Architects on the Front Line: Activism Through Imaginary
Architectural ideas competitions and the reflection they stimulate constitute an open field for planning professionals to step back and examine the structural and institutional frameworks that govern their practice. In the fall of 2021, Urbanarium launched The Mixing Middle Competition, an ideas competition aimed at encouraging reflection on the densification of single-family neighbourhoods through the introduction of mixed-use development in Metro Vancouver. Competitors were asked to come up with alternative narratives for the future of these neighbourhoods that are considered single-use and subject to restrictive regulations. Through their proposals, they were to challenge the models of financing, ownership and zoning that still dominate land-use planning practices and in so doing contribute to shaping living environments.
As an opportunity to distance oneself from reality, even to explore the potential behind utopia, ideas competition invites us to question the mechanisms underlying these limits, their origin, and the plan we have for them. While the institutional imperatives that frame the practice of architecture tend to be inflexibly rigid, the narratives imagined during ideas competitions have the power to reveal them in all their fragility. Imaginaries of togetherness generated through competitions tell the story of alternative universes that come together to sketch out a complex and promising future. In this regard, competitions serve as a mobilizing tool whose strength lies in the power of narratives, the project as reflection of an activist imaginary. The ideas competition thus becomes a disruptive form of action at a time when the question of the role of architecture in a world in crisis is becoming ever more pressing.
The Mixing Middle Competition was to bring out solutions that put forward the consolidation of mixed, lively, and accessible environments, supported by inclusive and committed communities. A particular feature of the competition was its focus on large-scale imaginaries and radical reflections on patterns of land use in the city, based on a holistic perspective of the potential of intervention in the built environment. We also note the editorial line of the competition, which, within the program itself, encourages competitors to suggest revisions to current municipal, legal, and financial regulations, at the risk of broadening the spectrum of intervention and radicalizing the proposals.
Over the past few decades, and particularly in the Vancouver area where land prices have risen exponentially, we have witnessed a proliferation of new residential development models on the outskirts of the city, imbued with the ideal of the fenced-in backyard and focusing on the fragmentation of the social fabric as well as the different sectors of activity. The scale of infrastructures and the notion of proximity are expanding as these developments spread across North America, supported by the adaptation of municipal regulatory frameworks.
The issue is therefore not new, but the questioning of these practices and the search for innovative scenarios are still in their infancy. The sanitary crisis of the 2020s and the step back it entailed have accelerated the recognition of living environments and neighbourhood communities as significant elements in the quality of the world of tomorrow. The boundaries between work, leisure and living environments are becoming ever more ambiguous, and as a result, the reconciliation between different spheres of activity is tending towards mixing rather than fragmentation. However, this transformation cannot take place without acknowledging the limits imposed by the rigid regulatory and financial frameworks that keep them in place.
The Mixing Middle Competition set out to question these issues and explore the potential of alternative imaginaries. Competing teams were invited to choose one of four (4) intervention sites, all located in the Vancouver metropolitan area on the outskirts of the city center, each raising distinctly different issues to which the jury was particularly sensitive when evaluating the proposals.
Each of the projects submitted offers an original angle of reflection that tackles different sets of issues, depending on the team's field of expertise and interest. Topics addressed include the relaxation of the urban regulatory framework, alternative planning of road and transportation infrastructures on a neighbourhood and city scale, innovative financing structures for development projects, the collectivization of property, and the shift towards community-oriented development models. The different approaches to the project reveal varying postures about the envisaged scope of interventions; while large-scale, more radical scenarios are proposed in some cases, other teams tend to focus on targeted, concrete solutions, tending rather towards the feasible.
A total of 44 teams submitted proposals, of which only eight (8) are presented in this CCC publication. These include the four (4) finalist proposals and four (4) honourable mention proposals awarded by the jury. Discussions on the proposals, often lively in an ideas competition, resulted in two (2) proposals being awarded second place.
In addition to the usual mentions awarded by the main competition jury, the projects submitted were also considered for the Planner's Prize, a special mention awarded by the Planner's Advisory Group, a committee made up of members of planning departments from the various municipalities where intervention sites are located. To qualify for this award, proposals had to present a rigorous analysis of the community of study and the barriers to implementing mixed-use in these contexts. The committee wanted to reward a project with a vision that was both ambitious and practical, that could be implemented in the foreseeable future, and that favoured a targeted, small-scale approach, proposing concrete solutions to specific problems rather than a generic solution with a more abstract impact.
Upon surveying the proposals, the Planner's Advisory Group decided to award the Planner's Prize to two (2) tied teams. To the jury's surprise, these were the same teams chosen by the jury to share second place in the competition, although the deliberations for the winners and the Planner's Prize took place separately. The proposals in question are "Co-Living Quadruplex" by the Altforma Architecture team and "Mixing Modal" by the Via: Re+Discover team. The first project stands out for its treatment of human scale, which responds particularly well to the existing urban fabric and acts as a catalyst for the quality of social life within the neighbourhood. The strength of the intervention lies in its practicality and the compact yet effective scale of its layout. The second anchors the project in a thoughtful development of the shopping street, supported by an informed restructuring of the zoning and economic strategies to be implemented. The project capitalizes on the neighborhood's commercial vitality to make it an attractive local destination, without neglecting the quality of the proposed residential spaces.
The winning project, "Lots In Common" by the Contingent team, represents a radical proposal in its approach to ownership models. Drawing on in-depth research into the governance and financing tools that can be harnessed for the collectivization of infrastructure and territory, the project takes the form of a series of "spatial protocols" designed to encourage the development of "convivial and synergistic relationships" between the various stakeholders within the community. Highly sensitive to the specific conditions of human and non-human urban habitats, the project presents a solution both flexible and particular which is in phase with the ecosystem in which it is implanted. The sustainable approach, both social and ecological, is carefully developed.
The third-place winner, "Simple Small Things First" by Team C-R, develops a strategy of incremental development of lots. This model enables families to develop their project at their own pace and according to their specific needs while ensuring accessibility in terms of means and costs. The proposal also envisages the collectivization of initiatives to reduce the burden of the procedures involved by sharing it among the households involved.
Participating in ideas competition as a form of architectural practice reveals the full potential of activism of the imaginary. If the radical transformation of practices is to be achieved through the development of accessible, mobilizing narratives, then ideas competitions are a prime platform for the creation and dissemination of these activist narratives. These multi-faceted visions of a world in the making help to broaden the sphere of the conceivable, and sketch out the first outlines of renewed political, legal and financial structures which, in time, should broaden the scope of different planning practices.
Single use zoning was developed in order to eliminate conflicts that inevitably arise with the juxtaposition of perceived incompatible uses. The entrants were challenged to consider and propose mitigating design solutions to these issues.
The brief also challenged entrants to conceive of imaginative new relationships among the myriad unplanned alternative uses that have cropped up in low density residential zones around the Vancouver region. They were asked to question whether this mixing will lead to lifestyles that integrate work with home in ways that are more satisfying, walkable, accessible, sociable, culturally inclusive, healthy and sustainable than single use zoning can provide. Entrants were also asked to consider how a finely grained mix of uses might alter the normal transportation and access needs of residents and to propose design solutions for the adjacent streets and public realm.
Four sites of four blocks were chosen in representative local municipalities: Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver, Coquitlam, and Surrey in areas of low density residential zoning near shopping areas and transit. Entrants were asked their preferences among sites and generally assigned their first or second choice. Within the assigned site, the brief required proposals that could be developed on one lot of a single homeowner or on two adjoining lots. They were also asked to imagine how their approach might be expanded, over time, to reshape the surrounding blockface and the full four-block competition site.
Entrants were provided with a framework for their submissions that included project data and urban design, social and economic rationale for the concept. Submissions were to suggest alterations to the local circulation network and public realm, to current zoning and design guideline provisions and to the planning approval process, and innovative legal mechanisms for ownership and financing.
(From competition brief)
The Jury had discretion in the selection of prize awards considering criteria from the brief: creativity, practicality, implementability, anticipated improvement in neighbourhood amenity and diversity, potential to promote social engagement, access, and inclusivity, and potential to support walking and cycling/micro-mobility access.
(From competition brief)
(Consult the competitors' projects for specific comments from the jury)
Price, Gordon, The Mixing Middle Competition, Viewpoint Vancouver, 2021
Wilson, Steve, Urbanarium Presents Mixing Middle Competition, Canadian Architect, 2021
Urbanarium launches the Mixing Middle competition, Building, 2021
Urbanarium The Mixing Middle Competition, Architectural Institute of British Columbia, 2021
Conner, Shawn, Vancouver Urbanarium Society announces the winners of the 2022 Mixing Middle Competition, Vancouver Sun, 2022
Cleugh, Janis, Retail in the 'hood? Urban planners, designers re-imagine a part of Coquitlam's Austin Heights, Tri-City News, 2021