Outspoken architect Gregory Henriquez gets political

The managing director of Henriquez Partners Architects on the legacy of Woodward’s and the political balancing act of building in Vancouver  

Few individuals have shaped Vancouver in the early 21st century to the extent that Gregory Henriquez has. The 53-year-old architect is the man behind Woodward’s, Telus Garden and the upcoming Oakridge redevelopment—each project transforming neighbourhoods (or promising to transform them) in profound ways. Henriquez joined his father Richard’s firm (then called Henriquez Partner Architects, and prior to 1977, Henriquez and Todd) in 1992, after graduating from McGill University with a master of architecture. He has helped turned the firm (where Richard, now 75 years old, still works) into one synonymous with complex projects that combine social aims with high-end housing—a balancing act that requires a deft understanding of politics.

It’s been a decade since your firm won the bid to design the abandoned former Woodward’s department store. Describe what you saw back then.
The entire site was boarded up and occupied by activists, and the neighbourhood was dealing with an HIV epidemic and a serious drug-dealing problem. Through a series of events—first COPE’s ascent to power, and then the City’s purchase of the site from the province—we were able to reverse the decline and actually create something that was more successful than we ever imagined.

How did the Woodward’s project change your practice?
At the time, we were 18 people doing institutional work. Now we’re 60 people doing complex rezoning that are all hybrids of affordable housing, market housing and retail. We’re doing work in Toronto, Calgary and Seattle. Our model went from responding to tenders like a traditional firm to being involved from the ground up—determining the civic amenities that respond to the larger social issues that come with these complex projects.

What do you think the role of an architect should be in a city like Vancouver?
I think that every citizen has the responsibility to participate in conversations on what we want our cities to look like. As architects, our role is really defined by our values; mine happen to be affordability and inclusivity. That means advocating for more mixed-use projects that include housing for the less fortunate.

As someone who is literally drafting future city plans, what makes Vancouver unique?
Vancouver is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, and Canada is one of the most inclusive societies on the planet. In terms of the real estate boom and the influx of money coming into Vancouver, it presents a unique opportunity. We have a civic government willing to tackle these issues head on. Whether or not you like Vision Vancouver—and I’m a big Vision supporter—they’re trying to deal with homelessness, sustainability and environmental issues without other levels of government being as engaged as they used to be. A confluence of those factors sometimes comes together to solve important issues.

The more valuable the real estate becomes, for example, the larger community amenity contributions from developers become—and the more social good we can extract in exchange. If you’re concerned about helping the least fortunate, the high real estate costs will actually fund more social housing. Just look at the West End, where 25 per cent of the space in new buildings has to be social housing.

But these developments don’t come without a lot of community opposition.
If you’re moving into a neighbourhood that’s had very little change in a generation or two, like the West End, it’s generally very difficult to get something through—unlike Yaletown, where they’re seeing change every month. People have a hard time with change. And a lot of it also has to do with the degree of integration a community can support. At 1401 Comox [branded The Lauren], some wanted condos, not rental housing—it was one of the first subsidized rental projects of its kind and quite controversial at the time. Now everyone realizes that rental is a good thing and people have embraced it. Unfortunately, they only want it along busy corridors like Cambie or Davie, where it’s less politically sensitive.

You were most recently involved in a renovation of the Remand Centre—the former jail in the Downtown Eastside that your father designed in the late 1960s. What was that experience like?
There’s definitely a poetry to it. It’s exciting to bring back to life something my father created. Back when he designed it, it was part of a movement to make prisons more humane, and while I don’t think we have that same lens these days, the structure itself was nicer than student housing at the time. I remember seeing it as a child, so having the chance to revisit that 40 years later was a real blessing.

This article, produced by BCBusiness, was originally posted on the BCBusiness website on September 28, 2016. 


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