Harvey Cowan, 38, is a senior design architect for the Webb, Zerafa, Menkes and Housden partnership of architects and engineers in Toronto. His 14-year career incorporates successes within his own profession in the shape of the traditional design awards. But he has functioned also as an architecture critic and his responsibility has always been to both his culture as well as his profession. He has refused to see art as a side issue and has at times taught art to architectural students (University of Toronto) and architecture to art students (the New School of Art). “Architecture is a social art and should not solely exist in servitude to the economy,” he says.
At the moment he is seated in the living room of his renovated Victorian row house near Toronto’s lakefront. A visitor does not feel the brutalities of the highrise here and it is about this that Harvey Cowan is speaking:
First we must talk about scale. Just how high should a highrise be? Our cities would lead us to believe that apartment buildings should be very high and as predictable as Archie Bunker’s prejudices. Bigger is better, Muzak is soothing, conformism is appropriate. This system of standardization is rooted in the economic, not necessarily the human process. There is a point when a building becomes a monument to the system (that is the technology) and loses touch with the scale of the street and the needs of the people.
The question is are these monuments to technology necessary? Certainly they are not always desirable. In this country we still respect the myth of the singlefamily home. A man’s home is his castle. This kind of ownership is the citizen’s dream. To own a castle-home. This fantasy comes equipped with images of moats, drawbridges, privacy, security, ambitions and personal privileges. But the fact is about three-quarters of the
population of Canada choose to live in the towns and the cities. The dream of the castle-home is often not feasible as towns and cities continue to grow. Still, somehow, the dream must be satisfied.
It is important to a uniquely Canadian design idiom that this dream be kept intact. It shouldn't be destroyed in the name of some kind of Chicago notion of progress. The standardized highrise does not satisfy the dream. And
castle-homes are out of the reach of most people. My point is that the important qualities of the single-family dwelling can be realized in nontraditional forms of housing that lie somewhere between the dream of the castle-home and the reality of the highrise.
My basic Canadian instinct here is to feel uncomfortable in the sky. It is possible, of course, crowded by the dense population of the Far East, say, to design a tall building, a massive project, both high and wide, that has its relevance, in the needs of a city such as Hong Kong. I am not arguing against great height or monumental structures in themselves. It just seems to me that Canada is one of the few countries in the world that has a genuine, even rare, opportunity to relate to the land as opposed to the sky. Even in our urban centres there is a feeling of belonging to the earth.
In Canada people still think of an acre as a parcel of land not a piece of sky. But too often standardized highrises in our cities have in them essential design confusions. There comes a point when the height of an apartment loses its relationship to the ground and the street. As soon as that happens the dream of the castle-home starts to go out the window and into the clouds. It is at this point
that the acre begins to become a parcel of sky. We are different from many other countries in this regard. We don’t like being in the clouds. But that’s fine. After all, countries often find differences in their varied relationships to people and space.
Quite aside from the question of height, there are a number of other design prerequisites to keep Canadians rooted in the land. To keep the dream intact the resident, at least, requires:
• A private entrance.
• A private outdoor space.
• Equal opportunity to experience sunlight and the seasons.
• Choice of views.
• Flexibility in apartment interiors as an outlet for individuality.
• An upstairs and a downstairs.
• Choice of self-sufficient services as opposed to communal services; that is, no mandatory collective laundry, no lobby, no tuck-shop, no doorman, no wrong buzzers late at night. 1
Alright, you say, but how is all this possible?
Not only how is it possible but how is it economically feasible? It is true that Moshe Safdie’s Habitat had some of these characteristics, but it was unreasonably expensive. The client might well ask how are these things possible, given
the need of having to create a density of 50 to 60 units per acre.
Start with a familiar accommodation. The two-story house unit. The technique is to stack and butt these units. First butt several two-story units together on the ground space. This automatically increases the number of people available to use the ground space. By itself Step One would be traditional row housing. So far, as is the case in row housing, the castle-home concept has not been threatened.
Stack more two-story units on top of the row housing created by Step One. In order to create private entrances for the second level structures a grading would be manipulated from the street to the second level. That is the street would be graded to reach the second level. This would create private entrances and walkways to the second level. The walkway to the second level would become the roof of the entrance to the first level. By now you have doubled the townhouse density and it is possible to meet all the prerequisites for individuality.
Here, the designer begins to feel the pull of the sky. It is important to feel the acre, the ground, and not lose sight of the
street. Still more two-story houses are again stacked and butted. But to accomplish the necessary private entrances a raised pedestrian street must be constructed. The resident would reach the pedestrian street by means of a singlestop elevator. This is accomplished as indicated in my drawing shown here.
By now you have created a density comparable to many highrise developments. Such a project could be realized for a cost of $20 plus per square foot. This figure is also comparable to many standardized highrise projects. Also, and essentially important, the tenants could all visually participate in the life of the street. A community of human scale would be created. The street still has meaning. From the highest vantage point all children could be both seen and heard.
Your finished structure would add up to six stories in height. A decent measure. The highest is within 50 feet of the earth. This is no farther than the first balcony of the average concert hall. Not bad seats when all is said and done.
Private outdoor space would be accomplished by the use of traditional row house devices such as verandas and roof gardens. All other prerequisites mentioned earlier such as opportunity to experience the elements, choice of views, outlet for individuality and so on would be incorporated in the strict specialness of each unit. Inside, the feeling of a home is in the freedom of movement that is created by an upstairs and a downstairs.
The basis of this concept is contained in my own row house. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more at home as here. And if this same two-story space were stacked on my roof I’d never really feel the difference. The space upstairs would in no way interfere with my life and I would not interfere with the space upstairs.
This is just one solution for a growing and serious problem. The alienation of the human being to the environment in which he spends most of his day and the trend in urban environment to grow beyond the scale of the human being. This is just one solution but the problem is the same:
How high is too high for a nation whose roots are still firmly in the ground? ■
This is the second in a new Maclean’s series. Solutions, which will try to provide answers for the many issues that face. Canadians today. Maclean’s welcomes readers’ suggestions for topics and experts to tackle them. We’ll pay for accepted submissions. A ddress: Solutions, Maclean’s Magazine, 481 University Avenue, Toronto M5W IA7.
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