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Q&A with Influential Urban Designer and Educator William Morrish
"The most valuable thinker in urbanism today"

In 1994, William Morrish was hailed by New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp as: “the most valuable thinker in urbanism today.”  Among Morrish’s most notable achievements is his innovative urban design for The City of Phoenix, Arizona’s public art plan which unites artist and public works engineers and the collaborative design he put forward with “THINK” for The World Trade Centre after the 9/11 attacks. 

Toronto Standard writer Sile Cleary sat down to talk with the now Dean of Constructed Environments at Parsons The New School for Design about his prosperous career and get his perspective on New York’s current architectural landscape.  

You are a former resident of New Orleans and were involved with the process of rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 . How did you find the experience?  

I was active during the “first responder” planning and recovery efforts through both official governmental and unofficial friend networks. I contributed to portions of the New Orleans recovery plan. I continue to find the experience sobering and troubling. It is not just New Orleans that is struggling for survival and national attention for basic health, safety and welfare support; it is a reflection of what all us cities are facing, not just New Orleans, Detroit and Cleveland. In the U.S., cities have been abandoned by national and state leadership, under a campaign of anti-government austerity agenda.  Meanwhile the basic lines of economic, mobility, social and ecological utility are collapsing.The content of the national campaign for 2012 does not hold much hope for cities and national economic vitality.

Read more of Toronto Standard writer Sile Cleary

Do you think New Orleans has recovered from the disaster? Is there still work to be done?

New Orleans will never be the same in both negative and positive ways.The economic and ethnic division remains, though radically new educational and social networks building new relationships. Will the city gain in population? I do not believe that it will without the growth of a more diversified economy beyond tourism and conventions.There is spark of new design architecture and social entrepreneurship innovation. Its future is based on national and state politics realizing that city vitality is key to national economic prosperity not public subsidy of big developer projects, or giant seawalls.

You were a member of the architectural collaborative called “THINK” that developed a design for the World Trade Centre after 9/11. Were you disappointed that your design didn’t pull through in the end and how did you find the whole process? 

We did win the competition, but the committee was overridden by then Governor Pataki.The project that is actually under construction at present seems to be revealing all the issues that existed before.There is not enough demand for new office space to fill all the towers. Lower Manhattan is not a major growing office hub, and Wall Street is spread around the world via the internet. The architecture is big and bland.The public space is welcomed, the fountains are impressive, but more money was needed to design a stronger park.

How do you think New York’s architectural landscape has changed since 9/11? 

What has changed most in NYC, is the growth of public spaces created by local communities and the city’s continued effort to ring the island with public parks. We want more public engagement with other people from diverse backgrounds, tastes and interests. This is what is missing from the World Trade Centre. It is not a new high rise, but a great new neighborhood skyline of creativity. Most of the new high rises are residential, including a 60 plus story residential tower by Frank Gehry. I like it; it is very not old New York….. that makes it great.

When it comes to Toronto, what impression do you get of the city’s architecture? Is there any particular building you admire?

It is great to be back in Toronto. I worked a bit for Mayor David Crombie and his colleagues such as Ken Greenberg on the early plans and design principles for the revival of the Waterfront and Don River in the early 1990s. It is stunning to see all the new housing along the lake as well as across the city. The street life and bike traffic is a sign of a robust community. I have noticed a number of small buildings and additions across the city that show a remarkable exploration of materials, space, canadian climate and artistic expression. These many additions are more imporatant than a single monument.

On the other end of the spectrum, I find the Liebskind Museum a garantuan copy of its original inspiration of the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Berlin. It is clunky, missing the elegant refinement that such an architect stratgey needs to be successful. It is very nice to see the linear park system of Michael Hough and other landscape architects. The city could use more of this kind of “big building”.

William Morrish will be giving a talk this evening (6:30pm) as part of the University of Toronto’s Daniel’s 2011-2012 Lecture Series.Visit the Daniels Faculty website for more information.    


Síle Cleary is a regular contributor to Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @silecleary.

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