Not all old buildings are ugly or new ones, beautiful

I enjoyed reading Edward Keenan’s column, “In praise of Toronto’s ugly old buildings”. However, the author seems to conflate “old” with “ugly” and “new” with “good.” These words are not synonymous. There are numerous examples of new buildings that are ugly, lifeless and dehumanizing. Similarly, there are many old buildings that most people would recognize as being interesting and beautiful and that give their neighbourhood — and our city — its character.

Urban aesthetics influence us in more important ways than many people realize. As Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” This is why I don’t think that ugly buildings should be praised. Rather, we should praise buildings that are beautiful and human-scale — regardless of whether they are new or old.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in the Toronto Star.

Humanizing the built environment

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There’s an interesting article by Chris Holbrook in The New York Times which explores the reasons why airports are “built for everyone — the city, the airlines, the retailers — except for the very people who use them the most: the passengers?” Even the shiny, new airports designed by high-profile starchitects – “the cathedrals of the 21st century” as Holbrook puts it – suffer from poor sensory experience, from ambient noise to glare to uncomfortable furniture.  Continue reading

Building Partnerships for a Low-Carbon Future

Creating a low-carbon society will require public-private collaboration related to buildings and cities

Tokyo Skyline (Credit - Sean Pavone)

[Note: This is my response to this year’s Masdar blogging contest which asks the following question:

“In your view, what are the policies that governments should adopt to encourage public-private partnership and enable the private sector to develop the goods and services necessary for a global transition to a low-carbon economy by 2030?”]

In 1800, only 10% of the world’s people lived in cities. By 1990, it jumped to 40%. Today, over half live in cities. It’s estimated that by the end of this decade, 60% people will live not only in cities, but in megacities (cities with population of 10 million or more). By 2030, a staggering 80% will live in cities. This has had — and will continue to have — huge environmental and social consequences.

Therefore, while the transition to a low-carbon society will require action by various sectors and at multiple scales, the most important actions — and most pragmatic — will be those related to cities, in general, and buildings, in particular. As the world is quickly becoming more urbanized, if we are to transition to a low-carbon society we must not merely make this the century of the city, but rather the century of the low-carbon city. Continue reading

C-c-cold inside

Re Is Air Conditioning A Sexist Plot? (Aug. 13): It’s reported that new research suggests the reason why most women find office buildings too cold in the summer is because the air temperature is set using a decades-old formula best suited for the metabolic rates of middle-aged men.

While there may be legitimate concerns with this formula – it ignores many cultural, climatic, social and contextual dimensions of comfort, for example – pinning the blame squarely on one variable is far too simplistic.  Continue reading