Monthly Archives: September 2010

Community not Commonality.

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It’s not as though Canadians approach the onset of fall by stocking their shelves and bundling up in their parkas. No. When nature begins to close the gate of good weather and jack frost hints at the months to come, we’re determined to enjoy the remainder of above freezing temperatures and all the sandal wearing weather the season will permit.

There’s a huge opportunity for good in this annual interim period.

As we stand shivering at the thought of snow storms and winter boots, we should take a moment to greet those around us, exchange a few kind words, and strengthen our most important civic asset, neighbourliness.

Each business and individual has networking connections it creates through its activities, much as a spider forms its web. When those ties are made on the basis of common attributes, such as language or interest or even type of computer (I’m a Mac man myself), then all members of this group are united by an association. Common purpose and strength flow from our concentration in these groups, but we should be careful not to mistake interests for communities.

They are commonalities. Our sharing of an attribute.

As members of cultural associations, social groups- both person to person and online, and clubs we affirm important values that lend strength to those shared attributes, but none of them define us.

However, as an iberophile twittering speedskater with a nostalgic affection for briquets, I am on my way to a unique combination of interests and abilities (or in the case of my speedskating a lack thereof) that helps define me.

Returning to our spider’s web analogy, we can now see a different approach to the ties that bind. No other business or individual has the diversity of connections that is unique to you. It is a pattern of relationship of which you are the centre. Like association, it also brings purpose and strength, but in this case unique. How do we access this web? Through you!

In contrast to commonality, community is that happy accident of individuals who find themselves associated by mere proximity. An I–belong-because-I-am-here sort of thing. New arrivals are automatically included, since they are also here. Easy. No choices.

The basic unit of this community is “the neighbour”. Diversity is a given, since each neighbour brings a unique pattern of interests and connections that is his network web. Respect is the common currency, since a failure to recognise the unique qualities in others denigrates my own.

It is only here, through this portal of understanding regarding the diversity of relationships around us, that civility is cared for and practiced. Only the idea of “neighbour” carries within it the seed of citizenry, and for this seed to grow and flourish here are a few simple gardening tips for planting your winter wheat.

Fall is a great time to discover your personal neighbourhood, and the benefits of strong connections within it. As a business or individual, take time to stand in the street and look up and down, across and over. Who are all these people raking their leaves and sipping their coffee, members of this Canadian hiber-nation? How do I connect?

Taking a moment to organise an activity that brings neighbours together, connecting through diversity rather than commonality, can be as simple as     issuing invitations for a potluck,    creating an online forum for community discussion,    organising a pumpkin carving party, or    celebrating our environment with a creek cleanup.   Anything that brings neighbours together, with invitations to all, will create connections.

The benefits of strong neighbourhoods in time of crisis and emergency are well-known, as are the savings in public funds for medical and social services that flow from quality relations among neighbours. Our informal network of trust and care means support in so many small ways, avoiding expensive programs and interventions that inevitably must flow from neglecting our everyday duties as neighbours.

Many communities have active programs to target volunteerism and community activity. Kitchener has a unique example in its Festival of Neighbourhoods, a community-capacity building initiative supported by my architectural firm, the City of Kitchener, and the Social Planning Council of Kitchener-Waterloo.

Now in its seventeenth year, the festival asks citizens, businesses, and institutions to think of themselves as the centre of their own unique neighbourhood. Perhaps just a few streets around your school or church, the houses around your park, or even the stairs and corridors of your apartment building or condo can form this community.

Each has neighbours who can benefit one another by coming together, meeting, and linking their unique network “webs”.

By taking this small initiative, diverse connections are made that strengthen our community as a whole, promote shared understanding, tolerance, and build our capacity to help one another. Kitchener’s Festival of Neighbourhoods has the added advantage of information, encouragement, and

a festive Grand Finale, held October 24th at Kitchener City Hall.

In addition to awards and recognition for registered neighbourhoods and their activities, one lucky neighbourhood will win a $10,000 capital grant, from ballots drawn at the finale itself.

For information on the Festival and fun ideas for reaching your neighbours, visit and follow the award program links to Festival of Neighbourhoods, or drop us a line at entries@festivalof

What is Design?

Architects are often asked   “What is it that you do?”   Where other professions may generate straightforward reputations, the nature and value of this thing called “design” is less easy to pin down, and the role of the architect in that design more obscure still.

Architects of course can be grouped in a variety of ways, but the tendency is for division by the “use” to which our offerings are put: the Product of the project, be it hospital, hotel, or office. This creates confusion more than understanding,

since architects aren’t retailers of buildings.

We are trained in a Process, a “how do you do”, and offer that process to a variety of projects so that excellent and meaningful solutions result. The relationships that a project supports are more complex than at first glance. Our society’s division of the world into discrete boxes, and building those boxes single-mindedly, risks the loss of the profession’s real value and is detrimental to the quality of our built realm.

Let’s look more closely, using a familiar example: house. Although architects are involved in a small percentage of residential projects, and tract housing hardly at all, “residential architect” is one of the profession’s labels. But what is a house if not at times a hotel, part restaurant, an entertainment venue, certainly a gallery for our memories and dreams, a refuge, a retirement savings plan, a consumer of resources and producer of wastes, an office, shop, and much more besides? Far from being simple, the house is the most complex of designs, with far-reaching consequences for the quality of our lives and our community’s future. “Ready-to-wear” solutions from the marketplace, from which we form our perceptions of “house”, only hint at what design can truly do.

So then what is it to design? Well, there are critical ideas that distinguish it from other processes of making. The most important ideas seem simplest, yet are misunderstood: first, that design addresses

the relationship among things, rather than the things themselves;

and second, that

the appropriate solution is specific to the particular project, and is not known at its outset.

Designers are jugglers of a peculiar kind. Before design we identify and explore many disparate “things” to be balanced. Here’s a list of some: activities (office work, exercise, greetings, meetings, etc); sequences (first greet, then meet); schedule; available resources; a site and its peculiarities; gravity and its consequences; climate; safety; legislative rules; beauty; and more. Understanding gravity doesn’t give us a design for the project. It’s one item among many, however unavoidable.

So the things are not the design, nor is the project’s use (“hotel”) nor its materials (“expensive marble from Italy”.) They are elements that need to be treated in a particular way.

The design is the pattern of relationships among those things.

The possible relationships are many, but only some are successful. Fewer are elegant and beautiful. Thus the juggling analogy. Having identified the “things” that are involved in the project, design is a process of handling them (in accordance with their needs and rules) for best relation.

Here’s the key part of this first idea:   design is about relationships, not things. Imagine you are handling a chainsaw and beach ball. Each has features and some rules to be respected (if you’d like to keep your hand intact). Juggling them requires attention to both, but you might just hold one in each hand. Done. Cue the applause.

Now let’s add two other things, a bowling pin and a live fish. Notice what happened to the beach ball? Instead of holding it, now it has to be bopped up and down on your forehead. AND THAT’S THE KEY. Solutions that pay attention to one or two things are not designs. They externalize (ie. ignore) very real issues and avoid complex relationships. Good designs successfully balance all sorts of things. This requires an openness that is too often missing as we construct our future (even among designers), but is the only way it will be richer rather than poorer.

This leads to the second idea: that successful designs emerge from project process, rather than controlling it in the name of predictability.

Forcing each project into the same juggling pattern is poor design. It doesn’t respect unique relationships that must be found among changing and often competing issues. The excellent solution is not known at project outset. It is the result of an excellent process: one that    identifies the issues,    assesses the priorities by which the design will be judged,   and gives time for solutions to emerge.

Good design does not ignore the disparate things that need to be balanced, as happens so often for our buildings, lives, and planet. It creates a pattern that ensures quality relationships among the issues we are handling, and forces us to see these issues in relation, not in isolation.

How do you view or understand Design?

Despite our rare participation in projects (architects are involved in only about 5% of construction activity in Ontario), architects have something of value to offer in an uncertain and changing world. Our method generates quality longterm solutions that balance diverse things. Other working methods that advocate the self-interest of the pieces or ignore their relations, or that reduce our world to short-term sums of lowest common denominators, hold little hope for a sustainable planet that must do more with less.

Talking with the Community, Instead of at it

Aside from helping us to earn a living through our work, our professional desire has been to communicate our ideas and passion for the quality of the public realm, both through quality built form and by discussion. We promote design that supports better stories in people’s lives. We investigate the world around us, and try to incorporate our learning into the designs we offer.

But to be honest our suspicion is that as designers we are talking AT the world around us, not conversing with it. If it were not so, design magazines and critical reviews would be filled with photos of the designs in use, crawled over and played with, and reaction from those who inhabit them.

Intention would be compared with the real review, your experience. Alas, design is often the intention, and it is not for the designer to divulge, except to the cognoscenti. You mentally come to us, and consume the design as we see it.

As a profession, our listening skills are suspect, and perhaps it’s time for us to admit it.

Years ago, on a particularly awkward and obtrusive office building at King and Allen in downtown Waterloo, Canada, someone had spraypainted “Be Reasonable” on one of the entry columns. As an architectural critique, it was bang on. The building was designed to ignore its context and impose itself without apology. That “post” in spray paint was for some months a gut reaction woven into the experience of the building itself.

While we don’t advocate literally writing on the finished designs themselves, in the form of graffiti,

we’d like to know more about your experience of design in the public realm

especially in the Grand River area of Southern Ontario Canada. We’d like this blog, and our related social media links, to serve that purpose.

  • How have designs contributed to your experiences and your community?

We would like to hear from you.

Designers   gather info,    think, play,    and    brainstorm ideas. They cajole and organise and communicate and get ideas built in some semblance of order, somehow. Done. Add it the resume. On to the next project.

Where’s the feedback?

The “conversation”, after the ideas are offered and built, somehow never happens. The part where the designer listens, discusses, and learns.

What went well, what did not?

what surprises? what intentions don’t come through?

What accidents of use and adaptation are the happy ones upon which to build new intentions?

What gives life to the offering?

What creates meaning and positive stories in people’s lives?

Designers learn more from our experience and discussion of other offerings, whether designed or not, than from feedback about our own. That’s surely a flaw, especially in the fields of architecture and urban design: a slow dance practiced in public, usually with public money and implications for use by us all. Maybe as a profession we haven’t really grappled with the trail of our efforts, of what we do.

  • All those projects, represented in all those glossy photos
  • carefully captured without a single person in view.
  • Without use,
  • timeless and without a history
  • as though the architecture is statement, and moment, rather than dialogue and life.

So if a building, or a place, a detail, or a space, is meant to be tried on, worn smooth and made comfortable, in a word USED, then architecture must be a relation between offering and experience. It’s not the offering itself.

That’s just the beginning of a better conversation, where the designer, and even the design, can participate in its use and experience.

Let’s take one of the designs we’ve been involved with,the Region of Waterloo Airport Terminal. We were the prime professional consultants for that project, in joint venture with ZAS Architects of Toronto, and worked with the Region of Waterloo project team to develop its architecture.

The terminal has been operating since 2004, and we have undertaken several renovations and additions so that it can accommodate growth in the passenger services operating from Region of Waterloo Airport (YKF!).

How has the design of the terminal affected you? What does its design do for our community? (Yes, we know its there, and can be used, but the question is specifically about how the building has been put together, how it has changed and evolved, and what it does or doesn’t do for you, and for the community.)

Give us your feedback and tell us a story about the airport terminal.

Or, on a different scale,the Ontario Places to Grow initiativeis designing Southern Ontario as an “Inner Ring” comprising Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe, a surrounding Greenbelt Zone, and an “Outer Ring” of growth and population, that includes the Grand River Watershed.  This is design on a large scale indeed, but design nonetheless.

Is this how we should manage growth and the sustainable future of our community? What do you think of this master, Toronto-centric design for Southern Ontario?

Why the Grand River Watershed?


Because our architectural practice and work is rooted in the physical world and the landscape that our designs affect, it’s important that this blog stay “grounded”.


Although discussions about design are often abstracted from context, that’s not us. Our work and interest is about making and enhancing particular places.

That’s why we’ve decided that Design and Community has a physical lifeline, which is the particular natural, rural, urban, and suburban mix associated with the Grand River Watershed, where our office and many of our projects are located.

We often think of a watershed as a geographic unit divorced from our built form.    It’s not.    The two ecologies of natural and built form are inseparable. Is it long overdue that we start designing and thinking that way?

Give us your thoughts on this. We’d like to challenge everyone to think of our community as including both built and natural form, in a sustainable relationship!

Does Victoria Street and Highway 7 pass over the Grand River at Breslau, or is it the Canadian Heritage River passing under that commuter route and through that community? They can never be separated, except by traffic engineers and hydrologists. Will we get things right by concentrating on one, or the other?

Isn’t it better to concentrate on their relation?

What do you think of this idea of these many systems around us

  • in balance
  • in relation
  • working together
  • acknowledging their limits

The watershed is an ecosystem of:

  • the Grand and its four tributary rivers: the Nith, Eramosa, Conestogo, and Speed, that flow into Lake Erie from Central Southwestern Ontario, Canada
  • 32 local municipal governments and seven upper tier governments,
  • a populace of 800,000 expected to grow to 1.2 million within 20 years
  • an extensive and diverse agricultural, industrial, and commercial economy with a higher GDP (gross domestic product) than some Canadian provinces and American states
  • the mid-size cities of Brantford, Cambridge/Kitchener/Waterloo and Guelph, along with many smaller communities
  • a diverse ethnocultural and socio-economic mix that includes aboriginal Canadians and Canadians of almost every description
  • a sense of itself as neither part of Toronto’s sphere of influence, nor related to any one of the Great Lakes that surround and form the Southwestern Ontario Area

We often think of watershed as divorced from community, but standing in the Grand River with your fishing rod at Paris, how exactly do you separate the run-off from the roof of the Waterloo Region Airport Terminal from the rainfall in the Elora Gorge?

We’re all in this together.