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Students work and socialize in the Ron Burnett Library + Learning Commons at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver.TOM ARBAN PHOTOGRAPHY INC/Diamond Schmitt Architects

The new East Vancouver campus of Emily Carr University of Art and Design should be a showpiece. This is an art school, after all, committed to creativity. You’d think lead architects Diamond Schmitt would get a chance to do something great for the faculty and students.

But for this 289,000-square-foot campus on Great Northern Way in East Van, the university didn’t hire architects. They hired Applied Arts Partners, a consortium of private companies that includes architects, builders, developers and building managers (such as Chernoff Thompson, Diamond Schmitt, EllisDon and Brookfield Infrastructure) who will finance, design, construct, operate and maintain the facility for 30 years.

How much art has made it through to the middle of that sentence? Not much. And this is a problem, for Emily Carr and for architecture in Canada.

As with many public buildings in the country, Emily Carr’s was the product of a public-private partnership, or PPPs, with the B.C. government. Ottawa and the Ontario government use similar processes; Public Works Canada is examining its use of such practices right now.

In theory, this sort of deal controls risk and keeps costs down. It is a form of insurance with debatable benefits. But what’s become clear, at Emily Carr and elsewhere, is that PPPs do not create great buildings.

Over the past few years, I have seen a number of buildings produced through the PPP process, among them the new CHUM hospital in Montreal. All have been competent, and each comes with a story about being built on time and on budget. Not one has been excellent architecture. Not even Emily Carr.

Emily Carr’s president, Ron Burnett, led the university through the planning and construction of the new building. “PPPs are not generally beautiful,” he told me, “but I think we got something beautiful.” This should be true: ECUAD’s leadership has an interest and literacy in design, and the details of its PPP process allowed Burnett to be closely involved through the complexities design and construction.

And yet, the $122.6-million Great Northern Way facility is not beautiful. It looks worse the closer you get and the more time you spend in it. From a distance, its form is interesting, a sort of mountain range of pale peaks, each representing a separate wing of the building. But up close, you can see those mountains are wrapped in aluminum that is already dirty, and metal panels that are pitted and scratched. Behemoth mechanical equipment looms on the roof. The front door is a cheap aluminum number, and the interior corridors – some uncomfortably narrow – have patchy concrete floors, fluorescent tube lights and inexpensive doors and windows.

The main architectural ideas are a series of atria that fill the spaces between the wings. These are brightly sunlit; they were also not very well used in the time I spent there. Students are allowed to display art on the walls, after they’ve checked with building management, but there’s not much room, or reason, to linger there. The library, named after Burnett, is an awkward space divided by a series of level changes. The busiest space I saw was the cafeteria, which hasn’t much to recommend it other than the mountain views out the windows. Even the position of the structure is questionable; it’s half-obscured from the street by a new office building.

It all probably looked good on paper. In reality, the building feels generic, hastily detailed and somewhat mean.

This has something to do with the process.

The PPP model is about managing risk. Governments don’t like it when building projects run late or over budget, as often happens. So they go to PPP consultants who estimate those risks and figure out how much it’s worth to pay private companies to take it on.

The next step is a “specification,” or a list of things a project needs to deliver. This can run to thousands of pages, incorporating technical and space requirements and aspirations, produced at considerable cost. Then an integrated team, such as the winning group at Emily Carr, bids on the job of creating a building that meets the checklist – and commits to a complex contract. The lawyering and forward planning for a half-imagined building is considerable; imagine the potential for broken telephone here. And there has to be room in the budget for contingencies and profit.

What about design? When it came to bidding at Emily Carr, the school asked for “visually dynamic” architecture. The problem, as Ottawa architect Toon Dreessen explains, is that such qualitative measures tend to fade out. “In a competition, the largest design firms are more or less equally qualified,” argues Dreessen, a former Ontario Association of Architects president and outspoken critic of PPPs. “Which means, in the end, it all comes down to cost.”

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Storage cubicles in the basement office shared by over 80 sessional instructors in the Emily Carr building in Vancouver.Terra Poirier

PPPs are “extremely difficult for architects,” says Donald Schmitt, the principal at Diamond Schmitt who oversaw the Emily Carr project. “It adds a level of complexity – and designing a big institutional building is already enormously complex.” In a PPP, he adds, “you are making a series of guarantees about how the building will function” – in this case more than 30 years.

James Brown, another architect who competed for the Emily Carr job, concurs. The process was not appropriate “for a place devoted to innovation,” argues Brown, who was with Bing Thom Architects at the time.

When the college prepared its “specification” for how the building would be laid out and how it would work – the basis for the design and bids – that model was extremely detailed, he says. Despite a professed desire for innovation and design quality, that left little room for the three bid teams. “What they got was three identical buildings, as much as we tried to create something interesting.”

He recalls that his employer, the late Bing Thom, suggested that Emily Carr move the building’s site – trading with the developer who controlled the adjacent land to give the school more prominence. “But the process won’t allow for that kind of innovation,” Brown says. “It’s design by spreadsheet.”

Burnett insists that he got just the building that the school wanted, a clearly navigable series of white boxes. “Our previous campus was a labyrinth,” he says of its two buildings on Granville Island, one a fine, purpose-built structure by Patkau Architects. “Here, everything is visible, and there’s a constant exchange of ideas.” The generic quality that I observed is, according to Burnett, what was wanted. “The ethos,” he says, “is that function trumps useless design.”

That’s quite the statement for an art-school president. But how does the place function? According to faculty and students I spoke to, it works reasonably well. But not perfectly. One obvious glitch is on the lower level, where sessional instructors – most of the college’s faculty – share a single office. A photography student, Terra Poirier, has made a project about this room, which she measured at 864 square feet; it’s shared by approximately 80 people. She has compared it to Burnett’s office and boardroom, and posted prints on the wall outside his door. “There is a clear message being sent there about the precarity of academic work, and the priorities of the institution,” she says. She’s right, and surely in a building of almost 300,000 square feet there was some room, somewhere, to give adjuncts some decent working space.

That is the sort of fumble that architects would generally fix during the design process, but in this case, their hands were tied by the PPP model. Likewise, some faculty felt that their suggestions for the building were not heard, says Rita Wong, a poet and associate professor at Emily Carr who has been critical of the project. “There was a lot of consultation,” she says, “and it seems that very few of the things that were brought up actually made it into the design.”

And the project architect, Ana Maria Llanos of Diamond Schmitt’s Vancouver office, doesn’t dispute that. “There was a very robust process of consultation,” she says, “and many of the suggestions had cost implications. But our ability to address those was limited.”

That’s quite typical for PPPs, in which the architects are working for the contractors and investors – not the clients. “Separating architects and clients is never a good thing,” Llanos says. “Architecture has to grow out of a meaningful conversation.”

This leads to an ethical question for architects: Should they be doing this kind of work at all?

Some architects won’t hesitate. They are led by rational business people. These are the firms, increasingly large, from whom nobody expects a masterpiece. On the other hand, there are “design firms” that prize their ability to deliver great work. They often work harder and longer than they have to in order to make something wonderful.

The PPP model has no room for artistry. And that’s a problem. “Design is an iterative process,” Dreessen says. “Without give-and-take, you will just not get the best results.”

Emily Carr is a case in point. Diamond Schmitt touts its status among Canada’s best architects, and the office has a history of excellence that carries through into some – though not all – of its recent work. Still, it plays the PPP game, a game that Schmitt admits quite frankly is bad for architecture. “In most cases” with PPPs, he says, “money dominates, and you’re designing to the lowest possible budget.”

Then why, I asked, does he do it? “That’s a good question,” he replies, and goes on to talk about DSAI’s interest in designing health-care projects, which are dominated by PPPs. “We are trying to make a difference.”

Maybe. But they also certainly do it because they have to: A big design firm needs big jobs, and in Canada, most of the big public jobs happen through PPPs.

It’s time to rethink that approach. The fact that Public Works Canada is studying the issue, and recently asked architectural professionals for their advice, is a good sign.

Dreessen, along with colleagues, suggests qualifications-based selections: essentially to hire architects based on their competence and experience, and then ask them to define and design buildings. This, simple as it is, is the best approach, and creates better architecture. “We have to get people to understand that good enough isn’t good enough,” Dreessen says.

He’s right. After I left Emily Carr, I dropped into the Monte Clark Gallery next door, in an industrial building now threatened with demolition. The interior was designed by the emerging Vancouver architect D’Arcy Jones, and it is full of clever surprises: A cold-rolled steel stair that reflects and refracts. An art rack made of ordinary wood dowels. A corner window that provides an unexpected peekaboo onto the rail corridor next door. There was more artfulness in this one little space than in its hundred-million-dollar neighbour. And that’s not good enough.

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