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The Design Journey

2023 is underway. It is now old news, but suffice to say the last few years have been tumultuous around the world. On a positive note, several countries like Canada continue to thrive. There are of course complaints from certain quarters. There never seems to be enough money to pay for all the things that people want including first rate medical care, affordable housing and a transportation network that is efficient. Progressive countries, like Canada, strive for many things, which include dynamic, vibrant, and interesting cities.

The architecture of cities in concert with urban planning, zoning and landscape architecture impact the quality of life in cities. The role architecture plays in an urban environment is an interesting question. Architecture serves both utility and quality of life purposes. The utility part relates to providing buildings for activities such as hospitals, educational facilities, recreational complexes, housing, retail, hospitality and commercial facilities. The quality of life aspects relate to not only the functional and/or technical characteristics of architecture, but also the aesthetic and planning choices that add to the enjoyment of cities by its residents and visitors. It is an accepted fact however, that not all cities are equal with some being measurably better than others. Much has been written on evaluation metrics for cities such as availability of affordable housing, access to health care, educational facilities, air quality, traffic congestion standards, available recreation and entertainment facilities. The quality of architecture and urban planning should also be an important metric when evaluating cities.

We have all heard comments that, this or that building is “terrible” or “ugly” or even “hideous”. At the other end of the spectrum, every so often we will hear that a particular building is “beautiful” or “very interesting” or even “a work of art”.

Architecture, as we know is much more than just the appearance of buildings. In today’s building environment, urban context along with sustainability characteristics are all components of the architecture of a place. But let’s not forget the importance of the visual impact of architecture and urban design on people’s appreciation and enjoyment of cities.

Over time, at least in the western world, architects have formed some loose principles, which help them evaluate the aesthetic and artistic merits of a particular architectural project. Architects are fond of pontificating about the scale, massing, proportions, volumes, fenestration, materiality, innovation and energy efficiency of a particular building. “Bad” architecture will inevitably have a problem with any number of the above items such as inappropriate scale and proportions, poor materiality and/or a lack of innovation. This is where things get a little muddy because there is not always clarity on the evaluation criteria.

Excellence in architectural design is not unlike excellence in other pursuits. There is a degree of intellectual rigor, perseverance, skill and talent that comes into play. Good examples of architecture display a superior degree of design difficulty similar to a high scoring gymnastic move in the Olympics. If we take a simple building type such as a high-rise condominium, it is probably easy to decipher the difference between a “dynamic building” and a “mundane” one. A completed building that is a tall square box with repetitive floors with the fenestration identical on each floor would not garner much architectural attention. Compare this to a high-rise residential building with variation in form, massing, volumes and fenestration such as a curved side, differences in balcony locations and variation in material selection. The first example requires much less technical skill and artistic ability than the latter on the part of the architect. A streetscape with one square box after another would be considered boring and mundane. Unfortunately, downtown Toronto comes to mind on this subject matter.

The square box mundane condominium high-rise versus the more dynamic high-rise described are good starting points for a discussion about design. Of course, the distinction between bad and good design is a much more layered discussion than the simplicity of describing two opposing condo towers. In contrast to condo development in downtown Toronto, the recent high-rise commercial work has been far superior in terms of the architecture. For example, the new Bank of Commerce building on Bay Street is a handsome building with an undulating diamond shaped glass curtainwall exterior. There is a high degree of both technical expertise and creativity that has gone into the design of the building. Why the difference when compared with the condominium market? The answer is straight forward. The condo buying public are much less demanding than potential tenants in a Class A office tower who are concerned about image and comfort for their work environment.

If we turn our attention to residential neighbourhoods, it is clear that certain communities are very design conscious, resulting in pleasant and distinct single family homes. Oak Park in Chicago is a good example of such a community. It just so happens it is an area where several of Frank Lloyd Wright's homes exist and thrive to this day. Unfortunately, neighbourhoods like Oak Park are few and far between. Most if not all Toronto neighbourhoods lack consistent standards of good design. Once again, the condo comparison can be used when looking at residential design. Many new and existing homes simply do not have much in the way of design interest.

This BUZZ entry has touched on numerous items related to architecture and the design of the built environment. For the quality of design to improve there must be a demanding public and the only way that can happen is by education. Architects must do their part in designing buildings that make a positive and enduring contribution to the built environment.

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