May 3, 2013

Danes and Canadians on their Architectural Talent

The approach of the Danes and Canadians on their architectural talent demonstrates how dramatically the success of that talent can be influenced. At the recent 2010 Shanghai World Exposition, Denmark showcased a spectacular pavilion by young Danish designers BIG Architects. BIG’s popular design, featuring a dramatic looping ramp for bicycles and a perch for Copenhagen’s famed “little mermaid” statue, attracted throngs of visitors and showcased Denmark’s talents. Across the expo grounds, an uninspiring pavilion procured through a proposal call to builders represented Canada. Sadly, both the building itself and its contents offered no presence for Canadian design talent.

During this difficult economic period marked by budgetary cutbacks and fiscal uncertainty, Canada’s restraint is easy to endorse. However, the contrast between Denmark’s remarkable accomplishment and Canada’s begrudging participation in Shanghai bears more careful scrutiny. A lack of ambition should not be mistaken for financial probity.

The Danish pavilion in Shanghai was a manifestation of its government’s policy to promote its homegrown design industries. In Denmark, high profile public commissions are routinely awarded to young design firms. To be sure there are risks, but there are also significant rewards. Danish policies have nurtured a remarkably talented and prolific design community. Now, the trade division of the Danish embassy actively promotes its design community. It organizes annual tours that bring a worldwide group of architects, public, and business figures in contact with its design community. The results? Danish design firms are known worldwide, and the export of their work adds to the country’s bottom line.

Sadly, Canada’s Shanghai effort was also consistent with its typical policies and procedures. Canada’s process is focused on achieving successful completion of single projects without regard for potential collateral benefits. Canada’s public sector process is risk-averse, favouring “relevant experience” (or occasionally opting for the services of so-called “starchitects”). Both of these approaches to procurement exclude the participation of young homegrown talent.

Some apologists for Canada’s indifference to its homegrown talent point to Toronto-born star architect Frank Gehry as an example of how Canadians can make it. However, Gehry decamped from Toronto when he was thirteen. His “break-through” architectural projects that propelled him onto the world stage were American commissions.

From the standpoint of nurturing design talent and a culture of innovation, Canada’s procurement process for public projects is deeply flawed. The reliance upon conservative selection criteria, particularly “relevant experience” has convinced whole generations of Canada’s would-be designers that the design-based service industry is a mug’s game. If Canada lags many other countries in the developed world in the innovation of new materials, techniques, and designs, then it is not hard to see why.

What little opportunity that exists has been primarily due to the initiatives of progressive individuals in Canada’s private development industry. Developers have learned to strike a balance between assuring a secure method to get things done; but at the same time, taking some risk. In Toronto, many developers have done a tremendous job in nurturing local talent and built some of the country’s most innovative buildings. But their patronage is not enough to put Canadian designers on the world stage. This is only possible through the commissioning of high profile projects.

As the Danish example illustrates, there is much to be gained from considering the use of public funds beyond the successful completion of any one singular project. Instead, public funds ought to also nurture local talent and by extension a whole design culture. Public funds should take a risk and have a goal of assisting the formation of cultures of innovation. It’s good for the country, and as Denmark demonstrates through its thriving design exports, public funds can be used to promote future returns.

Babak Eslahjou B.ARCH., OAA, MRAIC