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Can 'Eco-Density' Be Beautiful?

New initiative means new architecture. But how will it look?

By Adele Weder 18 Mar 2008 | TheTyee.ca

This article is part of Adele Weder's Tyee series on B.C. architecture. Many thanks to the Practitioners, Critics and Curators of Architecture grant programme of the Canada Council of the Arts, which is sponsoring this series. Adele Weder can be reached at aweder@qcislands.net.

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Vancouver's Arbutus Walk: one successful model (courtesy HMCA).

With Vancouver's city councillors listening, a citizen of upper Kitsilano took the lectern and offered a plea against the controversial Eco-Density Charter. The gist of his complaint: Eco-densification has so far been a rash, hasty and seemingly undemocratic process.

Then councillor and mayoral hopeful Peter Ladner posed one simple question: What ideal outcome would you envision for the Vancouver of the future?

Mr. Upper Kits replied something about wanting a city nurtured by a grassroots process and community input and . . .

"Let's just leave process out of it for the moment," clarified Ladner. "What outcome do you want?"

An outcome that is formed by the views and needs of residents . . .

"Not process -- outcome," repeated Ladner, his voice growing crisp.

The now-stammering presenter wound up his manifesto not with a bang but a whimper. He seemed to know what kind of process he wanted, but not what kind of outcome. Stage fright, perhaps. But as he shuffled back to the pews, the guy's real contribution to the debate became clear. He reminded us that nobody has a clue what an eco-dense city will actually look like -- or even what we want it to look like. New York? Shanghai? Disneyland?

Where are the buildings?

At this and other eco-density public hearings, presenter and star eco-densifier Peter Busby has brandished a freshly produced, beautiful little booklet entitled -- what else? -- Busby on Eco-Density, as he offered an impassioned manifesto. Busby on Eco-Density contains clear and attractive illustrations of what Vancouver might "look like" under varying degrees of eco-density -- but in the abstract. The illustrations of towers, mid-rises and low-rises are configured as symbols, like Monopoly houses, or geometry homework. Not a hint whether our eco-dense future portends sterile boxes or architectural gems. Even the booklet cover shows poetic images of grass, water, docks, clouds -- everything but buildings.

Here's what the Eco-Density Draft Charter says: "Design density with new and existing architecture that meshes greener performance, with values for neighbourhood context, character and identity, for high quality and neighborly buildings and developments, at all scales." Sounds great, but those big broad words have a lot of leg-room. We could end up with some pretty sound projects like Arbutus Walk or the West End's Mole Hill Community Housing -- or, could we end up with something oppressively boring or just plain stomach-churning?

'Good, bad and ugly'

Architect/developer Michael Geller, ardent eco-densifier and mastermind of Simon Fraser's UniverCity housing development, knows the risk. After his presentation, he conceded that the first multi-family complex he was involved in designing, back in Ontario in the 1970s, did not yield a happy outcome. "It ended up looking absolutely awful!" winced Geller. "But I blame the guy who was working next to me at the office. He disagreed with me that we should design it all together as a coordinated project. He said that each home could have its own character." The complex ended up looking like a dog's breakfast. And who was that guy working next to him, fomenting all the hodge-podge? "His name was Daniel Libeskind."

Libeskind -- future starchitect-du-jour, designer of the overgrown sharded-glass barnacle on Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, and would-be sculptor of New York's upcoming Freedom Tower at Ground Zero. And: a bust at making a decent multi-family complex. If having a future starchitect on your team doesn't lead to a good outcome for high-density projects, than what can?

"The reality is that there will be a range of architecture, just as there is now: good, bad and ugly," says Dream City author Lance Berelowitz, another urbanist in the audience waiting to speak his piece. "What I would not want to see is some kind of dead-hand style rules that would say: You can only do this or that."

To put it another way, as one architect at the public hearings asserted bluntly in a sideways whisper: "There's no doubt about it: Eco-density architecture can be as shitty as any other kind."

Burden of 'responsibility'

Vancouver's chief planner Brent Toderian offers us what you might call the Spider-Man Proviso for Eco-Density: "With greater density," asserts Toderian, "comes greater responsibility." He means the responsibility to do it right, with the best possible design (better than our past track record, I'd infer), good neighbourhood amenities and convenient transportation links.

"Most of the single-family houses in the city are not designed by architects but by design-builders," Toderian adds, diplomatically leaving us to draw our own conclusions. But he, too, is uncomfortably aware of the challenges to come. Too much architectural diversity and you have visual chaos. Too much monotony and you have a big, boring city.

"Beauty in aggregate becomes ugly," notes Toderian. Take our skyline, for instance. Some like it, but others have told Toderian they think it's ugly. "When I probe, they eventually explain that it's too much of the same," he adds.

"Sometimes our guidelines go too far and want everything to look too similar," says Toderian. "Perhaps the RS5 guidelines [which govern basic shapes of single-family homes] have been too proscriptive. Have we gone beyond mandating quality to mandating taste?"

To Toderian, the trick is to get more of the city's better architects into the housing game. The eco-density draft actions include overhauling the RS-5 guidelines that are supposed to be responsible for maintaining the character of older neighbourhoods like Kits and Kerrisdale, and replacing them with eco-based guidelines.

Neo-traditional cheese?

Just what kind of architecture an "eco-based guideline" will produce is still a great unknown. But at the housing scale, I'd say, it couldn't be any worse than the status quo. RS-5 guidelines, after all, have not stopped developers from continuing to build cheesy neo-traditional knockoff homes in those tony neighbourhoods, or anywhere else in the city.

And as some longtime players point out, an architect's stamp of approval is no guarantee of good architecture in any case. "I must say that the licence itself does not validate the design," says Vancouver architect Peter Oberlander, who was also Canada's first professor of city planning. "We really ought to launch a broad, city-wide campaign to improve the quality of design," says Oberlander, "because as the density goes higher, the quality of the design becomes crucial." But, he adds, "There's some pretty ghastly stuff around here that architects have designed, that has been passed by [city] design panels. The quality of design is going to depend on the owner and on the designer. Good taste cannot be mandated."

Former city councillor and eco-density advocate Gordon Price doesn't quite buy it. After all, he himself voted in council for the current residential RS-5 and R210 guidelines in the late 1980s, in response to the mass construction of the so-called monster homes. He does acknowledge what he calls the "Vancouver Special Paradox." By allowing the most basic, affordable but perhaps aesthetically challenged houses to crop up, we can also provide more basic shelter to a greater number of people -- including a lot of the newcomers who have enriched our city culturally in recent decades.

Still, Price's stance is that design guidelines and good planning will make eco-density work. "We're good at this," says Price. "Do it with confidence. No city thrives on suspicion and distrust."

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