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Architect Gregory Henriquez has an exhibition at the Vancouver Museum right now, Ghetto, about a way that architects can help solve the housing crisis in Vancouver, on Aug., 30.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver architect Gregory Henriquez stood on the site of the Venice Biennale five years ago and considered the fact he was a short distance from a historic ghetto where Jewish refugees had been confined after their expulsion from Spain.

He’d been invited by the European Cultural Centre to create an exhibit at the Architecture Biennale in 2021, and a couple of years prior, he’d been asked by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to become a Premier Advocate. Initially, he thought the request was a prank. But his reinvention of Vancouver’s historic Woodward’s Building had caught the world’s attention – a major development that found a way to co-exist with the city’s troubled Downtown Eastside.

“Because of our work with Woodward’s, they thought we’d be good advocates,” Mr. Henriquez says.

At the Biennale, he would collaborate on an installation that would take a look at finding a way to house everyone, especially those who have been displaced. He knew he’d have to make the installation appealing to the average person.

“You can post a bunny hopping around on TikTok, and it gets thousands of people clicking on it, but if you post on refugees, it’s hard to get people to even look,” he says.

He and his team created Ghetto, which addressed Venice’s issues with rampant tourism as well as Europe’s refugee crisis – and it brought a uniquely Vancouver development perspective to the art festival.

The multiple-award-winning exhibit travelled to Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario last year. It’s now on display at the Museum of Vancouver until Nov. 12.

Ghetto has taken on a Vancouver-specific point of view: It references the city’s practice of requiring community amenity contributions on rezoning projects to fund public amenities. In this case, funds from a time-share project fund a massive fictional refugee housing complex that floats over False Creek. The four Venice locations are also part of the exhibit, as well as a graphic novel about Iranian refugees by artist Wei Li.

The origin of the word “ghetto” is from the Venetian dialect and refers to the iron foundry where the Jewish ghetto was located. Mr. Henriquez is Jewish, and his ancestors were also forced from their homes on the Iberian Peninsula owing to persecution, so the idea of displacement isn’t lost on him. His firm has also been working with UNHCR Canada to fund refugee scholarships.

He received some sponsorship for the exhibit in Toronto, but he’s mostly funded the art project himself.

“We created a fictional world that was a fictional paradigm, and it parallels a lot of what we do in Vancouver in terms of Oakridge and Woodward’s, where we build condos, which fund amenities like daycare, a library and affordable housing,” Mr. Henriquez says, walking through the exhibit on a recent afternoon.

The concept consists of a rezoning application for 1,000 time-share condos that fund 1,000 low-income housing units in developments that intentionally look a lot like colourful versions of Moshe Safdie’s famous Habitat ‘67 in Montreal. In this fictional placemaking, tourists and refugees share outdoor spaces and amenities, and there are classrooms and job centres to help newcomers get on their way.

In Vancouver, the real-life Community Amenity Contribution model extracts money from developers in order to fund crosswalks, parks, daycares, community centres and other amenities the additional density will require. It’s also a way for the city to capture some of the lift in land values that result from rezoning.

The exhibit is interactive and includes an already full “open house,” happening Sept. 14 for 600 people. There is a hypothetical budget for the project, a catalogue of display suites, a tabletop 3-D model, the familiar blue rezoning signage and bar code resident surveys that will eventually be posted online. The museum will allow a controlled number of walk-ins to the free event.

“We developed these time-shares you could purchase, from someone like [developer] Bob Rennie, for so much per week,” Mr. Henriquez says, pointing to a panel. “You buy one every year and the money generated would be used for housing for refugees.”

The familiar Vancouver development tropes are underscored by something serious, too. Mr. Henriquez points to an exhibit panel that says there were 18,500 Airbnb providers in B.C. as of 2018, and 65 per cent of refugees buy housing after 10 years in Canada. Refugees do well, given time, but affordable housing is key, he says. And government funding, he adds, is stretched.

“The problem is what are the priorities of society as a whole? The health care system is struggling, housing supply is struggling and immigration numbers are going up. I don’t know how to balance these things. I am just an architect. All I do know is we need to advocate for people like refugees and do our part to help them as global citizens.

“This exhibit doesn’t have all the answers – it’s just meant to really elicit the discussion and articulate one mode of paying for things.”

Toronto-based Rachel Knope, UNHCR’s senior director, major gifts and planned giving, will be at the event on Sept. 14.

“Reframing the ‘refugee crisis’ as less of a problem, and more of an opportunity to creatively develop new ways of living together, is unique,” she says of the exhibit.

“The displacement crisis globally has reached such a scale that in addition to governments, we need the involvement of the private sector.”

Ms. Knope says there are more displaced people in the world today than ever on record, “with one in every 74 people on Earth having fled their home.”

From January to July this year, there were almost 70,000 claims for asylum in Canada. That’s a small share of the 110 million who’ve been displaced worldwide, but a large number of them will need homes.

Museum chief executive officer Mauro Vescera says the exhibit has already generated interest; the museum had its busiest day of the year shortly after it opened. Mr. Vescera said it also fits with their mandate to exhibit themes around reconciliation, sustainability, diversity, immigration and urban issues. It also ties in nicely with their upcoming show called Refuge, about refugees coming through Halifax’s immigrant point of entry, Pier 21, which opens Oct. 11.

“I’m just hoping it provokes some conversation around our displaced people and housing and immigration and refugees. It’s all very topical,” Mr. Vescera says of Ghetto.

Back in 2005, the Woodward’s Building was a game changer not just because it was a massive development that sold out, but it transformed Mr. Henriquez’s career. The major redo of the historic department store was a social engineering project that merged 536 market-rate condos with low-income and welfare shelter allowance-rate housing units, with office, retail, non-profit and public space. They needed to deliver housing without wiping out a community, and it was daunting. Mr. Henriquez had already built social housing and co-authored a book called Towards an Ethical Architecture when he says he went to developer Ian Gillespie of Westbank Corp. and begged for a chance to bid on Woodward’s.

“I went to Mr. Gillespie and begged him and [Peterson Group CEO] Ben Yeung to go in. They were so nervous … going into the Downtown Eastside is hard, to sell condos at that time or even now. So they were very brave.”

Woodward’s presales sold out in a few days, and Mr. Henriquez and Mr. Gillespie went on to collaborate on other big projects, such as Telus Garden and the Oakridge Mall redevelopment. Mr. Henriquez tripled the size of his firm and grew to more than 60 architects.

“I think the commodification of architecture is something that has been happening over the past 20 or 30 years, right? In the beginning, it was around instruments of capital development, and later on, it became branding … finding ways to market things.

“We like to see ourselves as contributing to larger societal discussions around issues of inclusivity.

“But we as a practice came to realize that participating in the more profane world of development was a way to build more social housing, more affordable housing, more inclusive communities, so we started working with Mr. Gillespie and other developers to land density around the city that would include some form of affordability. Most of our projects have that.”

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