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lisa rochon: cityscapes

Fellow Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente recently wrote that the murder of 18-year-old Nicholas Yombo at his family's townhouse in Toronto's Regent Park – Canada's biggest and oldest public-housing project, now undergoing a billion-dollar revitalization – was proof enough that "swell" new architecture cannot cure a dysfunctional and violent neighbourhood. But it isn't really fair to question the validity of a massive, complex redevelopment because of the tragic death of a teenager. Architects are not crime-stoppers.

That said, they do play a crucial role in shaping our cities, and not just in the physical sense. I'm talking about architects who understand that "ghettos of the mind," as Wente rightly calls them, are not transformed overnight by an exercise in rebuilding, and ultimately rebranding. Such citizen architects are fully engaged as agents of change, along with developers, politicians and community activists. They can work magic with space, designing grace and humanity into buildings.

There was a time, back in the 1950s, when Le Corbusier laboured by himself in a wooden hut overlooking the Mediterranean, sketching monumental ways to remake cities in India and Latin America. Until the 1970s, modern architects deluded themselves – as did a lot of planners and politicians – by recommending that cheek-by-jowl, apparently chaotic communities should be cleansed by busting apart historic city blocks and putting up high-rises.

These days, no architect in her right mind believes society can be instantly enlightened by computer-generated lines. Architecture, they know, is a frame for humanity, one that can return isolated neighbourhoods into the embrace of a city – even if it cannot predict what will unfold inside that frame.

Once designed as an island of impoverishment, Regent Park is being dramatically recast as a mix of subsidized and market-value housing, with small blocks and frequent streets so that taxis and pizza deliverers can find residents. Creating spontaneous connections between people is critical to the idea of its seamless, class-crossing design. The transformation will be both swift and slow, but over time, I believe, there will be fewer bullets.

The late American architect Samuel Mockbee, who designed houses for the chronically poor in Alabama, set out three parameters at his highly acclaimed Rural Studio: moral sense; ability to observe (truth); and sense of wonder (beauty).

I see the Mockbee ethos at work all the time in Canadian architecture: innovation with material, the capturing of light, and meaningful alignment to a site. Somebody may live in a dark, mouldy apartment, or one where violence rules. Still, give them a light-filled library or community centre – with a sense not just of refuge but of the relief found in a monumental skylight or the beauty of natural stone – and their minds have, at least, a place for meditation and relief from domestic chaos.

Of course, to those in crippling pain, the delights of architecture will barely register. It matters not at all that the Main Street Library in Toronto's upper Beaches is a comfortable brick retrofit of a 1921 Tudor Revival building: Last week, it became simply a convenient destination for a man to have, allegedly, aimed his crossbow and killed his father. That's the product of infinite, unknowable complexity, not the failure of architecture.

"Architecture is expected to carry too much weight in many cases," Patricia Patkau, principal of Patkau Architects in Vancouver, told me this week. "At the same time, it's a very social art. How you group people might encourage them to interact in positive ways."

In elementary schools, city halls, restaurants and private houses, design can give fantastic expression to manifestos for change across this country. Consider the epic flight of stairs at the YMCA in central Toronto, where since the 1980s people have gathered in knots on any of the multiple landings for conversation or to look into a variety of auditoriums. "Shaping the building in a certain way made it a crossroads for people," says its architect, Donald Schmitt of Diamond + Schmitt Architects.

Twenty-five years later, Schmitt is designing the groovy new Arts & Cultural Centre as a cornerstone of enlightenment within the 69-acre Regent Park. There, a pristine meeting place will project directly over Dundas Street, two storeys high and 30 metres deep, housing a network of places for people to enjoy food, coffee and conversation. Within a nearby market-rate condominium will operate a not-for-profit restaurant run by George Brown College's cooking school. Revenues from food sales will help pay for bursaries for local kids keen on enrolling at the school.

Though the 15-year transformation of Regent Park – as developed by Schmitt's clients, Daniels Corporation, in partnership with Toronto Community Housing – is far from complete, the idea is to match light-filled architecture with cultural programming, youth hubs, and jobs. (A new Sobey's grocery store already employs 80 locals.)

Architecture is only as great as the aspirations of its society. If they are high, you can achieve gradual healing, as in the hillside favelas in Medellin, Colombia, where residents now travel by gondola to their homes, to parks and to monumental libraries. Determined to dream, a society can produce Notre Dame, Rockefeller Centre or Fallingwater. Sculpted in light and expertly crafted, architecture can transmit signs of renewed hope not only to residents but to fellow citizens watching from the sidelines. There is a buzz of optimism generated by the mix of incomes now living at the redeveloped Woodward's department store in Vancouver, and at Regent Park – and civic pride, too.

"We all live for architecture as an act of humanity," says Siamak Hariri, principal of Hariri Pontarini Architects, currently designing the luminous, complex-curved Bahai Temple in Santiago, Chile, and the glass-and-stone Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. (His partner, David Pontarini, is designing a new condo building for Regent Park.) "When a business school says they want their people to have their hearts skip a beat, or a client asks for a place that's soulful, you grab onto that. You grab the intangibles. That's where the humanity resides."

The citizen architect cannot do it alone. Neither can she stop bullets from flying. But watch for the ways buildings can nudge people to take a measure of their lives. There's liberation to be found in the evolving form of their architecture.