Profile of Architect Gregory Henriquez

As a boy, Gregory Henriquez didn’t dream about joining the family business. His father’s celebrity status in the world of architecture was huge in those years. Richard Henriquez had become legendary in his adopted city (he arrived from Massachusetts in 1967) by revamping the historic Sinclair Centre to create conversations between old and new, building a tower in the West End with a tree on top that echoed the height of the Douglas fir giants of pre-contact times, crafting poetic stories around his buildings to remind people of the time continuum they were living in. “When I was a child,” says Gregory, in the book-filled room on the mezzanine of the grand former bank that serves as his office, “he was a bit intimidating and distant. He was a rock star.”

So while Gregory struggled with dyslexia in his early years and worked as a teenager in his father’s business-building architectural models, sweeping floors, doing odd jobs-he pictured other futures. Perhaps an artist, like his mother and many of the friends she made by founding Arts Umbrella. Or a businessman, creating in a different way.

Then one day, after a year of sciences at university, Gregory mentioned that he might go to architecture school. His father looked at him in a way he never had before. He said, “We’ll take a plane and visit all the schools across the country.” Gregory realized he’d found a way to build a bond with his father that he’d never build any other way. “I think I became an architect to spend more time with him. I’ve spent more time with him than most people do with their fathers.”

That relationship has made its mark on the city. Since Gregory finished post-graduate work at McGill and joined Henriquez Partners Architects, others have blended and confused the two men. In the beginning, people assumed Gregory’s buildings-early projects like the False Creek Community Centre; even later ones like Bruce Eriksen Place and the Lore Krill Housing Co-op in the Downtown Eastside-were his father’s. Now, since Gregory became The Architect Who Built Woodward’s-the architect whose values are most attuned to the current ruling class at city hall, and whose range stretches from modular homeless shelters to the Telus head office-it’s often the other way around. One writer recently mistook Richard’s B.C. Cancer Agency Research Centre, a visual play on science with its petri-dish windows and helical interior staircase, for his son’s work.

In fact, the two have subtly shaped one another, sometimes coming closer in the way they approach buildings, sometimes moving apart in an attempt to keep their identities distinct. “I think I’m not as good an architect,” Gregory says. “I think my strength is really in my desire to make a difference in the world everywhere but architecture. I look at each building I do as a piece of social activism. He’s more of the pure artist-architect.”

Richard, in his own office a floor below Gregory’s, in a room filled with his unique works of collage art, lit by a lamp he made with a rawhide base and a sheep skull and mountain-goat horns screwed together, disagrees. He calls his son “very talented.” He acknowledges, in his courtly, precise voice with its trace of a British-inflected boyhood in Jamaica, that Gregory is the more cerebral. Better at connecting with people. Better grounded in architecture’s philosophy. He’s learned one thing for his son’s sake: how to stay out of the way. “I’ve been very conscious of trying to leave space he can grow into.” And by the way, he doesn’t buy the line that Gregory went into the family business as a way to bond. He always had architecture in him, Richard says. Just a different kind.

People sit on folding chairs, anxious, watching. In front of them, Gregory Henriquez projects seductive photographs of an Italian hill town, trees arching cathedral-like over a street, to explain the concept behind his early design for the Dunbar Community Centre. He explains how those ideas are echoed in the multiple peaks of the new centre. He shows how every room will connect to the park behind, while a new café will integrate the centre into the neighbourhood’s main street.

But, says local resident Robert Brown, what about our whirlpool? Is the park board trying to save costs by taking it out? Others complain about the way the meeting was publicized or bring up simmering tensions over squash courts. Javed Iqbal, a UBC physicist, is broadly dubious. “It seems like maybe this is a done deal.” Henriquez’s voice never loses its soothing quality. This, he explains, is the meeting where the public says what it wants. Far from a done deal, this is just the beginning. Make your suggestions. The whirlpool will be there if that’s what’s important to all of you. To someone concerned that the building won’t seriously deal with access for the disabled, Henriquez explains that his daughter is hard of hearing and has learning challenges. “This is something I take very seriously.” To another, he says that he lives nearby on West 43rd, his wife Zena takes fitness classes here, so of course he’ll take special care with his own community. “I’m the architect. That means I draw what you tell me to draw.”

Anti-developer hostilities run rampant in this city, the result of the EcoDensity launch three years ago, the market’s move into established residential neighbourhoods, and Vision’s rush to produce a rental-housing boom. New towers generate organized protests, complete with a barrage of social media. As Henriquez learns tonight, even a meeting to get public input on a community centre invites suspicion. Architects who, like Henriquez, actually speak to those affected by their projects are in high demand. But then, Henriquez has always stood out for this ability-it’s partly why he became the favoured architect for major developer Ian Gillespie, who has him working on the massive new Telus head office downtown; an affordable-housing project going into a parking lot next to the alt-gritty Hildon Hotel on the Army & Navy block; the redevelopment of the Safeway site at the ground-down south end of Granville in Marpole; and a redevelopment of the Holiday Inn on Broadway into a dense new cluster.

In every public hearing for those many projects, it’s Henriquez on the front line. “He looks them in the eye. It’s a sincere conversation,” says Gillespie, who can sometimes be found at the back of public meetings while Henriquez absorbs the anxiety up front. Which makes it all the odder that Henriquez ended up at the centre of two of the most controversial West End developments in recent years-one meant to help him link to his father’s work, the other to accomplish a social mission.

Gregory Henriquez attracted attention from the beginning (partly, no doubt, because of his father’s reputation). The panels that hand out awards have been dazzled by his ability to use his buildings as social statements, as skillfully functional boxes, and as artful expressions of their human and physical contexts. Typical praise: “This project encompasses profound social values while defending the notion that urban living can be vital from a sustainable and rehabilitation perspective and still be imaginatively playful with limited finances.” (This for his Lore Krill social-housing project, with its brick exterior echoing Woodward’s.)

Before Woodward’s, Henriquez did only one or two projects a year-typically something that meant a lot to him like the Bella Bella community school or a social-housing project. He turned his own house-a 1948 Fred Hollingsworth post-and-beam that Zena fell in love with-into a major renovation that is now home to them, their 13-year-old son, and 10-year-old daughter. His daughter’s learning difficulties takes up much of his spare time. (He has few hobbies, he says, other than helping her school, Kenneth Gordon Maplewood in North Vancouver, stay on its feet.) He often used to describe himself as his father’s office manager.

“With Gregory, there’s a certain aesthetic rather than a style,” says Gillespie. “It’s quite bold.” That’s in contrast to his other favoured architect, James Cheng, who designed the high-end Shangri-La. “Jim is more about detail, subtleties, the way the light hits the building. With Gregory, there’s a strength to his buildings, a permanency, a materiality.” Woodward’s has almost as much square footage as Olympic Village, but it’s crammed into one block. Henriquez talked to homeless people, nonprofit groups representing homeless people, Downtown Eastside activists, local business groups, marketer Bob Rennie, folks from SFU, the city, potential tenants, and more. The result is a small city: a huge flatiron tower; a second, smaller tower with family social housing; a university fine-arts building with housing for singles with addiction or mental-health problems; a restored heritage department store; and a courtyard with a basketball hoop. It’s a combination of big architectural lines and the smallest of thoughtful gestures, like providing sliding panels to cover the windows in the singles housing, since it’s not uncommon for people with psychiatric issues to want to block out the outside world. Usually, they resort to tin foil or blankets; the panels gave them protection in a new and elegant way.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime project, Henriquez says. (He worried it would be the single Roman candle of his career.) Its success changed his life, bringing his company new business and his architecture new praise. City hall’s planners admired the effort he put into ensuring the buildings complemented their tough and historic neighbourhood. With the flatiron tower, instead of just building another glass monolith, he screened the glass with a grill of rust-coloured metal that turned it into a visual echo of the terra cottas and vivid mustards of the nearby Dominion Tower. “It’s one of the few examples of a tower in this city that is contextual,” says Scot Hein, director of the city’s urban design studio.

The project also brought him close to a group of politicians whose values align with his. He’d worked with Jim Green for years before Green was elected as a COPE councillor who made buying and developing Woodward’s his main goal. Green tells this story about meeting Henriquez: “We’d asked 12 architects to come in and present their ideas on a housing project for street youth. I was there, and this young woman with a shaved head and a nose ring was at the other end of the table. She was the head of the housing committee. Everyone else talked to me, but Gregory came in and made his presentation directly to her. He never looked at me.” Henriquez became the architect for what eventually turned into Bruce Eriksen Place, one of Green’s favourite projects.

When the Vision council was elected in 2008, two of its prime goals were homelessness and affordable housing-the kind of missionary work Henriquez could throw himself into. In particular, the councillors wanted to encourage developers to build rental units. It would help the city’s perpetual lack of affordable-housing options, they thought, and boost the development industry, then caught in the worldwide economic stall.

Henriquez was enthusiastic. He came up with plans for modular housing as a way of helping illustrate how Vision could get to its goals. He also came up with a design for a bike bridge to help Vision get the public conversation onto something besides hysteria over the idea of a bike lane on the Burrard Bridge. And he got involved in several new projects to increase the city’s rental-housing stock, including a tower on Comox with Gillespie (stalled because of resident opposition) and the Alexandra on Davie near English Bay. “I wanted to do the Alexandra because it would have continued on from my father’s three towers on English Bay.” It remains a sore spot for West End residents, who don’t like the height or the adaptation of the historic Mission-style building at the street level. (The city recently placed a $5-million mortgage on the property to recoup money from the developers’ Olympic village debt, which has added to suspicion about previous city approvals.)

Normally loquacious, Henriquez seems to struggle while explaining what happened. “There was an assumption that everyone agreed rental housing was needed. Clearly that was wrong.” Behind the scenes, there are hints that Henriquez and Gillespie counted too much on Vision’s idealistic plan carrying the day. They remain uncomfortable reminders that good architecture and social-mission idealism don’t always prevail. 

Nor are these the last walls he’ll hit in his practice. But, he says, that won’t change what he’s trying to do. “We live in an existential world. You have to choose what your life project will be. Most architects are either businessmen or poets: they produce a commodity or something artistic. For me, the struggle has been how to make architecture meaningful again. That allowed me to differentiate myself from my father.”