In large cities across North America, architects, urban designers and citizen-activists who came of age in the long shadow of Jane Jacobs have taken up positions of widespread influence. We have much to thank them for: the salvation of neighbourhoods from expressways, the defence of well-rooted urban communities against reckless development, the fine-grained planning of new settlements along the lines Ms. Jacobs promoted throughout her career.
But contemporary city-building brings with it challenges that often demand solutions at a much larger scale than that of the neighbourhood. Every city needs buildings, for example, that correspond to the size and complexity of the urban community as a whole - monumental works of architecture, like Toronto's New City Hall and Union Station, which express the great regional collectivity each citizen is part of.
Proposing such large buildings is, so far, the main job of the new Toronto office of Khoury Levit Fong . Over the last couple of years, the three principals in the firm - Rodolphe el-Khoury, Robert Levit and Steven Fong, all professors in the University of Toronto's faculty of architecture - have been putting their ideas forward in public competitions around the world. Toronto can now see what this trio of talents has been up to, in a fine, evocative show of documents and models now on view at the Eric Arthur Gallery, located in the architecture faculty's headquarters at 230 College St. The exhibition argues for thinking big, and for building both big and subtly with all the tools at the disposal of contemporary architects: digital modelling, interactive media, new materials.
A good example of Khoury Levit Fong's handiwork is a 2007 proposal for a contemporary art gallery and exhibition hall to be built in Shenzhen, China, which was their first collaboration. The 246,000-square-foot structure takes the form of a flat-roofed block of urban architecture, rugged and plain enough in monumental form to hold its own in a dense district of tall towers and an immense city hall. But the block, which appears so massive from the street, is mainly composed of large, translucent multi-storey crystals whose facets don't always touch, thereby creating several open-air gardens. The result is a handsome dialogue of scales: huge and stolid where the building meets the city, intimate and fluid in the orchestration of interior spaces.
In the show, a digital projection of plans and circulation patterns plays on the model of the Shenzhen project. This display of technology is designed to do more than serve the didactic purpose of revealing the interior workings of the building. It's also intended to point up the firm's interest in adding new visual dimensions to architecture's usual business of brick and mortar - something they call "augmented reality."
In a project they have presented in Phoenix - a large-scale system of shades meant to shield pedestrians and cyclists from the blazing desert sun - the suspended screen of football-shaped lights responds to the traffic at night by brightening and dimming as people pass along under it. Using computer technology, Khoury Levit Fong thus transform an otherwise inert work of urban infrastructure into a canopy that pulsates in tune with the comings and goings of city life.
"Augmented reality is when real objects, concrete objects in the world, are somehow affected by some kind of virtual addition," Robert Levit told me. "A lot of the speculation about such things often has utilitarian cast to it, to do with information projected onto the forms of things. But in the Phoenix project, it's not information, it's the creation of atmosphere and effects. As you move through, and you see lights turning on, and a trail of fading light behind, it creates a gorgeous pattern of glowing and fading on the street - an alluring, seductive road of light playing on the street in the evening."
For Mr. Levit and his partners, a central task for architects in the present moment is the invention of large-scale structures that, like the exhibition centre in Shenzhen and the sunshade in Phoenix, operate at the real scale of urban culture, and help make it livable.
"The spaces of architecture don't have one-to-one instrumental relationships to how people operate socially," Mr. Levit said, "but there are clearly forms of architecture that people identify themselves within, and other forms they feel they can't identify themselves within. There are all sorts of suspicion about expressions of power, or even the expression of collective forms in which individuals are subsumed. And there's a strong appeal for individual autonomy. We address the problem of how you create an architecture that satisfies the persistent longing to participate in some sort of collective life, while at the same time doing so in a way that recognizes individual autonomy."
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