Editorial: Remembering a Housing Champion

As we turn our focus to housing in this issue, it’s worth noting—and lamenting—that architectural innovation in the middle- and low-income sectors continues to lack financial and political support. But occasionally a resolute champion emerges, intent on serving the most marginalized citizens: those who are homeless or impoverished or grappling with addiction issues or facing mental-health challenges, or all of the above. Until his death six years ago, social activist and politician Jim Green was one of those champions, in one of the most notorious and underserved neighbourhoods in the country: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Image courtesy of the Jim Green Foundation.
Image courtesy of the Jim Green Foundation.

As head of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association from 1981-1991, and continuing his advocacy work in the years afterward, including his tenure as a powerful city councillor, Green helped nurture an unprecedented level of architectural attention to social housing for this demographic. Though not an architect himself, he recognized the power of architecture to harness money, address homelessness, facilitate healthy living, encourage social connections, and generate a deep sense of collective pride.

Among the Downtown Eastside social-housing projects he helped spearhead are the Portland Hotel (1999), by Nick Milkovich Architects with Arthur Erickson; Bruce Eriksen Place (1998) and Lore Krill Housing Co-operative (2002), both by Henriquez Parters. Then there was the most ambitious project of them all: the 2009 Woodward’s redevelopment, also with Henriquez (reviewed in Canadian Architect, November 2011). A huge and quixotic mixed-use/mixed-income development, it’s imperfect in some ways but remains one of the most hopeful urban housing projects in decades.

In an interview with urban designer Helena Grdadolnik, published in the 2006 monograph Towards an Ethical Architecture: Issues within the work of Gregory Henriquez, Green denounced what he saw as a widespread trend “for architectural consultants to become the instruments of private interest rather than meaningfully 
engaging with society and participating in the development of communities.” Green called his social housing advocacy “the architecture of opportunity. What this means is that you are not just developing a building or redeveloping a project; the project is a tool to get to a larger goal—the creation of enlightened human beings.”

Among other places, his spirit lives on in the eponymous organization that formed after his passing. The Jim Green Foundation was launched in 2013 to carry on the kind of advocacy he espoused. This June, the Foundation will celebrate the transformation of a formerly vacant Downtown Eastside building in Vancouver into 312 Main Street Innovation Centre, a nexus for groups with interests connected to social justice, technology, creative work and business incubation. The project is designed 
to forge ties among its tenants and neighbours, strengthening employment and entrepreneurial opportunities and civic life in general.

Renovated by Boni Maddison Architects, the building at 312 Main Street will include open-concept offices and coworking desks, conventional offices, studios for making things, meeting rooms, common areas and cooking facilities, strategically designed to encourage intermingling through formal and informal programming.

“For community projects, it is imperative that the architects understand who their client is and be able to get along with them,” said Green in the 2006 interview. “They have to understand that low-income people have ethics; they have aspirations; they have a code of conduct; they have an idea of beauty. They are dying to learn. Give us bread, but give us roses. That’s where the architect has to help; they have to have the flexibility to understand the community.”