August 15, 2012
It's the architecture that matters
Architecture Matters | Leslie M. Klein
I love my role as an architect and the experience of creating spaces that inspire. The complex process of design, drawing and construction fills me with joy and wonder.
However, one aspect of the process - the public meeting - is unsatisfying.
In principle, this approach to public engagement is laudable, involving affected persons in the decision-making process and engaging the public in discourse about the direction of the built environment.
In practice, though, the built form of a proposed development often does not even enter into the discussion, or if it does only tangentially.
Public meetings have become pro forma.
The tone is often hostile, as exemplified by one public meeting where thirty people showed up wearing T-shirts printed with the word “NO” in bright red letters.
The proponent (developer, institution or corporation) is accused of “getting away with” a development inappropriate for its surroundings.
There are expressions of outrage and concerns about traffic, height, density, shadowing and loss of privacy, inadequate community facilities and services, the negative impact on surrounding property values, and an influx of crime and other social problems.
The discussion devolves into arguments about numbers – how many units and parking spaces, storeys and height in metres, floor space index, site coverage, percentage of landscaped open space, etc.
There are demands for compensation to the community for negative impacts through “contributions” – development charges, service levies, community benefit contributions, payments in lieu of parkland, etc.
Eventually, the development is approved in some form – either by the local council or an appeals body.
Precious little is said about the architectural form of the project, its impact on the site and the immediate surroundings, or the future life of the community around it.
There is little discussion about the way in which the building engages the street and reinforces pedestrian life around or analysis of how the building contributes to a sustainable future.
There are no kudos for how the building may contribute to organic or holistic change.
The good news is that some architects, developers, residents, municipal planners, lawyers and local councillors have changed the nature of these discussions, and have begun to use public meetings to create bridges.
They have also insisted the conversation be about creating a common vision for their communities, one which reaches beyond the proponent’s property lines and beyond dry statistical analysis.
They recognize the development process involves synthesizing many often-conflicting parameters into a solution that can address most of the community’s concerns and most of the needs of the proponent.
Out of this approach has come the realization that the built form of developments can play a key role in spanning the differences between the parties.
In fact, architects, uniquely among the other players, have the skills and the vision to expand the scope of the discussions to include the broader issues that their projects address.
As experts in their field, they can challenge the other parties to come to the table armed not with numbers but with ideas, not with fears but with hopes, not with negativity but with a commitment to building consensus that could make a proposal better architecturally and also allow it to contribute positively to its surroundings and to the future of the community.
Architecture matters – and architects should lead the discourse about the future development of our communities.
We are uniquely qualified to do so and should not shy away from the challenge.
Leslie M. Klein, FRAIC, is the Architecture Canada | RAIC regional director for Ontario Southwest. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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