On Being Asked to Comment on Jim Green…

I have received a number of requests asking for a statement about Jim Green. He was a great leader, a great citizen and he profoundly influenced the direction of the city. The following article gives just one example of why I believe this is so:

Form Follows Function

Abraham Rogatnick was a dear friend and mentor. When he was a student at the Harvard School of Design in the 1950s his teacher was the great Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School in Germany and a father of the modernist movement in architecture. Gropius had been powerfully influenced by a visit to Europe by Louis Sullivan who made famous the saying “form ever follows function”. As Abraham related to me, the history of this phrase was much older and the philosophy even more ancient.

If an architect is asked to design a building they should first develop a deep understanding of the function the building must play and the needs of its users and only then should they design. The architecture should accommodate the building to the needs of the users. The users should not have to accommodate to the needs of the architecture.  We all have had the misfortune of having to use products that were clearly not designed around their function.

The same can be said for designing a great city. Yet it has struck me that the City of Vancouver  does just the opposite. When considering permitting a building to be built in the city the first thing considered is how high it could be. When we hire new planners we do not first ask how tall they are. We have an official skyline policy that says the city will have a domed skyline. We have arbitrarily determined height limitations on the buildings. And we have numerous suburban view corridors that crisscross the city center. All of these conspire so that in the city of Vancouver, function follows form. The “formists” came to dominate in the third wave of Canadian urban reform of the 1960s and 70s.

I am aware of one building in particular where third wave planning dogmas did not win the day. This is the Woodwards building where a City Councillor named Jim Green became personally involved in the project. The planning dogmas dictated that the building would be restricted to around 100 feet. Councillor Green made a list of the functions he wanted from this building. This included heritage preservation,  200 units of social housing, public space, public art, 32,000 ft.² of community space for nonprofit organizations, etc.

In order to pay for all these amenities the developer would need a significant market condo development. After running the financial models two towers arose into the air 300 and 400 feet high, four times as high as the existing regulations would have permitted. If not for the personal intervention of Jim Green a stubby modest building with mediocre amenities would have resulted. I must say that I was appalled initially that he had taken this personal approach and “politicized” the planning of the building. In retrospect he showed the way to how postmodern third wave dogmas could be overcome and the proper design and development of the city could take place. Jim Green was right and I was wrong and Woodwards will be just one important legacy he will leave the city.

The Function Follows Form paradigm that currently dominates city planning regimes has contributed to sprawl and environmental degradation and has directly increased the price of housing. I am sure that Walter Gropius would be pleased with this remarkable achievement of Jim Green and the Woodwards building and adherence to the Form Follows Function principle.

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