A clubhouse in a green space, in the middle of a high-rise public-housing development. This does not seem like a glamorous building project.
Which makes it just right for Janna Levitt of LGA Architectural Partners. She and I are visiting this park-like space on Mabelle Avenue, on the western edge of Toronto, with a new client: Leah Houston, of the community arts organization Mabelle Arts.
The place is home to a garden of indigenous plants and a firepit that Mabelle helped create through programs with local youth; it’s also surrounded by concrete high-rise slabs. Most architects would be concerned with those big buildings, or adding new ones. Here, Levitt is focused on the space in between.
“This is the kind of work we most love to do,” Levitt says. “It has to do with arts and culture, and it has to do with access to public space. These are some of the things we care about most deeply.”
Those interests are part of a strong culture at the firm, which is now 30 years old. The five partners – Brock James, Danny Bartman, Alex Tedesco, Levitt and her husband Dean Goodman – lead a group of architects who recently earned the firm-of-the-year award from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.
That recognition is well deserved, and it captures a shift in the design professions. Architecture has always served the desires of the rich and powerful: That’s who gets to commission buildings. But architecture has a social responsibility, too, And LGA have been leaders in encouraging this approach.
Bartman, who has worked at the firm since 2000, explains their sensibility this way: “It’s about how a building can foster a sense of community within itself,” he says, “and reach out to a broader neighborhood.” The architects are interested both in public facilities, and in serving the “dynamics of the community,” he says, whether that is children within a childcare centre or clients of a social-services organization.
According to Mabelle Arts’s Houston, LGA was the first architecture firm they called. “We are copacetic,” Houston explains. “We both care about the process and the people that are involved, and the values behind what we are doing,” she adds, “and we care about the outcome being beautiful.”
LGA has often succeeded at both of those goals. The firm is best known for public buildings. In recent years, they’ve completed a new architecture school for Laurentian University in Sudbury. They expanded the main branch of the Kitchener, Ont. library. And they designed a magnificent library branch in Toronto, the Scarbrough Civic Centre branch, together with Philip H. Carter Architects. The latter building has a nestlike structure of heavy timber beams, and roofs planted with verdant vegetation; it also has thoughtfully shaped spaces for private reflection and for public gathering. It is visually interesting, and hospitable.
Yet, these buildings and renovation projects do not have a clear visual signature. This would generally be a liability for an architecture firm. But, Levitt says, “Architecture can’t be about form for form’s sake.” She’s reacting to a strong current in architecture of the past 20 years, in which too many buildings have tried to be novel and interesting: every office building a “jewel,” every condo tower an “icon.”
Mabelle is a fitting client and an interesting organization. They exist to “help people learn to be with each other in public space,” as Houston puts it. They operate out of community spaces within a series of high-rise buildings that belong to Toronto’s social housing agency. Operating day camps and workshops, they are using the arts to build community in this extremely dense suburban neighbourhood, which has a large immigrant population.
Their job for LGA here is varied. Design the clubhouse, which will be a combination of office and de facto community centre. Then, within a 1970s high-rise, renovate a half-subterranean community room. We visit the space, which looks out on a sunken courtyard, and Houston starts to apologize a bit for the bedraggled state of the space. But Levitt is enthusiastic. “With just a few changes, this could be amazing,” she says.
She is right. But again, it’s no showpiece. For one thing, this will largely be a renovation. You will not be able to see much of it from outside. It will probably not lend itself to glamorous photography. It will, for the most part, not make a distinct statement with form.
A good comparison is to the centre that LGA designed for Eva’s Phoenix, a shelter for underhoused youth in downtown Toronto. That space occupies the interior in part of an old city building. It creates an interior street, lined by “houses”; it is unquestionably architecture, and it shapes the lives of those who live there in careful ways. But, from the street, you can’t even see it.
According to Levitt, this sort of project is both socially and environmentally responsible. The ecological footprint of construction is enormous. So, she suggests, architects have a responsibility to reuse and not rebuild. “What if we, or if public organizations, had a rule: that you don’t get to build new, as long as any of your existing buildings are sitting empty?” she asks. “That would fundamentally change the way we look at what we already have, and make people question their baggage about existing buildings.”
Because of the climate emergency, she says, “that is how we have to think.” The efficient use of space, the efficient use and reuse of the places we’ve already built – “that’s our obligation.”
But this would also mean less work for architects, wouldn’t it? “Maybe you do less,” Levitt says in response. “Maybe you do more little buildings, or renovations and additions. I think it still leaves architects with a lot of great work.” The rest of us might just have to look a bit harder to find it.
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