Architecture, urbanism, and design are all on Alex Bozikovic’s mind as he helps his Globe & Mail readers understand and decode the built world around us. After reading many of his articles, we became curious about his motivations and the way he perceives the impact of his work, and were able to grab some of his busy schedule this month to peek  behind the curtain  – and ask what makes him tick, and to explore his views on design and architecture in Canada.

I think a lot of our readers will know your writing but not so much about you or your background. Can you give us with a brief overview of your journey into your present position? I started my career as a freelance writer, and since I’d become passionate about architecture and design, I chose to make it my subject. Starting with Azure, I learned on the job, and I pursued criticism as a sideline during about ten years as an editor at The Globe & Mail. Then the Globe tapped me for the job. I’m very lucky that they did so.

What is the role or purpose of a arch. critic in Canada? Do you think that critique has raised the value of design/arch. here – are you raising the level of conversation and are more of the general public getting design? Does anyone outside of Canada care about what is happening here, and is your work helping CDN arch ideas spread globally? Defining the job is difficult in today’s media environment. Since the 1960s, when Ada Louise Huxtable pioneered the genre in newspapers at the New York Times, there have evolved two types of critics: one more globally attuned and often academic; and the other more local, attending to the social, economic, political and cultural context of one city. (After all, architecture is inevitably about particular places.)

I like to think of myself as bridging those worlds. I’m deeply interested in architecture in Toronto, but also in Canada and beyond. At The Globe & Mail I’m usually writing for a national audience, and I try to explain what’s shaping the built environment in this country, looking at all of those scales.

I have two important objectives. One, to write clearly – to speak to a general audience who never read the design press, and explain the built environment in terms they understand. And two, to make the case for how architecture, design, landscape and urbanism shape our individual lives and our society.

Am I succeeding at that? I know I’m reaching some people.

And the question about the global influence of Canadian architecture is tricky. What is Canadian architecture, anyway? I don’t believe it’s possible to come up with a singular definition that encapsulates all the regional traditions. There is no brand, as there is for Chilean architecture, for example. Since Arthur Erickson there’s been no flag-bearer.

There are particular offices, however – Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple, Shim-Sutcliffe, Patkau – who have global reputations for highly specific, thoughtful work. I think that model will continue, unless government decides to start pushing a national architecture policy.

Do you have a model of what is good vs bad? How do you evaluate a design? Is taste important? I have some strong ideas about what makes good architecture, but I also believe that a building – or other project – can be good in more than one way. There are special places, whose architecture is distinctive, and which move people in an aesthetic or even spiritual way. Those are rare. Then there are background buildings, especially housing, which fall into the 98% of our built environment that’s just ordinary. They don’t have to be flashy or unusual.

Buildings in both categories have to work – they have to serve their users, they have to work in a technical sense. Those things are relatively objective: I try to find the answers through reporting.

But they should also be beautiful. This of course is highly subjective. And here I try to be broad-minded. The detail-oriented, wood-and-stone tradition of Canadian Modernism moves me; so does the sculptural boldness of Saucier + Perrotte. There is more than one way to make a thoughtful and meaningful place.

Why is modernism and universal form holding on so hard? Are movements still driving architecture, and is Canada, a place with no real movements, connected to anything larger (trends globally, conversations about what arch. can be)? Certainly Canadian architecture is shaped by global intellectual currents. That’s inescapable. I think Canada can be distinctive, and influential, in cases where global concerns intersect with Canadian traditions and strengths. Right now, the interest in mass timber, for technical, environmental and aesthetic reasons, presents a big opportunity.

Tell us about the value of being a non-architect, how does being an outsider inform your perspective? How is this commentary different from someone commenting from inside the field directly? Architecture school is often described as cult-like – I was never indoctrinated. So while I understand the intellectual history of the field, and I have my own views, they really are mine. I don’t have teachers and colleagues to worry about. That helps me see things clearly, I hope. As for not being an architect – well, I can be tougher. Even an ordinary building requires tremendous work and commitment from its designers. I respect that. But the results aren’t always – often – of real cultural significance. That needs to be said.

The Canadian built space feels a little unplanned and clunky. Do Canadians care about style and beauty, and are developers and GOV only impressed by functionality and cost? What is happening to legacy and meaningful space here? I keep looking back to the mid-century period, when so much was going right for architecture. Building was cheaper. There was lots of work. Private and public clients alike were ready to try ambitious ideas and trust their architects.

None of that is true today. And the buildings we are getting, particularly in the public sector, are generally mediocre. It’s not a lack of design talent. We need better clients.

Quebec’s competition system, and Edmonton’s public architecture, are proof that we can do better.

With so much curating and critique happening online, do you think that most readers care about an expert opinion anymore? I hope so. I can’t match Dezeen. But let me turn that around. Where do average, non-architect Canadians find design criticism in their media diets? There should be a lot. There isn’t. Canada needs more people doing what I do.

What does having an arch. critic on the payroll do for the Globe & Mail brand? Is there an appetite to add more commentary, and more voices, that could add value to other parts of the Canadian design and creative communities (like product and graphic design)? I hope so! Product and graphic design are often orphaned in newspapers, but the Globe currently has editors who are sophisticated about those subjects and, in fact, already covering them.

How are you using new tech. to communicate your ideas, and is a newspaper publisher the best place for your opinions to be heard and shared? How is tech. improving the impact of critique? Are your ideas being read globally? Twitter. Word of mouth. My writing travels among those who are interested – which I find gratifying.

What do you think it would take to have more robust critical thinking and writing culture here? What do you think needs to happen to convince designers that it is necessary to improve the status and output of the creative industries? Academics are the only people with the economic freedom to call out bad design. They should use it. And: Canada should have a national policy to promote the design industries. Creation, production, entrepreneurship, promotion – fund it all, as economic development. A modest investment would change the conversation. Get people to sell themselves, and tell the world how great Canadian design is. Maybe they’ll even start believing it.

Some of Alex’s Favourite things:

Smartphone > iPhone 6. The right size. And iOS is imperfect yet unmatched.

Building in Canada > Massey College. A compromise between Ontario conservatism and Modern radicalism, brought about by Ron Thom’s amazing eye.

Painting> Paterson Ewen, Thunder Cloud As Generator.

Car > A 1980s Saab 900.

Chair > Jacques Guillon, Cord Chair.

Space > The formal garden on Toronto Island, designed by Macklin Hancock’s Project Planning Associates.

Fashion Brand > KIN.

More Features

Becki Bitternose Interview

FEATURES / May 11 2018 / The CDR

Montreal Metro Love Story: Part One

FEATURES / February 3 2018 / Isabelle and Nishant

Canada’s Olympic Stadiums

FEATURES / February 20 2010 / Jesse Colin Jackson