RAIC Journal: The New Social Value of Architectural Quality

How can we determine new ways of understanding architectural quality that are sufficiently comparable and socially representative to be able to guide decision-making and policy frameworks?

During a plenary session, four participants were invited to share their “positive lived experience of quality” walking through the different stages of the wheel of awareness. This alternative approach was proposed by Indigenous scholar Josie C. Auger, Rick Hansen Foundation CEO Doramy Ehling and Lyne Parent, executive director at the Association des architectes en pratique privée du Québec. Photo by Traci Berg

How can we determine new ways of understanding architectural quality that are sufficiently comparable and socially representative to be able to guide decision-making and policy frameworks? This is the question that ran through the first year of the Quality in Canada’s Built Environment Research Partnership, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Since April 2022, we have been engaged in a five-year collaborative project that brings together 14 universities and over 60 organizations. By mobilizing more than 20 disciplines and as many professions, the aim is to understand how to improve the quality of built environments by making them more accessible, more equitable, and more respectful of the natural environment.

Quality is not only the responsibility of professionals, designers, clients and experts in the built environment. It is also the responsibility of users and residents—a shared responsibility in a democratic society where no one is left behind.

But current definitions of architectural quality are still dictated either by the disciplines of the built environment, or by project management principles of a quantitative nature. Between these, the voice of users tends to get lost. More and more resident groups and professionals, as well as students and scholars, are calling for a re-evaluation of normative frameworks and procedures for realizing the built environment. More generally, there is a need for definitions of quality that meet new expectations in terms of accessibility, reconciliation with Indigenous cultures, social inclusion and sustainability.

While we are moving in the right direction as far as sustainability is concerned, we still have a long way to go to make our built environments accessible to all. Our schools, museums, public parks, social housing and libraries must no longer stigmatize or segregate people with visible or invisible disabilities, as they too often do.

For the Partnership’s second annual convention in Calgary, in May 2023, we chose to approach quality through the diversity of lived experience. We sought to understand how best to capture the multiplicity of feelings, viewpoints, experiences and emotions encountered in buildings and places. While awards for excellence are the traditional indicators of quality in architecture, they are generally incapable of taking into account the lived experience of users and residents—let alone explaining quality in terms of such experiences. That’s exactly what emerges from the 300-page document we compiled in less than three months, based on the testimonies of more than 135 members of the partnership.

David Down, Chief Urban Designer for the City of Calgary, addresses participants during the closing session at the Calgary Central Library. Photo by Traci Berg

These are tough questions, and if we ask them in the closed circles of academic research, training and the architectural profession, we will never find meaningful answers. Instead, we will be reasoning in an echo chamber of our preconceptions and assumptions. Sharing a real-life experience of the pleasure felt in a public library, during an hour or two of reading on a winter Saturday morning, is not easy. Talking about the time spent in hospitals, in places dominated by technology but nonetheless protective when you are worried about the health of a loved one, is not self-evident. In such cases, it is natural to think of thanking the nurse rather than the architect. Oddly enough, it might be easier to share a beautiful experience in a heritage or historic place than in a contemporary building. It may also be more acceptable to appreciate a natural place than a built space. Starting from early childhood and school, we were not prepared to talk about our emotions in architectural places, even though we may have been encouraged to talk about the beauty of natural spaces.

How can we encourage non-experts to talk about their lived experience? The notion of lived experience has become something of a reference point among groups working with people living with disabilities—a helpful reminder that this is an inclusive concept, because we all experience some form of limitation. The document we have produced provides access to a trove of personal stories, potential data that is both unpublished and highly reliable. How can we best extend such an exercise to the whole population, beyond the research partnership? This is the purpose of our platform under construction: the Living Atlas of Quality in the Built Environment (livingatlasofquality.ca). We will soon be inviting Canadian architects and students to share their positive experiences of architectural quality.

As an ongoing exercise during the coffee breaks, participants were asked to capture their “non-expert” definition of quality in one word. Photo by Traci Berg

In parallel to this, the university-led research clusters are continuing their work. Over the next few months, 14 roadmaps towards new definitions of quality will be sketched out in 14 very different situations from coast to coast. These will help us to more specifically understand how quality can be articulated in terms of the values to be respected, the targets to be achieved, the means, resources and approaches to be implemented, and the different roles and their articulation in the timeline of architectural works. The roadmaps will not only include principles likely to improve practice frameworks, they will also reflect on educational programs still inaccessible to certain equity-deserving groups. This will enable us to align training with new social expectations, new public and municipal frameworks, and new needs expressed by citizen groups. The fact that some of the main public and professional players—both provincial and national—are partners in this collective research in itself testifies to the need for a profound change in our understanding of architectural quality.

Jean-Pierre Chupin holds the Canada Research Chair in Architecture, Competitions and Mediations of Excellence, Université de Montréal.