Rethinking Architecture, Archeology and Cities

‘Good urban-scapes influence life’. I got to see it put into practice when I visited University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture, known as ‘Waterloo Architecture, Cambridge’. This institution is located in the City of Cambridge, Ontario and is considered one of the trendsetters for urban regeneration of mid-sized Canadian cities. It demonstrates the effectiveness of a well-reused space and the influence on users.

Originally a defunct Silk Factory; the building was retrofitted to suite the operations of Waterloo Architecture, Cambridge. The school and its new premises have been applauded and recognized for its design excellence, community connection and student initiatives.

During my visit at Cambridge I met Eric Haldenby, the Director of Waterloo Architecture. He narrated an interesting story about the move of the school from its older premises to the new silk factory. While he was writing an application for a research grant, he was requested to give a presentation to the city of Waterloo and Kitchener on community university partnerships for regeneration of mid sized Canadian cities.  One gentleman from the audiences, who also belonged to the business community of Cambridge, asked – what would it take to bring School of Architecture to Cambridge? At this time Eric was already facing the threat of loosing his faculty members, because of the uncomfortable and non-creative space the school was functioning in, at the main Waterloo campus, so he truthfully answered that ‘we would require a great site and good money’. This worked for Eric as he was then sanctioned a good site and some money for the school to be relocated to Cambridge.

The offered site was an old out–of-use silk mill. This silk mill was modified to suite the needs of the school and the school started functioning at the new address in 2004. Since then, Waterloo Architecture, Cambridge has positively changed the urban fabric surrounding it. The once unsafe backyard of downtown has become a thriving space for student interaction. The exhibition space and coffee house are thriving in the new school and provide a platform for community –university interaction, which is much appreciated by the City of Cambridge. This building has proved that small change can pave way for a big difference.       

I came to know during our chat that after this successful move, Eric Haldenby was honored for his tenacious efforts for the betterment of the architectural education. University of Waterloo has recognized his efforts by awarding him ‘Distinguished Teachers Award.’ Along with education, Eric is also interested in Mediterranean archaeology; design and management of historic landscapes /sites; design in mid-size cities; and community/university partnerships..

One of the important and unique interests Eric has is that he has been exploring the relationships between Archeology and Architecture since his earlier professional days. This has influenced a few courses in the school like the Rome Program.  The Rome program lets the students experience the nuances of working for and from one of the oldest neighborhoods of Rome.

Eric through such courses and many more innovative ways has inspired a generation of thinkers in Canada. Most of his students are involved in distinguished creative works across North America and some of them are even heading renowned architectural studios around the world.

When I met Eric last June, I realized that it was an interesting opportunity for me to interview Eric and understand the nuances and significance of his work. I have put forth some of the conversations I had with Eric.

Aditi Nargundkar Pathak: There has always been a dialogue active about reusing brownfield site. The campus of University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture, has won seven design awards including the Canadian Urban Institute Brownie Award in 2004 as the outstanding adaptive re-use of a brownfield site. Do you think the project has helped in regeneration of the surrounding urban fabric? If yes how so?

Eric Haldenby: The building has clearly influenced the city. The part of Cambridge City where the school is located was in neglect and process of deterioration for over 40 years. After the move of the school into the Silk mills the area has become more inclusive for its users and its earlier use of abetting prostitution and drug dealings had stopped. The demographics of the users has also changed, they now include students and the local community.

Originally we intended to build a new campus altogether but the local community suggested rehabilitating silk mills which already had a landmark status, as it was one of the largest buildings of riverside Cambridge. We readily agreed to this as we could move in sooner than expected and also at a lower cost.

The decision of placing the Waterloo Cambridge Architecture in riverside Cambridge has also brought some positive changes in the community perception. Recently the city moved into new city hall and with the help of school they built the first LEED gold building in the community. The housing market around the school improved as well. Initially there were 1000 units in the area, which are now 2650 units. This is a solid indication that there was a whole new population moving into the city. Ramifications of this regeneration were also seen in other secondary midsized cities like Sudbury and Saskatoon.

I think that municipality of Cambridge was a key stimulator in this decision.  I think that such collaborations between municipalities and midsized cities with population of 250,000 are needed to the overall improvement of the urban language.

Aditi Nargundkar Pathak: Do you think the success of the building has also influenced the students in anyway?  I am asking this because as architects we are always trying to study and sometimes also define the emotional, physical and performance based impact, a well-designed building will have.

Eric Haldenby: It is a very astute question. Influence on education has been huge .We have Co- op education system in school, which means our students do 4 months of professional work 4 months of study in campus. Up until 2004, 50% students worked in Toronto, 25% worked else where in Canada and 25% worked outside the country. When the school moved the Cambridge the distribution changed, about 25% worked in Toronto, 25% worked elsewhere in Canada and 50% outside Canada. We are speculating that this distribution changed because the students became more autonomous, confident and independent.

After moving here, I have seen many examples of students being autonomous. Our Graduate students pushed themselves and built a 14-bed student resident. The city raised money for the project and worked together with our students.

Real indicator of our success was the’ applicant numbers ‘, before we got 10 applicants for every seat at Waterloo Architecture, and now we get 40 applicants per seat. This happens because when students come to visit during our open house they want to be a part of our family. Our buildings design stresses that the students are extremely important for e.g. all the students face the river and our faculty and staff offices face the town. Students get the light and the view, which I feel, changes the spirit and output of the school.

Aditi Nargundkar Pathak: Moving on to the next part – you are also the principal investigator of Community/University Research Alliance (CURA) (involving Architecture, Planning, Geography and Environment and Resource Studies and partners representing the Cities of Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and the Region of Waterloo), What do you think are the main factors to be considered while designing urban area in mid – sized Canadian cities?

Eric Haldenby: The challenge for the midsized Canadian cities is that when they were first built, heavy manufacturing industries like automotive, textiles etc. were the economic centers and thus the life revolved around them. Today the situation is as Richard Florida’s theory puts it that high bohemians, or high creative class i.e. technology workers, artists, musicians etc. constitute the main users of urban cores. Therefore for a city to thrive it has to evolve to suite the needs of these high bohemians. The old mills and factories have to be retrofitted.

In CURA our research focus has been on tourism and post-secondary school project as community changers. With CURA we worked on 49 published monographs, they varied in the content based on different aspects of urban life e.g. safety, pedestrian access, social service distribution etc. But I firmly believe research universities will become directly involved in renewal of urban areas and their deterioration will be minor compared to others. Partnerships between municipalities, businesses and post secondary schools can work as community changers.

Aditi Nargundkar Pathak: What according to you is an ideal urban environment for the mid – sized Canadian cities?

Eric Haldenby: Ideally every city should use its own cultural mix to create its own ‘ideal environment’. But the direction in which the cities are now evolving seem promising to me. Today the demographics of the cities are changing ‘the generation Y does not want to move to suburbs anymore. Baby boomers don’t retire in suburbs either and there is return to the urban core for want of better design and cultural activity. The urban areas are becoming a more attractive option to live in. It is becoming increasingly essential for urban public spaces to be of higher quality and multifunctional. The very general way in which public spaces present themselves are that in urban areas there are open spaces and amenities that keep changing in function, while in suburbs we find more of open roads and parking lots. The private properties in suburbs have high quality of space but the public plazas are very few or absent. In urban areas on the other hand where population is much closer to each other, we can’t waste public space and hence higher quality of space is required.

So my vision for an ideal urban space is like this – it should be conducive for innovation, creative open-endedness and invention. Ideally cores have to be vibrant high quality plazas, ignored spaces must have clear imperative. With denser cities becoming the reality, quality of public spaces is becoming increasingly important for the well educated.

Aditi Nargundkar Pathak: Another interesting subject you work in linking archeology, architectural history and architecture. You have been working on mapping the urban topography of Roman Carthage and a study and reconstruction of the Villa at S. Giovanni di Ruoti. How important do you find studying these maps is when you are designing the future urban environments?

Eric Haldenby: It’s a biographical question. When I got out of architecture and was setting up my practice, during one of the down times, I got an offer to teach at Waterloo. I decided to take it up and got into teaching. At school I ran into a student who had cycled from Greece to Norway, at that time I decided to may be do something different, so I cycled from Athens to London. Once I came back, I was impressed with the classical architecture and started the Rome program, which is still running and successful. We send our fourth year students every year to our schools Traverse studio in Rome to experience the heritage of western architecture and be influenced by it.

There I was invited by a classical archeologist to interpret few of his findings, I already had interest in history and was fascinated by deep and profound relationship existing in archeology and architecture. I took this opportunity and helped in spatial visualization of a space.

As far as the importance of studying these maps goes, until the beginning of the 20th century there was a very thin line between architecture and archeology. During the modernist era it was dis-owned, but again the designers realized that history can only help us and so now naturally designers gravitate to building up sensitivity to history. I personally think that studying classical architecture deepens consciousness of a designer.

Aditi Nargundkar Pathak: Would you agree that there is a strong presence of form based building regulations in Roman cities? Do you think these studies can be used to evolve form based building codes for newer small and mid sized cities in Canada or world?

Eric Haldenby: Roman buildings surely had Roman codes. The traditional forms were governed by traditions and nurtured innovation. There was a – clear dialectic in the Mediterranean of residential and official architecture. – Examples can be seen not only in Rome but also in Turkey, Italy and Spain.

These ancient cities were mainly courtyard cities, the forms of buildings was the basis here – the archetype. Public spaces had a specific function for e.g. in Islamic cities mosque absorbs the public space.

William MacDonald in his book ‘The Architecture of Roman Empire has studied the Roman Armature in detail. The Roman manifestation of armature is heroic and ennobling –In cities like Andalusia, Pompeii policy in urban armature is used as primary source for city design. The classical cities had panorama of ideas for urban armature. The soil geology governed the forms and deigns of the cities. The modernists on the other hand did not even consider ground. The peaks, bushes, swamps, sand dunes etc. all were part of the city.  Archeology gave me the opportunity to see this happening and this experience in architecture makes you see things differently.

Aditi Nargundkar Pathak: What areas of collaborative research in architecture and Architecture do you think can be explored?

Eric Haldenby: William MacDonald has written well on urban armature organized on the top of the hill in Roman Carthage. During one of our excavations in Roman Carthage, we found water channels .In a podium we found huge cisterns, there was water distribution system in place. Romans were hydrological geniuses; they built on hills collected and stored water and distributed the water in the city.  There is a tendency to study history of great buildings but whole underground ground is unexplored. Integrated systems -thinking approach was prevalent in Rome and this way they used their resources better and in multiple ways. I think we can learn a lot more from these old cities. Study of urban services can be major area of research, which has not been analyzed fully.

As an Architect and an Urban Designer myself, I always find that numerous variables/ factors influence my design decisions. I am sure my peers would agree with that.  We try to take in to account the site conditions, the climate, the local culture and local adaptability and space use trends, the form, the function, our own belief system, the theories and manifestos that we relate to etc. before arriving at any design solutions.  After talking to Eric and after visiting Waterloo I have realized that one very major influence, which is quite underrated, is that of our teachers. Their experiences act as our extended senses.

At Waterloo Architecture, Eric Haldenby has been one of the most influential contributors to the thought processes of his students. His innovativeness and open-ended creativity has compelled his students to push their own capacities. Eric through his own experiences in Archeology, Architecture and CURA has been running a successful Rome and Architecture program. In way he has been part of changing Canadian cities. After my small talk with Eric, I have formed an opinion that innovative teachers of Architecture have the tools to bring about a positive urban morphosis.

IMG_9567_8_9Enhancer
Creative Commons License photo credit: fortherock

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