He’s designed some of Canada’s finest buildings, and he grew up in Hamilton’s North End. Architect Bruce Kuwabara designed The National Ballet School, Tiff Bell Lightbox, Manitoba Hydro Place, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, the Canadian Museum of Nature, Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Pan Am Athlete’s Village and Gardiner Museum in Toronto. He’s an Officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of the RAIC Gold Medal.
Now his career has come full circle. Kuwabara with KPMB the firm he help found, won the bid to design the Pier 8 community on Hamilton Harbour.
When finished there will be 20 new buildings on the west harbour site, with 1300 residential units, new commercial, institutional, public spaces and parks. Open space will comprise 40 per cent of the 5.24 hectare site.
Pier 8 juts out into the harbour with the HMCS Haida a landmark to the east, and the former Marine Discovery Centre and Williams Coffee pub and skating rink to the west.
Kuwabara grew up at 77 Ferrie Street East, five blocks from Pier 8. He could be considered a North Ender.
“It was an archetypal two story brick house. It looked like a child’s drawing of a house,” he said during a phone interview from KPMB’s Toronto office.
Kuwabara went to Bennetto Elementary School, attended Grace United Church, and rode his bike to favourite spots- the High Level Bridge on York Boulevard and the fountain in Gage Park. As a kid he was drawn to these spots, but only as an adult following his path to architecture did he understand the beauty of the bridge and fountain designed by Hamilton born architect John Lyle.
Commenting on a photo he took of the fountain years ago he wrote, “Look at how the fountain takes the view up to intersect with the escarpment brow.”
During his childhood an urban renewal plan, one of the first projects of its kind in Canada, came to the North End. Many familiar houses were deemed dilapidated and were torn down.
“I remember not understanding what urban renewal meant and I remember thinking, ‘Does it mean that the neighbourhood isn’t good’”?
The changes bothered him.
“They interrupted the street grid in the North End.
I had a bad reaction to that. They gave up what made the North End really work well, which was the continuous street grid with small blocks like a checker board going in all directions.”
Though it’s been many years since Kuwabara left Hamilton, he still has family here, and he speaks with an insiders feeling about what makes the North End distinct.
For many years, there was a perception the North End was not a desirable place to live. Now with its position at the edge of the harbour and close to the downtown and Go Transit it has been discovered
But a feeling of resentment, of needing to protect streets from disruption, can still swell to the surface at public meetings about the vast changes facing the North End in the next 8 to 10 years.
Kuwabara’s firm KPMB will work with the consortium called Waterfront Shores Corporation that won the bid to develop Pier 8. The process, a sort of competition among a group of bidders, was a good one according to Kuwabara
“To the credit of the city the plan for Pier 8 is a little city, it’s a grid. Three blocks by three blocks it’s almost like a 9 square grid. The north-south streets of the North End will continue into the land that is Pier 8.”
His firm was given the opportunity to design all the Pier 8 buildings but decided to bring in three young architecture firms, Superkül, Gh3 Inc, and Omar Gandhi Architect.
It was a pivotal decision according to Kuwabara.
“Designing all of the blocks would feed the ego, but it doesn’t result in the best place. You make one really good building and then you stamp it all over the site,” Kuwabara says.
So the firms met every Friday and shared ideas and designs in preparation for the bid. They studied Hamilton and noted the character of our buildings and brought stone, steel, wood and brick into the structural design. They looked at successful waterfronts world wide and worked to “evoke the sense of living on the water.” Pier 8, unlike so many other waterfront sites is a land mass that that sticks out into the water.
“There is water on 270 degrees around the site.
I don’t know other sites like that,” Kuwabara says.
But not all units will face the water, a cliche of waterfront design the architect says. There will be courtyards, and as many units as they could design where people will be living on the ground floor. A feature that brings life to the street level.
“We concentrated not just on matching how the North End looks but how the North End works.
I was always interested in the frontage of houses, like our house (on Ferrie Street) there was a stoop and besides us an Italian family with a porch, and the ability to sit out in front of your place of living. There’s a kind of pride of place thats really important in the North End.”
Such developments always bring fears that the public will be cut off from the waterfront. Not so says Kuwabara.
“It is not a gated community, not a high-end resort, it’s a real part of the city.”
Of the 1300 residential units, 65 will be affordable housing units administered by Habitat for Humanity. Construction will likely begin on the east side of Pier 8, where there is a public gathering area and stage, and then move west.
It may take eight years to complete the Pier 8 community, but that is an educated guess. Kuwarbara says it depends on the economy and the worrisome state of free trade, something he is very concerned about.
Construction could start in 2019. For many, including Kuwabara it can’t be soon enough. The transformation of the small but remarkable piece of land is a rare opportunity.
“When you look to the east you see the steel mills, Dofasco and every other major industry. It was a powerhouse in the 20th century.
Then if you go the other way you see the western tip of Lake Ontario, you’ve never seen such a beautiful water-land relationship. You see the escarpment, it forms a kind of psychological horizon for the whole city.
There is the greenery, Lasalle park, you get this knife edge between nature and man made nature and industry.
It’s a remarkable moment. It defines Hamilton.”
Kathy Renwald is an award winning freelance journalist and a regular columnist for the Bay Observer, Hamilton Spectator, Grand Magazine and Wheels.ca. She covers city issues, lifestyle and autos.