To soar, yes - but also to get burned: The boom has slowed, but the pause is making room for some serious assessments of what it means to build with care


LISA ROCHON December 26, 2009

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Though architects in Canada managed to escape relatively unscathed while economic tumbleweeds blew through 2009, there were deep cuts south of the border. A state of paralysis still grips the American building industry.

But one image sums up the grim reality of an oil-fat, now cratered economy: traditionally-dressed men in Dubai at a National Day parade leading floats containing the architectural models of the city's swirling, twirling, tricked-out skyscrapers.

To be noticed on the planet - to matter, architecturally - can be the only explanation behind the construction of the Burj Dubai, which will be the world's tallest skyscraper when it opens next month. Dubai's obscene growth gave us the world's biggest fireworks displays to launch gargantuan hotel developments, and a ski slope inside the Mall of the Emirates. And, then, this year, the inevitable collapse. Hundreds of billions worth of construction projects abruptly abandoned in the United Arab Emirates. The men walking stiffly in front of the precious models of skyscraper extravaganzas as if to flaunt the message 'see what we concocted. Look at what has been accomplished.' Even while an empty ideology of building zealotry was being publicly flayed as a pathetic mania - at least for now.

Target: the demolition of minarets
In 2009, we learned all over again that, with architecture, you can build people up or bring them down. In Switzerland, right-wing extremists have managed to legislate a ban on the construction of minarets. In this way, the most visible of the arts - architecture - is seized upon to marginalize Swiss Muslims. I happened to be in Lausanne in November when the polemic was heating up the front pages of the Swiss newspapers. It seemed impossible that the idea would be passed. But, within the messy, divisive apparatus of the referendum, the vote held - giving support to right-wingers who advocate curbs on Islamic religion. Most distressing is that only four minarets belonging to mosques currently exist in Switzerland. But, they provided enough of a target.

A new female-bodied concert hall
The news in Canada, true to form, runs a relatively smooth, undisturbed course. Our minarets will stand unharmed. Keep calm and carry on is what our buildings communicate. In November 2009, the Royal Conservatory of Music's national headquarters in Toronto reopened completely to the public, revealing a magic transformation by Marianne McKenna and Bob Sims of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects. What was once a dusty, high-Victorian heap on Bloor Street has become a major musical intersection where concertgoers now share the historic and light-filled contemporary spaces with young, talented musicians. The Koerner Hall, in particular, has strengthened a portfolio of architecture in Canada that is warm to the touch and gently exhilarating to the eye. It is, by far, the most female of concert halls.

Building a civic realm
The billions of infrastructure dollars promised by the federal government continue to be a moving target of mystery. Most of the money appears to be going into what's easy to do: road repair and construction. There have been occasional happy blips along the flat-lined process, in particular the recent announcement that a 68,000-square foot Arts and Cultural Centre will be designed by Donald Schmitt of Diamond + Schmitt Architects and opened in the heart of a redeveloped Regent Park by 2011. That's not only a boost for construction jobs, it's a hand reaching out to at-risk youth in one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.
In Calgary, all caution was apparently thrown to the wind so that design could be privileged over the formulaic spread of the Albertan metropolis. Santiago Calatrava is a genius of exuberant form and, though his work has become an overworked wow brand, his red-and-white torpedo-shaped pedestrian and bicycle bridge designed to shoot across Calgary's Bow River is a necessary step toward building the culture of architecture there.

Walking the green talk
Green design is another overworked moniker, flogged to nauseous effect in 2009. Effectively, developers who are required by legislation to build green - and the manufacture, construction and operation of buildings do account for about half of the world's carbon footprint - will go green. The Hôtel Le Germain Calgary took a brave step forward and decided to commit to geo-thermal heating for its new flagship hotel, office and condominium development in downtown Calgary. Designed by LEMAYMICHAUD, the hotel's geothermal system required sinking 86 holes some 600 feet deep. That's a rare example of stewardship. But, check the Shangri-La scenario: Its hotel and condominium tower in Vancouver is heated and cooled through a geo-thermal system, while, in Toronto, where such measures are not technically required, the Shangri-La is without serious sustainability. Interesting, both towers were designed by the same architect, James Cheng of Vancouver.

Besides helping to ease the global climate crisis, sustainability in architecture should integrate place-making, a belief not only in individual buildings but the way that those buildings are aligned with their neighbourhoods. That's why the Woodward's redevelopment in British Columbia is a deeply optimistic gesture. It's a series of buildings, including the just opened 42-storey 'W' tower, that combine to create an interesting neighbourhood. The $400-million project consists of Simon Fraser University's Centre for the Contemporary Arts, a major grocery and drug store, small retail shops, and 200 social housing units. It's a meaningful, eclectic mix that promises to be supported by its local, deeply-challenged neighbourhood for a long time. And, maybe, just maybe, it's the kind of humanity that might have a chance at helping to heal Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The tenacious vision by its makers - Vancouver architect Gregory Henriquez with private developer Westbank Projects/Peterson Investment Group and community adviser PHS Community Services - needs to be acknowledged.

Hope tinged by despair
Still, there's an unsettling inconsistency within the Canadian story of architecture. Just when serious architecture and design occurs, something ridiculous jumps out on the scene. The Canada Line, completed in time for the Winter Olympics, runs like a high-speed dream from downtown to Richmond and the airport. But, check the latest news from Ottawa: A developer proposal to turn Lansdowne Park, a Victorian-era fairground, into a shopping mall has been approved by Ottawa city council. No design competition. No civic aspirations for the site. Ottawa has been robbed. And, the new development sits next to the Rideau Canal, designated a World Heritage Site in 2007.

In memory
The biggest loss this year was that of one man: when Arthur Erickson died on May 20, 2009, Canada lost a master and an iconoclast. And, the question remains: Who in Canada has the guts to design with the fierce vision and innovation that he did?