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Young Calgary architects working to solve the great puzzle of modern city housing

New buildings that provide homes for people can also be beautiful and create community, but it takes some nimbleness and ambition to deliver those qualities. These architects are ready to take on the task

The 78-unit Village is the larger of MoDA’s projects, with its two-storey spaces designed to feel like houses.

In some circles, "condo" is a dirty word. New multifamily housing often carries the baggage of generic architecture and corporate soullessness.

It doesn't have to be that way. New buildings that provide homes for people can also be beautiful and create community. However, it takes some nimbleness and ambition to deliver those qualities – and the young Calgary architects MoDA are working hard to do so.

"Our mission is trying to be innovative," MoDA's Ben Klumper says, "create density and create interesting architecture that contributes to the fabric of the city."

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The 20-unit Grow, about to begin construction, is one of two projects being developed by Calgary architects MoDA.

MoDA principals Klumper and Dustin Couzens, both University of Calgary graduates, share that interest in multifamily housing with some of their young colleagues. Winnipeg's 5468796 Architecture and Montreal's KANVA are among a crop of emerging architects who are choosing to work with housing developers on multifamily housing and innovate while doing so. This is something of a shift: For decades, the most creatively ambitious architects have often shunned such projects, seeing them as unrewarding hack work.

MoDA – thankfully – thinks otherwise. "We feel a real responsibility as architects," Klumper asserts, "because this type of building is so important to the city." Indeed; most of any city is housing.

In Calgary, MoDA is delivering two projects for the local development company RNDSQR: the 20-unit Grow and the 78-unit Village. Both are located in the central neighbourhood of Bankview. At the end of 2017, both projects won Calgary Mayor's Urban Design Awards – for which I was a juror.

With Village, MoDA aimed to evoke smaller and more traditional homes by ‘abstracting the local vernacular of the single-family house.’

Village also won a citation in the 2017 Progressive Architecture Awards, a significant American award.

While these designs exist so far only as handsome drawings, and it remains to be seen how their details may change as they get closer to construction, the most interesting aspect of their architecture is baked in their overall form and the way the buildings are organized.

First, the 20-unit Grow, which is about to start construction. The site is on a significant slope and the architects have worked with that to create what they call an " amenityscape" – a series of roof terraces that step back from the top of the first to the top of the third floor. These are divided into outdoor gardens; each unit has its own designated plots. "Here, we wanted to create a community within the community," Klumper explains. "These 20 residents would have the opportunity to use the building to facilitate social engagement."

Grow features three two-storey townhouses, three two-storey ‘lofts’ and 14 more ordinary condos, in an interlocking arrangement.

The units, meanwhile, are varied: three two-storey townhouses, three two-storey "lofts" and 14 more ordinary condos, in an interlocking arrangement. Parking, meanwhile, is hidden under the "slope" of the building.

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Village, at 78 units, represents a significantly bigger development, and MoDA aimed to evoke smaller and more traditional homes by "abstracting," as Klumper puts it, "the local vernacular of the single-family house." In other words, the building reads like a bunch of pale, gable-roofed cottages – or perhaps Monopoly houses – clumped together.

That's not an accident; in a city where apartment living is still seen as a marginal choice, these two-storey units are designed to feel like houses. The more ordinary rectangular arrangement of the lower apartments dissolves up top in a series of a half dozen peaks; the larger "townhouse" units, in an unusual twist, are here at the top, with large patios. "That way, you could have a conversation with your neighbour who's on his balcony," Klumper explains. "We're trying to be sensitive with the scale of the architecture and also be innovative in a way that creates social interaction."

With Grow, the architects have worked with a slope to create what they call an ‘amenityscape’ – a series of roof terraces that step back from the top of the first to the top of the third floor.

In North America, such architectural attempts at community building have often failed. When North American public-housing agencies tried to import modernist planning ideas, they frequently stumbled to design and define the public spaces. "Tower in the park" became "towers in the parking lot."

But MoDA is pointedly modest in their aims. This is not social engineering. "It's important to note that we're not trying to engineer or prescribe these relationships," Klumper notes. "With the architecture, we're allowing for these things to organically happen. Whether they do or they don't, there's a possibility there."

And that possibility is welcome. In Europe a century ago, and then in postwar North America, modernist architecture was allied to a progressive agenda of providing housing for everyone – and at the same time making dense urban living humane. In the 21st century, that is going to demand a lot of social housing, which governments are largely not producing in this age of austerity, but it's also going to mean new models of middle-class housing that are dense and livable.

This imperative will mean some developers, and their architects, have to put more effort into apartment living. "We think there's a market out there," Klumper says, "for something different. It will attract people who do want to live differently, and see value in good design and architecture." There's value in that for everyone.

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