Editorial: New Creative Identities in Hamilton and Waterloo

The new addition to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics was designed by Teeple Architects Inc. Scott Norsworthy
The new addition to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics was designed by Teeple Architects Inc. Scott Norsworthy

A city-region’s economic and cultural vibrancy is often measured by tax revenues, employment statistics and housing prices. But its success in attracting and maintaining a degree of creativity and innovation depends upon a host of other variables, including the quality of its architecture and support of a design culture. New buildings to emerge in such areas provide a useful illustration of the types of innovation shaping these regional economies. As an example, recently completed architectural projects in the greater Hamilton and Waterloo regions help to clarify an image for these cities, allowing them to better define and articulate their capacities in evolving their creative identities.

Situated an hour west of Toronto with just under 700,000 people, the Hamilton city-region has recently improved its waterfront and successfully transitioned a portion of its economy into knowledge-based technology sectors. Hamilton’s McMaster University has even established an Innovation Factory, and its McMaster Industry Liaison Office (MILO) links researchers with the private sector to negotiate sponsored contracts, funding, and the commercialization of ideas. Unfortunately, recently completed buildings at the university have failed to produce anything remotely innovative. Nevertheless, in addition to the two intelligent City-led projects featured in this issue, there is a concerted effort amongst Hamiltonians to preserve their built heritage while participating in the transformation of their downtown.

Northwest of Hamilton, the Waterloo region has already become a leading North American centre for innovation, hosting such important technology-based enterprises as Christie, OpenText and Research in Motion (RIM)-the makers of BlackBerry. The region is often compared to California’s Silicon Valley or Massachusetts’s Route 128–locations that also depend on nearby universities to bolster their competitive edge. A recent article in The Globe and Mail noted that in 2006, the Waterloo Region yielded 631 patents per million–almost four times the Canadian average. For Silicon Valley and Route 128, that rate was 725 and 682 respectively.

The latest architectural symbol to illustrate Waterloo’s face of innovation opened in September. Designed by Teeple Architects Inc., the new $29-million, 55,000-square-foot addition to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) is a highly gestural counterpoint to the original and more cerebral facility completed by Saucier + Perrotte Architectes in 2004. Founded in 1999 through the financial support of Mike Lazarides, co-founder of RIM and the creator of the BlackBerry, the PI exists as the largest independent research facility of its kind in the world. In addition to the Perimeter Institute, three other exceptional research centres have been completed in the Waterloo Region over the past few years: the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and two facilities at the University of Waterloo-the Engineering V Building, and the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum Nano Centre. The architectural merits of these buildings assertively project an image of innovation for the region.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Canadian cities is not whether they can attract creative industries, but how they can retain the necessary talent and capital to sustain a competitive advantage over other city-regions around the world. At the PI, part of the overall vision involves sharing its intellectual capital with local citizens, with the hope of improving the culture of innovation beyond the institute’s walls. For example, the PI often sponsors talks where researchers discuss scientific questions with the general public, and in 2009, initiated “Quantum to Cosmos: Ideas for the Future,” an innovative science outreach event that included pub talks, a sci-fi film festival, and a hands-on science exhibition.

In addition to popular community programs sponsored by the PI and architecturally significant research facilities in the Waterloo region, successful new buildings that contribute to the public realm in cities like Hamilton are not only examples of critically important foundations of innovation and good design, but they also help sustain a city-region’s vibrant and creative economy-all while improving its liveability for future generations.