A sense of place emerges

There were iconic buildings and tall towers aplenty, but the year belonged to small statements attempting to stem the tide of sameness, writes LISA ROCHON

LISA ROCHON Thursday, December 28, 2006

For sending us into paroxysms of joy and dark shadings of the mind, the architecture of 2006 was another roller coaster ride of highs and lows. The country gained an opera house, and lost a remarkable champion of urbanity, Jane Jacobs. And though tract housing and big boxes continue to bust out across the nation, architecture located in the places in between was noticed most of all by the prestigious Governor-General's Medals in Architecture.

Afraid of heights? Apparently, not at all. The post-9/11 fear of the skyscraper seems to be a distant, uncomfortable memory. In Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, tall towers of commerce and condominium luxury rising up to 70 storeys broke ground or gained approvals. Building a tall forest in the downtown is an attempt to thwart the spreading sea of sameness out in the 'burbs. Forget the dumb shape of the slab tower. With razor-thin profiles and trunks of glass that kick and twist, architecture is being used to lure people to the downtown. The higher the poster boy, the more exhilarating -- so goes the mantra in Shanghai, Dubai and Chicago. The Chicago Spire, designed by Santiago Calatrava and developed by the Dublin-based Garrett Kelleher, is proposed to rise and twist 160 floors above the Chicago River near Navy Pier. That's nearly twice the height of the John Hancock Center. Damn the threat of terrorism. Once construction is completed in 2010, the Spire will be the tallest tower in the United States.

This summer, the final design for New York City's Freedom Tower was unveiled; allowing the city to unravel another chapter in an epic about what will replace the doomed World Trade Centre. The design team, led by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, has produced the Freedom Tower to measure 1,776 feet, a tribute to the year 1776, when the United States Declaration of Independence was drafted. The architects describe the tower as a "monolithic glass structure reflecting the sky and topped by a sculpted antenna." Construction began earlier this year, with completion, the American economy willing, expected some time in 2012.

But let's return to places barely noticeable on a world map -- where edge communities are attempting to stem the tidal wave of placelessness. In Kelowna, B.C., a cultural centre of singular presence was opened this year. It is located more specifically within 1,600 acres of Canadian desert south of the Okanagan Valley, a place of spectacular beauty owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band. Wanting to connect their economic future with sustainable architecture, the Osoyoos commissioned Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects + Urbanistes of Vancouver to design a master plan for the Nk'Mip Desert Culture Centre including a winery, a resort hotel and an 18-hole golf course with club house. An interpretative centre with a monumental wall constructed of rammed earth is partly submerged to allow the desert landscape to crawl over the building's green roof. Having travelled through the Okanagan this summer, it's possible to declare that what was once a pristine, arid region of fruit orchards, jewel-like lakes and quaint small towns is now host to metastasizing big-box retailers. Sadly, what was a desirable place to visit has become what you'd like most to exit. With the opening this summer of the Nk'Mip Culture Centre, the sprawl of the Okanagan has been injected with an astonishing building that stands its ground.


Architecture can help resurrect communities and pull them back from the vortex of unchecked development. Whitby, a town of about 100,000 people located half an hour east of Toronto, opened the Whitby Public Library and Civic Square this year, a place with welcoming, transparent architecture and a two-tiered reflecting pool that reinforce the importance of central place-making (photo). This major civic intervention, designed by Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners, attempts to reverse the damage of years past, when an earlier city administration moved its offices from the downtown to a suburban greenfield.

One of the surprising stories of the year had to do with the Governor-General's Medals. The places in-between, not the iconic architecture that redefined the city, caught the jury's attention.

Toronto's irreverent Ontario College of Art & Design by Will Alsop might well have deserved to win, as much as the deeply poignant Canadian War Museum by Raymond Moriyama in Ottawa. Instead, eight of the 12 prizes were given to Quebec architects for their finely tuned designs for libraries and theatres in small towns or for fringe troupes. The young husband-and-wife team of atelier TAG took two awards for their designs of the Bibliothèque Municipale de Châteauguay and the Théâtre du Vieux-Terrebonne, a theatre located on the outskirts of Montreal, both completed with Jodoin Lamarre et Pratte Associés Architectes.

With its cultural renaissance, Toronto continued to dominate the nation. The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Tom Payne of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB), opened to clinch the heart and soul of the Distillery District. Late in the summer, the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Arts, designed by Bruce Kuwabara with Shirley Blumberg of KPMB, enlivened an existing modern structure rather than embalming it. Most importantly, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, by architect Jack Diamond, threw open its doors to crowds looking both ecstatic and stunned to no longer be in a venue best suited for roadhouse shows but in a place custom-designed for the acoustical art of opera. The enormous city room with its magnificent curtain wall fronting onto University Avenue shows best when filled to the brim with the elegantly attired, but otherwise looks like a venue in search of an event. And the car on display in the front lobby doesn't help.

The fight for excellence in architecture and meaningful place-making in 2006 was, in many ways, like that of many years past. Perhaps the volume has been turned up louder; by my count, citizen groups are becoming more engaged, more demanding, more enlightened about what it is that they want from their urban stations. Ever since she left New York City for Toronto in 1969, Jane Jacobs reminded us of what was important to preserve and how to allow city-building to unfold as an imperfect, often messy enterprise. Up until her passing in April, she was writing and protesting and growing wild, raucous weeds in her front yard. Often, her ideas were ignored. But Toronto Mayor David Miller recently announced that the urban thinker and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities will now be officially memorialized on May 4, Jacobs's birthday.

It'll be our day to remember Jane, but, hopefully, only one of many in the new year to think straight about cities.