TEXT Elsa Lam
PHOTOS Jacqueline Young
Call it the world’s longest conversation about architecture–literally. On a warm May evening, 1,200 guests assembled around a 1,200-foot-long table spanning Winnipeg’s Esplanade Riel pedestrian bridge to discuss architecture and urbanism.
The event, hosted by local organizers StorefrontMB and 5468796 Architecture, doubled as the closing party for the RAIC’s annual Festival of Architecture and the finale to the offsite Winnipeg Architecture Fringe Festival. It also marked the culmination of a year-long research project launched by 5468796 that set the table for informal conversations about architecture in cities around the world.
A simple question sparked the project: how do cities foster an architectural culture? To find out, the firm came up with the idea of assembling dinner parties of key architectural figures–tables for 12–in cities worldwide. In 2013, the project won the $50,000 Professional Prix de Rome from the Canada Council for the Arts, and 5468796 began booking plane tickets.
Some countries on their list have enjoyed progressive political support of architecture. In the Netherlands, a national architecture policy implemented in the early 1990s included funding for young firms to design social housing. A similar policy-driven push is currently happening in Denmark, where architecture is treated as a valuable export commodity.
In Sydney, Australia, government policy is also a driver of design–a shift initiated when former premier Bob Carr expressed dismay at the poor quality of new apartment buildings flanking his daily commute. Architectural excellence is now upheld through design quality codes, and design review boards include prominent practitioners such as Glenn Murcutt. To hold architects accountable, the comments that emerge go on public record.
The dinner conversations brought some surprises. In hyper-urban Tokyo, the team was astonished to learn that the general public in Japan had little awareness of architecture as such. Rather, the careful detailing that characterizes many buildings can be traced to a broader culture of craftsmanship. “Architects don’t carry liability insurance–the contractors are responsible,” explains 5468796 principal Sasa Radulovic. Collaboration and respect characterize relationships between architects and builders.
By contrast, in New York, everyone has an opinion on architecture. A highly critical environment, filled with high-achieving designers, savvy journalists, and hyper-educated residents push architects to work with rigour–often producing projects with a toned-down aesthetic that stand the test of time. “Architects often create their best work in New York, because they need to exercise restraint,” says principal Johanna Hurme.
In several of their European stops, 5468796 spoke to young architects struggling to redefine their role in the wake of the economic crisis. Events such as the Lisbon Architecture Triennale provide outlets for designers to explore experimental practices that cross over into art, exhibition and product design. Similarly, in Mexico City, young architects must be highly proactive in creating projects. “Work does not just happen, you have to make it,” says Radulovic. “You approach a developer, and put a project together.” It’s even common for landscape architects to do their own landscaping.
If one lesson emerged from their travels, it’s that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side–but that makes it all the more realistic for Canadian architects to learn from how their counterparts in other countries have risen to the challenge of strengthening architecture’s value. Whether it’s through identifying political champions, evolving our relationships with builders, or finding new modes of practice, the team sees much potential for asserting architecture’s relevance in Canada. It’s a vision worth raising a glass to–or better yet, 1,200 glasses. CA
Read the project blog, with descriptions of the dinners in each city, at tablefor12.ca/blog/.