Viewpoint (January 01, 2008)

Interestingly enough, the month of January is named for Janus–the god of the doorway. As good little architects who probably ate too much over the Christmas holidays, we are now in the process of squeezing ourselves through the doorway into 2008 with firm resolve to improve our habits. What might our New Year’s resolutions entail? Better commissions? Finding wealthier clients? Or perhaps we might seek to reduce the carbon footprint of our projects so that our buildings don’t consume so much energy.

Thankfully, many of the possible New Year’s resolutions that architects might adopt (beyond the commitment to eat less and exercise more) have already been compiled as national architectural policies in countries like France, Holland and Italy. But it is Denmark that has developed one of the most utilitarian, but equally visionary architectural policies: in May 2007, the Danish government published A Nation of Architecture– Denmark. Appended with the telling subtitle “settings for life and development,” the policy deftly outlines ten strategic target areas that include: greater architectural quality in public construction; promoting private demand for improved architectural design; increasing subsidized housing; maintaining heritage; establishing higher architectural standards in urban planning; and creating the best architecture schools in the world. In Canada, no level of government has expressly demonstrated any appreciation of architecture as a cultural asset, much less articulated with any clarity policies such as the Danes have achieved. Our governments view architecture as a trivial subject despite the fact that the construction industry comprises approximately 12 percent of the Canadian economy.

In existence for roughly two years, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) has developed its own Model Architectural Policy (MAP) focusing on four objectives: improving the quality of life for all Canadians, achieving sustainability, contributing to and enriching Canadian culture and heritage, and promoting innovation and research. Although the document is a non-governmental policy framework, it has since been successfully adapted by Brock University and the University of Ottawa: both have used portions of the MAP to develop more coherent urban planning and design frameworks for their respective campuses.

As an instrument of change, the Danish architectural policy was prepared through the collaborative efforts of various ministries such as Culture, Economic and Business Affairs, Social Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Transport and Energy. Working with various public landowners, the collaborative effort achieved a comprehensive architectural policy that appears to be working. One need only spend a few days in Copenhagen to see just how much attention is being paid to contemporary design and architecture in both public and private sectors. As Denmark’s policy handbook explains, “the precondition for retaining and developing society’s architectural values over time is a determined focus by decision-makers, operators and users on their respective responsibility to safeguard architectural quality.”

Architects will increasingly be called upon to respond to diverse issues such as infrastructure, sustainability, the challenge of multiculturalism on community development, an aging population, and an increased demand for affordable housing. Not only can the architectural policies of Denmark or the RAIC’s MAP help articulate our profession’s value, thereby fueling our resolve to effect change, but such documents can assist governments in developing appropriate architectural policies and benchmarks for decision-makers–be they private developers or universities–to make informed decisions affecting society at large.

We can learn from countries like Denmark while promoting policies like the RAIC’s MAP so that our governments will spend less energy on counting the number of doorframes being built– or doorways as in the case of Janus–and improve the abilities of the public and private sectors to cooperate for the sake of higher-quality buildings. Surely, the number of housing starts in subdivisions should not be the only measure of a healthy economy.