For 2013, expect more integrity, more humanity and more morality in architecture. There will be some gains and serious rewards. But only if the rallying cry to break from conventional ideas of architecture comes from the people: clients, developers and the media.
These four ideas can inspire us to throw down our chairs from the windows, take to the barricades, and demand beauty, environmental breakthroughs and intelligent, healing landscapes.
Reconceiving the city for a warmer world
Responding creatively and effectively to the onslaught of water brought on by global warming is no longer a challenge restricted to impoverished regions of the world. As I walked along the mud flats of the Ganges River in the ancient city of Varanasi, India, last fall – where life-giving monsoon waters had climbed high to fertilize fields – houses in New Jersey were being pummelled by Hurricane Sandy, and rushing waters had paralyzed the Manhattan subway.
Like the indefatigable boxer Cinderella Man, New York is standing again, being reconceived, post-Sandy, as a topography of inspired resilience, an invigorating landscape designed to protect people from the calamity of flood waters. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Most cities are nouns; New York’s a verb.”
Creative rethinking is what will be required to save the New York region from the next attack of water. Activists from New Orleans are being consulted, along with Dutch water-management experts who have developed some of the most sophisticated ways of keeping water at bay, from oyster reefs to extensive barriers both natural and man-made.
Against this scenario, it has to be said that Toronto’s Don River Park – a 7.3-hectare flood-protection landform set to open this summer – appears remarkably prescient. Envisioned decades ago in the aftermath of 1954’s Hurricane Hazel, the sweeping, undulating green space reinvents a postindustrial site to include a toboggan hill and an outdoor fireplace.
As well, there will be a community kitchen in a wood-timbered pavilion, plus recreational trails and a festival square. Stand on the elevated hill and take in the newly protected city: To the east, there’s now a flood plain designed by Michael van Valkenburgh Associates as an urban prairie stretching along the shores of the urban river. To the west are expansive views to the Distillery District and, beyond, the financial core – residential and economic-engine zones worth protecting – gracefully – from swelling waters.
The climb to health
The coming year will also be significant for the increasingly global Fit City agenda: In Vancouver, New York, and Portland, Ore., cars are being rerouted to make way for an efficient, elegant flow of pedestrians, cyclists and skateboarders. Inside buildings, elevators are being tucked behind centrally located, exhilarating stairways, requiring people to exercise while making more room for the disabled in mechanical lifts.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took on smokers years ago, banishing them to pavements of exile. Now, with the backing of a formidable bureaucracy, he’s pushing hard for even healthier bodies. The city’s Department of Design and Construction has created a Center for Active Design, assigning an urban-fit educator to work with architects and landscape architects to train them on the need to create obesity-reducing architecture.
“It takes everybody coming together from facilities, roads, health; and strong leadership from elected officials,” says Joanna Frank, director of the Center. “Everybody in New York has been given permission to work together.”
“Active design guidelines” are being sold by Frank and her team to cities struggling with the crippling costs of obesity. The Region of Peel, a vast jurisdiction to the west of Toronto, has become their latest client. Following a one-day symposium led by a New York SWAT team intent on urban fitness, Peel has accelerated its healthy initiatives. Gayle Bursey, director of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention for Peel Public Health, says that food served or sold by the region will be changed as a result of the symposium. And the city of Brampton is now moving ahead to establish a policy to insist on healthy food in its City Hall cafeteria.
For the expanded Brampton City Hall, which will include the addition of committee rooms and administrative space, stairs will be designed as a central feature to offset elevator use. In Toronto, the hot-pink staircase rising four storeys through the new Rotman School of Managment by KPMB Architects is a free ticket to a healthier heart.