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Originally published in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard

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“Down by the bay (street)” and “Cheese of the World.” Photos by Christopher Ryan.

What is architecture and who is an architect? We all sort of know but sort of don’t. I have been studying, designing, and writing about architecture for fifteen years and I don’t really know. I can say the answer is not as simple as “an architect makes architecture, and architecture is something made by architects.”

Last month I attended Critic’s Night at the Phi Centre in Montreal co-hosted by the Maison de l’architecture du Québec (MAQ) and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC). The evening included a wonderful bilingual discussion between two greatly respected architecture critics; former New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger and Emmanuel Caille, senior editor of D’architectures.

M. Caille is an architect. Mr. Goldberger is not. Both are obviously exceptionally knowledgeable about architecture. Both are highly influential voices in architecture. They raised some very important issues and questions about the role of criticism and what it contributes to architecture.

A damaging review by a theatre critic or food critic might shut-down the show or restaurant. It is hard to imagine that a bad review by an architecture critic has ever shut-down a building or stopped people who planned to use it from using it. So what is the point of architecture critics if the object of their criticism is already built and not going anywhere?

There are many reasons why architectural criticism and journalism are important:

  • It advocates for and sets a bar for good and better architecture.
  • It gives the general public increased access to understanding what can seem to be an overwhelmingly insiders’ discipline.
  • It gives architects recognition for their hard work.
  • It also keeps architects accountable to the general public.

Architecture has the potential for huge public impact. Codes and regulations keep architecture physically safe and keeps architects accountable to public safety. Critics and academics help to give us the tools to understand and evaluate—among other things—the social and cultural impact of architecture. Afterall, it is not enough for architects to produce something to make their clients happy and just conforms to codes.

Hopefully, architecture criticism and journalism make us all better critics and appreciators of architecture. It gives more people access to understanding what architects do, what architecture can be, and what standards we should expect. It raises the discussion beyond personal taste. It can help us place architecture in the context of the important issues that shape our cities; economic, social, environmental, political, historical, and aesthetic issues.

The world celebrated Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday this month. As one of the greatest critics of the 20th century, Jacobs had a greater impact on the shape of our cities than any architect. She reminded us that cities are not just skyscrapers and freeways. Not just built by planners and architects.

Google doodle for Jane Jacobs 100th birthday.

Google doodle for Jane Jacobs 100th birthday.

I love reading and talking with fellow architecture critics, writers, and journalists. Again, some have architectural training, some do not. We come to architecture from different paths but share a passion for our shared subject. Here in Ottawa, Jonathan McLeod, often discuss architecture and urban design, both in his Ottawa Citizen articles and on his blog “Steps from the Canal.”

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Welcome to the yowLAB Film Festival discussion for our third film, Urbanized., directed by Gary Hustwit. Our reviewer this month is yowLAB co-director Sarah Gelbard. Her review/synopsis is included below.

Instructions: 

  • If you have not yet watched the film, the Ottawa Public Library has several copies, it is also available for online rental on cinemanow and distrify.
  • To contribute to the discussion, please feel free to use the comment section following the review.
  • You are also welcome to post links to your own reviews if you prefer to publish on your blog or website. Please make sure to link to this page on your end.
  • We also welcome guest contributions. Please contact us at info.yowlab@gmail.com if you would like to submit a review to be posted to the yowLAB blog.
  • Or tweet your comments @yow_LAB #yowLABFilmFest

We hope you enjoy the film and the discussion. Without further ado. . .

Urbanized.

I often recommend this documentary to people as a great intro to contemporary urban issues. It is accessible and interesting to a broad audience with or without expertise in urbanism, planning, architecture, or design. As can be expected of any survey, Urbanized does not delve deeply into any of the issues it raises but still manages to not be overly superficial. Though critical at times, the overall tone is about being inspirational and hopeful.

I’m not normally one to yell at my tv, but the first time I saw Urbanized I found myself cheering for the mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa. Of course a citizen on a $30 bike is as important to a city as someone in a $30k car. Of course a bus with 100 passengers should be entitled to 100 times more space and resources as a single-passenger car. Or applauding when Jan Gehl who tells us “A good city is like a good party.” Or laughing when Ellen Dunham-Jones compares sprawl to pornography.

The closing speech of the film wraps up the very human message about cities:

We’re on the cusp of dramatic set of forces coming together. Fundamentally as a species, we need things that can power our imaginations, that can get our passions going, and give us a sense of meaning. And that is not a brick. It is not a pipe. It is an idea. That’s what drives cities forward.

– Edgar Pieterse, director African Centre for Cities

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Discover Ottawa neighbourhoods’ hidden gems during Jane’s Walk, May 3-4
Submitted by Jane’s Walk Ottawa

Have you ever wondered where to find Centretown’s foodie hangouts? Have you discovered Ottawa’s rare urban sand dune or toured its many hidden inner-city gardens? Have you hoped to explore the art of Japanese “forest bathing” or wondered about where to forage for wild foods without leaving the city?

If you like to get outside and you’re enthusiastic about learning about the city you live in, come along on a free neighbourhood walking tour with Jane’s Walk Ottawa on May 3 and 4!

The weekend-long festival of free walking tours is held to celebrate the work of urban thinker Jane Jacobs, who promoted livable cities, street-life vitality and attractive, uplifting places where people feel safe. It’s is a pedestrian-focused event that improves urban literacy by offering insights into planning, design, local history, and civic engagement through the simple acts of walking, observing, and discussing.

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Sadly I missed participating in this year’s Jane’s Walk because I was out of town. I’m excited to see that Apt613 has been posting reader reviews of some of the walks. So if you too missed doing it in person; (a) make sure you do it next year, (b) head over to apt613.ca and vicariously and virtually enjoy a sampling of this year’s walks.

So far there are posts on:

And it sounds as though more are forthcoming.

I hope to have a yowLAB walk or two proposed for next year.

Dear fellow yowLABers,

Jane’s Walk Ottawa is fast approaching (May 4-5) and there is a call for walk submissions.

This would be a great venue for some yowLAB creativity, collaboration, and community engagement.

I know Jeff and a few others have talked about an infill housing walk in the past. I also just came across this “Nonsensical Walk of Indoor Spaces” in Chicago that could be an interesting model to develop. If you haven’t checked out Artengine’s Polytectures, it is also well worth a look/listen.

Please contact me ASAP if you are interested on working on designing a (few?) yowLAB walk(s). Submissions are due April 15th. I would like to organize a get together sometime in the next week for anyone interested so we can brainstorm and coordinate ideas.