Viewpoint (April 01, 2002)

Early this year I spent a week in Copenhagen to take part in a centenary celebration of the career of Danish architect Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971). From my window in the Jacobsen-designed SAS Royal Hotel, I had a tremendous view of Copenhagen’s uniquely civilized urban fabric. The city’s fortunate retention of the human scale as far out as its satellite towns is accompanied by pedestrian-friendly streets and the attentive provision of bicycle paths and extensive rail transit. Copenhagen’s urban plan of 1947 is still in effect: communities jut out from the city centre like fingers, served by trains whose terminus is the elegant Hovedbanegrd (Central Station) across the street from the SAS Royal.

Denmark’s notoriously high rate of taxation–including a whopping 25% sales tax–would be intolerable in North America, but the revenue generated helps to fund well-designed infrastructure and public spaces. As one of the few countries in the world with a national design policy, Denmark understands that good design is good business. As a result, the State commits public resources to place-making, engendering a public consciousness about the role of the built environment in urban life.

My brief exposure to the Danish model revealed how dramatically it contrasts with our own. I returned to Toronto to news that several cultural organizations–the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Canadian Opera Company, to name only three–are vying for their share of provincial and federal government funding for additions by Daniel Libeskind with Bregman + Hamann (ROM) and Frank Gehry (AGO) and a long-anticipated Opera House designed by Diamond and Schmitt. In the case of the ROM, the competition’s short-listed projects were on display for public appraisal, and abundant media attention was directed at the proposals and the architect selection (see page 7). The new slate of projects serves as a reminder of how long the drought of significant government support for cultural organizations has been. Judging from Ontario Minister of Tourism, Culture and Recreation Tim Hudak’s comments when announcing the ROM’s selection of Libeskind’s proposal, government support for these projects is inspired more by the promise of tourist dollars than improving the general standards of the built environment.

The attention directed at the architecture of these cultural institutions is the exception that proves the rule. In Canada, we haven’t been thinking as energetically about other aspects of our urban environs: problematic policies that encourage sprawl, congest highways, and open a Pandora’s Box of environmental ills; the lack of human-scaled, well-lit streets and public spaces. Will we be able to translate the interest in architecture and design generated by prominent cultural projects into a comprehensive policy regarding the quality of the built environment? Are we prepared to commit the public resources necessary to restore the health of our ailing cities? These are critical questions if we are to embed design as an ongoing cultural force and to create places not only to visit, but live in too. The Danes have found answers to these questions; to date, we have not. Nyla Matuk