When It Comes To The Built Environment, Aesthetics Matter

Aesthetics matter, and I’ll tell you why I think so. It’s about a concept that is all too infrequently raised in discussions about the development of the urban realm: mood.

This year the North Van Urban Forum turned its attention to walkability, and began asking some probing questions about what makes for vibrant, active, pedestrian oriented streets. A big part of that conversation is concerned with the look and feel of our neighbourhoods – factors which ultimately impact the mood of the pedestrian. ‘Mood’ is an under-appreciated concept in urban design, because it is so difficult to qualify (and almost impossible to quantify) and yet it is exceedingly important to the level of engagement that we make as citizens with the streets. At its roots it is a rather simple equation: when we feel good walking around, we walk around more.

It should go without saying, but this is true with all things. We gravitate toward people, cities, workplaces, parties, social circles, spaces, places, and buildings – that make us feel good. For me (a lay architecture junky), the quality of the architecture that surrounds me is a big determinant of my mood as a pedestrian, and I know that I am not alone. Pleasing design aesthetics speak to me in ways that dry conversations about floor space ratios and OCP guidelines never will. Attractive, quirky, interesting, welcoming buildings have the power to connect us to the neighbourhoods that we reside in and travel through, imageand affect us in very visceral ways that we often don’t notice, and certainly find very difficult to articulate. Indeed, a frequent discussion point for our group has long been the issue of architectural aesthetics. As it turns out, like everything else, this is a complex and somewhat controversial topic in our city.

Some interesting thoughts about architecture surfaced during a recent email exchange – where it became noticeable that there are many in our community who view this topic in terms of old versus new. If you flip to the editorial pages of the past year’s local newspapers, this mindset becomes abundantly clear. Some seem to feel that the neighbourhood is ‘waging a battle between the developers who are infiltrating our community and destroying the very things that we love about our neighbourhood, and those who are trying to protect it’ [paraphrased from multiple sources – not an actual quote]. Again and again we read that the reasons people moved here in the first place are being systematically dismantled in our drive toward density. ‘Our beautiful neighbourhood is being overrun with concrete monstrosities’. Indeed, I share criticisms of much of the modern design in our city, but my criticisms are not restricted to North Vancouver, nor even to the modern, and I have some concerns about some of the tone of recent comments that are surfacing. Let me explain:


North Shore News building – time for a refresh?

I agree, firstly, that there is a cost to abandoning human scaled development. I agree that we must be vigilant, and critical of a mentality that asks that we approve all projects, at all costs, in order to achieve our dreams of density and provide for the kinds of communities that ‘we’ want to see. I agree, that the general quality of modern architecture in the City is bland, and overly obsessed with glass and steel and unattractive concrete (I say ‘unattractive concrete’ quite deliberately, because I believe that there is a place for concrete done well [see Mark Kingwell. “Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City”. 2008]). I agree, that we need to examine how to keep afloat the ‘mom and pop’ stores, to keep alive the independent voices that are drowning in a sea of big boxes and mega corps. Retaining the small players, fuelling their visions, encouraging their multiplication – ultimately these are important markers along the path to keeping character and colour and uniqueness alive in our communities.

What I think we need to be careful about, and I wrestle with in conversation with others in our city, is the characterisation of this changing environment as ‘new’. We need to define our time-scale. We need to provide more complete prefaces to statements about losing the colour, and architectural beauty of this charming, “formerly pristine” neighbourhood (read in a recent NS News letter to the editor) . Similar misleading sentiments are often raised by our brethren across the water in the City of Vancouver. I’m sorry, my friends, but in my opinion you have to go a long ways back in our cities to find architecture of a sort that we should truly feel nostalgic for. The really great buildings along the traffic corridors of North Vancouver long pre-date the professional careers of anybody currently working (or in some cases even living) in our city. We are living along a continuum of blandness that stretches back three quarters of a century, more.

I walked around North Vancouver recently, compiling photographs of what are commonly referred to as eyesores. Unlike some, more diplomatic types, I am not typically ashamed to call out the worst of the architectural offenders. Buildings should not be considered in the fleeting transitory terms of fashion. While we don’t often achieve it, I believe that architecture does need to seek certain universal, timeless principles in order to be valuable.

Some say (predictably) that aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder. In some fields the maxim holds true, but when we are talking about designing the built environment, a study that we (human) have been engaged in now for millenia, this is a lazy exit from a potentially rich and nuanced discussion.

I’ll say it plainly – I believe that there is a lot of ugly architecture in North Vancouver. The point to note, however, with reference to this discussion, is that I only took photos of buildings that are more than two decades old. The creep of bland, unattractive, concrete laden imagemonstrosities is not to be laid at the feet of Onni, or Anthem (I’m witholding judgement on 17th and Lonsdale until completion – so far I am experiencing a mix of satisfaction and dismay – the pendulum continues to sway). This is not solely attributable to development-happy officials that want to say yes first to mass, and consider design later. This is a plague of the modern world, that has ‘crept’ up on us at glacial speeds.

Can you think of imagean uglier monument than the current home of the North Shore News [and attached condos]? Or ICBC? Or the ICBC Driver Training Centre on 13th (what I think Kingwell refers to when he speaks of “spectacularly egregious examples of its [concrete’s] abuse: squat, Soviet-style blocks full of bureaucrats” Kingwell. Pg 4) ? Or BMO? What about the amazing Victoria Park? Take a walk around its perimeter some day and catalogue all the residential complexes that surround it. These buildings are not new, in the sense that is intended when people criticise our current council. imageThey are, however, quite hideous. Let us think differently about design, and not play the reactionary game. Let us not diminish our message by deluding ourselves into thinking that uninspired design decisions started recently.

And so, in conclusion, a message to architects, developers, advisory panels, council members, that wish to work in our city and who have influence over the projects that surround us. Be amazing. Be timeless. Think beautiful. Don’t be lazy. Consider that there are a lot more of us that will gaze upon the facade of your creation, that will be affected by its presence, that will notice its influence upon our streetscapes, than will ever dwell within it. Build not for the sole benefit of those who will purchase your units, who will utilise the inside and who will gaze out from its windows, but also, importantly, for all of us that will be forced to look back the other way.