Calgary-based SPECTACLE Bureau for Architecture and Urbanism Inc. founding partner Philip Vandermey on the economy, the environment and our obsession with bigness.
1. Why did you choose the name “SPECTACLE”?
Many firms use the names of their partners or an acronym of their initials, since a personal name has the capacity to change over time – it’s not really a description as much as a repository for meaning, so it can change as its owner does. In that way you can avoid the baggage of a predestined brand. However using our names – the names of our partners – isn’t really appropriate, since we strongly believe in a collaborative process through which everyone in the office contributes and receives recognition.
Once you begin to search for a word to describe you and your process, one that isn’t your own name, where do you begin? It’s easy to become stuck with a name that no longer applies after some period of time – I’m thinking of names related to passing fashionable trends, like sustainabilism, parametricism or minimalism. This is when we became interested in using a name with multiple meanings; words that could be interpreted in different ways. We are also unafraid of using a name that stands for what we are against as much as what we are for.
We are interested in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. We are concerned by the proliferation of images online, and by the associated shift in focus from designing architecture for people to designing architecture for publication. We are intrigued by the value of the surface – something that’s purely aesthetical and only for show – as well as the immersivity of a theatrical spectacle and its appeal to both high and low culture. (When I say aesthetical I mean the popularistic definition – the one that ignores functionality as an inseparable element). Finally we are reacting to the Canadian book “Substance over Spectacle”. Andrew Gruft’s compilation contains the work of many great Canadian architects who we admire and look to as mentors, but the title suggests that Canadian architecture needs to somehow be more safe, more restrained, more less.
2. Your River Boulevard project seeks to open a debate on urban construction around previously flooded areas. Why do you think we haven’t had these discussions sooner?
It’s a very good question. Our research uncovered a report written in 1973 by the Montreal Engineering Company Ltd that estimated the extents of a once in 70 year flood in Calgary. Because the 100 year flood we actually experienced 40 years later in June 2013 was less extensive than the 70 year flood predicted in 1973, it’s reasonable to think that the recent flood could have been avoided if we’d acted on that report and others like it. Perhaps investments like flood mitigation are difficult to realize or even discuss – a long term strategy that doesn’t mesh easily with short-term political cycles.
Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of natural disasters, so this is an issue effecting cities everywhere. However, we aren’t interested in solely the engineering of water defenses. Our flood research is focused in two main directions. The first criticizes issues raised by the flood, such as a shift in responsibility from the public to private sphere and infrastructural sprawl. The second uses mitigation investment as a unique opportunity to improve the city – in effect to hack flood mitigation as a possibility for urban improvement. The River Boulevard project is one of about 10 that we’re developing, and it falls into the second category.
We’re also interested in opening a public debate about these issues. To that end, River Boulevard has been published in Avenue Magazine, and we’re presenting our research and all 10 case studies at the Urban Emergencies : Emergent Urbanism exhibition in Cambridge, UK in March 2015.
3. The Corner Offices project raises a good question about how to design an office building for a situation in which each occupant is the CEO of their respective business. Why do you think today’s young, socially responsible entrepreneurs, would want that status symbol over something more low key?
Many building types today are trending towards a sort of sameness, with a surface layer of decoration in order to create faux differentiation. For example, today a low density office building may be constructed similarly to a big box store, warehouse or fitness center. Only the cladding material and large sign indicate there’s some difference. While generic architecture is important within the streetscape of a city – every building cannot be an icon unless you want to recreate Dubai – the quality of our spaces and the diversity of experiences they provide are important. It’s difficult to dream about the future in an 8 foot office space with acoustical panel ceilings, fluorescent light, loud air conditioning and bad
In the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) , Jiro Ono says “In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but one must develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food.” A good entrepreneur can be defined by her willingness to take initiative and assume risk in the process of seeking something new – some improvement to the way we live or an important addition to the body of human knowledge. Since she probably works very hard in the establishment of a company, the environment in which this effort takes place is extremely important; a space that facilitates innovation and inspiration but also as a great space for working, meeting, socializing. We are highly affected by our environment. This extends far beyond your space to include your exposure to art, music, writing, fashion, food and etcetera.
Corner Offices provides spaces that facilitate innovation, as well as common spaces, services and amenities where exchange and interaction can allow for innovation between disciplines and specialities. From the outside, the building dissolves a sense of hierarchy while reinforcing both the collective and the individual – an accretion of small-scale initiatives become the actual facade. It also responds very carefully to its context,preserving an old cigarette sign that was painted on one of the adjacent building, widening the sidewalk to form a large terrace with retail at grade, relating to the roof lines of the adjacent buildings and providing a mid-block pedestrian crossing.
4. The Endless Platform project depicts how you would better utilise the space under New York’s now famous High Line. Do you believe that people have fully embraced infrastructure as part of the built environment that they can enjoy?
Recent changes in the economies of Western countries are both exciting and scary. Artists were first attracted to industrial buildings in neighbourhoods such as SoHo and TriBeCa in the mid-19th Century due to the low rental rates, and because they could find spaces that were conducive to large format works. Spaces like the High Line are exciting because there’s an industrial heritage that can be transformed for a new and exciting public purpose – a raised public promenade and garden.
What’s very worrisome, in my opinion, is that these transformations are only made possible by the hollowing-out of industries like manufacturing. While I love farmers’ markets and lofts, these developments also represent a shift from making to pure consuming. You can only continue to outsource primary industries to other countries for so long. Why cut down a tree, export it, and then import a beautiful wood door?
It’s important that we continue to make things in our cities and we grow local talent. On that note, it is encouraging that clean industries and maker movements allow new industries to begin to reverse this recent “Dutch Disease” trend.
Endless Platform was created in collaboration with Paul Scales.
5. Some of your work seems very monumental. What do you say to people who think that the age of big is over?
It seems that Nicco Mele’s book is as much a warning as it is a celebration of a new era. Is a twitter mob better than a court of justice? Is an online blog better than a veteran journalist? We live in a moment of fashionable partisanship and easy answers. Movements like sustainability, for example, can actually harm legitimate and urgent concerns for the environment when co-opted by a sophisticated and slickly marketed industry. I read recently that LEED certified buildings have been found to use more energy than their conventional counterparts. Is a client who builds a platinum certified building better than one that uses strategies so innovative that they don’t exist on the LEED scorecard; is he better than one who decided it was better not to build at all?
The reality is that our world now involves elements of both extremes, as well as the middle ground. We at SPECTACLE are actually quite suspicious of the notion of “transparency” as it relates to privacy online. At the same time that companies like Facebook allow us to share ourselves with the world, in buildings directly adjacent to Wall Street computers are beginning to displace people in order to gain millisecond advantages in automated trading.
Although we are suspicious of accepting everything that technology has to offer, without a real debate, we are highly optimistic about the future and progress – verbum non gratum in recent years. Reality is a great inspiration. What are the most important accomplishments of our time? What will be our version of the pyramids? We are as inspired by spontaneous settlements as we are by palazzos, by great halls as by shopping malls. Can big architecture facilitate smallness? Can monumental spaces allow intimate gatherings, public protests and unanticipated uses? Are we doomed by the car and the internet to live in cities with no coherent urban form?
6. What do projects like Meta Vancouverism and Rio de Inverso say about our ongoing desire to put order to our cities?
Both projects, which were developed in collaboration with BuroAD, can be read as surrealistic critiques to urgent urban issues more than as actual proposals. Meta Vancouverism interrogates the ridiculous idea that affordability can be solved by shiny condo towers, and that density automatically results in a higher quality of urban space. Rio de Inverso was an important comment, just before the World Cup, about slum clearing and the desire to impose order on an apparently chaotic but ultimately efficient, adjusted and established system. Your question about monumentality relates also to this dilemma. Architects play both the protagonists and antagonists of urban planning history. Is a grand
vision like Haussmann’s Paris better than a spontaneous development with no architectural input, such as a souq, favela or suburb?