Sustainability: the story from here

In this second of two articles on emerging architectural practices across the country, we look at the work of KANVA in Montreal, and Acre Architects in Saint John. Both practices look to the history, culture and social fabric of existing communities as the roots from which new urban narratives can emerge. The future is fiction, and it is inspiration and participation that will enable us to weave these narratives into a new reality that is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

By Jim Taggart, Editor

KANVA, Montreal
The city is the context for much of KANVA’s work. We seek to mend and ameliorate the city, often working in vacant urban lots or dilapidated existing buildings to give them new life and stitch together the damaged or underutilized fragments of the city.
Our approach to sustainability is one of nourishing existing communities rather than expanding the city’s footprint. We are concerned with the overall vitality of the city’s neighbourhoods and often set up temporary art installations before a project is slated to begin to provoke participation, thought and interest in what is to come. We believe architects have a social responsibility to invest in the city and act as its stewards by contributing to its densification, by promoting green living, by repurposing abandoned buildings and by using art to reorient our relationship with the city’s public spaces.

One important project that succinctly demonstrates KANVA’s ethical approach to the city is the Edison student residence, built on a small vacant lot across from McGill University. The site suffered a fire in the early 20th century, a narrative we deemed important to convey to users and the community. Concrete photoengraved panels were erected on the front façade depicting film stills from a fire that occurred down the street around the same time. Through sun and shadow the photoengraving subtly reanimates the horse-drawn sleighs responding to the fire in 1901.

The summer prior to construction, KANVA occupied the vacant lot with a temporary installation entitled: 30 Lits. The team recovered 30 used beds from across the city, painted them white and arranged them in rows on the site to provoke discussion of the program to come, a student residence, and at the same time offer passers-by an unexpected interlude in their urban journey.

Another significant contribution to the city was the interactive, experiential art installation, City Fields. The project was the winning entry in the annual Luminotherapy competition, an initiative that challenges Montreal’s design community to work with artists from diverse disciplines to create an immersive winter experience. A luminous field of colour and sound, referencing the city’s agricultural lot subdivisions, was created by thousands of light reflectors on flexible stems that respond in symphony with changes in the environment and human interaction.

This installation examines at an urban-scale, the physiological and psychological benefits of providing the public a rallying point where they can go outside to get fresh air and the essential exposure to natural light in Nordic winters.
In conjunction with the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership, KANVA was commissioned to temporarily transform a heavily visited public site along Sainte-Catherine Street. Working with a specific timeframe: the month of May, the thaw period and beginning of spring, and with a close proximity to the St. Lawrence River, we were inspired by the log booms that were once anchored in the river during this time of year. The installation, 560KM, put users in direct contact with a natural raw material, wood logs, forcing them to question their relationship with natural resources. Instead of drying in a distant yard, the wood dried along Sainte-Catherine Street and doubled as an urban landscape for the users. Taking place in the heart of downtown, the installation created a meeting point to stimulate the senses and reinterpret a distant memory of the place.

Irene, an urban housing project located in Montreal’s St-Henri borough, exemplifies how innovative design can renew existing infrastructure within the City. The original red brick building, constructed by the Railway and Power Engineering Corporation Ltd, was in dire need of repair. As an important historic marker in the neighbourhood, demolition was not considered; instead the team spent considerable time exploring the best solution to reintegrate the building into the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood.

We designed a perforated theatrical envelope to screen the three-storey addition to give the impression of a light, floating volume atop the existing masonry base. This gave rise to a dialogue between old and new, tradition and modernity, the building and its surroundings. At night the façade comes to life as the residents adjust the shutters and create a live performance for the neighbourhood.

These are just a few projects that demonstrate the firm’s city-building approach. Though architects by training, our team is invested in enriching the life of the city in ways that go beyond traditional architecture. Likewise, our approach to sustainability goes beyond the norm, diving into density, reappropriation of unused and abandoned spaces, urban layering and using art and architecture as positive vectors for communities.

We approach design by telling stories in playful ways, while recognizing the contemporary complexities of culture, economy, innovation and sustainability. Our approach to the latter recognizes the degree in which architecture affects and is affected by the world’s ecosystems and is holistically interconnected with the changing vicissitudes of our society.

Acre Architects, Saint John
Our process, which we refer to as ‘storied architecture’ is synonymous with how we approach sustainability. It is grounded in the value of care, and it is one that doesn’t take the conventional order of things as a given. It aims to provoke and inspire people to explore place making through contextually driven community design. This allows us to champion meaningful ways of living, and through narrative we shape a vision that inspires people to go from where they are, to where they dream to be. Operating under the premise that it is easier to inspire than it is to fight, we use architecture, art, and playful interventions to create a life worth living.
We are significantly influenced by our experience and commitment to growing an architecture firm on the east coast of Canada, on the fringe, and outside of where convention tells us that great things happen. Since establishing Acre Architects six years ago in Saint John, we are only now witnessing the first construction crane hovering over our urban core. And yet, in this city, long characterized as economically depressed and stagnant due to its poverty levels, social challenges and a lack of density, provocative and contextually driven design is transforming neighbourhoods. The three connected projects outlined below go well beyond being indicative of sustainability via a point rated system or the three pillars we so often use to define the term.

Today, the projects welcome young people and new ideas in droves. The businesses collaborate, exchanging goods and services daily, and investment into the urban area is surging. A model of what our city could be, these projects don’t divide by socio-economics, but give us energy and hope for the future, galvanizing craftspeople, the business community, artists, and all of us who want to be in a place worth living in.

In turn, we are energized by the contributions we feel we can make by operating on the fringe. We believe that our approach is globally relevant and that operating on the fringe can be a fertile testing ground for sustainable community development.
Operating outside of large city centres, our greatest challenge is the prevailing idea that mediocrity is good enough. At the heart of building a sustainable community, we have to believe that we can live better and storied architecture is our response.
In New York or London, if you don’t do a project, somebody great will. In New Brunswick where there are only 11 Architects under the age of 40, it may not be a question of what we do next, but whether we can make it matter.

We have a unique opportunity to help lead the change we want to see in this world through meaningful storied architecture. The Port City Royal project involved the radical transformation of a once derelict and neglected block in the Historic Trinity Royal district of Saint John, and  is evidence of the power of this approach for creating sustainable communities.
The selection of the site was deliberate, to push the boundaries of what was considered possible in terms of activating forgotten areas in the urban core. The street now hosts Port City Royal, recognized as Air Canada’s enRoute Magazine’s #2 Best Restaurant in Canada, a confirmation of what is possible on the fringe.

An adaptive reuse of a historic building, boarded up for a quarter of a century, the project is an archival dig of sorts. Port City Royal is our tribute to the rawness & beauty that makes the port city of Saint John unique - a little taste of tough-luxe.
A design brief from the chef noted that, in its simplest rendition, his menu should be his love letter to New Brunswick. We understood the project as something that should embody this, and become a catalyst for change in the city. The design we created for the logo of the restaurant bears a crowned salmon found on the New Brunswick coat of arms with the motto Spem Reduxit - Hope Restored. In this industrial port city there is an overwhelming belief that only with the likes of a pipeline or major energy development will there be the change that turns the tide.

Our belief is that there is no golden ticket and it is through investments like this by young entrepreneurs who care about place and quality that we can truly create a place worth living.
Our storied approach looks beyond the walls of the project and shares stories and open dialogue with the community. To provoke this dialogue about the urban design challenges in the area surrounding the restaurant, we took to public art. We chose a nearby laneway, used only as a shortcut by cars to get around the peninsula and by the odd delivery truck.

For the inaugural Third Shift: A night of art after dark, we sod and lit the entire laneway, transforming the block to reclaim the street for pedestrian access and community space and inviting the city to feel what it was like to have the street belong to people. The way we see it, we could argue and fight to tell people why spaces like these matter in a dense historic district usurped by parking and cars, or we could inspire a vision to challenge thousands of people to rethink the possibilities of reclaiming pedestrian only spaces and to highlight the need to dedicate more public space for play and health.

This event sparked a renewed commitment by the City to fix up the street, to add landscape elements and lights; and after experiencing the temporary installation, planners have brought forth bylaw changes of their own to shut down streets for future events. We didn’t have to talk about it – we had to inspire the story of the life we wanted to live.
A year later, our firm was chosen again to do an installation of public art to tackle the challenge of infill lots in the city being taken over by parking lots, leaving the city with an array of missing teeth.

Le Petanque Parc, was our playful response to inspire a reevaluation of the potential of these urban spaces we otherwise ignore. We believe that these forgotten and overlooked spaces are opportune locations to demonstrate how small interventions in a place with limited resources can invest in the physical and mental well being of our urban dwellers and have a dramatic and transformative effect on the vibrancy of our uptown.

Recognizing the incredible character and unique raw quality of our urban landscape, we adamantly believe that our city needs to invest in more public spaces that celebrate the pedestrian experience, promote physical and mental health and to create a more holistic city that encourages an overall enjoyment and quality of life.

We intend to champion the idea of health and play as vital to creating a city people desire to live in. With a strong emphasis on density building, many of our projects look to encourage adaptive re-use of buildings, not simply because it’s environmentally responsible, but for the rich layers of history that can help tell our own stories of belonging and a commitment to place. Investing in these through storied architecture helps to create a sense of belonging, a key building block to harness a willingness to invest in development and quality architecture. It helps people believe in what is possible in their own community and builds the stories that connect us as a community, forming our identity.

Working with the owner and brewmaster of the Picaroons Craft Microbrewery who searched for the home of their new satellite brewery in Saint John, we suggested investing in the heritage district in an abandoned parking garage. Further, we pitched it as an opportunity to program the space by putting the community first, and microbrewery second. A counterintuitive way to introduce to your client looking to grow their business, but we felt is was an appropriate design response for a company whose mission is: to change the world one beer at a time; with an understanding that a successful business and a thriving community are not mutually exclusive.

By the nature of the planning of these enclosed historic buildings, there was no real public forum to host 75-100 people in the historic district. Herein lay our opportunity to convert a historic parking garage to become the Picaroons craft brewery to host community events and offer a general store that filled a void in the urban core. An unconventional strategy was applied to create a room with just a single table in the large 17’ round community table at the centre of the space, where the idea was that nobody sits alone.

KANVA and Acre Architects


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