Architects like to talk about their designs in terms of intentions–what they hope to achieve in a building, and how they make sense of it, particularly to other architects. But if we think about architecture like some critics think about cinema or other art forms, the notion of reception is an interesting one. How does the general public see and experience architecture? How do they make sense of it?
One name for this is “reception theory,” and generally it only appears in architectural discussions as post-occupancy evaluations, when inhabitants are interviewed once a building is complete. But what if the public could contribute their views to a work being designed–when a building is still just a program, full of expectations and hopes for a certain use and site?
In this article, I’d like to explore the juncture where architect and end user meet. One critical area where this happens is in the very first encounter between an architect and a user, an encounter that in some offices is given a primary place in the design process. This is participatory design.
Participatory design has a history that goes back to the 1970s, when landscape architect Lawrence Halprin developed a collective creative workshop process he called “Take Part” planning. Its innovation was in being “participatory and cyclical rather than hierarchical and linear.” Charles Moore, an early collaborator of Halprin’s, was influenced by “Take Part” planning, in developing his own approach to participatory design. Moore’s advocacy of user participation in the design process influenced a whole generation of designers. One of these, Brian MacKay-Lyons of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects (MLSA), brought these lessons to his own work and has increasingly employed them over the past decade in public commissions. Of his former teacher, he writes: “In the late 1980s, the American architect Charles Moore said that the only architectural truth that he had discovered was that ‘participatory design always works.'”
UPEI School of Business, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (2008)
The School of Business at the University of Prince Edward Island involves a new building carefully sited near a former university residence, Marian Hall, also renovated as part of the project. The new addition was placed to create two new courtyards framed by existing buildings, effectively extending the network of quadrangles on the UPEI campus.
The Centre for Enterprise & Entrepreneurship is comprised of a pair of lecture theatres flanked by double-height hallways filled with daylight. A “Market Street” to the east serves as an informal meeting place for students and faculty, while the public atrium at the building’s southern entrance, “Schurman Market Square,” accommodates ceremonies and larger events. The renovated Marian Hall contains offices and meeting rooms for the school and other organizations.
At the outset of the project, the university had completed its programming and even developed a preliminary scheme, which they used to prepare their Request for Proposals, expecting firms to follow suit. Yet from the very beginning, MLSA were critical of this scheme. They were concerned that its block-like massing didn’t take into account the quadrangles, an important feature of the campus plan they felt should be strengthened.
For this reason, MacKay-Lyons and Sweetapple used the first “site planning” workshop to step back and look at the larger campus. They showed that the existing School of Business corridors framed a quadrangle and that if the new building was oriented a certain way, it would reinforce this and strengthen the quadrangle idea over the entire campus. According to associated architect David Lopes of North 46 Architecture, “That’s how they got away from the original design concept that everyone had signed on for.”
Subsequent participatory design sessions covered a wide range of issues with many different constituents and user groups. The major “building design” session was directed towards School of Business members. The goal was to have an exchange about design ideas with School faculty, but these sessions also had to work out classroom numbers, sizes and seat count. Lopes reflected, “When someone is hired to do a job in PEI, people are ready to be asked for technical feedback, but not qualitative issues.”
Although the audio-visual and acoustic sessions were strictly informational, the LEED session conducted in collaboration with consultants Enermodal enjoyed a vigourous back-and-forth dialogue with knowledgeable facilities management staff from the university. One result is a well-developed mechanical design strategy for the facility, utilizing geothermal heating and cooling in radiant floors, abundant daylighting in all spaces, and sensor-activated switches in hallways and washrooms.
The new Port Campus for NSCAD University (formerly the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) was carved out of a continuous industrial shed that forms Pier 21 on the Halifax waterfront. With the construction of modern terminals in the 1980s, this area was largely neglected until the creation of the Pier 21 Immigration Museum in 1990 (designed by Lydon Lynch Architects). Since then, much of this industrial district has been renovated–for cruise ships, artisan studios, and retail spaces. In 2005, NSCAD University arranged for a long-term lease of a section of the pier building, ensuring space for expansion.
NSCAD University Port Campus, Halifax, Nova Scotia (2006-07)
Before preparing their Request for Proposals, NSCAD worked out the users of the new facility, mostly departments displaced from their former homes in historic buildings downtown. The largest cohort included the equipment-intensive crafts (such as ceramics, foundry, sculpture and metal shop), that couldn’t be moved into the college’s other facilities. This core group would be augmented by the College’s Foundation Program and Continuing Education, and possibly other craft departments as well. NSCAD had also gone through a year-long planning exercise with Education Space Consultants from Toronto, to identify their space requirements, and they incorporated this document into their RFP.
After MLSA was hired in late 2005, one big meeting in November got everything off to a start. People were divided into groups of 10 persons at each table, with a mix of disciplines represented, along with one university administrator and one architect. MLSA had prepared three boards with footprints of the existing building and rough floor plates for the upper floors. They had colour-coded the program functions (as lecture, office/administration, studio, or support space) and scaled them to the floor plates. At this point in the process, says MacKay-Lyons, the program is “incomplete and atomistic.” The aim of the workshop, according to MLSA partner Talbot Sweetapple, is to “look for adjacencies, what goes where, how it should be organized, and to figure out what makes an art school, in terms of its identity.”
After two hours of work arranging the blocks in various ways, the groups gathered together to review the results. Certain commonly held assumptions had emerged: 1) the heavy-duty shops should be located on the main floor to facilitate the movement of goods; 2) faculty offices should be clustered near their teaching areas (a decision that would distribute faculty over all three levels); and 3) the vast unencumbered space of the warehouse shed was seen as a positive aspect, not to be carved up to replicate the small rooms of the school’s historic downtown campus. In Sweetapple’s words, the “big ideas for the building developed very quickly, through widespread consensus on the basic moves.” After the workshop, MLSA took the boards back to their office to draw up the schematic design.
This design workshop was followed by “many, many others” specific to certain progra
ms, departments, operational, and facilities issues, held with the architects, engineers, project managers and members of the college. Public meetings had as many as 500 people, while smaller working sessions ranged from several dozen participants to one-on-one conversations in coffee shops. “Artists,” says NSCAD’s Academic Vice- President Barbara Lounder, “are not by inclination used to the participatory process, preferring rather to forge ahead on their own. A big part of why we liked MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple’s proposal was their willingness to work with artists and really learn about their needs and requirements– that we really appreciated.”
The renovated building provides a 6,503- square-metre new Port Campus, serving as the primary academic centre for first-year students and housing the industrial crafts programs. It maintains the spacious feeling of the original sheds, with six-metre-high ceilings and abundant daylighting. An uninterrupted view of the harbour from the seafront workshops and studios along 53 metres of glass curtain wall is among the best in Halifax. The street side of the building is clad in inconspicuous metal siding, in keeping with the industrial aesthetic of the district and to shield artists from the curious gaze of cruise-ship passengers heading toward the city’s waterfront boardwalk.
Plaza 2006 Building, Brock University, Saint Catharines, Ontario (2001-05)
This project, for Brock University in the Niagara region of Ontario, had its start in 2004 under the chancellorship of the architect Raymond Moriyama. The initial brief called for two buildings to be located directly south of Moriyama & Teshima Architects’ Mackenzie Chown Complex and Taro Hall, adjacent to his Alumni Student Centre. One was to be a 4,100-square-metre Campus Store Building that would serve as a gateway to the campus, linking to the Student Centre on multiple levels. A second 2,800- square-metre Lifespan Development Research Centre was planned for an adjacent site connected to the Mackenzie Chown Complex. The buildings were to be let out as a single design contract,
and were envisioned as key elements in campus expansion southwards. The raised pedestrian circulation system continues a network that is well-established at Brock.
MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple was selected as the design architect, in association with Rounthwaite Dick and Hadley Architects (RDH). At the outset of the project in the summer of 2004, they held two design workshops at Brock: one for site planning, followed by a building workshop the day after. In the first of these, a few dozen people worked with dry-erase markers and cut out building footprints on maps of the campus, to locate the new buildings in relation to the cam-pus’s major features and its pedestrian and vehicular circulation systems. The second workshop was much larger, involving over 80 people divided into three teams, facilitated by architects Talbot Sweetapple and Melanie Hayne from MLSA, and Dave Premi from RDH. Brian MacKay-Lyons and Bob Goyeche served as roving critics, as did the engineering and landscape consultants. Premi reflects on his experience in the process: “This was really the ‘Integrated Team Approach’ people talk about. You have to be open to what comes out of the workshop, and not have a pre-determined design. What I find remarkable about this process is how Brian MacKay- Lyons remains open to the ‘look’ of the project until very late into the process, even into schematic design. By really listening to workshop participants, you tend to get a much higher degree of buy-in to the project.”
In their workshops, MLSA want to understand the users’ views on the spatial relationships between different program elements and the hierarchies of space (public, semi-public, private) that are implicit in them.
Well into the design phase, project cost estimates were showing a significant escalation in materials and labour costs, threatening the viability of the project. The team went through a complete redesign, maintaining the internal hierarchies and spatial adjacencies within each building by stacking the Lifespan Development Building on top of the Campus Store. In this way, the architects replaced two three-storey buildings, with all their associated foundation and envelope costs, with one five-storey building. One consequent challenge was bringing light into the central area of the block. While on most floors, this zone could be programmed with labs or transient functions, on a few floors, offices had to be located in these areas. The solution was to provide translucent panels next to the doors to peripheral offices, so that light would pass into the inner offices. Another economy was achieved by switching to the Thermodeck system, which supplies warm air through plenums built into the structural decking. In Sweetapple’s words, “This allowed us to get rid of the ceilings and ductwork, and delete three feet from each floor.”
We see then, through these three university buildings designed by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple
Architects, that participatory design is a highly creative and evolving process. Dave Premi reflects on this, looking back on his experience of the collaboration: “I have been involved with MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects’ participatory design process on a number of buildings. Each time we created a new process, since every client has its own requirements. You have to mold the process each time to suit the requirements. It’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ method.”
The resulting buildings reflect each unique condition. While the projects share a simplicity and clarity of form that mark them as distinctively MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple works, they appear to have left behind a large body of satisfied users, people who will inhabit these dwellings and appreciate them, having had a part in their conception and making.
1 Lawrence Halprin and Jim Burns, Taking Part: A Workshop approach to Collective Creativity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974) 27-29.
2 The idea of participatory design has been developed further by Randy Hester, Henry Sanoff, and architects such as Lucien Kroll and Giancarlo di Carlo. See Randolph T. Hester, Community Design Primer (Caspar, CA: Ridge Times Press, 1990); E. Henry Sanoff, Designing With Community Participation (Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, 1978); Nan Ellin, “Participatory Architecture on the Parisian Periphery: Lucien Kroll’s Vignes Blanches” in the Journal of Architectural Education 53, no. 3 (February 2000): 178-183.
3 Malcolm Quantrill, Kenneth Frampton, Glen Murcutt, Plain Modern: the Architecture of Brian MacKay-Lyons (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005) 176.
Christine Macy is the incoming Dean at the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Dalhousie University, where she has taught since 1993. Her books include Architecture and Nature (2003), Festival Architecture (2007) and the forthcoming Dams (2008).
PROJECT PLAZA 2006, BROCK UNIVERSITY, ST. CATHARINES, ONTARIO
ARCHITECT MACKAY-LYONS SWEETAPPLE ARCHITECTS IN ASSOCIATION WITH ROUNTHWAITE, DICK & HADLEY ARCHITECTS
CLIENT BROCK UNIVERSITY
ARCHITECT TEAM BRIAN MACKAY-LYONS, TALBOT SWEETAPPLE, BOB GOYECHE, DAVID PREMI, MELANIE HAYNE, SANJOY PAL, JUSTIN BENNETT, SHELLEY VANDERWAL, CHAD JAMIESON, SAWA ROSTKOWSKA, KEVIN REID
CONTRACT ADMINISTRATION DAVID PREMI ARCHITECT INC.
STRUCTURAL HALSALL ENGINEERS AND CONSULTANTS
MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL JAIN AND ASSOCIATES
LANDSCAPE NAK DESIGN GROUP
INTERIORS GHA DESIGN STUDIOS (CAMPUS STORE)
CONTRACTOR MERIT CONTRACTORS NIAGARA
OTHER SPECIALIST CONSULTANTS TERMODECK CANADA, ENERMODAL ENGINEERING, CFMS-WEST CONSULTING INC.
AREA 86,000 FT2
BUDGET $22 M
COMPLETION SEPTEMBER 2007
PROJECTS NSCAD UNIVERSITY PORT CAMPUS, HALIFAX
, NOVA SCOTIA
PLAZA 2006 BUILDING, BROCK UNIVERSITY, SAINT CATHARINES, ONTARIO
SCHOOL OF BUSINESS, UPEI, CHARLOTTETOWN, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
PROJECT UPEI NEW SCHOOL OF BUSINESS, CHARLOTTETOWN, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
ARCHITECTS MACKAY-LYONS SWEETAPPLE ARCHITECTS LTD. (DESIGN ARCHITECTS AND PRIME CONSULTANTS) IN ASSOCIATION WITH N46 ARCHITECTURE AND DAVID PREMI ARCHITECT INC.
CLIENT UNIVERSITY OF PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
ARCHITECT TEAM BRIAN MACKAY-LYONS, TALBOT SWEETAPPLE, KEVIN REID, CHAD JAMIESON, DAVID LOPES, EDITH GRANDBOIS, ERIC STOTTS, JASON WARD, MATT SEEGMILLER, RAOUL KLUGE, GREG RICHARDSON, DIANA CARL, SAWA ROSTKOWSKA, MARCIN SZTABA, JEFF ATCHISON
STRUCTURAL HARLAND & ASSOCIATES
MECHANICAL MCA CONSULTANTS
ELECTRICAL RICHARDSON CONSULTANTS
LANDSCAPE EKISTICS PLANNING & DESIGN
INTERIORS MACKAY-LYONS SWEETAPPLE ARCHITECTS
CONTRACTOR MARCO MARITIMES LTD.
ACOUSTICS ACOUSTICS CONSULTANTS
ENVELOPE BALANCED SOLUTIONS INC.
AREA 22,500 FT2 (NEW), 26,000 FT2 (RENOVATION)
BUDGET $9.6 M
COMPLETION JANUARY 2008