GBL Architects on emergent architecture, projects that create social-interaction, communal well-being and the advantages of planting trees on rooftops.
1. Why do you believe that your work is emergent?
Our design philosophy has always been based around the concept of adaptability and progression. The diversification of our work over the last decade reflects our continuing desire to evolve as a design firm, striving to meet the demands of increasingly challenging project briefs and more varied user demographics.
Our projects are predominantly based in the Greater Vancouver Regional District, a metropolitan area that is currently experiencing unprecedented urban growth. In response to this change, local architectural practices are having to adapt to a dynamic, highly diversified urban economy.
In alignment with new policies, densification, social equality, and sustainability measures, we endeavour to promote emerging values and design standards within a shifting urban fabric. Precedent setting examples of this emergence would range from the Olympic Village – the most energy efficient neighbourhood in North America, to our collaboration with BC Housing in creating one of the largest sustainable social housing initiatives in Canada.
2. How can architecture create surprising new human patterns?
By considering opportunities in the built environment, we can encourage and provoke humans to interact with one another and their surroundings. This can be as simple as framing a particular view, widening a corridor, daylighting passageways, or providing a planter to grow vegetables.
Urban densification by its very nature creates new and unique opportunities for social interaction. As architects we can help shape these opportunities through considered design; creating places out of spaces by harmonising built structures with the people who inhabit them.
3. Why do you like the idea of placing trees on top of buildings?
In both the public and private sectors, LEED Certified buildings are becoming increasingly more desirable; highly marketable, efficient, and ultimately cost effective in the long term. Conversely, the public perception of sustainable architecture remains one of uncertainty and misunderstanding, borne out of complex mechanical and electrical systems, energy monitoring, and commissioning processes.
As architects we have significant control over the passive design elements of building design such as building orientation, solar mitigation, and landscaping ratios. The integration of these more tangible features present a clear connection with the general public, providing visual reassurance to the environmental performance of the building. Rooftop trees are one example of these features, a bridging device that contributes both to the overall aesthetic and sustainable enhancement of a building.
4. What was the brief for the World Health Organisation HQ Design Competition?
In 2014, the World Health Organisation launched an international design competition to extend and redevelop its Geneva headquarters. The proposal would create a new 25,000m2 office block and 700-space underground car park connected to the organisation’s Jean Tschumi-designed home.
Planned to be completed by 2019, the new $90 million extension will replace many of the outdated facilities and house the WHO staff while the main headquarters building is being refurbished.
According to the brief: ‘The extension will be functionally connected to the existing main building, and must therefore be conceived in harmony with this building and the whole site.’ It continued: ‘The new building must reflect WHO’s transparency, international character, as well as the economic pragmatism it wishes to achieve. WHO considers the quality of the project and its functionality to be decisive factors in achieving its own objectives.’
The World Health Organization HQ Design Competition brief called for an extension to the existing main building on their campus in Geneva to consolidate office space, a conference centre, and staff amenities currently dispersed around the site. The primary aspect that interested us in this competition was the pivotal role the extension is intended to play in integrating and modernizing a campus that has grown rapidly over the past 50 years. What made this particularly challenging was developing a proposal that would achieve this ambitious goal without diminishing the historical significance of the main building designed by Jean Tschumi. We envisioned a built form that embraces the sloping topography and shapes distinct outdoor nodes to help unify the site. Acute angles were utilized throughout the building geometry to open circulation and sight lines as well as contrast the more rigid orthogonal expression of the main building. This relationship between the built form and how it shapes and connects the surrounding context is what pushed our conceptual development.
5. For McLaren House, to optimize views you slanted the windows in a certain direction. This strategy is popular in Vancouver, but citing your own projects and condo development in general, why haven’t more condo projects adopted this?
Given the strict programming constraints laid out for us with McLaren House, we were challenged to develop simple yet successful design features that would help maximise the liveability of the very compact units without compromising the efficiency of the layouts. The angled ‘sawtooth’ window arrangement presented three design solutions; directing the tenants view angle away from the existing building directly across the street, mitigating direct south sunlight into each unit, and providing rhythm and texture across a large façade of stacked units.
Market driven condo development in Vancouver has established a formula that prides itself on efficiency. In many cases this formula is derived from compact, ultra-efficient unit layouts that collectively are shaped by the parameters and constraints of guidelines and by-laws. Consequently, subtle articulation of window and other façade treatments can be lost to overriding factors of baseline economics. We are finding that the stigma of social housing is fading as the design and build quality of many projects meets, and in some cases exceeds, those qualities of market residential development.
6. Discuss the Regen Boston competition.
We view competition work as exciting opportunities to express ourselves creatively by exploring innovative design solutions. The Regen Boston competition sought progressive sustainable housing typologies to respond to a city’s need to house the continuing life cycles of its residents.
We proposed to redevelop an existing contaminated brownfield site along the waterfront in East Boston. The proposed development of the site serves as the first stage of a larger effort to connect the entire East Boston waterfront. As further industrial land is reclaimed, the incremental development could eventually create a continuous link around the waterfront. A sustainable mix of diverse housing typologies, residents, amenities and public space are physically connected through an interweaving network of boardwalks and open amenity spaces, enhancing the opportunity for social interaction and communal well-being.
7. How has the Olympic Village project progressed 5 years after the games?
Almost 25 years ago the City of Vancouver proclaimed that the South East False Creek neighbourhood in Vancouver would become the site of a model sustainable community. Five years on from the Olympics, the former Athletes Village serves as a catalyst for expansive community growth within the area.
From the moment that residential and commercial tenants started to populate the development, the Village began to fulfil its objective as a socially and environmentally sustainable community through considered design. Today the Village forms the epicentre of the fastest growing concentrated neighbourhood in Vancouver, serving as the commercial and cultural hub for surrounding new developments.
The Vancouver Olympic Village remains a test-bed for the implementation of sustainability driven planning and design practices that are unprecedented in the local industry. As a result of this project there is a renewed conviction that liveability, manifested as social, environmental and economic sustainability, is fundamental to successful community building.