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Tighten The Belt

Tue, Dec 10, 2013


 

Is it time for St. John’s to consider an urban growth boundary?

In medieval times, cities had defensive walls for protection from invaders. Walls created a tidy separation between civic space and wilderness. They also had the unintended side effect of limiting the growth of cities, and gradually driving them towards higher density. They fell out of fashion along with city-states and barbarian raids, but in the last few decades, the city wall has been reincarnated in a new form—made not to keep things out, but to keep the city in. ‘Urban growth boundaries’ and ‘greenbelts’ have been implemented by many municipalities to limit development along the urban edges. Given the pace and character of current developments here, I have to wonder if St. John’s, too, should have an urban growth boundary.

What we have right now is a city limit—set to encompass large areas of open land far beyond the actual developed urban areas of St. John’s. This makes sense for some reasons, including controlling the use of watershed land. A greenbelt or urban growth boundary is not the same thing as the city limits—it can lie well within the city limits at the point of intersection between urban development and wilderness. Ottawa is an example of this type of set up—where a ring of natural or agricultural land is zoned as undevelopable, beyond which lies the city limit.

In Portland, Oregon, a successful but controversial urban growth boundary has helped preserve natural land, reduced traffic congestion, and justified transit oriented development. It has helped regenerate vacant historical buildings, as well as keep businesses in the urban downtown core without contributing significant increases in land prices. Critics have argued that a negative result of the growth boundary has been a decrease in affordable housing.

St. John’s has always had unofficial urban growth boundaries on its west, north and east sides—Pippy Park to west, Torbay (and Logy Bay) to the north, and the South Side hills to the east. This has resulted in its particular north-south linear configuration. Also, to the south, Mount Pearl creates a part of that boundary. This results in a kind of upsidedown ‘U’ shape, that opens up right about where the site for Glencrest is located.

As we have all heard about, this 2,179 acres of mature boreal forest is slated to become a new suburb the size of Mount Pearl, and will undoubtedly share the common characteristics of sprawl—unmanageable transit, strip malls, box stores, inhospitable roadways and fast food chains. Not to mention hundreds of new single family homes (which, by the way, are becoming less and less affordable or even suitable for the needs of new homebuyers’ family structures and lifestyles).

It seems to me that the approval of this development clearly contravenes the directives set out in the Municipal Plan at section 1.2, which states that “Achieving a compact city requires commitment to orderly land use patterns. In addition to the direct commitment to increase density and mix land uses… the city must also limit growth in areas where it may threaten the natural environment and require the extension of infrastructure networks at undue cost.”

(Facepalm.)

The city tried to incorporate the tenets of ‘smart growth’ (which includes limiting sprawl) in its previous municipal plan but that plan was either too dilute, the city simply didn’t follow its own regulations, or developers were speaking a language that navigated around these directives.

For me the troubling question is, has the opportunity to achieve a more complete urban growth boundary been lost? It’s quite possible that an effective closed ring could be achieved with the inclusion of the Glencrest land and adjacent greenspace to the south.

Also, has the opportunity been lost to redirect that development back into the existing footprint of the city, to further improve and enhance the value of the urban space we already have (such as generating the critical mass required to make public transit effective and financially self-sustaining)?

I am not totally confident that our current mayor will recognize the urgency of addressing these issues. Nor do I expect that regulating sprawl developments will be high on his list of priorities when you have crises like unprotected gazebos and fenceless harbours to deal with.

But I am pretty certain that there is sufficient room, including open lots and vacant buildings, within the developed core of the city to build more housing, shops, offices and even industrial space, and in doing so making what we do have more valuable to everyone. “Smart Growth” was a phrase that got thrown around alot in the last campaign, but I think the city leaders need to be honest about whether or not all current and future developments are really held to that standard.

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Don’t Fence Me In

Thu, Oct 4, 2012

The proposed design for a new harbour fence.

Have you seen the proposed design for the new harbour security fence? It’s an eight-foot tall security enclosure, much like a customs checkpoint in an airport, and it will be used to accommodate tourists coming off the cruise ships and other international security issues. According to the Port Authority, the “post-9/11 world” has seen Transport Canada tighten up its regulations for port security, and that means we need to have this secure area on the harbourside.

The design has met with little resistance. Reactions has mainly focused on 1) the cost of the fence and 2) who’s paying for it. It will cost roughly $800,000 with the bill being split between the city and the Port Authority.

I am surprised there hasn’t been more of a public reaction to the fact that this fence is being built at all. Think about it: our harbour, from Pier 11 (at the bottom of Prescott Street, near the Luben Boykov sculpture) all the way down to the Lyubov Orlova (near the Keg) will be behind an eight-foot fence with a brick base, brick posts and wrought iron railing, complete with plexi-glass windows as “viewing areas.” Are we seriously okay with this?

It’s true that the area has been fenced off now for a few years, behind a temporary, galvanized wire barricade. By comparison, a new brick fence doesn’t seem so bad, but the question of design is a red herring I think. The real question is: should we really be blocking off such a huge part of the harbour?

The problem is complex. The harbour is a working harbour after all, from the fishing vessel docks at Pier 19 next to Fort Amherst, to the container dock at Pier 4, to the oil industry docks near The Battery at Pier 17. There is a limited amount of dockside due to the naturally enclosed, long and narrow shape of the harbour. Erecting a giant fence along that dockside might seem to be the only solution.

But it’s a patchwork solution, one that underscores the absence of large-scale vision for our harbourfront. Reconfiguring the harbourfront itself could eliminate the need for this barricade.

Back in 2007, a local design charrette was held to generate ideas and master plans for a new harbour area. One that would accommodate public use rather than turn its back on it. This harbour charette saw local architects develop a number of interesting conceptual designs, more than half of which incorporated finger piers—piers that project out perpendicular or diagonally from the harbourside, increasing the amount of dockside space. There was also the idea of a small cruise port, which could accommodate all the needs of disembarking tourists, such as tourism info, money exchange, tour bus parking, and customs and security checkpoints.

Ideas like these could deal with the present-day security problem without shutting the public out of the harbour area. But the results of the charrette seem to have been forgotten and we are left with the current proposal: an eight-foot tall fence along Harbour Drive that will eliminate any possibility of a future promenade, and substantially block views to the water and the Narrows from street level.

I find it hard to believe that this fence is an inevitability. Let’s solve this problem in a way that doesn’t erase the harbour from the urban environment.

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Houses of the Holy

Wed, May 2, 2012

Dominican church-turned-Selexyz Bookstore in Maastricht, Netherlands. Photo by Bert Kaufmann.

The churches in our downtown ecclesiastical district are buildings that transcend time, and not just in the sense that they are old. For many, it’s as though they have always been there and always will. But churches in many cities throughout Canada are faced with an uncertain future. They are losing their congregations, and struggling with the high costs of maintenance associated with old buildings. The problem hasn’t been as apparent in St. John’s yet, but may be on the horizon. This looming crisis of ecclesiastical structures is causing people to start re-evaluating just how important these buildings are, and what their role is in the community.

What to do with abandoned or underused churches has been on the minds of many people in the heritage industry, urban planning, and developers alike. It’s a matter of balancing the often conflicting interests of stakeholder groups. The community and church groups are invested in the property and see it as a public space with historical importance. Municipal governments see the architecture as a valuable cultural resource. And of course, developers see prime real estate that rarely becomes available.

But those aren’t the only problems. Transforming property for re-use for commercial, residential, or institutional purposes isn’t so straightforward when dealing with a church. They often don’t have the types of spaces that can be neatly divided into offices or apartments. They can be very expensive to heat, and often need detailed restoration work. Sometimes they are even impossible to update to today’s standards of accessibility and fire safety. Attractive and inspiring spaces to be in—yes, but a hard to fit into a developer’s profit logic.

Some adaptive reuse projects have been able to negotiate these challenges though. The Notre-Dame-De-Jacques-Cartier Church in Quebec City converted part of their space into rental units for social and community groups. The Calvary United Methodist Church in Philadelphia adopted five other congregations and incorporated secular events into their program.

But perhaps the most well known and celebrated example of adaptive church re-use would be the Selexyz Bookshop in Maastricht, Netherlands. It’s a huge 13th century Dominican church that was transformed into a branch of the popular bookseller Selexyz. Architects Merkx + Girod approached the space with the idea of accentuating the building’s existing attributes, like the extremely high open spaces, and the medieval vaulted ceilings. In fact, going up was the only way to get enough square footage in to make the store profitable. The main feature of the space is a towering black steel stack of walk-in bookshelves; it’s contrasting nature doesn’t take away from the existing architecture, and although it’s a massive structure, its appears light and lofty due to a savvy use of perforated metal throughout.

Shoppers have described browsing the shelves in this space as an enlightening experience. The three storey high bookshelves have stairs, but also a lift that take you up to the top, where you can view the restored 14th century murals. The vastness and quietude is perfect for reading, but moreover it’s a contemplative space that engages people with the timelessness of the surrounding architecture.

There was a time when the beauty of a church and its ability to overwhelm the senses through the gloriousness of its architecture was part of the spiritual experience. Now, places that people go to be spiritually inspired are manifesting in a different form: big boxes on the sides of highways. The buildings left in the wake of this social change will require a great degree of creativity to find ideas that will be profitable—and at the same time, prioritize architecture.

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Community Centres

Wed, Mar 28, 2012

Herstedlund Community Centre in Albertslund, Denmark. Photo by Adam Mørk.

Just because you build a community centre, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a sense of community will grow up around it. These centres are a public service, like a transit system or running water and sewer. But how can they really be vibrant, functioning parts of a community, and avoid the pitfall of underuse?

Southlands is a relatively new subdivision of St. John’s, located just south and east of Mount Pearl. It’s really just getting going as a neighborhood and, to help it along, the city of St. John’s recently approved $60,000 for a concept plan for a new community centre. Council recommended that public consultations be made to determine what should be in it, and where it should be.

It’s not easy to program a building of this type. The plan has to anticipate and incorporate a range of activities that a community desires. It has to be flexible enough so that all types of people can call it their own. It also has to be a dynamic and attractive space in which people want to spend their time.

The Herstedlund Community Centre in Albertslund, Denmark is a great example of a project that really looked at what the community needs. The neighborhood is a new development of around 600 families located on the outskirts of Copenhagen. Conceptually, the building was meant to resemble a large tree at the edge of a field—a symbolic notion relating to the town. It’s a large mass that curves at its base into a half-pipe skate ramp. The facade is made of solid and perforated shiny aluminum panels cut in an angular pattern that accentuate the gestural shape of the building. One side looks as if it’s covered in a three-dimensional decorative pattern, but it’s actually a climbing wall.

The design had to be flexible, featuring multi-functional spaces that could serve many different groups at the same time. The architects’ (Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter Aps) solution was to make a transformable space, with entrances on multiple levels, various ways to access facilities, and moving walls and hatch doors. The centre is surrounded by outdoor activity spaces, which all have access to washrooms and kitchens on the main level. The kitchen can also transform into an outdoor patio or bar. The performance space has a stage that can be divided into smaller stages by sliding walls, and the top level of the facility is an open roof terrace and basketball court, which can be accessed without crossing paths with other groups.

The Herstedlund Community Centre is not just simply about providing a place for people to gather, its making a statement about the community through its architecture. The architecture can actually be a contribution to that neighborhood and its sense of community. Maybe if the building is part of the identity of the place, people will want to be a part of it.

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Living in the Edge

Thu, Mar 1, 2012

Left: CBS 2012. Right: CBS 2022? (actually, 'The American Dream' by Roma Flowers, and the skyline of Denver.

Considering the rapid growth CBS has been experiencing over the past few years, it should come as no surprise that it is now Newfoundland’s second largest community. There are new roads all along the main highway, each with brand new developments of single family homes. All sorts of amenities are within close reach, and a new big box “Smart Centre” in the area provides even less reason to visit St. John’s.

Debate has raged over the idea of amalgamation for a while, with opponents fearing a bill for services they might not get, and proponents blaming the so-called bedroom communities for the poor conditions of St. John’s roads. But now with CBS population passing the mark for city status, the debate is shifting towards a new question: Is CBS ready to be a city?

CBS lacks most of the traditional elements that people associate with cities. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to have institutional and government edifices, monuments, economic centres, cultural districts, transit systems, notable architecture, entertainment districts with night clubs, theatres, restaurants and hotels.

But maybe CBS isn’t a traditional city. Maybe it’s on its way to becoming an ‘edge city’. In North America, a surprising thing occurred in urban areas in the late 20th century. Suburbs were originally intended to be serene places to live away from the busy urban core of a city, with residents expected to commute to the city centre for work, shopping and entertainment. What happened was that people started moving all those elements closer to the place they live—to the suburbs. Hence, the ‘edge city’ was born. It’s not just a suburb anymore, it has some mid-rise office buildings, maybe a small library, a few schools, a shopping centre or a big box centre. Much like what is happening in CBS—albeit on a larger scale.

Author and futurist Joel Garreau coined the term in his 1991 book titled Edge City. He defines it as having a large geographic area, on the edge of a traditional city, close to a highway or airport, built to the scale of the car. They have mid-rise office buildings, and low-density single family homes. In the long term, edge cities face problems that limit their growth, and these have to do with the fact that they are designed exclusively for car-user lifestyles. Land along primary arterial highways can’t be easily adapted to divide into more lots, and the hierarchical road networks are not amenable to public transit. Essentially, it’s a pedestrian nightmare. It may not sound like a place you would want to spend your time now, but it has been suggested that all cities are chaotic in their early formative years. Garreau is optimistic, and projects a future where abandoned big boxes are akin to the hip converted industrial loft spaces, and sprawling parking lots are community gardens.

For a long time, the ‘city’ has existed in conflict with its suburban counterpart, but now it seems like the suburb-city is starting to be recognized as a phenomenon of its own, without being forced into the mold of the traditional, historic city. I am not so optimistic as Garreau about everthing working itself out on its own. I think CBS has a lot of possible futures and some are better than others. The fact that we can learn from other cities’ experiences with edge cities means that we could have a little more agency in determining that future.

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Townhouse & Side Salad

Wed, Feb 1, 2012

Planetary ONE's proposed Super Dock for Brooklyn, New York (image: Planetary ONE)

Taryn Shppard looks into how a proposed mixed townhouse, commercial, and lettuce farm building downtown fits into a growing global trend of grown architecture.

Another new development has been proposed for downtown near Hamilton Ave. The old Swift Meats industrial building on Brine Street will be converted into ten townhouses and commercial space. The Lettuce Farm, which has been growing hydroponic lettuce and herbs in this building for the past 12 years will continue to operate there, with the living spaces on the upper levels. The development group have described the building’s style as ‘industrial contemporary’.

There will also be a new laundromat in the building which will exist in a symbiotic relationship with the Lettuce Farm, which will use excess heat and CO2 from the laundromat to help grow their produce.

The combination of living space, agricultural/industrial, and commercial activity in one building is new for downtown. It takes ‘mixed use’ to a whole other level: the multiple uses do not simply co-exist, they are dependent on one another.

This project reminds me of the work of Terreform ONE (the ONE stands for Open Network Ecology), who work in a similar theme but much larger and much more radical. This architecture studio is led by Mitchell Joachim, and their work combines biological systems into structures that people can live in. Known for their ‘bio-design’, Terreform ONE is all about developing cyclical resource networks, where waste products of one function support another, much like the laundry-lettuce system. The research-based eco-architecture group often shock people with their organic, fleshy design aesthetic, particularly the Fab Tree Hab, a house grown out of vegetation, and the‘meat house’, made of living tissue grown in a lab.

Joachim is also a partner in the urban design group Planetary ONE. Their Super Dock proposal for an industrial waterfront in Brooklyn dramatically re-imagines ‘mixed use’ architecture. The project re-envisions an under-used area as a self-sustaining working waterfront where green industries use experimental technologies in service to the environment and the economy; a place where nature and industry co-exist and thrive together.

The dock is intentionally landscaped to mitigate climatic issues, and prioritizes pedestrian movement. It has five distinct docks. One is for ship building with massive scale 3-D rapid prototyping, another is for research in restorative ecology, another is for manufacturing solar panels, and another houses phytoremediation (plants that clean polluted water) barges for sewer overflow. The structural forms of the dock are like rising and falling waves over the site.

The Super Dock proposal responds to a growing sense of urgency for architects and planners to merge industry, ecology, and human activity in mutually beneficial ways. This growing movement is backed by emerging contemporary architecture theory focused on design that is about what a building can contribute to the needs of a community, industry, or ecology, beyond just being a pleasing form.

The new design of the Lettuce Farm building is informed by the existing building’s industrial history, while, at the same time, adhering to the new architectural movement towards buildings serving multiple, inter-dependant functions. It might not be quite as radical as growing houses out of the lettuce, but Compared to a lot of other new developments in the city, the Lettuce Farm building is much more progressive in its architecture.

Terreform ONE's Fab Tree Hab (left)--a house grown of grafted trees--would take 7-8 years to grow according to Joachim. The Meat House (right) is made of meat grown in a lab and comes complete with sphincters for windows and doors. (Images: Terreform ONE)

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Rooms for Rent

Mon, Jan 9, 2012

Bennett House will be a colourful new building in Pleasantville full of—get this­—rental units. Image: Killam Properties

This year’s Best New Building category went to The Rooms. It’s not surprising, given that The Rooms is probably one of the most interesting and creatively designed new buildings in our city, and it really stands out as having architectural merit. Problem is though, The Rooms isn’t all that new. It’s been open to the public for nearly seven years now. But, to be fair, there aren’t a lot of new architecturally designed buildings to choose from when it comes to picking a favourite.

If you want to get a good, overall view of new developments in St. John’s, you could check out skyscraperpage.com. They have a pretty good database of facts and statistics for St. John’s buildings on their “St. John’s project thread” page, and a nice collection of elevations of local buildings. The site’s contributors are generally neutral when it comes to opinions about architecture, and there isn’t a lot of editorial commenting on the buildings listed here, but I couldn’t help but notice the caption of one particular new proposal described as “design wise… one of the best current residential proposals in St. John’s so far.” This caught my attention.

According to them, the best new building going up in St. John’s is Bennett House, a new rental apartment building intended for development near Rutledge Manor in Pleasantville. It’s owned by Killam Properties out of Halifax and the apartment is being designed by Studio Works International (who have an office in Halifax).

The first glimpse we get of it reveals an ‘L’ shape plan, extruded up four storeys. It has a concrete and steel structure, with large square windows, and its facade is embellished with coloured blocks and small balconies with what looks like glass balusters. The average one-bedroom unit will be 750 square feet, and include six appliances. The building will have amenities for the residents, like a multi-purpose lounge, a movie theatre, and underground parking. It’ll be 107,500 square feet, and will house 71 units. It’s the first phase of an expected three-phase development to create 210 units in the area.

Whether or not this is the best new proposal in terms of style, and design is definitely up for debate, but what is welcome about this new proposal is the fact that these are rental units.

Finally, someone has paid attention to the fact that we have had a record low in rental unit vacancy rates for the past three years, and that trend is only expected to continue. We haven’t seen construction of any new rental units in more than 15 years. In the CMHC Housing stats recently released for 2011, we’re shown that most rental units are in buildings built before 1940, and the vacancy rate for St. John’s core city area is even lower than the larger metropolitan area average.

It remains to be seen what it will be to rent these units, but, regardless, the existence of this many new spaces will benefit the renting community by relieving the extremely high demand in the market. The design itself is probably attractive to some because of its freedom from the usual trappings of traditional architecture, but either way, it’s high time for some variety in style and types of residential developments we build here. And this one seems like a step in the right direction.

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Newfoundland Modern

Wed, Dec 7, 2011

Gander Airport International Departure Lounge from Newfoundland Modern by Robert Mellin.

Newfoundland Modern: Architecture in the Smallwood Years 1949-1972 by Robert Mellin (McGill-Queens University Press, 2011), $59.95.

When you think of Newfoundland architecture, what comes to mind? Chances are you are thinking of colored rowhouses and saltboxes. Well, this new book by Robert Mellin questions the popular notions of architecture in Newfoundland, and demonstrates that the Modernist era plays an important historical role in our province.

Mellin looks at architecture in Newfoundland between the years 1949 and 1972. He ties the architecture of that era to the political climate, and places emphasis on the role former premier Joey Smallwood had in shaping development in the province. Smallwood saw new architecture as a propaganda tool, useful for convincing the public that his vision of Newfoundland-as-a-Modernist-utopia was working.

There are some fascinating bits of history throughout the book that demonstrate how vibrant this period in architectural history was. Mellin writes about the bridge in Bowring Park by Ove Arup—one of the world’s most brilliant structural engineers, who also made possible the construction of the Sydney Opera House. Then there’s the story about Walter Gropius, Modernist architect and founder of the Bauhaus movement, who expressed interest to the provincial government in designing some of the first buildings for MUN. He was ignored though; at that point Smallwood had come to be skeptical of architects, seeing them as a group who challenged his own views on design.

The book includes some brilliant old photos. It’s fascinating to see how great some of our old buildings looked when they were brand new and finished with their designers’ originally-intended details. Flipping through the book, you really get the sense of how absurd it is that this intense period of growth and creativity is largely uncharted historical territory. A great shot of The Gander airport (see above) shows its original fittings, true to the style, from the floor finish to the furniture and art.

Of course, recognising the value of Modernist architecture is not a new idea. Around the world and in all of the major Canadian cities, academics have rethought the historic value of buildings in that style. But it seems like it’s taken extra long for a scholarly recognition of Newfoundland’s architecture in that style. Is there more-than-normal resistance to appreciating these buildings when they happen to be in Newfoundland? Could it have something to do with their political origins? It could be that they’re bundled up in our minds with painful memories surrounding the politics of the day.

One telling page shows a photo of Smallwood next to one of Le Corbusier, a French architect, designer and urbanist known for his grand Modernist schemes and their insensitivity to local cultures. Aside from their similar taste in fashion (thick round glasses and bowtie), Smallwood and Le Corbusier had some ideologies in common. Smallwood saw resettlement, Modern architecture, and new industry as key elements in his plans for rapid modernisation.

Mellin’s idea that examples of Newfoundland Modernism are historically valuable throws into question some of the popular ideas of heritage architecture in the province. He shows that it’s is a part of who we are today, alongside the more recognised vernacular forms, and reveals the political undercurrents for many buildings from this era which still affect the way we perceive them as part of our cultural landscape.

This is by no means a simple coffee table book on architecture, but it’s relatively accessible, and promises to be of great interest to history buffs and architecture enthusiasts.

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Going South

Thu, Nov 3, 2011

Collage by Taryn Sheppard.

The Southside Hills is conspicuously quiet. Lots of people wonder why there isn’t more going on up there, like a neighbourhood, or stores and business. It seems like an obvious choice to many, as an alternative to sprawling suburbs and so-called ‘smart centres’, the likes of which have been condemned by urban planners everywhere. It’s a huge chunk of land that could possibly help to increase density in the downtown and vitalize the existing core of the city. It could also be a park, with marked lookouts and trails like Signal Hill. It’s close to everything, it has great views, and much of the hill is not too steep for practical building. But at the moment, the most prominent feature on the hill is a collection of rusty Irving Oil storage tanks.

With the exception of Shea Heights and Fort Amherst, why are the Southside Hills basically unoccupied?

I contacted the city if they could explain what the deal was, and they informed me that most of the land is crown land, owned by the province. But, in the 80s, a deal was signed between the province and a company named Sohilco (Southside HIlls Corporation) to give them what is known as ‘right of first refusal’, meaning roughly, if anything is to be done with the land, it will be done by Sohilco. The agreement affects an area of land bordered by Southside Road on the west, Blackhead Road at the south, Deadman’s Cove at the east and following the coastline all the way back along to Fort Amherst.

Over the years, Sohilco has had a few big ideas about developing the Hills. They were interested in engineer Tom Kierans’ ideas about excavating portions of the hills for underground infrastructure, storage and other industrial applications. He proposed underground sewage treatment for the city, with a pipe for sewage outfalls into Freshwater Bay, and a park with a road circling the high points at the top of the hill. Kierans is probably more well known for his proposal for the Rock Arena, the controversial “arena built into the hill” idea which came about at the time when the city was looking to build a new stadium. It was one of the more radically creative proposals this city has ever seen, but was eventually turned down.

Sohilco was still interested in the hill top park idea as recently as the late 90s and early 2000s, and was encouraged by the city to collaborate with the East Coast Trail Association, which was responsible for revitalizing the old trails that exist along the hill and south along the coast. These days, however, Sohilco lays dormant, and no development has progressed. Is it time to resurrect the discussion of what could become of the hills?

There are certainly environmental concerns. The marshland along the top behind the ridge out of view is recognised as being of environmental importance. There is already a lot of infrastructure built up to control the flow of water off the hill—If you’ve ever walked up the Fort Amherst East Coast Trail, you have seen the bridge and small dam, and the marshy ponds—and new developments would likely encroach on these vulnerable natural areas.

That said, it may be a perfect alternative to suburban sprawl, or a great tourist destination like Signal Hill. It could become a more important aspect of our city. For now though, the hills are just a blank canvas for our big ideas.

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Fun at the Dump

Thu, Sep 29, 2011

In the not-to-distant future Danish families may go to the dump for vacation. (Image by Bjarke Ingels Group)

Last weekend I went to check out the new dump. I never had much of a problem with the old one, aside from the fact that it exists, but this new renovation is certainly a notable improvement.

As I drove past the cast-in-place concrete sign, down the new black asphalt drive towards the facility I could see that this was no longer just an amorphous ‘area’ to chuck garbage. This was a destination. A place where things happened. A place with a chartreuse theme color.

At first look, the site work is impressive in its scope as well as its execution. There is a traffic roundabout funneling cars towards the exit, which has a small colourful grove of trees and shrubs in its centre. The well-contained grassed areas are green and mowed, and give the entry the impression of a sterile corporate headquarters or a research lab. The huge white prismatic cube of a building that sits to the left of the entry goes strangely unnoticed, possibly for its lack of windows but more probably for the fact that it doesn’t have a visible public entry. This is the recycling facility. There are few other scattered buildings around, including a metal salvage facility and a commercial indoor composting operation. [see comments below] For the public depot, drivers are directed to a queue, where you wait for an attendant to analyze your garbage contents and direct you to a stall. The whole system organization seems to flow well. Pickup trucks back up in sync into bays that open on to chartreuse green containers several meters below the docking platform, clearly labeled for the different types of refuse.

People seemed so happy there, standing on the beds of their pickup trucks, joyously flinging waste into the containers. It struck me that this was the best part of going to the new dump: the throwing. Everyone was doing it, it was so much fun. Throwing big heavy breakable things into a big metal container and watching them smash and making a loud noise. Robin Hood Bay dump is now like a stage for what could be a piece of bizarre performance art, all it needs is “Tales from the Vienna Woods” playing in the background as unwanted toasters spin through the air towards their dramatic end. It’s an attainable dream.

Robin Hood Bay facility has, sort of accidentally, made throwing out garbage and recycling things fun.

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has a similar idea when it comes to managing our trash. He was here in Newfoundland this past June as a keynote speaker for the Canadian Institute of Planners conference. He was an engaging speaker, and he seemed really excited to share his ideas. He talked about his idea of ‘hedonistic sustainability’—the idea that if recycling was not thought of as a chore or a duty, but more so as a fun thing, then people were far more likely to actually do it.

One project he presented was their proposed revitalisation of a waste-to-energy plant in Denmark. He suggested the presence of people would help improve the image of the place, and that it should be re-branded as a destination. So he designed a man-made ski slope on top of the facility, using the 31,000 square meters of vacant roof space. Instead of using snow, which would be unsustainable, they’d use a recycled synthetic granular material. An elevator that travels up alongside the smokestack on the interior of the structure takes you to the top of the slopes and an observation platform. The slopes will host a variety of outdoor sport activities, and the entire thing is wrapped in a wall of planter-bricks, creating a porous green facade. When one ton of carbon dioxide has been released, the smoke stack will puff out a huge 30 meter wide smoke ring, reminding us of the harmful impact of our waste. The proposal won the international competition and will be built, with an estimated completion date sometime in 2016.

Our own waste management solutions may not be as fun as BIG’s proposal, but it does prove Ingels’ point that responsible waste disposal can be fun in the right architectural setting. And when it is fun, people will want to do it. One can only hope in another 40 years when Robin Hood Bay is due for another update, we might actually be ready to do something this cool.

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Common Living Sense

Thu, Sep 1, 2011

In architectural models of the new MUN residence students can afford nice cars and there is plenty of parking available!

Students returning to class at MUN this fall will notice a lot of construction happening next to the duck pond. This is where the long awaited, and much needed, new student residence is being built. In a 2008 article in The Guardian, architecture critic Iain Borden pointed out that more and more universities, like the University of East London, are using flashy experimental architecture for evil… Surprise! The goal is to “tempt students with radical architecture,” beckoning wide-eyed new undergrads with hip and glamourous constructions.

Borden goes on to argue that this is an understandable, and understandably successful, strategy: concentrating hundreds if not thousands of students per year into their spaces, student residences are in a unique position to enhance or detract the school’s reputation.

MUN has been pursuing the idea of expanding its on-campus housing for a while, amidst growing concerns from students over the availability of affordable on and off-campus living space. The new residence will provide an answer to that problem, for some at least.

The office of John Hearn Architect, who also did the Inco building on campus, started designing the project in 2007. Progress was held up temporarily due to funding issues that were eventually resolved, doubling the size of the project and resulting in the new design that will house up to 500 students. This puts it on par, population-wise, with the entire four-building Burton’s Pond apartment complex, just to the east.

On the exterior, the new buildings will take cues from the neighboring Paton College residences, to the north. It will emulate the green mansard roof, brick exterior and window dimensions of those structures. The key difference, however, is scale. The new residence is noticeably taller than its predecessors, occupying two large, six-storey blocks. Each block is, in turn, divided into two dormitory wings that are slightly angled to face in towards one another, with kitchens and common rooms located at the bend. Near Livyer’s Loop, the blocks suture together into a grander, glass-facaded-vestibule that, will house meeting rooms and lounging space, as well as the take-off point for a glazed pedway to Paton College.

The most attractive feature of the new development for student life, however, might be the dorm arrangements themselves. Although each resident shares a common washroom and vestibule with one other person, each has their own bedroom—no bunkbeds here. Study areas are located at the ends of each wing, and there is wireless internet throughout the residence. There are eight fully accessible units, more than the required amount. There are two ‘single resident’ rooms on each level that are available to upper-year students with high GPAs. Two apartments within each wing are reserved for proctors, and one private single room for residence assistants.

The footprint accords to MUN’s masterplan guidelines, which is available on the Facilities Management website. The building is located in what was once a sports field bounded by roads on three sides. The designers paid extra attention to connecting the building to its surroundings, since it is in such a central and prominent location. The wing formation of the building creates an enclosure, similar to the traditional university Quad. This central courtyard has been designed to accommodate student events, including a covered stage area.

The new residence building, while not yet completed, is seeking to attain a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver rating. LEED is a certification body and rating system that rates buildings according to thier ‘greenness’.

MUN could have created a ‘publicity stunt’ building to get the attention of potential students worldwide, like the universities mentioned in Borden’s Guardian article, but it looks like the new complex is going to be a great addition to the campus—at this point anyway. While it’s not an exhibitionist piece of architecture, it is a conscientious design that pays attention to the things that should matter for students.

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Walk the Line: On the proposed pedway crossing on Duckworth

Thu, Aug 4, 2011

King Kong knows a good pedway when he sees one.

How do you design something from the future that looks like it’s from the past?

The city has recently rejected the recommendations of the Heritage Committee regarding the development of a pedway crossing over Duckworth Street. Council concluded that, before this development proposal for an extension to the Marriot Hotel be allowed to proceed, a set of guidelines for pedway design was necessary to avoid a possible future filled with hideous dystopian skywalks.

“Are we trying to encourage a proliferation of ugly pedways across the city?” asked Councillor O’Leary, who expressed concern over the unregulated development.

Of course, the reason why there is no existing template for pedways in heritage areas in this city is because there are no old pedways.

And as for pedways in general, well, honestly we have no successful architectural precedents for dealing with these things. The Heritage Committee is right: MUN, Mile One, The Avalon Mall… Not that they are going to fall apart, but for the most part they aren’t exactly what you would call inspired.

Pedways are a powerful and evocative urban form, with the potential to be really interesting or really awful. They are necessarily futurist, in peoples’ imaginations and in film. The form of the pedway conjures all sorts of imagery of grain silos, factories, assembly lines, robotic industrial spaces. In Gary Burns’ 2001 movie Waydowntown, a group of co-workers make a bet on who can stay indoors the longest without going insane, using the Calgary “Skywalk” network connecting office buildings and malls. For Calgary, the pedway is an artery of corporate movement, an icon of dreary cubicle life. In other films, it’s a sign of super-futuristic urbanity. Think Tim Burton’s Gotham City, and even Metropolis from 1927, these sets use pedways as a part of a dystopic, overly-mechanized future.

But pedways don’t have to be like that. An international competition to design a pedestrian bridge was just won by Barcelona architecture firm Sanzpont, whose bizarre and awesome entry is worth looking up. Called the DSSH Bridge, it looks like a cross between a bio-luminscent deep sea creature and an insect chrysalis. Here, the pedway represents an opportunity for experimental architecture, and a dramatic experiential space for people.

It’s difficult to say with certainty whether or not the absence of regulation will cause the proliferation of ugly pedways. The Marriot Hotel expansion’s proposed pedway design (designed without regulations) is so far pretty innocuous, and it could turn out to be a great addition to downtown. We don’t have endless blocks of 20-storey towers to connect, we don’t exactly have a great public transit network to expand upon, nor do we have developers that are very open to experimentation. Nonetheless, this is an opportunity to influence a precedent, and so council is right to take it seriously. In the case of this project, it’s a heritage area but not a heritage form.

Even though the pedway has gritty urban dystopic connotations in film, and in the real world the form represents a cold functionalism which is antithetical to heritage areas, there is a chance here to do something interesting in a very visible place, something that could become a new iconic form for downtown St. John’s architecture.

Omission from last months’ report on the Southcott Awards: The design of Littledale/ The Tower Corporate Campus was by Sheppard Case Architects, who recieved a Southcott Award for this project.

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27th Annual Southcott Awards announced

Wed, Jun 29, 2011

The Southcott Awards are awarded annually in recognition of buildings that have been carefully restored or respectfully preserved. The winners are determined by a selection committee comprised of local architects, academics, and professionals in related industries. The awards are overseen by the Newfoundland Historic Trust Society, who began handing them out 27 years ago.

Categories for awards include Building Restoration/Preservation, New Building Design and the new category of Heritage Craftsperson/Tradesperson.

Buildings nominated for the Building Restoration/Preservation Award are considered for how well they have achieved the accurate restoration of the original building. Winners use materials consistent with the original building, pay attention to the surrounding landscape, the integrity of the structure, and the adaptive reuse of the building. The winners in this category are:

The Javelin Building on Water Street, aka The Brother TI Murphy Centre

The Javelin Building on Water Street (also known as the Brother TI Murphy Center) was restored by Ron Fougere Architects, with the interiors by PHB Group, and developed by Marco Services and Killick Capital. The original design was by Architect W.F Butler, completed in 1915. This building underwent a thorough updating and is now home to high-end condominiums, a commercial office space and the new fine-dining restaurant Raymonds.

The Tower Corporate Campus, also known as Littledale

The Tower Corporate Campus (also referred to as Littledale) is a new commercial office campus at the far west end of Waterford Bridge Road. Originally, the self contained campus was a college for girls that included a library, a chapel, swimming pool, gymnasium, cafeteria and an enclosed courtyard. The individual buildings were connected by underground tunnels. It was designed by Montreal Architects Bolton, Ellwood and Aimers and was completed in 1967. The original design is a strong example of New Brutalism, with exposed concrete, articulated with riles and reveals. The restoration of the Campus included a revitalization of the interior and exterior spaces, and a beautiful new courtyard landscape design by Tract Consulting.

The Bonavista Loyal Orange Lodge #7

The Bonavista Loyal Orange Lodge #7 is said to be the largest fraternal hall of wooden construction in North America. The building, completed in 1907, is owned by the Orange Lodge of Canada, and was restored by the Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation Inc. The building is significant for its historic association with the Fisherman’s Protective Union and William Coaker.

2 Willicott's Lane

3 Willicott’s Lane–a private residence–underwent a massive renovation and restoration by its owners over the past few years. The property is now fully restored to an accurate approximation of its original character. The owners went to great lengths to preserve important features and respect the history of the structure. The date of original house construction is surmised as 1893.

Shamrock Farm/Elaine Dobbin Centre for Autism

The New Building Design Award is awarded to a new building that is sensitive to the heritage character of its surrounding context and reflects traditional style and building materials. This award was given to Shamrock Farm/Elaine Dobbin Centre For Autism, located near the Health Sciences Centre on an historic farm property. This design was recognized for reflecting the architectural history of the site and also its sensitivity to the natural landscape setting.

The new Heritage Craftsperson/Tradesperson Award is given to an individual tradesperson who displays exemplary skills in the area of heritage preservation, restoration and conservation. This years winner is Jim Youden. Mr. Youden has been a carpenter from the age of 12, and since 1971 has been specializing in the area of heritage windows. His work can be seen on many buildings around the province–Newman Wine Vaults, Cape Spear, and Cabot Tower to name a few.

These awards are a chance to celebrate the historic buildings around us, and help define what architecture means to us as a society. Not to mention, recognizing the hard work of many people in the industry. My congratulations to all of the winners this year.

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No Parking

Fri, Jun 3, 2011

1111 Lincoln Road, Miami, Florida. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Are there creative architectural solutions to our downtown parking problems?

I probably don’t have to tell you this, but public parking is a major problem downtown. For people like myself, who live and work beyond the downtown, it’s often difficult to find a place to park when trying to go for lunch, run errands, or even go shopping on weekends and holidays.

Many cities are now coping with the problems caused by car-oriented planning and infrastructure, and some of them are coping well. There’s a lot we can do to make parking more convenient and aesthetically pleasing.

City hall tries its best to encourage new buildings to include sufficient parking to help alleviate some of the congestion in the downtown. They have a formula for determining the amount of parking required for new buildings: one space for every 75 square meters of gross floor area. Also, City Hall has recently moved to rezone the recently up-for-sale Atlantic Place Parking Garage into a new “parking only” zone. This will protect this prime parking stock from a buyer who may wish to convert the garage into something else.

While it’s great that the city wants to encourage new parking spaces, it is difficult to include interior parking in new buildings downtown. The logistics of making room for cars is difficult: developers and their designers often struggle to squeeze ample parking into buildings, whose small downtown footprints might not allow enough room for turning radii, ramps, wheelchair accessible spots near entrances, and easy street access. And for many urban citizens, parking spaces may be seen as undesirable–otherwise empty space that could be used for something else.

There are also questions about the future of transportation that we must ask: what happens if cars become obsolete? Can we adapt and re-use the structures we have built for parking? Does the addition of more parking actually inhibit the growth of better quality public transit?

But unless something revolutionizes transportation in our city in the immediate future, it looks like we are stuck with the problem of where to park all of those cars. The best we might hope for is that in the meantime we can make parking structures that actually add value to our environment. Can we become good at hiding our cars?

Cities like New York and Tokyo build automatic parking machines—parking machines that robotically sort and stack cars. They require small areas to build on, and can make large numbers of cars disappear into the streetscape. It’s an aesthetically pleasing solution that also appeals to our childhood fascination with robots. (See last issue.)

It’s a neat idea, but it may not be appropriate for St. John’s. Robots that sort and stack cars are certainly not cheap, and building costs escalate for locations that are far from manufacturers. As well, there’s the logistical problem of traffic flow: queuing cars waiting to park, and also finding a location that will ensure profitability.

Without the help of robots, some designers have re-imagined the design of the parking garage to obscure the parking garage’s usual tedious mass. Swiss Architects Herzog and DeMeuron’s new parking garage in Miami called 1111 Lincoln Road is a stand-out example of this. This parking garage sits in the context of an art deco-heavy Miami street. Its massive concrete structure with sharp angles and open edges fit this context. Here, parking is a personal journey, where ramps frame views of the city, and contemplative spaces connect the driver with the ceremonial act of parking. The garage also houses galleries, high end retail, and cafés at street level. This artful approach to designing parking spaces could no doubt be used here. The only obvious drawback here is a potentially high cost.

More parking downtown would allow for more people to enjoy shopping, restaurants, and nightlife, which is a good thing. And while the problem of where to find more parking spaces is a difficult one, some places have found creative solutions to the problem of parking that actually contribute positively to the experience of a city. There’s no reason why St. John’s can’t do the same.

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The Rooms vs. The Basilica: An epic 3D battle

Fri, May 6, 2011

By Taryn Sheppard with anaglyph cyan-red 3D effects by Elling Lien

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