Toronto Woterfront / Wladyslaw /

Advanced Urban Fabric

An interview with Bruce Kuwabara on the livability of cities by Sofia Novikova

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An interview with Bruce Kuwabara

An interview by Sofia Novikova

One of Canada’s leading architects. A founding partner of KPMB Architects, Bruce Kuwabara is recognized for his approach to architectural excellence, innovation, urbanism and sustainable design. Canada’s National Ballet School, Manitoba Hydro Place, the Global Centre for Pluralism for the Aga Khan Foundation. This is the the very short list of his work.

Born in Hamilton, Canada, Bruce is a graduate of the University of Toronto. He is the first Chair of Waterfront Toronto's Design Review Panel, and is the Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.
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Toronto really is an advanced city. It is constantly ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world. The city is a balance between neighbourhood scale and downtown development. It is an example for the development of many other world cities. I would like to draw a parallel between Toronto and Moscow, another metropolis of similar size and climate. You were visiting Moscow in September, what struck you about the city? Did you see similarities between Moscow and Toronto? What can Moscow learn from Toronto?

What struck me about Moscow is the contrast between the sense of greatness and an epic history, and the ordinariness of certain neighbourhoods. Toronto is called the City of Trees. In Moscow, I felt the lack of urban greenery on many streets. I was also struck by the widths of roadways and the fact that the traffic lights make pedestrians have to move very quickly to get across to the other side.

Toronto is not a classically beautiful city. It has a waterfront that it is trying to revitalise. Moscow has a great river. I spent time at Strelka, and in that one small project I could see the seeds of future development in terms of adapting older industrial structures for new uses, and engaging new uses with the river. I also liked the hybrid of a school of design and the Strelka Bar, which draws people to the roof terrace overlooking the river. Moscow certainly has many moments of grand visions.

What is extraordinary about Toronto is its heterogeneity and diversity, its cosmopolitan mix, and its juxtaposition of architectural styles from Europe and the United States. Today, the policy of openness to global culture has increased the range of expressions in Toronto design culture, which is constantly drawing on international influences and inspirations.
Canada has one of the most viable social democracies in the world. The Aga Khan chose to develop the Global Centre for Pluralism in Canada because he recognised how well people live here in relative harmony. Pluralism does not come naturally. It has to be ingrained and learned. The Aga Khan believes that there are many lessons to be learned from the Canadian model in terms of healthcare, cultural diversity, civic discourse, and urban habitat.

You were lucky to live and work in Toronto at the same time as Jane Jacobs and Marshall McLuhan. Can you talk a bit about your interactions with them? What was the main thing you learned from them?

In Moscow, I was struck by the widths of roadways and the fact that the traffic lights make pedestrians have to move very quickly to get across to the other side.

Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a seminal work based on observations about how people live in neighbourhoods and cities. The lessons of Jane Jacobs are about connectivity at grade and the benefits of small urban blocks. The key for Jane Jacobs was about promoting and maintaining diversity in neighbourhoods in terms of uses and income, so that there is a healthy mix of people, living, working and playing in neighbourhoods across the city. She talks about the qualities of the urban fabric, the need for “eyes on the street”, and the role of sidewalks as places of social connection, and street corners as places of encounter. She also talked about the necessity of retaining and reusing heritage buildings, adapting them for new uses, and resisting the urban lobotomies which many developments enacted. Old buildings, particularly loft warehouses, are the incubators of so many startup companies because the rents are inexpensive and young innovators like the authenticity of brick and timber lofts. Jane Jacobs was an activist who fought against “block busting” of neighbourhoods for larger redevelopment, and she successfully led the fight to stop the Spadina Expressway proposal.

The seeds of the future are occurring now. We need to be close observers and critics of what is actually happening in real time.

Marshall McLuhan forecast the global village we are living in today. There are so many things he said that have influenced generations of people who are thinking about our relationship with technology and with each other. Marshall McLuhan said that you should never predict anything that has not already begun to happen. The seeds of the future are occurring now. We need to be close observers and critics of what is actually happening in real time. He also said that when one technology replaces another, the former becomes an art form. For example, legible penmanship used to be commonplace, but it, replaced by the keyboard and the tap, has deteriorated. In fact, many people cannot even read their own handwriting. Good penmanship today is an art form. The same can be said for face-​to-​face conversation. Deloitte, the largest management company in the world, conducted a survey of its employees about their views on bricks or clicks, to decide whether it would be worthwhile to build their own university campus. Deloitte was surprised that the youngest group of people in their twenties placed the highest value on real time communal activity when it was assumed that they would be more interested in virtual communication.

KPMB, Gardiner Museum, Forecourt / Shai Gil

KPMB, Gardiner Museum, Forecourt /​Shai Gil

I have personally experienced buildings/​projects built by yourself, such as the Royal Conservatory of Music, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, and Concordia University in Montréal, and I find it has a fine balance between the big city scale and human, public space scale. I think it is not at all an easy task to achieve that. Architects work between numerous interests and divergent forces, among which we find the businesses, commercial developers, and social interactions between different parties. How do you negotiate all these influences? Do you think it is an architect’s responsibility to find that balance, to find the right scale? And, more importantly, to protect the human scale in your work?

Every city has its own scale. Cities like New York have a big scale with lots of towers, long narrow blocks, defined streets and wide avenues. Toronto has an intermediate scale with towers juxtaposed and often integrated with lower heritage buildings. Within our practice, we began by designing several interiors where the concentration was always about creating environments that were tuned and scaled to human interchange and experience in a range of retail and workspace environments. As the size of our projects grew, we were able to increase our scope to include larger buildings and urban spaces without losing our awareness about intimacy and individual spaces. We rarely make large monolithic buildings. We see large buildings as an aggregation of multiple smaller buildings that provide a sense of neighbourhood and scale to their occupants whether it is a large office building like Manitoba Hydro Place, or a large academic complex like Le Quartier Concordia.

In your lecture at the University of Toronto in January 2013, you structured your presentation with 7 Strategies for Future Cities:

  • Re-​imagining the public realm
  • Transit oriented development
  • Hybrid/​mixed use building
  • Vertical campus
  • Transforming heritage
  • Climate responsive design
  • Precinct planning

Could you say which of these points have been successfully implemented and developed in Toronto? And which of these points in your opinion need the most urgent attention? What about in Moscow?

As we develop towers for academic, commercial, and residential uses, how can we better conceive of them as vertical campuses, and neighbourhoods for working and living?

I think that Toronto has lots of evidence to demonstrate precinct planning, especially Regent Park and the West Don Lands. It also has many interesting examples of hybrid/​mixed use buildings, especially Radio City/Canada’s National Ballet School, and the Tiff Bell Lightbox/​Festival Tower. There are also very good examples of adaptive reuse of heritage buildings, including the Wychwood Barns, Evergreen, the Distillery District and the Royal Conservatory of Music. More attention should be given towards re-​thinking, re-​designing, and maintaining the public realm, and the imaginative design of transit-​oriented development. As we develop towers for academic, commercial, and residential uses, how can we better conceive of them as vertical campuses, and neighbourhoods for working and living?

I think that Canada and particularly Toronto lags behind in terms of integrated design thinking to create climate responsive buildings. Manitoba Hydro Place reduces energy consumption to 88 kWh/​m²/​yr. which is very good for a large 70,000 m². building that accommodates 2,000 people. We recently completed a low energy design for the headquarters of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO). This building incorporates a range of integrated sustainable systems, including a geothermal system, radiant cooling and heating, exterior solar shading, 100% natural ventilation which provides fresh air 247 with no re-​circulated air, rainwater harvesting, daylight autonomy, and careful selection of certified materials. But there are not enough examples of buildings in Toronto in which the architecture is highly sustainable and urbane. The world is changing, and the question for Moscow is how it deals with the issues of liveability, equity, and civility.

KPMB, Manitoba Hydro Place / Maris Mezulis

KPMB, Manitoba Hydro Place /​Maris Mezulis

Jane Jacobs said: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Canada has a culture of public intervention in urban development. What should be done in places where that culture does not exist at all?

Canadians often take for granted the freedom we enjoy to express our opinions and views about the pressing issues of our time, whether they pertain to health care, education, immigration, social services, transportation, housing, employment, and even sports and entertainment.

The world is changing, and the question for Moscow is how it deals with the issues of livability, equity, and civility.

I exercise my right to vote because it is the fundamental responsibility of individuals living within a democratic society. My parents, who were interned for almost 4 years as enemy aliens of Canada during the Second World War, were children of Japanese immigrants who came to Canada looking for a better way of life only to find that they were not eligible to become citizens. As a result of the War Measures Act, 26,000 people of Japanese descent were rounded up and detained in abandoned mining and lumber camps in the interior of British Columbia. I vote because my parent were never allowed to vote and I will never take this freedom for granted.

When it comes to city planning, we need to promote civic engagement at every scale and to encourage young people to understand the dynamics of cities and neighbourhoods. We need to elect politicians who understand and love the city as a place of well-​being and prosperity, and a cultural, social and economic entity.

Lastly, should architects take responsibility for providing opportunities for public interaction? What could the tools be for inviting people to be engaged in the conversation about the design of the future?

Architects have a natural role in creating opportunities for public interaction. This interaction could be online, but I think that the more meaningful interactions take place as town-​halls, workshops, and community projects. Architects like Joe Loand Ken Greenberg, have been particularly effective in increasing community and stakeholder involvement in creative development projects like the Wychwood Barns and Regent Park.

Toronto has a number of community and civic leaders who work in many fields who have come together to address issues of the rising difference between the wealth of the rich and poor, as well as a range of planning and city-​building issues. Many are concerned about the income disparity in Toronto and are campaigning strongly to create programmes for young people living in economically challenged communities. Civic Action, in particular, has been a strong force for increased civic engagement.