The "about" section of Vancouver-based studio Henriquez Partners Architects' website boldly states: "We believe that architecture should be a poetic expression of social justice." While empowering communities through socially conscious design is hardly a new concept, the term "public-interest architecture" tends to call to mind images of low-budget constructions. Rarely is it employed to describe the large, mixed-use projects that have come to characterize downtown Vancouver and Gregory Henriquez's firm.
However, experimenting with different models of social regeneration through architecture is the driving principle of the studio's work. Throughout the years, Henriquez has explored concepts such as affordable ownership and dignifying design for the city's disenfranchised communities. In partnership with local real-estate development and culture company Westbank, he has built a number of projects that seek to equalize living conditions for all in one of the world's most affluent and progressive societies. Here, in an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Henriquez describes his firm's ethos, his stance on issues such as homelessness, affordable housing, and gentrification, and the lessons he's learned in over 30 years of heading Henriquez Partners Architects.
Karina Zatarain: Your firm’s website states that you “believe architecture should be a poetic expression of social justice.” Can you tell me more about that?
Gregory Henriquez: Well, I have a strong training in history and theory, in terms of more philosophical ideas surrounding meaning and architecture... I thought I was going to be an academic. But my father started this practice 50 years ago, and when I came home in the late 80s to work before I was off to go teach, he got sick with cancer and that’s how I started helping to take over the firm.
And a lot of the way [the firm] has evolved over the last 30 years stems from this real interest in trying to approach the issue of meaning in contemporary architecture. There’s been a huge schism between theory and practice, and connections are tenuous at best. Most practitioners, even the most conceptual ones, really have very little understanding of architectural theory. So what we try to do here is to make some sense of our contributions to society, which in the case of Vancouver is very affluent, but our problems are severe in contrast to the affluence, which is quite interesting.
For the first 15 years of my practice, we dealt with the homeless community and the disenfranchised and developed a practice where we thought if we could find a way to bring shelter over someone’s head, there was some meaning to that. And the issue of social justice really came from the belief that real design-oriented architecture wasn’t serving the people who need it most. If you go back to the Bauhaus modernist vision, it’s really been appropriated for consumption.
So anyhow, back to the initial question: ethics, poetics, they have to come together. For the Greeks, for something to be beautiful, it had to be ethical, for something to be ethical, it also had to be beautiful. And so our fundamental mission in this practice is to try and merge the two.
KZ: You speak of the disenfranchised; what does that mean in Vancouver?
GH: Well, it’s homeless people. You might only have a few thousand here compared to large cities, but in a place as affluent as this, one is too many. All of our projects attempt to deal with the equalization of that; even our condominium projects, such as Oakridge, have social housing and rental housing in it. It has a civic center and all sorts of community amenities built into it. We realized through doing Woodwards that we didn’t have to wait for government funding for social housing.
KZ: Can you tell me about the Woodward's redevelopment project? Do you consider the building a success?
GH: When the competition occurred, I went to Ian [Gillespie, of Westbank Corp.] and begged and pleaded for him to be our developer on the project, because I knew the wrong thing was going to happen on that project... I don’t know if you know but the downtown east side prior to Woodward’s was the second-largest HIV epidemic outside of Africa, which is mind-boggling. So Woodward’s was sort of born out of that context, and we actually were even more successful than we wanted to be, the level of gentrification in the neighborhood has exploded and Woodward’s for all intents and purposes is a great success.
KZ: What are the biggest social justice challenges that Vancouver is currently facing? How do you think that architecture can address them and ultimately contribute towards their resolution?
GH: Affordability is an issue. We’ve become a global player in terms of real-estate investment, so the issue is, how do you create affordability for people making regular salaries in the context of our very expensive real-estate climate? The city is actually doing a very good job adapting more inclusive zoning, they have a number of projects now where the city takes back 25% of units for social housing. There’s definitely mechanisms that this affluence allows, as long as you tax the purchaser through Community Amending Contributions or through social housing being integrated into the project. But yes, affordability is a huge issue, and in terms of housing, it’s the biggest issue Vancouver is facing.
KZ: What are your thoughts on gentrification?
GH: I think inclusionary zoning is the answer. If I was “King of Vancouver” or whatever, every building would have 25% affordable housing built into it. I think the integration is healthy for a society.
KZ: Different cities around the world are facing these same challenges but in different contexts. Are there any particular firms whose work inspires you, or do you consider Vancouver so unique that it’s not helpful to look elsewhere for possible solutions?
GH: There are universal lessons that can be learned about inclusivity, community consultation, and the different forms of democracy that work better. And when you go to other cities you learn that the planning culture and the political culture are the things that deviate the most. And every city has its own political landscape. Our buildings are all born out of a collaboration between many people, out of much community consultation, out of a very political process because in Vancouver we have a very strong, left-leaning council who wants to accomplish some very idealistic goals, which is fabulous, and then the usual bureaucracy which struggles with keeping up. I feel a very strong sense that I’m a part of this city, and that what we do doesn’t apply elsewhere to the same degree. And vice versa.
Vancouver has a very specific cultural-political situation that needs to be navigated not necessarily only by architects, but I see myself a political activist as much as an architect. What we do in this practice is only re-zoning. We only do projects that don’t have zoning, or have zoning that we believe is obsolete, and we rezone them to more inclusive zoning. And to me, that’s not an architect’s role, in the traditional sense, but it’s the role of anyone who believes that this sort of concept of Canada as a nation of immigrants is a meaningful thing.
KZ: Can you tell me about the projects you’re currently working on? And in a broader sense, what are your firm’s priorities for the future?
GH: We’ve made a choice to work on large, complex mixed-use projects and we’re doing them in all the major cities around here. From Oakridge which is 5 million square feet, to one in Seattle which is a million and a half... they’re very large projects which incorporate housing, retail, institutional, and commercial uses. The reason we’ve gone down that route is that I think we can affect the most change that way, rather than doing the little fetishistic objects like we did early in our career, which are beautiful but you know, they’re just for other architects, or someone very wealthy. Prior to Woodward's we were about 20 people, and the firm’s grown quite a bit, just in the last year and a half we’ve grown to 75.
GH: No no, it’s no good [laughs]. We’ve filled every desk in the whole office and that’s it, we’re not trying to grow anymore. We’re making it work as it is.
The practice has changed a lot in the last 25 years... technology has enabled us to make some very organic, complex forms, but when you try to translate that into a building... Much in the world is done with two sets of architects; you look at a practice like BIG and they have a design architect and a production architect. But here, we’re an old-school practice where we do everything, and it’s very complicated.
When you travel and visit contemporary architecture you can see that the disconnect between the physical reality and the image is often profound. It’s mind-boggling. The translation doesn’t occur properly because technology has its own methodology of making things and the idea may not be in sync with reality. What we’re trying to do—we have a bunch of older people here that know how to make buildings still—is to figure out how to use that technology and still make buildings that tell the real story. That’s the goal of this little practice.
KZ: I see there's a lot of young people working here... what do you find is true or untrue about the stereotypes associated with millennials?
GH: It’s tricky. They have a dexterity without insight; an inability to build a building. So you have this incredible dexterity in designing but you don’t know how to translate it to something real so, where do you go from there?
KZ: Isn't that true of all generations of architects who were fresh out of college?
GH: No. Things have changed a lot. It used to be that architectural education was more grounded in sort of the physical body... today you spend so much time in virtual reality that you actually live there. These people live in these drawings, they live in a world without gravity, they draw things that don’t need to stand up. And so part of what you’re seeing with all this stuff that’s very exciting is that it’s other-worldly, it’s something new, but sometimes it’s fantasy. So how do you make sense of it? It’s a profound issue for this generation.
KZ: What would be your advice to architecture students?
GH: Seek a mentor that makes sense of the world for you. It’s an existential search, so each individual architect has to make sense of their own life, and what they want to do. Explore multiple ways of seeing the world through different mentors, theories, and ideas and figure out one that resonates with you, and then throw yourself into it for the next seventy years.
KZ: As an architect, what do you find meaningful?
GH: I remember the sixties... It was a very idealistic time, but we thought we could actually change the world for the better. We really did believe it. We thought there was hope for humanity and that the architect’s role in society was really important. And it turns out it isn’t. It turns out, most of us are just form-givers of other people’s visions, and architects are just not respected nor are they very articulate about what needs to happen.
And so, for me, it’s about doing as much good as I can in my day to day life with the opportunities that are presented to me, and hopefully a few of these kids in my office will open their own practices and do something meaningful as well. But that’s all you can do. The trajectory of the planet is scary, and it’s questionable whether humanity is even worth saving, but given all of that, you still can’t give up. I have a quote here, from the Talmud, let me find it...
Be not daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You’re not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
The message is really that we can’t fix the world, but we have to do what we can, touch as many people as you can, and hopefully it makes a difference.