KNOWLEDGE, DESIGNED

Arthi Suthaharan

We live in a world where information is easily accessible for many. Search engines like Google will tell you everything you need to know, with hundreds of sources and reviews. It’s become a common reflex and response to anything you want to know or learn. Just “google” it!

Google is a basic tool in our day-to-day lives, but where did it come from?

Back to Land

In the sixties, in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, there was a rise of a counterculture that favoured individual empowerment and self-sustenance. With this came the “back to the land” movement, where people moved to communes with the goal of slowing down and simplifying life. At the heart of this movement was Stewart Brand’s publication of the Whole Earth Catalogue

The Whole Earth Catalogue

In 1967, a NASA geostationary weather and communication satellite captured the first colour photograph of the whole earth. People’s perspective of the earth changed and for the first time, people could see the earth not as the world we live in but as the planet we live on. The earth was no longer our entire world; it was a thing of its own, both finite and delicate. It was a powerful symbol: regardless of who we were and where we were, we all lived on the same planet and with that, shared a common future and destiny. Brand used this picture of the whole earth as an icon for his publications, an image he used to help shape people’s views and way of thinking to see the earth as a finite entity that needed to be protected.  

The contents of the Whole Earth Catalogue were catered to people who were involved with the “back to the land” movement. It was a paper database of the skills, tools and information they needed to survive and succeed, all within the pages of a few catalogues. It was meant to empower individuals who were tired of being controlled by the government and big corporations and wanted to shape their environment and future.

To access this knowledge, you needed the physical catalogue. There was no internet, libraries were restricted by their size and television content was limited. The catalogue was a new concept, a place where anything you needed to know, find and learn about a single topic or idea was in one place. It was regularly updated and changed as the creators received reviews and feedback, just like the search engines we know today.

The Digital Age

Unlike the catalogues, which we can see in physical space filled with a finite quantity of knowledge, Google exists on the infinite digital plane of the Internet. We cannot see or even begin to understand all the information this entity can hold. It has no physical form; it is a space we cannot physically see nor touch. It is designed using computer code, using algorithms and sequences, to pull the information we are searching for from that infinite digital space. Today, the way we get our news, communicate with one another and share knowledge is via the digital plane. It is no surprise that the way we collect data and search for information happens the same way.

Information Overload

With unlimited access to information comes an overload. The abundance of information has created difficulty in understanding issues and making decisions around them, largely due to the uprising of “fake news”. Twenty-first-century libraries are evolving from primarily housing books on shelves to taking on the self-proclaimed role of “fake news debunkers”. Some modern libraries are also developing programs they call design thinking to promote creative processes for problem-solving, helping their clientele to develop the skills needed to process information in this “overloaded” climate.

Unlike the days of the Whole Earth Catalogue, libraries have gone from transactional to relational interactions with users. Libraries are no longer places where users simply come to consume information, they have also become places where the public comes to create their own content.

Described by Steve Jobs as the “paperback Google”, the Whole Earth Catalogue gave rise to the way we access digital information today. Understanding how the knowledge you are receiving has been designed and disseminated is arguably as important as the knowledge itself.

This is why libraries are so critical to our communities. They are bastions of democracy, making sure that the development of critical thinking and creation are available to all.

MICRO-HOMES: A SOLUTION

Wendy Yuan

micro-home plans by pinuphouses.com

Homeownership has long been the “American Dream”. Achieving this dream often requires people to put their entire savings into real estate. With housing prices skyrocketing and the threat of global warming, micro-homes or tiny houses have become a suitable alternative for some.

Micro-homes refer to any residential structure under 400 square feet (37 square meters). They can range from cob houses and shipping containers to buses and even boats.

I was first introduced to micro-homes in an Architectural Technology course, where students were required to design Net-Zero Energy tiny houses for single families. The main benefits of micro-homes that appeal to me, include:

Affordability

Because of their sizes, tiny homes cost much less than the traditional options. It is less likely for people to be handcuffed to long-term mortgage loans. For example, this Japanese Tiny House on Wheels cost $30,000 USD in construction. Aside from the small purchase price, micro-homes also demand a relatively low cost of upkeep and insurance fees.

Customizability

Customizing a micro-home is more manageable than renovating a standard single-family house. Many have built their homes from found materials, others have tailored their space to their needs through DIY projects. However, what fascinates me the most is the ingenious solution to the limited space: shapeshifting. With pulls on handles, the walls slide across this 344 square feet (32 square meters) Transformer Apartment in Hong Kong, to create more “room”.

Sustainability

Tiny houses are environmentally conscious. Often constructed out of recycled materials and converted from “undesirable” spaces, they have a significantly smaller carbon footprint. Some owners prefer an “off-the-grid” lifestyle, which means they must source their own water, electric and plumbing services. Introducing water recycling system, solar-integrated roofs and compost toilets!

micro-home plans by pinuphouses.com

Micro Homes in Canada?

Although interest in micro-homes is high in Canada, municipalities are slow in accepting them. Some set a minimum square footage requirement; some even specify the colour and type of building materials. No city yet provides adequate zoning description or building by-laws to encompass tiny houses.

Progress is slow but present. Some cities, such as Vancouver and Edmonton, are softening restrictions for secondary suites. There have been plans to build communities of micro-homes in towns such as Okotoks, Alberta. The City of Hamilton has recently shown it’s progressive side by approving a zoning by-law that permits the construction of laneway houses on inner-city lots containing a detached single-family home. In this case, the size of the units are limited to 50 SM in area and 3M in height, adding much needed smaller units to the mix. This allows residents to age in place, or simply add some more affordable units to the retail stock.

Micro homes can offer refuge to the homeless, improve social wellness and contribute to the fight against climate change. Most importantly, they offer some simplicity to life. We can live for ourselves, instead of living for our houses.

HOW DO YOU SHAPE THE WORLD?

It was almost six months ago that we launched Shape the World blog. In that time, we’ve explored topics such as progressive urban design, social housing, public art and virtual reality, just to name a few. We also hosted four podcast episodes and an urbanXchange event.

The blog was created to promote the impact and importance of design. Although most of us aren’t urban designers, architects or city planners, we all have a major impact on the world around us. Every decision we make shapes the world in some way.

Now we want to know how YOU shape the world. We will be participating in Supercrawl 2019, in Hamilton, ON on Saturday, Sept. 14 from 2-4 pm. Stop by and let us know!

Can’t make it out? Let us know below, how YOU are shaping the world:

THE GILETS JAUNES: A REACTION TO PROGRESSIVE URBAN DESIGN?

Nicholas Kevlahan

Gilets Jaunes meeting in Grenoble. (Credit: Coline Buch)

I spent the past year working in Grenoble, a city about the size of Hamilton (metro population: 452 000) in southeast France near the Alps.  As someone interested in urban design, I was particularly looking forward to seeing how Grenoble’s new Mayor, Éric Piolle, was implementing his bold plans to make Grenoble more environmentally sustainable, attractive and inclusive. 

These changes have included implementing a default speed limit of 30 km/h, shifting road space from cars to pedestrians, cyclists and public transit, and an effort to “green” the city by planting more trees and improving public parks.

He is also building a network of long-distance separated bike paths between downtown and the suburbs (“Chronovélo”: 44 km on four routes to be completed by 2020).  On the social inclusivity front, they will increase the proportion of geared-to-income social housing from 21% to 25% of all housing stock by 2025.

Park-like LRT lines in central Grenoble.

At the same time, however, France was being shaken by the weekly Saturday afternoon demonstrations and riots of the “Gilets Jaunes” (yellow vests). Although the Gilets Jaunes were protesting many different issues (including rising inequality and the reforms of the new centrist President Emmanuel Macron), at its heart the movement was a protest by those living in rural and exurban areas against those living in France’s cities. 

They were protesting not just against the relative success and wealth of the cities, but against their values.  And, in particular, the “green” environmentally sustainable values being promoted by people like Grenoble’s Green Party mayor. 

La Fête des Tuiles: a celebration of community and environmental groups on the Grenoble LRT lines last June.

It turned out that Grenoble was unaffected by the extreme violence and disruption that hit cities like Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse.  The Gilet Jaune movement was relatively peaceful and rapidly decreased in size after the initial November and December “Actes”.

But the Grenoble Gilet Jaune protests did share one common feature with these others: they were almost exclusively driven by people who came in from the surrounding regions and neighbouring departments, not by the residents of the city itself.  They were coming to protest against their fellow urban-dwelling citizens, as much as against the government. 

Why did the protesters feel the need to drive for an hour or more to protest in Grenoble (or in Paris or Bordeaux or Toulouse) rather than protesting in their local towns?

One factor is that mid-size and larger French cities really are, in many ways, very successful attractive places to live.  And in many cases, they are becoming much wealthier than the surrounding rural areas.

Public transport is excellent, infrastructure is very well maintained and they are lively and liveable.  Outside of Paris, they are also relatively affordable: it is cheaper to live in Grenoble than in Hamilton, even though Grenoble is a very economically successful high tech hub that attracts a lot of international residents.  Even though Paris is becoming increasingly unaffordable for buyers, it maintains some socioeconomic diversity because it is required (like all French cities) to ensure that at least 20% of all accommodation is geared to income. 

The attractiveness and investment in cities has paid off, but it has also accentuated the contrast with rural and exurban areas which have seen steep declines in population and resulting cuts in services. 

For many rural residents, the cities are another country filled with residents they perceive as “elites” who look down on them and their values. Gilet Jaune protesters often spoke of city residents watching their protests with a look of disdainful amusement.  They felt that they were in foreign territory! 

This protest by rural residents (not all of them poor) against the cities is an entirely new phenomenon.  It is important to note that these protests were apolitical: spanning the spectrum from extreme left to extreme right with many politically unengaged citizens in the middle.  Although various parties on the left and right tried to capture them, the Gilets Jaunes remained outside traditional politics. 

They are protesting not so much inequality or elitism per se, as the urban/rural divide.  This divide in wealth and values has developed in many countries (especially the USA), but you don’t see rural Americans travelling en masse to protest in New York, Chicago or LA!

The aftermath of a Gilet Jaune riot Saturday 25 November 2018 on the Champs Élysées in Paris. (Credit: L. Nicollet)

One little noticed feature of the Gilet Jaune movement, especially outside France, is that it is in some ways a protest movement of motorists against policies that they feel disadvantage driving. 

The protests were triggered by two reforms: a small rise in the gas tax (to reduce carbon emissions) and a reduction in the speed limit on rural highways from 90 km/h to 80 km/h (to reduce injuries and fatalities). 

Neither of these changes would seem to be that significant (in fact the second should cancel the cost of the first), but they triggered a wave of outrage in the countryside.  They were seen as the unfeeling decisions of an urban elite who didn’t care that rural residents depend on their cars.

As we’ve seen in Hamilton’s two-way conversion debate, even in cities many motorists’ self-identity is closely tied to their cars.  An attack on easy and cheap driving is an attack on me! 

One of the unofficial leaders of the movement, Éric Drouet, is a long-distance truck driver and car tuning enthusiast who posts numerous videos and commentaries on Facebook while driving around the country.  Outside the big cities, the signature Gilet Jaune actions were to camp out on roundabouts, damage photo radars and block (or make “free”) autoroute toll booths.  (At one point about 75% of all photo radars were put out of action, which resulted in a big jump in motorist deaths that the Gilets Jaunes and motorist groups blamed on … the speed limit reductions.) 

The Bulgarian sociologist Ivaylo Ditchev has even claimed that the Gilet Jaune protests are essentially a protest by motorists against the efforts of urbanites to reduce the place of cars in cities (and in society as a whole). 

The “war on cars” does not just make their life more difficult and expensive, it strikes at the core of their identity.

He points out that driving is a largely solitary, private, activity and that a motorists’ movement will therefore necessarily be individualist and lack a clear focus or political structure.  It is a reactionary movement of individuals with a range of personal concerns and priorities, not a political movement in the traditional sense. Almost all the organizing was done at a grassroots level via social media postings (primarily Facebook), rather than actual meetings or through the formation of a political party.

This is clear from the central political demand of the Gilets Jaunes (decided via Facebook polls): the Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne (RIC). This is essentially government by referendum, with the aim of bypassing political parties and members of parliament entirely and letting the people make all decisions directly and individually. 

For those interested in urban design, the most important lesson from the Gilet Jaune movement is perhaps that decisions about city structure and mobility are not just about engineering, protecting the environment or optimizing how we get around. Our feelings about where we live, how we live and how we get around are central to our sense of self and self-worth.  They define us.

When the Mayor of Paris or Grenoble states that their goal is to make their city more liveable by reclaiming space that has been given over to the automobile, many people (especially rural or exurban residents) see this as a personal attack on them and their way of life. 

When these urban design decisions are actually successful (despite over-wrought predictions of disaster every time a bike lane is installed), it actually increases tensions since cities become ever more attractive places to live and work.  Those who objected to the changes forget that the city has become wealthier and more attractive in large part because of the changes they opposed.

Here in Canada, the yellow vest movement is a very different beast.  But it does feed off some of the same anti-elite and anti-urban feelings of the Gilets Jaunes.  Somewhat shockingly, the yellow vest protesters at City Hall have even used vehicles as weapons, driving a school bus at counter-protesters.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop making our cities more liveable, economically successful places (and Canadian cities like Hamilton suffered decades of under-investment and decline before their recent tentative revival).  And it doesn’t mean that we should stop reclaiming urban space lost to motor vehicles for human beings.  But we should perhaps be more sensitive to the fact that many people see these changes as threatening attacks on their core values and sense of self. 

RETHINKING SOCIAL HOUSING

Ala Abuhasan

Cities around the globe have been planning and building social housing projects for decades. Focused on maximizing the number of units, the quality of dwellings is usually overlooked. Generally, certain typologies have driven the way we design social housing. For instance, a top-down planning philosophy—or a military planning philosophy—is evident in many projects. This method of approaching social housing usually leads to the design of endless rows of depersonalized dwelling units. No attention is given to the quality of life nor to the community aspect of such spaces.  

An Illustration of Military Planning Philosophy

Most of these schemes are built in rural areas—far from cities and job opportunities—making them socially isolated, dehumanizing and unsustainable. Therefore, changing our approach to the design of social housing will ultimately create more sustainable communities.  

An excellent example of successful social housing is Goldsmith Street, in Norwich, England. The street is a high-density social housing scheme by Mikhail Riches. The project re-imagines social housing as an opportunity to create a highly efficient, economical, community-driven fabric within the city. The Passivhaus design of dwelling units drastically reduces fuel bills for tenants. Communal gardens and planted alleys allow for safe areas for children to play and for residents to engage in social activities. The design enhances the wellbeing of occupants and establishes a strong community.

Other examples of successful social housing include Savonnerie Heymans and Le Lorrain by MDW Architecture. The designs focus on creating a variety of spaces to accommodate different family needs. In addition, each complex houses a children’s playground and areas for events and social gatherings.  

As architects, we work to sustain our communities. We are obliged to design good spaces that promote healthy living.  In successful housing projects, residents build emotional ownership of the place, they connect to it, they love it, they maintain it.

An exchange of ideas on urban issues affecting Hamilton

Urban design and the built environment significantly influence the lifestyle and quality of life of city dwellers. However, those who interact and experience cities every day don’t always get the opportunity to be heard and impact the decision-making process.

We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.

Winston Churchill

urbanXchange is a panel discussion and community gathering that looks at Hamilton’s current socioeconomic challenges, giving people the chance to express their views and suggest solutions. In a City under financial, social and cultural transition, questions and concerns have the tendency to grow rapidly and eventually replace positivity and optimistic thinking. Citizens have the need and the right to receive information directly from decision makers, pose questions and discuss matters from their own point of view.

urbanXchange discussions do not take sides nor present a subjective reality. The aim of the panel discussion series is to give people the opportunity to explore urban issues, based on panoramic views that are inclusive of all opinion.

Established industry professionals from Hamilton, the GTA and beyond, are invited to share their knowledge, express their views and discuss specific urban issues and concerns. Laura Babcock, a nationally established communications professional and community expert moderates the panel, hosted by dpai principal & CEO David Premi. All urbanXchange series panels can be viewed at The O Show on Cable 14 or on Facebook.

To date, topics have included gentrification or renewal, the future of transportation, intensification, sustainable cities and most recently art and place-making. If you have a topic you’d like to see covered, please reach out to us at info@dpai.ca

AN INHABITED SPACE IS A LIVING EVENT

Ala Abuhasan

In the last couple of years, we have been introduced to “interactive architecture” as architecture that moves, changes and is perhaps affected by its users. However, interactive architecture is not strictly kinetic or physically moving; rather, it is architecture that suggests events and influences the behaviour of its occupants.  During an interview about the topic, Brian Massumi states that “what is central to interactive art is not so much the aesthetic form in which a work presents itself to an audience … but the behaviour the work triggers in the viewer.”

A good example of this is the Teshima Art Museum by Ryue Nishizawa. The museum has very minimal character. It is made of a single concrete shell with two elliptical openings connecting the interior space to the surrounding environment. In 2010 the museum was home to Matrix, an installation by Rei Naito. The installation constitutes of water droplets entering the space through the elliptical openings and landing on the concrete floor. Once inside, the droplets move on the floor’s gently sloped surface and gather in small puddles. The installation is not static; it changes daily as the wind moves the droplets from one place to another.

We enter the space barefoot, in silence. The space of the museum is empty except for the small water droplets. The rhythms of natural light flooding the interior and wind moving the small water puddles intensify our sensory functions and make us more attentive. The space invites us to listen, slow down, pause and reflect. It demands our physical and emotional engagement. The integration of architecture, art and surrounding nature creates an immersive environment. This is interactive architecture: it has the power to affect us, to make us feel, to “trigger our behaviour.”

Teshima Art Museum. Photo by Iwan Baan

Interactive architecture is like abstract art—its materials exceed their materiality and become a form of pure expression. An abstract painting, for instance, is not the sum of the materials it’s made of—paint on a canvas—it is the movement, the emotion it evokes and the behaviour that results.

We spend our lives inhabiting spaces that are designed. As architects, considering the fully lived experience—rather than strictly focusing on the predefined function or materiality of the space—will allow users to resonate with, to feel, to experience and to remember not only the spaces we create, but their experiences within them. After all, the two are inseparable.

WHY I DON’T LOVE GLASS BLOCK

Patty Clydesdale

My colleague Petra loves glass block. Ok, full disclosure, I don’t hate it. I love glass block when it’s used in a clean façade of a building against a backdrop of white stucco, and with an interior space that’s minimal and strategic. The play of light and shadow on a clean backdrop of a wall is to be celebrated. Just watch Agatha Christie’s Poirot for glass block that is on point and in context.

It has its advantages. It’s inexpensive (kind of), it can be easy to install and it provides limited privacy. Most importantly, it lets in glorious, beautiful natural light that is refracted into an interior space through the inherent patterning of the glass. What’s not to like about that you ask?

In my opinion, these qualities do not redeem its ugliness when used out of context.

Although glass block can provide access to natural light while covering up an unsightly wall or exterior view, there are many more effective ways to do this, like installing an operable window, or a sliding or overhead door. If that is out of the question, work with your neighbour to beautify your view: paint a mural, build a community garden wall, hire a graffiti artist if you wish to celebrate an urban landscape and your neighbourhood. Chances are if you could haul away the unsightliness, you would. If you can’t, make lemonade out of lemons. But, please don’t hide away from humanity and context – embrace it.

Glass block imposes an inherent grid pattern obstructing the view and casts a gridded and mottled pattern into the interior space.  It can limit you to embrace the shadow cast as the main event. As a designer, nothing drives me crazy more than when a door or small window is removed to be filled with glass block, or worse, like when an original stained-glass window is replaced with glass block.

If I’m being honest, glass block is not the issue. The issue is in its application. Glass block has become a tragic victim that I cannot continue to blame. When it comes to glass block, and all good design, there is a need for knowledge and advocacy.

WHY I LOVE GLASS BLOCK

Petra Matar

There is something poetic about glass block – its intrinsic paradoxical materiality, scale and depth. 

Inherent in its name, glass block combines the heaviness and opacity of masonry and the lightness and transparency of glass. This intrinsic paradoxical materiality is probably one of my favourite properties of glass block. Like masonry, the size of the block is human in scale and has an inherent modularity giving it a familiar logic. Even though it is glass, most glass block is not perfectly see-through. This translucency allows freedom to build privacy into spaces without compromising light. It also allows for diffusing direct light that hits it and depending on its shape and composition can cast beautiful shadows. Glass block has a visible surface depth which adds to its complexity; expressed through the material itself, the shadows it casts, and the shadows and colours of figures beyond it that translate through.

Glass blocks of the past

Most people have experienced glass blocks in tacky applications like in the dentist’s office waiting rooms with a dusty plastic plant sadly leaning against it; the small sad window in an underwhelming washroom; the curved glass block wall near the principal’s office, but a material’s potential should not be judged as such.

Give glass block a chance!  

It has been used in numerous beautiful and inspiring buildings for close to a century. How can you hate the glass block in Maison de Verre? It was built from 1928-1932 and is still a modern, relevant, and iconic piece of architecture. Glass block has even been used in great contemporary buildings such as Maison Hermès by Renzo Piano, Dumas + Horacio by Central De Arquitectura, and Termas de Tiberio by Moneo Brock Studio to name a few.

Next time, give glass block a second glance. See it with fresh eyes. Don’t hate it for how it has been used but love it for how it can be used.

THE POWER OF DESIGN

Design is everywhere. It’s in the spaces we occupy, the objects we use, and the systems that govern our lives. Look around; our clothes, phones, homes, cars, neighbourhoods, cities and even political systems are all products of a deliberate design process.  

It’s complicated and messy, and it’s fair to say it’s the source of many of our problems. But, within design we can also find many of the solutions to those problems. Just as bad design has the power to reduce our well-being, good design has the power to bring positive change. 

The social, environmental, urban, and political challenges we face are a direct outcome of design processes, but we are optimistic that it can also solve many of these challenges.  

We can improve our social well-being by designing walkable cities, achievable by first designing policies that promote these ideas. We can reduce carbon emissions by designing denser cities with more connected and more efficient transit networks. We can design sustainable structures that last longer and use fewer materials that will end up in our landfills. We can design alternatives to single use plastics such as reusable containers for our groceries, and through policy design we can limit the use of single use plastics. 

Our productivity, happiness, health, and general sense of well-being are impacted by the quality of design that surrounds us – and it’s within our control. Just as poor quality design has a deleterious effect on our lives, good design can support higher purposes and important agendas, like health, learning, sustainability and community building.   

Our new blog, Shape the World, was conceived to advance the discussion of how the world is impacted by design. Please join us in this endeavour by subscribing and engaging.   

Together we shape the world.