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News Interview With Shirley Blumberg, Founding Partner of KPMB Architects
“Architecture as a profession is pretty well dominated by white men, and there are very few black and indigenous architects in the profession, or students in the schools. We’re actively trying to do something about that. It’s inspired us to look at equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the way we practice in our office, and within the profession.”
Toronto, Canada

Shirley Blumberg, CM, OAA, FRAIC, AIA, the award-winning founding partner of Toronto-based architecture and design studio KPMB Architects talks about the need to address societal crises through architecture and planning. Social inequity and the climate emergency is wildly out of control and the pandemic should force us all to begin to solve these issues.

WHAT’S THE MOOD BEEN LIKE IN TORONTO THIS PAST YEAR?
Because we in Canada are reasonably law-abiding, have good government and believe in science, we did pretty well in the beginning, and then last summer, people let their guard down. Repeated lockdown has helped curb the number of cases, but people are understandably getting fed up. That said, in our industry and in our office, we’re feeling very optimistic. Happily, we’re very fortunate to still be working full on. Some of our development projects disappeared or slowed down, some came back, and we have new projects, so we’re very busy. I think of the pandemic, almost as if, whoever she is upstairs – whatever we call him or her – has been looking down at the utter mess we’ve been making of the planet and said, ‘ok, I’ve sent the floods, I sent the fires, the locusts in Africa and now here comes the plague. Everybody just shut down and go to your room and reflect on your lives, and don’t come out until you’re ready.’ I think this radical time out has been essential. Social structures were falling apart, which in many cases is a good thing. Social inequity is wildly out of control; the climate emergency is wildly out of control, migration wildly out of control – everything. I think it’s brought into stark relief all the things that we were shoving under the rug and not tending to. I feel for first time in my career, which has been decades, that architects can be very instrumental in addressing these societal crises. We have synthetic skills, and are taught how to solve problems holistically, so we can help with a lot of issues like the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental and social sustainability, inequity, affordable housing, etc. The social unrest that has followed the onset of the pandemic is very challenging and has had us do a deep rethink about what we’re doing. Architecture as a profession is pretty well dominated by white men, and there are very few black and indigenous architects in the profession, or students in the schools. We’re actively trying to do something about that. It’s inspired us to look at equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the way we practice in our office, and within the profession. We’ve just gone through a process, having consulted with everyone in the office. We formed a team to come up with a statement that we can all stand behind-it’s our EDI initiative. We’re setting aside a certain amount of money each year to put towards helping where it is truly needed. What is holding back black and indigenous kids from enrolling in architecture school are deeply flawed systemic societal problems. Unless you get the kids and their families early – elementary or high-school - we don’t stand a chance of bringing them into the profession. The two architecture schools in the city run summer camps for school students to introduce them to architecture and design. These summer camps are a good opportunity, because they speak to young people aged from nine to 16. I’m working with two wonderful young women in their early 30s, community organisers from Somalian families whom I’ve asked for help. They’re connecting us to schools in their neighbourhood who could work with the universities to let their students and families know about this opportunity. We’re also helping with things like laptops and providing WIFI if needed. For a small outlay, you can change a kid’s life and introduce them to something they might never have thought about. We are more conscious of breaking stereotypes, making sure all voices are heard in our collaborative work. We have so many smart, talented people in the office, and the young people in our studio are all for the social justice projects that we’re doing; the indigenous housing, affordable housing, mental health projects – anything that helps the cause of equity.

THAT’S SOMETHING, AS A PRACTICE, YOU’VE BEEN CONCERNED WITH FOR A LONG TIME.
Yes, and I’ve been pushing this because I’m from South Africa. You can imagine what growing up during Apartheid looked like. That’s why I came to Canada thinking naively, that it was the anti-South Africa. The history of indigenous people here is very complicated. It’s a bit hidden up north, and a lot of people weren’t very aware of what has gone on. So, I started reading and researching, and learned that the conditions are appalling. be Canada had an infamous residential school system that was going to take the ‘Indian out of the Indian’. Because of this, the reservations were viewed as being temporary. They are located in areas that are inaccessible, so we now have massive logistical problems in bringing services to all of these tiny fly-in little settlements that are scattered through northern Ontario. It’s complex - it’s systemic and intersectional. The indigenous movement in Canada is very strong and there is a saying that First Nations have: “nothing about us without us”. The solutions need to be indigenous-led. Another EDI initiative we have is to contribute to a scholarship fund run by an indigenous organization. The fund is for young people to study architecture - there are no boundaries for indigenous people, so it could be in Canada or the US or Mexico.

ON A BROAD LEVEL, THIS PAST YEAR HAS EVEN MORE EMPHATICALLY HIGHLIGHTED THE GREAT INEQUALITIES EVEN WITHIN URBAN SETTINGS FOR ALL CANADIANS OR THOSE LIVING IN CANADA. WHAT HAS BEEN THRUST TO THE FORE BECAUSE OF THE PANDEMIC?
It has become very clear that the impoverished parts of the city have been hit very badly with Covid because living conditions are so poor. They’re over-crowded and usually multigenerational households, and that’s not helpful when it comes to the spread of disease. So affordable housing has become even more of a crisis in the city. I’m working with a developer who realizes this, and we’re doing a large affordable housing development – mixed market and affordable housing in the suburbs. There’s a huge swathe of land, north of Toronto, which is zoned as single family homes. It’s hugely under-developed, and we just can’t afford that anymore. We tend to go from either towers to townhouses or single-family homes in Toronto, which is really limiting. It should be more like the European cities, with lower and mid-rise buildings to achieve more density, and more livable, walkable neighborhoods. We’re also working on a very interesting masterplan north of the city in the inner suburbs. It’s 520 acres of a soon to be a vacated Bombardier aeronautical manufacturing plant. We entered the competition for the project with Henning Larsen and SLA from Copenhagen, very talented architects and landscape architects respectively. Copenhagen meets Toronto. The aim is to develop dense, walkable and connected communities. And to lead with landscape, sustainability and resilience. It is very encouraging that developers are grappling with these issues. That’s very positive.

WITH THESE EXTENDED AND NUMEROUS LOCKDOWNS CITY CENTRES HAVE BEEN DESERTED. ON ONE HAND IT HAS REIGNITED COMMUNITY AND DRIVEN RETAIL AND HOSPITALITY IN LOCAL NEIGHBOURHOODS. WHAT DO YOU DO WITH CITY CENTRES?
To go back to pre-Covid normal would be an utter disaster. We can’t waste a good crisis - we’re hoping for a better world after this. It’s the same here in Toronto as in so many cities. Neighbourhoods are vibrant but downtown is deserted. People are supporting local restaurants and shops; neighbours are supporting each other. We’ve also noticed that our millennials are very unhappy. The city has for decades built tiny apartments, often sold to foreign investors, which are then rented out. So, people are trapped in little boxes, not designed for life in lockdown. We have to rethink that, rethink how we design apartment buildings. It is being predicted that, because of climate change, this might not be the last pandemic. We’ve also noticed that parks have been unbelievably well-used. We need them in a way we haven’t for a long time. The public realm has been squeezed, but now it is recognized how vital it is. In Toronto last summer, parking lanes in neighbourhood high streets were taken over by restaurants for outdoor dining - that was wonderful. Like other cities, more bike lanes are being introduced, and there is consideration of converting some streets to pedestrian use. I think there will be a huge reconsideration of the public realm. The impact on the workplace is interesting too. Our studio is not completely digital like a financial business. We really thrive on the creative synergy of working together, so for us working from home is arduous. I think what we’ll have is some sort of hybrid after this period. Not people commuting everyday but some balance of working from home, but also coming together in an office. All organisations need to come together in terms of workshops or meetings. For us it’s looking at physical work as well, drawings, models and samples. However, the amount of space needed for offices will diminish – it has to.

WHAT BECOMES OF THE BIG OFFICE BUILDINGS?
We could repurpose them as housing, because they have a good floor-to-floor height. It has happened before in the city. There’s that opportunity. They could also be repurposed into institutions. There will still be offices, but I don’t think as large and as all-in as we have now. The other thing that is happening here and all over the world is that Toronto is increasingly unaffordable. A lot of young people are moving to smaller cities and working remotely. We’ve noticed that with some of our team. Before the pandemic that would’ve been unthinkable – we had to be together. The toll on human lives and jobs is terrible, but like pandemics in the past, it gives us a wonderful opportunity to change things for the future.

ARCHITECTS ARE AT THE FOREFRONT OF THAT. NO GREATER ARCHANGELS OF CHANGE AND SOLUTION-FINDING.
Yes! This is definitely our gig. If we look back in history, when Olmsted designed Central Park, cholera and malaria were thought to be airborne. People needed fresh air. Olmsted characterized the park as the lungs of the city, as well as a place for pleasure. At the same time, mid-19th century London and Paris built underground sewage systems in response to the threat of cholera. Napoleon III appointed Haussmann to renovate and re-imagine Paris. Tuberculosis was a major driver for modern architecture – all those issues of light and air and those unhealthy living conditions. For us it’s about affordable housing and a more generous public realm. I was reading about the impact that pandemics have had on architecture, and Haussmann, when he was reworking Paris, wanted to create a park in each of the city’s then 80 neighbourhoods. Just last year, Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, , proposed the 15-minute neighbourhood – so everyone can walk to everything you need in 15 minutes. One and a half centuries on – it’s fascinating.

WHAT KIND OF CONVERSATIONS ARE YOU HAVING WITH CLIENTS? PARTICULARLY LARGE CIVIC PROJECTS OR AREAS THAT CONCERN PUBLIC HEALTH?
We’re engaged in a series of mental health and hospital health projects, which are incredibly important. In regard to the EDI initiatives, it has been in part prompted by our clients. We work with Princeton University and others and they increasingly ask us ‘what exactly is your policy when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusivity’ because they have their own policies and expect us to step up too. Toronto in 2019, was identified as the most multi-cultural city in the world, which is good, but not enough. One of our clients looked at our website and found that the leadership team was not very diverse – and he was right. That, the Truth and Reconciliation imperative with our First Nations, and the BLM movement caused us to dig deeper, and to look at what we could actively do in response. It also really great that clients are pushing for higher levels of sustainable design. We’re working on a new data centre building at Boston University, which will be zero carbon when it’s completed. We did a study a few years ago for Princeton University on how to achieve net zero in 30 years for all of their existing buildings, and new on campus. We also won a competition for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, which we’re aiming to make carbon neutral by 2050. Embodied energy is now recognized as essential to address, not just operational energy use We need to calculate the energy embodied in the materials that we use. When you are in the public arena as these universities are – or even prominent corporations, you have to respond to the issues of the day and show some responsibility of leadership. And that is happening, which is encouraging.

BECAUSE YOU’RE HAVING TO MANAGE MORALE AND ANXIETIES HAVE YOU FOUND THAT THAT’S BEEN TRICKY?
Mental health has been much more of an issue in the office, and we’ve put measures in place to help our staff. The pandemic has been very hard on young people living in tiny apartments on their own. Malcolm Gladwell said that the pandemic has made us realise that we’re only as strong as our weakest link. It’s so true. It’s interesting too that Alvar Aalto – who designed these incredible sanitoriums for patients recovering from tuberculosis – believed that one should always design for the weakest person because then everyone else will be okay. I try to remember that.