of research labs that exposes students to the complexities affecting built environments worldwide.
Architecture museums also play a role by raising public awareness of architecture. It can be intimidating for non-architects to cross the threshold into an architecture exhibit. Pedro Gadanho, Curator of Contemporary Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has an advantage: MoMA’s visitors pay for admission, and want to see everything on offer, architecture shows included. “We are rethinking the medium of display,” says Gadanho, who is exploring the use of video and interviews. Gadanho is also steward of the institution’s Young Architects Program, an annual competition for emerging designers that results in a built installation.
Finally, publications have the potential to guide city-building in positive directions. Some magazines, such as Arch+ from Berlin, have taken a deliberately political role. In reaction to developer-driven urban policies in the city, the editorial board initiated public discourse on the topic. “We supported urban change-makers who called for policy reform. One demand was that municipal property should not be sold for the highest bid, but rather to concept-driven bids,” says editor Anh-Linh Ngo. This was positively received, and the resulting projects are now coming to fruition.
Magazines such as Canadian Architect play an equally important, if more subtle role. By selecting the most innovative buildings across the nation for review, we act as a platform for Canadian architects to exchange ideas and push each other to higher levels. We hope to continue doing our part in building the city—and country—one issue at a time.