July 30, 2014

Ray Spaxman: “To stimulate reflection and discussion”

Ray has some thoughts on the new Urban Design Award Program underway at the City of Vancouver – thoughts that sum up much of what he brought to urban design during his career:
.
The inaugural Vancouver Urban Design Award Program is underway.  …
 .
Only owners of projects or their project team members can submit entries to the program. Only buildings that received occupancy permits after Jan 1, 2012 are eligible. The jury (all design professionals) will be announced later and the award ceremony will occur in September. 
 .
While I have concerns about the submission limitations, the idea of an awards program in Vancouver is a welcome one. …
 .
It is a complex subject that has been under discussion at least since 30 BC when Vitruvius noted that the three essential elements of great architecture are “Commodity, Firmness and Delight.” …
 .
While working out how the building can best be laid out to best function for its intended purpose (commodity) and ensuring that it will be structurally sound and weatherproof (firmness) is complex but a relatively objective exercise within well refined standards and rules.
 .
Delight is another matter.  But even that has been fully explored and refined over the centuries.   Well trained and experienced designers and developers are aware of the elements that contribute to this in buildings. Important to that product is the designers innate ability to conceive and shape the three essential elements into a place that evokes a sense of delight.

 .
Then, beyond that, and so significant to the overall sense of place that we might experience in a city, is the way a building can work with other buildings to create an inspiring, uplifting city which also evokes delight and wonder. This is the difference between architecture and urban design.
 .
The cities where we can experience that special “sense of place”  are often the ones with a long history of city building with design processes that observed the three Vitruvian elements. Even though they may have been built over centuries they have a feeling of wholeness.
 .
The buildings and the spaces between them provide sequences of connected spatial experiences. The streets, the arcades, the squares, the corners, the curves, all combine with the details of the buildings working together to create that memorable, sometimes spiritual experience.
 .
When buildings project into the street it is because they have a special, public significance to the community. Entrances to buildings and neighbourhoods are readily recognisable and inviting. The relationship between the street and street-fronting residences is done with special care ensuring good privacy and daylight access for the occupants, yet provide eyes in the street and a sense of community.
 .
However the primary achievement of good urban design is how the design team has taken into account the broader context beyond the building site itself. These buildings are aware of their role in the whole street, how they will relate to their neighbours, how they value and enhance the character of the city, protect views of important features or vistas like mountain peaks, ocean views or valued heritage landmarks. 
.
The buildings that stand out from their neighbours, either by being taller or iconic by design, usually express the importance of their function to the community. The most exotic or exciting architecture also represents the significance of the building to the community. In the old days these were usually buildings of community significance. Increasingly these days, they are buildings that represent where the money is.  
 .
So there are many design objectives that the designer must pay attention to. In Vancouver, many of the important functional features, those that relate to being a good neighbour, have been set down by the City in hundreds of design guidelines. They can only be guidelines rather than regulations, because the design team has to find the right balance between them and many other features such as the size, shape and orientation of the site, where neighbouring buildings occur or could occur, and so on.
 .
The most accomplished designers will achieve those objectives and also create a relevant level of “delight”. Some buildings will reflect their role on the street, perhaps as part of an overall street facade, or as a stand-out building to express its special importance to the community. 
 .
Can you recognise these features in Vancouver? Can we do more to achieve them? Are they worth caring about?
 .
Would it be good if future award programs allowed ordinary people to submit entries? Perhaps developers and engineers could also be on the jury, and perhaps occupants and users of buildings too? 

Posted in

Support

If you love this region and have a view to its future please subscribe, donate, or become a Patron.

Share on

Comments

  1. We can also conclude according to Vitruvius that not so great architecture will still be functional and structurally sound but perhaps not delightful. This latter term (delight) seems to be inadequate in describing the multitude of subjective experiences arising from an encounter with a building either externally or internally.

    Perhaps the term “rightness” is a useful descriptor. After all we should not expect to experience delight on the way to the courthouse, the legislature, the bank, the cathedral. These buildings evoke other feelings having to do with their functions in society; feelings of dread, hope, awe, to name just a few.

    “Rightness” does not require an appeal to a mysterious innate design ability of an individual in order to account for the pleasing arrangement of shape, color and materiality of a building or public space.

    “Rightness” is grounded in consensus, the very core of social adhesion, unlike the idea of innate talent which when celebrated is little more than the workings of a personality cult. Who will decide what “Great” architecture is? Will it be a panel of self serving contracting consultants? Will it be the Peoples Choice?

    “Rightness” also suggests that we should do away with the artificial distinction between urban design and architecture. We should understand the activity of constructing as the broad spectrum of design intervention taking place with-in the biosphere, only then will we begin to deal with climate change in a meaningful way.

    1. I like the expression “commodity, firmness and delight”, but in Vitruvius it was really “firmitas, utilitas, and venustas”. “Venustas” means “beauty”, but it must be from Venus, and she was “the Roman goddess whose functions encompassed love, beauty, sex, fertility and prosperity. In Roman mythology, she was the mother of the Roman people through her son, Aeneas” etc etc according to Wikipedia. That gives us something more to work with.

  2. Another option here is to not to praise but to ridicule:

    http://www.bdonline.co.uk/buildings/carbuncle-cup

    I know teachers will say that this is lousy pedagogy, but shouldn’t self-regulating professions actually regulate? A doctor will be in trouble with College of Physicians and Surgeons for chopping off the wrong thing. An engineer will be in trouble for something that falls down. Ditto for lawyers. But what happens to an architect that cannot design. Certainly leaky condos, which were largely about forgetting to put roofs on things, ought to have generated some ex-architects.