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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered


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cov_formshiftby Sean Ruthen

Mark Twain once said that you should never let your schooling come between you and your education. Given our present age of economic uncertainty, one could add that you should never let your employment come between you and your livelihood. Already there has been much talk of a coming creative renaissance, a regeneration of the imagination, with the promise of such fantastic and revolutionary visions as those of Etienne Boullee and Sant’Elia, to name but two whose genius was born of an idle economy. Much has also been said about taxpayer’s money being used for new infrastructure, with the promise of government spending on public buildings and institutions not seen since the public works programs implemented during the Great Depression. And so, in the meantime, i.e. until this money promised by our government representatives begins to actually materialize as buildable projects, numerous architecture firms are being forced to downsize, as has happened since time immemorial, leaving a large and talented group of individuals to their own devices, in the hopes that they may discover some alternate means of pursuing their intellectual livelihoods.

Brent Toderian, our head of city planning in Vancouver, recently wrote about the number of successful young design firms currently practicing in Europe compared to smaller numbers in North America, and how competitions facilitate that youthful success (read more at I myself would add that the small number of design competitions in Canada and North America compared to the vast number in Europe is the shame of the New World. While a student in architecture school, I along with my design class were encouraged to participate in as many design charettes as possible while pursuing our studies full-time, an idea that now seems a bit manic. Little did I realize at the time how precious those opportunities to design in that way would be, for it has been to my utter astonishment that since graduating in 2001 there have been only four ideas competitions in the Lower Mainland. In chronological order, these have been frontierspace, poto:type, and most recently, ‘Where’s the Square?’ and formShift.

As for competitions for major public buildings, the University Boulevard competition for the UBC bus loop and Student Union is the only one of recent memory, the Library Square competition having transpired some years before I arrived in Vancouver in ’97. Where, one may very well ask, were the competitions for the Olympic venues? Or for the new convention centre? It would seem some great opportunities to put the quality of Vancouver’s design culture to task have been missed, and so it is left to this recent set of ideas competitions to pick up the slack.

FormShift is set to be just such an ideas competition, as it is supported by both the City of Vancouver and Architectural Institute of British Columbia, with a jury comprised of Peter Busby, Ian Chodikoff, Stan Douglas, Nancy Knight, David Miller, and Brent Toderian. Centering around the notion of eco-density and our new Mayor’s goal of making Vancouver the greenest city in the world within 10 years, it is hoped that the outcome of the competition will offer up a number of replicable solutions to many of the problems vexing not just Vancouver, but cities the world over. As resident and activist for the Downtown Eastside Lee Donuhue recently pointed out, projects like Woodward’s in downtown Vancouver, itself said to be a formidable example of eco-density, are vehicles with which to deliver a new sustainable model for city-living to the world.

FormShift is also likewise set to deliver not one, but many vehicles by which to discuss this notion, enabling it to be presented to a much broader audience. It is also a great opportunity for all designers – architects, planners, artists, and technologists alike – to hone their skills upon one of the most complex design problems of our age, i.e. how to combine livability and sustainability with urban density and cultural diversity.

As I’ve observed before, the Lower Mainland is and always has been a petri dish for new urban culture (pun fully intended), combining a diverse ethnic demography with the latest trends in city-building, all set upon one of the most enviable urban geographies in the world. Of course one of the key ingredients has also always been money, whether the Guinness family or Li Ka Shing, which until just recently has allowed for a boom in high-end multiple residential dwellings going up at a rate that may perhaps never be seen again.

Two years back I was fortunate enough to be a part of an ideas competition that sought to critically question the logic of allowing such a building typology, i.e. the podium-tower residence, to dominate the enterprise of city-building in the Lower Mainland. One need only look at some of the recent images of China’s 166 new million-inhabitant cities to realize the frightening outcome of densification without any coherent philosophy (other than capital) to guide its growth. And so we in the Lower Mainland have been delivered this notion of eco-density, a notion that despite having to shake off some less than desirable baggage remains nonetheless a notion that hints at perhaps what this phenomenon of podium-tower density could mean for the future of cities like Vancouver. FormShift’s intent is foremost to give a stronger definition to the meaning of eco-density, something its creators acknowledge is much needed given the fact that it has come dangerously close to becoming so overwrought with good intentions, it has all but ceased to offer anything meaningful to the design community.

The eco-density charter is an important (and surprisingly brief) document for mapping the future of the Lower Mainland. Though certainly not growing with the acceleration seen in cities in China, Africa, or India, Vancouver and the Lower Mainland is nonetheless continuing to grow, and will no doubt get to the size that Arthur Erickson predicted some years ago, reaching its capacity somewhere around the ten million mark. The eco-density charter is therefore the roadmap for how we can get there, and hence an indispensible resource for understanding how the region will grow from this point on.

Recognizing at its core that cities the world over are endangering the health of the planet in a way never before seen (transportation and building alone now accounting for 87% of greenhouse gas emissions), the notion of change is the cardinal point of inflection for the charter, and that this change is beginning now. How this presents itself, in what form, and how fast is not just Vancouver’s problem, but the country’s, and indeed the world’s. It is furthermore not a surprise then to find, among the eco-density charter, the G8 action plan for climate change, as well as the 2030 Challenge as resources for the formShift competition. All will be deciphered in their own unique ways by each entrant, with the potential to display a rich diversity of outcomes that our city’s course may take. With the City of Vancouver and AIBC both involved in the competition’s organization, they are in fact poised to be the immediate beneficiaries of these outcomes.

As a co-organizer of the poto:type competition in 2007, I had the good fortune to be asked by the jury to record the events as they went through the 45 entries submitted. Though certainly not a large amount of entries, it was a mammoth task that I didn’t envy the jurors, and I commend them on a job well done (go to the website to see their choices). What was clear that afternoon was their slight disappointment that not many had chosen to utilize sustainable design principles in their solutions.

About two months later, however, after the pomp of the exhibition and informing the winning designers of the jury’s decision, we were able to get the jurors back together to sit down as a panel to discuss their decisions, i.e. why they had selected the solutions that they did. It was at that point that one of the jurors, upon further deliberation, admitted that many of the solutions were in fact embracing ideologies characteristic of ‘eco-density’, but that they were not ‘features’ that had most typically characterized what at that time was thought of as ‘green’ design. Rather, she believed sustainability had become ‘bred in the bone’, the very same notion of sustainable design that is now at the core of eco-density, as planner, architect, and developer are all expected to attain at the very least a LEED silver rating in any new construction.

As former editor of Canadian Architect Marco Polo pointed out in an essay he wrote for Andrew Gruft’s Substance Over Spectacle some years back, the moral void left in the wake of the first wave of modernism, replaced in subsequent modernisms with laissez-faire economics and a suffocating beauracratism, may at long last be filled with the enterprise of sustainability. Put another way, if we can imagine a generation out there that has never known a world without the computer or internet, then perhaps they will also be the first generation to design for the environment first and foremost, defaulting to alternate sources of energy, zero carbon emissions, recycling and remediating without even giving it a second thought.

Chances are a lot of that very same generation is wondering when they might get their next job right now, or whether they in fact even wish to go back into a design office when the future is so bleak and uncertain. If they are able to sit back and look at the bigger picture, they may realize that they have front row seats to a unique paradigm shift wherein society is reevaluating its relationship to it’s planet. And if they really have their act together, they most likely submitted an entry to one, or possibly even both, of the design competitions in Vancouver this last Friday. With over 80 entries confirmed for the formShift competition, and 100 more for ‘Where’s the Square?’, we will shortly see the first fruits born of our present creative recess.

by Sean Ruthen


Sean Ruthen is an intern architect living, working, and writing in Vancouver.