Feb. 7, 2020

Designers grapple with the unjust processes that shape our cities

Just City Panel explores big questions that cloud the future fairness of where we live
Matt Knapik
Matt Knapik

Creating great places is a fragmented process.

Cities are much more than a collection of buildings in proximity to each other. They are woven tapestries of cultural identities and social interactions. A city relies on its inhabitants to evolve and weave relationships.

What makes Calgary great is the people who are a part of it: the leaders, the businesses, the partnerships, the diversity, and its designers. But the Just City Panel discussion, organized and moderated by Dr. Graham Livesey, PhD, with the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at the University of Calgary, questioned the present and future equitableness of cities.

  • Image above: Matt Knapik asks how to create an inclusive design process that accounts for real constraints. Photo by Ji Song Sun

“How do we meet the needs of society with clients who can’t afford architects? Can we (as architects) choose to work for new and different people?”

These were two of the tough questions presented to the panel of Calgary designers, composed of alumni from the faculty. The Just City Panel explored topics such as: sharing the city and public space; transparency and awareness around injustice; social responsibility; surveillance and monitoring; the city of diversity and inclusiveness; and self-organization among citizens.

Matt Knapik with Jessie Andjelic and Dustin Couzens

Panel members Matt Knapik with Jessie Andjelic and Dustin Couzens.

Ji Song Sun

The interconnected challenge

The city is a “model of who we are and who we want to be,” said Jesse Andjelic, MArch’09, architect and co-founder of Spectacle Bureau for Architecture and Urbanism. She described our current condition as “a state of serious injustices” where community hubs are challenged by climatic, social, economic, and civic influences.

Housing, for example, is viewed as an investment vehicle, which tends to inflate the cost of living. Unaffordable housing is on the rise. The Calgary Housing Company, which administers rent supplement programs on behalf of the city and province, estimates that one in five Calgary households struggles to pay housing costs.

The contemporary city has ultimately flattened into a condition where it tries to fit everything — but ultimately fits nothing.

Cutting corners

Designers have lost control of the city to the construction industry. Dustin Couzens, MArch’99, co-founder of architectural practice Modern Office of Design + Architecture, described the problem of our urban condition as “being built too quickly, profusely, and frankly, cheaply.” Working as an architect, Couzens started his practice by buying off-the-shelf products and maximizing their potential, using digital fabrication techniques to create new solutions.

Our cities have been built on hierarchies of power and money. Taller and taller physical structures diminish the role of the individual builder and the sense of ownership of where we live. But the architectural revolution of the city can begin with new agency over digital fabrication and establishing the new role of the modern architect.

Jessie Andjelic

Jessie Andjelic

Ji Song Sun

Design as a possible solution

“The city is rife with contradictions and dilemma,” said Matt Knapik, MArch’13, Urban Designer at O2 Planning + Design. Knapik believes that design is the city’s saving grace, but design can be a challenge as much as a solution. Design isn’t a linear process; the answers aren’t dictated by the discipline simply because there is no blanket solution to all our problems.

“Design needs to be shaped to meet what’s ahead.”

There is so much that we can do with design if we forget about budgets and restrictions, but working with the fabric of the city, it is the designer’s responsibility to enlighten and engage with clients to find solutions that meet real-world constraints.

Architects and designers are just a few of many working to shape our communities. The panelists provided insight into this place we call home, where we came from and what we are doing today. It’s our responsibility as a collective to determine how to create a more just future.

The Just City panel is part of a series of cross-Canada events driving local conversations about the design of our cities and the future of architectural practice, and to launch the book, Canadian Modern Architecture, 1987 to the Present, co-edited by Livesey and Elsa Lam, editor of Canadian Architect Magazine. The book is the first comprehensive analysis and recollection of architectural projects across the country.