More on design competitions, and building a city's "culture of design"

Brent Toderian's picture

Can a city's "design culture" be deliberately grown and fostered? If so, can City Hall be part of such a fostering, or must it come from the grass roots, from the cultural or design communities themselves?

Readers know I've been musing on these questions for a while. A few years back, after arriving here in Vancouver, I wrote on the difference between our city's reputation as a "city BY design", and the reputation some other cities have, as "cities OF design".

Since then, I've been observing and participating in much of the activity we have here, that fosters our growing design culture. A lot can still be done, but I believe we have the potential to be a great design city. At the risk of singling out only one of a great many events, I recently attended my second Pecha Kucha night, 
a fun and fascinating event where designers, artists and creative thinkers each have 20 slides, 20 seconds each ("6 minutes, 40 seconds of fame..."), to tell any design story they wish. Pecha Kucha (Japanese for "chit chat") is held simultaneously in 191 cities across the globe, and this was the 6th held here. It had a great, youthful energy and vibe (although its attendees were of all ages), and pretty fascinating and inspiring content. It seemed especially valuable for young designers and other "creatives", both those presenting, and those in the packed theatre attending. I'm looking forward to my own turn, at the Pecha Kucha in July – so many slides / stories to choose from!

Yes, I think a design culture can be grown, deliberately, as our local young design community is proving. Further, I do believe that a city hall or a planning department can be a champion or stimulator of such growth. This despite some city halls being either neutral/non-relevant to a local design culture, or on their worst days, barriers that perhaps are standing in the way.

Some city halls across Canada and the globe are being champions, showing leadership through tools like design awards, competitions, charrettes, public dialogue and events, funding/grants, media promotion, and other types of design-promoting "buzz".

And why not? A strong local design culture is good for city-building, for economic development, for livability, creativity, local "spirit" and fun.

Two cities out of many, are perhaps worthy of being singled out – Montreal and Berlin (commenter's on this blog are invited to document efforts in other cities). The efforts of each are documented in two great books. First "New Design Cities" (2005) published by Commerce Design Montreal (an initiative of the City), documents the results of a symposium on city efforts toward design-facilitation in several world cities (Montreal, Saint-Etienne, Antwerp, Glasgow, Lisbon, Stockholm and New York). Amongst the litany of great information on the efforts of these "young" design cities, the book documents a Canadian program I've been a huge fan of - the highly successful Commerce Design Montreal competition. This program is credited with not only sparking a design transformation of commercial space in the city, but also launching the careers of a generation of talented young Montreal designers. For another perspective on the new design city movement, including how it can go too far around branding, tourism, and a focus on real-estate sales, check out this article The Next Design City: Bilbao Effect. The message – keep it meaningful and value-based.

A similar book, "Designcity: Design for Urban Space and the Design City Discussion" documents the results of "DesignMai 2006" festival in Berlin. The DesignMai was part exhibition, part temporary city, part platform for discussion on the role designers will play in the future and how they influence the city.

Successful initiatives like these are linked to the growing reputation of these two design cities and their recognition as UNESCO World "Cities of Design" as part of the Creative Cities Network. Although city design and architecture are big components of design culture, in fact its about all types of design, and even the underlying design-thinking process (that is now frequently touted as a valuable creative commodity in itself, taught in business schools, art schools and elsewhere). Interior design, visual arts, industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, jewelry design, photography, web design, animation, cinema and video - the list goes on.

For city design and architecture specifically though, I think few tools can have a stronger effect on a young culture of design, than open idea/design competitions. Again, readers have read my previous thoughts on competitions, and why they can be so strategically effective.

Can Vancouver "shift form"?

Competitions help young designers get B.I.G.

In these past posts, I've outlined our FormShift Vancouver design ideas competition that we created in partnership with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC) and others. We've recently announced the winners and honorable mentions, to strong design community, media and blog buzz, (although most of the community has been very positive, there have been a few criticisms of method, winners, judging, even motives – some disappointingly cynical, but others representing good feedback for next time. There's an old saying that in design competitions, it's the jurors that really are being judged). You can see the winners and indeed all of the 84 submission, here and a good article on them from the Tyee "Welcome to Vancouver 2.0".  As well, here's also an interesting related article from Re:Place on the need and value of more competitions locally .

From the City's perspective this has been a great success – a great partnership rebuilt with AIBC, interesting and provocative design ideas (although not all should see a shovel ), a re-learning of the art of competition and great dialogue and discussion. Council is already talking about new ideas for competitions.

Sturgess Architecture (Jeremy Sturgess) – Calgary (Winner - Primary)

Romses Architects (Scott Romses) – Vancouver (Winner – Secondary)


Go Design Collaborative

(Jennifer Uegama and Pauline Thimm) – Vancouver (Winner – Wildcard)


Here are the associated media releases.

Ideas Competition Promises to Shift Vancouver's Face and Form

Stand-outs Selected from Ideas Competition

Last week, the public heard from the winners, and a panel discussing the value of competitions and the challenges of better civic design and architecture.

AIBC also joined me last week in presenting the winners to City Council for a great discussion on how they can change things at City Hall. Here's the report to Council.

The most encouraging thing is that FormShift isn't the only local competition going on right now. Not to be outdone, in the last week the Vancouver Public Space Network's "Where's the Square" open competition announced its own shortlist, with many exciting design ideas on grand new public spaces for the City.

Their announcement was organized around a great public event (with buskers, presentations, food, as the public walked around and studied the short listed designs - they will chose one winner by jury, and one winner by public vote, a clever technique to foster extra public buzz). Kudos to the VPSN, a great grassroots group of young creatives doing this and other engaging things in the City.

The value of all of this has been discussion, debate, design ideas... all good for a growing culture of design. Maybe we're reaching a tipping point toward a city of design, or maybe we still have a lot of work to do. Either way, it's great for the City's design future. For the competition winners, there is money, but more importantly there is recognition, reputation and attention (I'm thrilled that two young designers, the FormShift Wildcard winners, may even be launching a new design firm off the strength of this win - something routine in Europe but rare in North America).

Can a city hall help foster a local culture of design? Sure it can - it can work harder to make sure it's not a barrier, and it can be proactive and make things happen.




Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian


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