Engagement + Leadership

Architecture is a de facto political act - or so we tell ourselves. But our profession's long retreat from public discourse has has prevented us from employing our skills and insight to solve the critical issues of our time. Climate change, resource management, social justice are all things designers can address and work to solve. 

As a part of this, and often off the sides of our desk, we try to engage the public and our clients (and our families, to their never-ending chagrin) on larger issues. Sometimes we talk in public. Sometimes we experiment with placemaking. Always, we try to be honest and to make it better. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes not. But always, we're looking for ways to matter.

Turncoats Volume 6: God Has Left The Details

Salivating over the way pieces of a building come together is a dangerous fetish. Most clear-headed people aren’t moved to tears by a carefully placed reveal or a custom handrail. They regard those are are as elitist and out of touch. The scale and speed of today’s design problems utterly dwarf the subtlety of architectural details. Don’t get lost in the pixels. It’s the picture that matters!

The Turncoats



Agree: Down With Details

No one in this room can deny that in the information age, details matter. The world is complex and - to borrow from Bill Clinton - interconnected. There’s lots of stuff in the world, it’s all connected, it moves constantly (and fast), and the margins are razor thin.

Architecture is not exempt: buildings contain more pieces, systems that are more interconnected, and building tolerances are ever more precise. Think leaky condos were a problem? Just wait. Think detail books are thick now? Just wait.

But this is all besides the point. The question at hand isn’t whether details are important - of course they’re important. The real question is whether architects should care about "architectural" details. Given all our training and experience, is it the case that the very best use of our skillset is the careful finessing of a handrail termination? And is it the case that the best use of our skillset and experience is specifying where a membrane should terminate into a glazing pocket?

I’m going to argue no to the proposition for three reasons:

First, the obsession with details excludes people. It gives the impression that architecture is for the elite, which frustrates the public which in turn makes us weak.

Think, for example, of all the loved buildings of the world. With very few exceptions, they are robust and understandable in a kind of geographic way: their general scale, their relationship to the surrounding grade, the power of natural light flooding a space. They are all fundamentally broad.

OF COURSE there are details, but they are secondary, and it is not necessarily the case that those details be invented in an architect's office... whereas the brilliance of a building’s broad organization, massing, and synthetic relationship to its context can only be the product of an architectural practice - draw... iterate... draw... test... model... and draw again.

Second, opportunity cost. The world is simply better when we aren’t busy gazing at our navels or polishing some long-since-smooth rock. The more time we spend finessing that handrail is less time spent engaged with the world around us. It is less time engaged in events like Turncoats, or advocating for design, or running for public office.

Ladies and Gentlemen... Where are your priorities?

Third, it is a fundamental miss-assignment of risk. Why are architects responsible for building technology details that are more properly the domain of the builder? I do not swing the hammer. I do not employ people who swing hammers. I don’t hire the people who employ the people who swing hamers. So why am I responsible for how people swing hammers? It’s absurd; we carry risk enough disproportionate to our fees; there is no need to take on more. In this, we were simply duped.

Disagree: In Praise of Details

Of course details matter!

They matter the way that gravity matters. You might not care about the how or the why, but we would be literally adrift without them. You don’t have to love them or even care about them, but to suggest that we can forgo the details in favour of the big picture is simply naive.

Details are the atomic structure of architecture. In the high-priced, so-called ‘total works of art’, the Big Idea - the grand gesture - and the detail are like tree trunk and branch. They are part of the same organism.

In more ruthlessly banal works, details matter too: a well-executed zamboni crossing matters many times a game. The assignment of priority - one kind of detail over another - is an elitism that undermines us. The truth is that the proposition that details don’t matter is only the whiny product of a millennial intellectual laziness and is really better stated, “Details are haaAAarrrd” and “I don’t wannah”

I will conclude with this thought: architecture is for grown-ups; it is not for the faint of heart. But - <shrug> you know - you don’t have to draw details if you don’t want to… it just means you’re a quitter.

On The Rivet

"On the rivet" means to be be on the front end, the very tip of your saddle, giving it your all. The expression dates from when saddles were all leather and rivets held the leather in place over a steel body.

Much of our work and experience is centred on helping communities envision and build recreation and cultural centres and - ultimately, we hope - a rich sense of community. Increasingly, we are convinced that for recreation centres, the bike is going to prove an important adjunct to the core programming the aquatic and community centres provide. We haven't quite perfected our thesis yet, but we have been able to refine our thoughts in a few venues, including the Recreation Foundation of BC's Harrison Workshop. (Title slide below.)


Everyday ridin'

Vancouver is Canada's Los Angles, you know. Except that it rains a lot. And there aren't any freeways. And we're not as big. And well... maybe we're not like LA at all, except in the mind of the rest of Canada.

But being like/unlike LA has advantages. In particular, the chance to ride year-round, and we're an office of enthusiastic riders. (Cruise our site just a bit more, and this should be obvious.)

One of the things we delight in is Vancouver's HUB Bike To Work Week. We're eager participants in that event, have sponsored and staffed the Broadway-Commerical bike station, and just generally vocal supporters of HUB's work in spreading the good word of cycling.

The revolution is coming, and it's got two wheels and a top tube.

HUB BTWW 9 WEB_700.jpg

Putting On The Dog

Part of being out there is to get out there. This was the thrust of Ian's talk at Pecha Kucha (video below). It's easy to fall into clichés on this topic, but in this case they're true: the world is as you make it and is better when we're engaged.

Architecture has limits, yes, but its agency and capacity is enough to help us meet the challenges of our time.

Key To The Streets

Our studio benefits hugely from the people in it and so we were delighted to learn - quite after the fact -that Stewart had been quietly beavering away and volunteering to help make the Key To The Streets project come to life.

The project brought several piano's to a variety of locations across Vancouver. The result was often serendipitously delightful: to be walking on a nice afternoon under a warm June sun and to hear someone sharing their talents thoughtfully often without the gregariousness that accompanies playing music in public.

Thanks to the everyone who made Vancouver a little more lovely. Read more here.

Metro Vancouver Transportation and The Transit Referendum

We were proud supporters of the Metro Vancouver Transit Referendum calling for an increased funding for Transit and the improvement to public transportation in the Lower Mainland. While the issue of transportation is complex and the proposals offered were imperfect, we collectively felt that there are once-in-a-generation opportunities to shape our city. One need only look across the pond at Toronto and witness the tumult of the Scarborough expansion to understand how important transportation is in shaping a city's future.

The referendum has come and gone, of course, and in spite of our contributions to the campaign - door knocking and mainstreaming - did not pass, but we remain hopeful and certainly there continues to be strong support for improved transit across the region.

Next time, baby. Next time. (Read more about the Referendum here.)



Our friends* over at BTA | Works put together some numbers that are interesting. You can check out their full report here. Key findings below; nothing too surprising, although the educational correlation seems a bit of a red herring - correlation is not causation says Ian and his degree in Mathematics, Economics, and Statistics. 

* Bruce went to school with Michael Heeney and Michael was Ian's AIBC Intern Mentor, proving that Vancouver's architectural community an intimate one.


Office Chairs

The sidewalks on the 700 block of East Hastings are unusually wide. (Like could accept a bike lane and landscape edge wide.) So in our never-ending effort to engage with our <ahem> colourful neighbourhood, we put out a couple of tables and chairs, sometimes magazines. People seemed to enjoy a spot to sit in the sun, and frequently asked before taking the magazines away. Only one chair was stolen.