Vancouver’s Most Awesome: Michael Green

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Michael Green is one of three principals at McFarlane Green Biggar Architecture + Design (mgb), a firm that has been doing phenomenal things in design for this city since its inception seven years ago in a North Van backyard. Recently, mgb won two accolades at the International Interior Design Association awards in Chicago, one for the Rennie Gallery and one for LYNNsteven, the Gastown boutique with that awesome cylinder change room-slash-bathroom made of nearly 6,000 paperback books.

As if Michael isn’t busy enough already, he’s also working with the Aga Khan Development Network to build housing for a community in Tajikistan and pushing forward with his House The World organization, which has a mandate to reinvent the local timber industry and put Canada on the forefront of providing affordable housing worldwide. And between all of that, Michael climbs as many mountains and kayaks as many bodies of water as possible. In one word? Awesome. –May Globus


Tell us about mgb.

Seven years ago my partner Steve McFarlane and I started the firm. It was a really cold start; we didn’t have any clients and it was a bit challenging and a bit scary at first. We landed some amazing clients early [on] and started behind my house in a little building called “The Accessory Building” that I built specifically for the office — it’s kind of a garage-type space that’s [was] a pretty fun building. We grew quickly to about six people.

Once we got started, our first big commission was a huge airport in Chicago that doesn’t exist. Much like New York has Newark, La Guardia and JFK, Chicago has Midway and O’Hara, and O’Hara is a massive airport. Our client asked us to actually look at doing an entirely new airport — our design would be the biggest airport in the world. It would take a long time to get to that size, but we were literally designing that in my backyard in North Van. It was a pretty crazy time, pretty fun and a pretty exciting commission for us. And basically it’s been an amazing ride ever since — seven years of huge diversity.

I saw that mgb did Ottawa Airport as well.

Yes. The history there is that I designed Ottawa Airport when I was at another firm called Architectura. It was one of my bigger projects — I’m from Ottawa originally, but went to school in the States and practiced in the States, then moved to Vancouver 13 years ago.

Where did you practice in the States?

New Haven, Connecticut. [We] were living there for nine years, and I was working for a really great architect doing fun and wild projects. We did the Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest building [that was done by] that office and at that time. With a team, I designed Washington, D.C.’s airport, so that gave us some airport [experience]. When I moved here, I had come with airport experience, and ended up signing a lot [of them].

What brought you to Vancouver?

I’m a climber, so obviously Vancouver’s mountains were part of it. I’m also a skiier, back country skiier and kayaker, [in addition to being a climber].

So climber as in rock climber? As in scaling the Chief?

Yeah! Actually my cousin from Utah is visiting and he’s doing a huge, hard technical route on the Chief right now. [He and a friend] got a grant to climb all summer, so [they’re] getting paid to climb.

Who are your mgb partners?

[The firm] started with Steve and I, but a short time later, Michelle Biggar joined the firm and became a partner.

She’s an interior designer, correct?

Yes, she’s an interior designer from Australia, so that’s her focus. Steve and I are both architects, but we all do interiors and architecture, so we collaborate together. Michelle might be working on a project that has more architectural character, and we will do projects that are interiors. We don’t really distinguish what’s inside, what’s outside, what’s landscape, what’s clothing, what’s furniture. [In the end], it’s all design, so we do all of those things. You name it, we’ll design it. Michelle actually did the plates, napkins and menus recently for ORU at the Fairmont Pacific Rim. We do the full picture. Actually, we wanted to — but didn’t end up doing it — the clothing for the [ORU] staffers.

What’s the mgb aesthetic? When I looked at your projects, everything looked very modern and clean-looking. Is that what you do across the board, or are clients a big part of it?

It is [very modern and clean-looking]. Clients are very much a part of it, but clients do come to us because there’s a bit of a theme. But it’s not really a style issue, it’s an ethical issue. Through ethics, you develop style and for us, the ethic is about being restrained. I use this little phrase that I think defines a lot of what we do, which is, “Our designs are not done when there’s nothing more to add to them, they’re done when there’s nothing to take away.” So we tend to look at how you make something really successful without using any excess in the process. And that ethic results in simple, clean buildings, but actually requires a lot work to get to that.

It’s easy to throw a lot of things at solutions, and I think that we see that a lot in design, unfortunately. We do the opposite. We look to pare things down to the essence of an idea. And this space, LYNNsteven in Gastown, is exactly what this is about. The success is that there’s not very much going on — it’s one simple concept and so it resonates. If this store was filled with three or four ideas, it would have probably been lost in the shuffle. And that’s just part of our ethic. It’s not to say that we’ve specifically set out to be green architects, because I think a lot of the time, that’s just hogwash. Good design is green — if you’re not a sustainable architect in your approach, you really are in trouble. Really it’s just a fundamental quality of good design. Our ethic is use less, and that’s a major component of our impact. This [LYNNsteven] project is a good example of this. The process of this project was interesting. Going out to Craigslist as the place to source the materials of your building is not only fun and hilarous, it ends up being a fundamental ethic of where we should go in the future from a design society. Maybe we don’t need to always source the most high-end material from Italy.

You can find great stuff on Craigslist, like furniture for free!

Completely! And it’s interesting, we do work in the developing world, too, and it’s very close to me — and my partners — personally. I’m really keen on continuing to do a lot of work in the developing world. There’s a funny paradox because we do a lot of high-end things, like ORU and penthouse apartments, but on the other hand, we’re designing a community in Tajikistan on the border of Afghanistan, an amazing place in the high mountains, but it’s one of the poorest communities on earth. We’re there trying to help them with fundamental issues, like [installing] sewers, providing water to every home and rehabilitating homes so that they’re safe in earthquakes because they’re [very] prone to earthquakes. The last time I was there, I met with town elders to talk about earthquake safety and dealing with basic human needs rather than high design needs.

How did this project come about?

Through the Aga Khan, who is the Imam leader of the Ismaili followers of the Shia Islam faith. He lives in Paris, and he’s a descendent of Mohammed, so there’s an interesting religious history. He’s very secular in the way they operate as an organization, and he has an enormous Aga Khan Development Network [built] with his own money. He has 60,000 employees in his development network; they build hospitals and schools, focusing mostly on central Asia, so India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kurdistan and also in Africa. They do amazing work. They’re secular, so they work in Christian communities, Islamic communities, different sects of Islam or in any community. They basically believe to serve your neighbour, so they’re an amazing group.

He’s passionate about architecture and started the Aga Khan Center for the Study of Islamic Architecture at Harvard and another one at MIT. He also sponsors the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture, which are a worldwide award, one of the biggest awards you can get as an architect. In architecture we have the Pritzker, which is like our Nobel [Peace Prize] for us; only one architect in the world is selected each year by the elder statesmen of architecture.

So someone like a Zaha Hadid would get chosen.

Zaha has won a Pritzker, and Norman Foster has won a Pritzker, as well as Frank Gehry, so kind type of people. Obviously I hope one day a Canadian wins the Pritzker — it hasn’t happened yet, but it will some day. We have some really good architects here.

[Going back to the Aga Khan], he has all this money to do a huge range of projects. In this case, we’re working with a group called the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, [working on] complex issues around city planning in this [Tajikistan] community that’s run out of land because it’s in a steep valley, where avalanches and rocks fall all the time, big rocks that crush houses. They’ve run out of land to live on, so they’re living three families in a three-room house and desperately need new solutions to be able to build bigger, safer buildings and rethink they way their community works.

What’s interesting and what you realize when you work in the developing world is that we’re effectively far behind the developing world in the way we think about materials and space and things we design with. There’s a practical reality in the developing world that if you need to build a garden gate, you literally find garbage and turn it into a garden gate. Walking through these mazes of houses in Tajikistan, you’ll find a car door turned into a garden gate or old radiators from a building stacked up to make a staircase. These really interesting solutions come from the ingenuity of not having anything.

From the need of using just whatever you have on hand because there’s no other choice.

Yes. And there’s a funny creativity in that, that we somehow miss out on because our approach is to go out and slice out rock from the ground and use new materials. I think the ethic needs to shift. There’s something really wonderful about this moment and with this LYNNsteven project winning an award at International Interior Design Awards this year. I think it absolutely represents a potentially shifting moment in design. It seems silly because it’s such a modest project. It almost seems absurd to me that we won this award at all, but there’s an important story to it that actually really resonated. There were about 400 submissions [for the awards] from around the world, and their jury picked six. The six winners were invited to come down to Chicago, so obviously for Vancouver we were all super stoked that two projects from here made the list of six worldwide, which I think is a broader statement about Vancouver and the fact that we are a relevant design community, because there are many, many good architects and designers that can compete on that same level. We were lucky this year, and I have no doubt another [Canadian] firm could make it next year.

Why do you think Vancouver is so relevant in the design community?

You know, it’s more than the architects. It’s the clients, too, like Nicole [Durnin of LYNNsteven]. It’s a few things. We live in a very open society [in Vancouver]; some may think we’re conservative, but the truth is we’re actually not. We’re willing to try some things and take some risks. I’ve practiced in the States and did some really lavish projects, but it’s almost boring in that context. When you can spend whatever you want and when you can buy the nicest materials, it almost makes you lazy. Our ethic across Canada, not just here in Vancouver, is not to spend too much money and to be more efficient. Like what I talked about with Tajikistan, we have to be more creative with less; we can’t just turn our minds off and just throw some nice material up, which is true in other places.

How did this books installation come about then?

There’s a bit of a stepping stone that happened with this. A couple years ago, we competed for a public art piece in Whistler. We knew about the competition, and I woke up one morning and came up with a design for that sculpture that I wanted to use, to make a cylinder just like this, but out of chopped up old skiis. Everyone was moving from skinny skiis to shape skis, so everyone had old skinnies in their basement that they didn’t know what to do with. I thought, wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could get the community involved and have them donate their old skiis? And much like when you go the ski resort, where you have to find the graphic of your ski, what if your ski was chopped up but the graphic of your ski exists in a public sculpture, so you can always where you can walk by and say, “Those are my skis!”. That’d be cool, right?

It was supposed to sit in the Village Square, which is chaos in Whistler with crowds and mobs. What I thought would be beautiful is to have a cylinder that was an oasis amid the chaos, where you could go in and kiss your girlfriend or have some sort of retreat. So the way the cylinder worked in that case is that the skis were chopped up into sections and made in rings, then stacked to make up a cylinder. There was a tall, skinny opening with the idea that you had to squeeze your way in and the roof was open. I had just been in Guatemala with my daughter, and the Mayans used to build these observatories to study the stars to develop our calendar, and in that process they’d built these beautiful buildings with no roof. With the cylinder in Whistler, the idea was that it would be open and that slot would face the summit of Whistler. So when you were in there in the middle of all this chaos, there’s this snowing falling, zen kind of thing happening within that space and, again, it would be made entirely out of reclaimed skis. So there was this lovely message of ski resorts, found objects and sustainability and creating something special out of something that’s “trash”. It had all those parameters to it. And inside there was a bench made out of snowboards — it was graphically cool.

We didn’t win the competition. It was close, and Whistler thought very carefully about it, but they selected a bear [instead]. So our firm joke is that we lose things to a bear. Every time we go after anything, there’s a bear. I actually like bears, but sculptures of bears… [laughs]

Darn those sculptures of bears…

Yeah! So we lost that competition. I do a lot of public lecturing, and when I do, I always talk about our offices’ work. It’s interesting because I’d say that ninety percent of the time, the project that people love the most is that ski thing, which is a just a little simple art piece, so for sure it stuck in my mind for a long time.

Then Nicole had this LYNNsteven project for us — we helped her look at spaces and were super excited about this one. There were these pipes that already existed and we were required to build a washroom, too. So we sourced the books [for the changeroom] from Craigslist, which is pretty funny. There was this book reseller in Coquitlam that had them, like 6,000 books in his basement. They’re all pocket novels — they all had to be the same size — and he was so happy to get rid of them. He actually went through and sorted them into boxes based on height, which was awesome.

I see a few Sidney Sheldons I read way back in the day.

It’s funny, right here [points] there’s a few of the same Danielle Steele book, all in a row.

So how many book are in there?

I was told 5,600. And basically [the cylinder] has the liner on the bottom for privacy, but so the light [still] goes through. The contractor that built it was great — they were kind of scratching their heads at first, but we built a version of it to show them how to do it. As well, it had to be checked structurally to make sure it wouldn’t fall over, but because it’s a cylinder, it’s very integrally strong. It’s neutral on the outside to work with the clothes and not compete — a lot of people don’t know what it is from the outside, they think it’s cork or wood.

I thought it was wood at first.

It’s kind of cool because [it’s made out of] such a common object, and we just don’t think of it in the context. You just need to shift people’s contexts. I want to build a building that’s entirely made of cubes of crushed cars. That would be a wicked cool building. That would be a perfect story, and I think that is the story of this space.

Back to the awards in Chicago, we also won for the Rennie Gallery — that’s a project that Michelle ran and I worked with her on. She [was on] mat leave, so I helped her with that.

Bob Rennie was our last Vancouver’s Most Awesome subject — what a great, visionary guy.

He’s a super good guy. He’s a huge supporter of ours, and a big reason our firm has had some of the success it’s had is because of Bob’s support, as well as from his partner, Carey. Both of them have an amazing eye — their sensibility about architecture and design is so good.

Then there’s a whole other conversation about [the use of] wood and innovation in wood, too. A lot of my lecturing is about that, about how Canada needs to be a leader in this issue.

Busy man you are!

I have an organization called House The World, which is a huge scale project to reinvent our timber industry — I want to make Canada the leading nation in housing the world. In the next 20 years, three billion people in the world will require an affordable home. That’s 40 percent of the world. So we have to build 100,000 new homes every hour for the next 20 years — worldwide — to house three billion people.

The problem is no nation, no company and no individual is saying here’s how we should do that. Because I’m so passionate about wood from a sustainability point of view — concrete and steel are disasters for the environment — I know wood is fundamentally what we should build with, if we can. And because it’s our economy, we should find ways to support it that, and what I would like is for us to become the world leader in housing the world. I feel like Canada is very proud of its peacekeeping history — our heart is in the right place, and we need to take that heart in another way. This is a much more measurable way for us to feel like a world leader and like our compassion is actually going to make a difference.

There’s another advantage to this is that when you want to reinvent a huge industry, you need a huge scale economic [support system]. We can’t build these houses with two by fours, we’ll never solve the problem that way. We need to innovate on whole new level with wood. Not only do I think we can lead by designing buildings for the developing world and exporting them, we can basically save our timber industry, which is in desperate shape if we don’t do something like this. We need to stop just selling our natural resources — this becomes a way for us to create a value-addd industry  to create buildings that we export and become leaders and go to other countries and run companies out of them to show them how to build these innovative, new style buildings. We’re only allowed to build to six stories with wood, so we’re designing buildings that are nine to twelves stories out of wood that are structurally sound.

We need to find solutions to help the developing world not build their buildings out of concrete. In the developing world, when you mix concrete, you don’t know how it’s going to behave. We do in the developed world because we have quality control, but in the developing world, you’re mixing concrete with a spade in the ground and dirt. The quality of the concrete is poor, and with the disasters we have worldwide, the concrete is just failing because it’s so poorly poured together, whereas wood is very predictable. If we engineer out of our community buildings that are safer for the developing world and just give them structure, not the whole building, then we’re not only reducing carbon, we’re making structures that will be safe and that will be adaptable to different cultures of the world and different geographies. I think Canada could be a huge leader. Here in B.C., we’re at ground zero for this conversation with our timber province.

We’re initiating an idea to have a symposium to bring the best and brightest minds here. We’ve talked to the government about giving huge prizes for innovation. Our current premier is very supportive of wood, because it’s a big engine for a lot of our communities.

So these are pre-fabricated houses you’re talking about.

These are not one-off houses. The big difference is pre-fab has been around for a long time, and I always say if someone is proposing pre-fab, then they probably haven’t traveled much because individual houses can’t solve the world’s problems.

What happened at the International Interior Design Association awards you attended?

We won one for Rennie Gallery and one for LYNNsteven. Chicago was fun because they had this big black tie gala. The six winners knew that they had won, and they were great, high-profile projects by really good firms that won, so it was flattering for us.

Go, mgb!

Go, Vancouver! I went up [to accept the award] and talked about how the story was how to make something of interest without spending a ridiculous amount of money and make [LYNNsteven] a bit of an icon. They did this “Best In Show” — everyone was making fun of me because we’d already won two at that point — and we won, and it was great because immediately we got a huge standing ovation. [Everyone] was hugely supportive of the fact that we won. It never occurred to me that we’d win and if we did, I kind of thought it would be for Bob [Rennie]’s space. The importance in design is serving the client and their needs and the community — it isn’t about us, it’s about how great clients can be and if you can serve their needs. The crowd really got that.

The jury came over [later] and said they were really nervous about our project because the other projects were high-end and this thing was very modest and everyone knew it. [They were nervous] until they announced [us as the winner] and the reaction in the crowd made it clear that they picked the right one, which was nice to hear. But it made everyone think why, and it was a flattering night because all the heads of major U.S. firms were coming over to say congratulations, and so many of them said your work really inspired us to rethink the way we think about design in our firm, which goes back to what I said about the [LYNNsteven] project having this unique turning point because it’s an intersection of the downturn in the economy and the fact that buying stuff off Craigslist can actually create something to step onto the world stage. It shows this idea was important.

I think there’s something to really be said, for us to be proud of as a city, that we can actually be that relevant. It’s nice to have two Vancouver projects out of six in the world [win]. I think that’s a Vancouver story right there.

[We have] an inherent modesty here. It’s how you balance Vancouver Is Awesome as a concept, which is so important. It’s so great. I love the site and how many people are invested in how to make the community better.

Where do you go in the city to hang out and chill?

This is my neighbourhood, in Gastown. Most of my friends live [here]. As a dad, I spend most of my time on the north shore but when [the kids are with their mom] and I’m on my own, I’m down here. Though I bring my kids here a lot, too, which I think is really important so that they’re engaged.

There’s a lot happening here.

There’s tons going on, and a lot has changed in the past few years. I think Main Street’s amazing, too. I love the West End in general — if lived anywhere else in Vancouver, it would be there. It’s a lovely lifestyle, and I like the buildings in the West End. The reason I like the buildings [there] is because there are a lot of buildings that don’t try too hard. What’s enduring is the West End. A lot of people look at those buildings and go, I don’t know why that’s nice building. And that’s exactly why it’s a nice building — because it’s not trying too hard.

A building has to be a good citizen in the community the same way that a person has to be a good citizen in the community. There’s an enormous responsibility as an architect to be a good citizen, and that means [parking] your ego. Big time. And it’s hard to do. But this is your city, and you have a responsibility to kids that aren’t even born yet. So there’s a maturity in restraint that’s important, and that creates better cities.

To you, what makes Vancouver so awesome?

Why I think Vancouver is so awesome is in two parts. One, because we sit in one of the most beautiful geographic locations in the world, and that’s amazing. The landscape is stunningly beautiful, and for an outdoors person like me, that’s enormous reason why I came here in the first place. We also have this incredible cosmopolitan quality that, for me, I can combine the two things I love the most — the outdoors and then art and design — in a city that can offer me both of those things. It’s incredible, a luxury to be able to have [that].

But the second — and real reason, I think — is that we all realize we live in this stunningly beautiful place and that it has great restaurants and diversity and so many other lovely things from a city point of view, but the best thing is as good as we are, we want to be better. And I think that’s a meaningful thing. I think we are constantly looking to make our city even more livable and even more fun to live in.

We see where there are opportunities to make it better, and I think that desire to constantly evolve and move forward is the most compelling thing about Vancouver to me. It becomes the land of opportunity for anyone interested in engaging in the city. There are good ideas to be had and people that want to implement them, and that’s real special. And it’s pretty ridiculous that I can ski and kayak in the same day!