By Design

Design choices make or break public spaces

July 7, 2015 - We hear about the ways the design of public spaces can be used to exclude and unite citizens. Learn how defensive architecture transforms spaces ostensibly made for everyone - into places only meant for some. And finally, top Canadian architects debate the quality of contemporary buildings.
These controversial 'anti-homeless' spikes were quickly removed after they were installed in front of Archambault in downtown Montreal last summer. (CBC)

"Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 per cent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit." - Frank Gehry

Those were the annoyed words of Canadian architect Frank Gehry. It was an answer to a question asked by a journalist in Spain, and it came accompanied by a raised middle finger. Mr. Gehry later apologized. But you don't need to be a Starchitect to feel uninspired by many contemporary buildings.

We asked three people whether Frank Gehry was right.

  • Don Schmitt is a principal architect at Diamond Schmitt Architects.
  • Elsa Lam is the Editor of Canadian Architect magazine.
  • Lloyd Alter is the Managing Editor of, and an Adjunct Professor of Sustainable Design at Ryerson University's School of Interior Design.​

Well the idea of public space in Western culture goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece and the Agora. The city centre was a place for public gatherings where all citizens were supposed to be able to come together in communal activities... from the political to the artistic and athletic. But some says that philosophy is changing.

The new library is open. (CBC)

From uncomfortable benches, to spikes in doorways, spaces ostensibly meant for everyone are welcoming only to some. It's being called "Defensive Architecture" and some fear what it all means for the future accessibility of public space.

Alex Andreou is an actor living in London, U.K. Six years ago, a series of personal tragedies led to Mr. Andreou living on the streets. In the years since, he's managed to pull himself out of that precarious situation, but the experience changed the way he saw the city. He came to see the city as something designed against him.

The antithesis of "Defensive Design" may be the way libraries are being designed for the 21st century. 

When it opened this winter, Halifax's new Central Library garnered a lot of attention. It earned international kudos as one of the top buildings of 2014. It looks sort of like an uneven stack of massive glass boxes, suggesting a pile of books.  And it's been years since a library of this size and importance was built in Canada.

Architect Morten Schmidt designed the new Halifax Central Library, as well as other libraries around the world. He's with Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, based in Denmark. 

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