British Columbia

Gregory Henriquez' new book encourages young architects to think like activists

The architect behind the Woodward's building and Telus Garden has released a book examining 10 of his firm's progressive community-minded projects as well as the issue of affordability in Vancouver.

Book touches on various community-based buildings, affordability, and how architects can change the world

Gregory Henriquez (left), architect and managing partner of Henriquez Partners Architects, the firm behind the multi-use Woodward's building (right) located in the Downtown Eastside. (Left: Erich Saide, right: Bob Matheson)

When Gregory Henriquez was just starting his career in architecture, he says one of the prevailing schools of thought was that "meaningful architecture wasn't possible in contemporary society" and so architects should focus on theory rather "than try and build in this crass, commercial world."

Proponents of social housing in Vancouver may be thankful that Henriquez — whose firm Henriquez Partners Architects was behind the multi-use Woodwards building — did not decide to follow that line of thinking.

"I found a niche for me early in my career in social housing and community-based projects where I felt that, even if I couldn't change the world, at least I could house some people and I could deal with some of the grassroots issues around community and identity and orientation for the marginalized," Henriquez told host Sheryl MacKay on North by Northwest.

'Children of Woodward's'

Henriquez' has just released the new book Citizen City, which examines 10 progressive community-minded projects that his firm engaged in.

The York Theatre, located on Commercial Drive, which Henriquez Partners Architects helped revitilize. (Henriquez Partners Architects )

These projects are presented as case studies in the book, written by lawyer and activist Marya Cotten Gould.

Henriquez calls these projects "children of Woodward's" as they are similar in nature and were built after his firm's involvement in the Woodwards building, which is a mixed-use building in the Downtown Eastside containing both market and social housing units.

Those projects include 250 Powell, a former remand centre that was turned into a building with 96 social housing units, and the York Theatre, a century-old community theatre that his firm revitalized.

Another is the newly opened Immigrant Services Society of B.C's Welcome House Centre, which has residential units with 138 beds for new government-sponsored refugees, as well as rooms for English language classes, employment and settlement programs and other services.

"The citizen city is one that's inclusive and includes a diverse group of socio-economic and religious [people] and genders," Henriquez said.

Affordability in Vancouver

Vancouver's affordability issues are also discussed in the book.

Henriquez said it is challenging to reconcile the city's, "need to participate in the global community" and also ensure that those who live here aren't displaced because they can't afford to stay.

60 West Cordova in Vancouver, which was designed to allow middle-income people to enter the housing market. (Colin Goldie)

"We're fortunate in Vancouver, like Toronto, to be in two of the most progressive and inclusive cities in this planet, but we live in a global society where there's money coming in from all over the world, which creates inequity in people's ability to live here."

He said he believes Vancouver city council has "done a great job" with some of their new community plans.

One of those is the controversial West End Community Plan, which includes zoning requiring any development in specified sections along Thurlow Street to include at least 25 per cent of the total floor area as social housing.

Henriquez said that at first he didn't think it would be economically viable, but said that because the condos sell for so much it allows the developer to build social housing, give it to the city, and still be able to make a profit.

"It sounds horribly perverse on one level, because the housing is going for $1,400 a square foot, but the byproduct is 25 per cent of it is for those who have much less in our society … so for me it's a good trade-off," he said.

Architects as activists

The final section of the book, a thorough back-and-forth between Henriquez and the CBC's Robert Enright, is titled "Letter to the Young Architect."

The Woodward's building, in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, was initially controversial but has since been recognised around the world as a success. (Bob Matheson)

Henriquez said he hopes that the profession develops the potential to be more of a "thought leader than merely a service to the provider."

"If you want to to change the world … find the piece of your city that needs fixing, find the issue that you think is important — be it environment, be it social, be it cultural, what is it that you're passionate about — and start to participate in the city that you live in and use the tools given to you through your training to articulate alternate realities which could inspire others and maybe shape the future of your city in one small way."

With files from CBC's North by Northwest

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