Gregory Henriquez: Vancouver’s Ethical Architect

Gregory Henriquez, the architect behind Vancouver’s landmark Woodward’s ?project, on creating designs that ?go beyond just looking good.

Gregory Henriquez considers the needs of the community when designing his buildings.

Gregory Henriquez, the architect behind Vancouver’s landmark Woodward’s 
project, on creating designs that 
go beyond just looking good.

The heritage building at the corner of Homer and West Pender streets is an unlikely site for the headquarters of one of Vancouver’s most progressive architects. While the funky B.C. Securities building (named after its original 1912 owner, British Canadian Securities Ltd.) offers a stark contrast to Gregory Henriquez’s ultra-modern designs, the building, like the architect, is more about character than flash. Its worn grey facade is adorned with the ornate masonry of a bygone era. Inside the entryway, an old-fashioned directory – white letters elegantly back-lit against a black background – lists an array of low-rent tenants, mostly artists and non-profit associations.

Most of us would like to think that we leave the world just a little better off for our having passed through it, but architects, unlike most of us, actually have the power to shape our physical environment. Some aspire, Howard Roark-like, to erect spectacular monuments to their own ego. Others seek a subtler influence. Henriquez, who oversaw the design of the massive Woodward’s project, has drawn up plans for dozens of Vancouver landmarks, including community centres, arts facilities, schools and residential projects. To be sure, each is a striking testament to esthetic beauty, but in every project Henriquez has also worked with local residents to ensure his buildings contribute to the good of the community and to society at large.

Henriquez’s assistant ushers me up the marble stairway to a mezzanine overlooking the massive foyer below, where Henriquez Partners’ 30 architects and interns hunch over drafting tables amid a jumble of scale models and bundles of blueprints. Henriquez greets me warmly and welcomes me into his office, dressed casually in a sports jacket and open-necked shirt. From his soft-spoken manner, you’d never guess he’s currently overseeing about a half-dozen projects, each with its own deadline and harried negotiations involving clients, contractors and city hall.

Henriquez represents the fourth generation of architects in his family, beginning with Henriques Brothers in Kingston, Jamaica. Somewhere along the way, the family name morphed to Henriquez, and the heritage came to Canada when Gregory’s father, Richard Henriquez, moved here to study architecture at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, where Gregory was born in 1963. After further study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Richard moved to Vancouver, where he founded Henriquez Partners in 1969.

“As long as I can remember, I’ve been immersed in the world of architecture,” says Gregory Henriquez, who recalls whiling away weekend afternoons playing with T-squares and drafting pencils at his dad’s office. After a year at UBC, Henriquez transferred to Carleton to complete a bachelor’s degree in architecture, then attended a master’s program at McGill before returning to Vancouver to join his father’s firm – first as an employee, then working his way up to partner and finally taking over as managing partner. Today the 46-year-old Henriquez lives on Vancouver’s west side with his wife and two kids.

Henriquez listens intently to my questions, furrows his brow briefly in concentration and delivers thoughtful responses in fully formed paragraphs, which makes him a frustrating subject for journalists seeking sound bites. To explain what he means by “ethical architecture,” Henriquez points to design elements in the Woodward’s project. While the decisions about social housing and community amenities had already been made when he was awarded the contract, features he chose to include in the design – such as an indoor atrium serving as informal community gathering place – suggest how design itself can be more than just esthetic.

More typically, Henriquez will work with the local community, developers and city hall to build social benefits into the design process. For example, when he was commissioned to build a multi-tower condo project on West Eighth Avenue, he met with local residents and found that a family-oriented co-op across the street was now housing a number of elderly singles and couples whose kids had moved out. Henriquez worked out an arrangement that will see the new development include several non-market seniors units, freeing up space for families in the co-op.

“The most important task of the architect is to listen carefully to a given community,” Henriquez explains, “and yet our responsibility is to try to ensure that what happens is in the best interest of society as a whole.” In this case, the local residents “articulated a need, we approached our client and the city to see if this was possible, and through a series of ups and downs it did finally occur . . . a happy ending.”

While his designs are strikingly modern – with arresting touches such as the louvred “porthole” windows of the BC Cancer Agency Research Centre or the elegant lines of the Coal Harbour Community Centre that almost disappear against the shoreline – it’s also clear that elegance and élan are only half of the equation. Where the architecture of Gregory Henriquez is concerned, social justice finds equal footing with the poetry of his buildings.