Westbank has built a practice around long-term commitments to artistry, sustainability and city-building. These commitments underlie an orientation towards projects like Woodwards, Vancouver House, Mirvish Village, Telus Garden and Oakridge – catalysts for larger change that go beyond the borders of the projects themselves. We are here to create. To provoke. To ignite. We are the vehicle for a new movement of cultural expression.

As the practice matures, we have become more ambitious. With every new project reflecting our commitment to the philosophy behind Gesamkunstwerk, or in our recent work the Japanese philosophy behind layering, the net effect is that our work becomes much more complex and far-reaching.

The core of Westbank’s mission is to create a body of work with a high degree of artistry that helps foster more equitable and beautiful cities. Westbank is active across Canada and in the United States, with projects including luxury residential, Five Star hotels, retail, office, rental, district energy systems, affordable housing initiatives and public art. Established in 1992, we are one of North America’s leading developers, with offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Seattle, Shanghai, Beijing, Taiwan, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and over 25 billion dollars of projects completed or under development.

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May 23, 2014

GWERK Profile No. 13,577: Margherita Porra

It’s been an amazing past few weeks talking to the wonderfully talented and creative people who make up Vancouver through our GWERK Profiles. The first of two for this week is with Margherita Porra, creative director of a design agency called arithmetic creative.

Tell us about yourself and what you do.

I run a branding & packaging design practice on Granville Island. We build holistic brands with a full gamut skill offering, from naming and logo design, consumer packaging design to in-store retail design and window display installations. We carefully craft rich and inspiring consumer experiences for food, fashion and health & lifestyle companies.

Our process is part listening, seeking and absorbing truths; distilling meaning through symbols and elements and skilfully harnessing a combination of intuition and strategy to create a value reputation for companies in the form of a branded experience. Through the building of visual assets, we work to create a compelling and intelligent brand narrative, with its own distinct ethos. Our goal is to ensure that the brands we build communicate their offering with simplicity, authenticity and emotional conviction – and stand out from the competition in the process. In turn, they deliver a better emotional experience for the consumer.

On a personal note, my formal education was in graphic and communication design, and my real life hands-on experience has been multi-disciplinary, from hand-building large scale props for window displays anddesigning a bakery interior to the industrial design of vitamin bottles and the intricacy of embroidered textile designs for clothing. Having a design practice has enabled me the flexibility to learn new skills, grow from my stumbles, test out ideas and stretch my thinking in many directions. My favourite part of my creative process is collecting. I’m obsessed with collecting inspiration in all of its forms: ephemera, stories, historical relics and, most of all, experiences from near and far!

Your design philosophy is “Metodo Lenta Lavorazione”, which speaks to virtues of taking time to make things properly. How does the philosophy of “gesamtkunstwerk” (life as a total work of art) relate to that, and does it resonate with you?

Great question! They are both deeply intertwined concepts. To embark on the task of working within the philosophy of “gesamtkunstwerk”, you are in essence tasking yourself with the duty to slow down and consider the experience for which you are designing. Once engaged in the process of starting from the ground up to explore the existing constraints, frustrations and disabilities of the particular project to the point where they are visible holes, leaking potential, it’s hard not to envision an improved and holistic possibility. The simple act of slowing down leads you to engagement, something not possible when rushing. If you can create the opportunity to stand alongside the people you are designing for, experience their difficulties and feel their angst, as a creative you can harness that into positive, integrative change – one that enriches every scale of the envisioned lifestyle.

On a more aesthetic stance, a compelling concept runs the risk of not living up to its potential if the details are not carefully executed, materials left unconsidered for their unique environment and testing is vague. It is rare to come across a rushed project, whether it was the printing of a business card or a large-scale building, that once completed was beautiful, flawless and intuitive.

Approaching projects from a holistic point of view has always been of great importance. When we create the foundation of a project that focuses on being guided by holism rather than reductionism, we engage in a conversation about connectivity and continuity. Considering all of the small and large scale touch points of an experience to ensure they are having a dialogue with each other, and not one item is left unconsidered, inevitably creates an emotional connection for the participant – the fluidity and clear voice will resonate with the right ones, attracting even more and will deter the non believers. People don’t always know why something isn’t working, but they are deeply aware and affected by the disconnected interruptions in an experience. Simply put, it is a deterrent for them whether they know it consciously or not. Take your time and sweat the small stuff.

What interests you about the Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition, from a creative perspective?

The chance to see the full process from rudimentary vignettes all the way to actualized models and explore the tactility of materials is very compelling. The exhibit is a rare and welcoming invitation to look behind the, often-intimidating iron curtain of a large-scale creative process. It successfully enables the bystander to be a participant in the thinking behind such a unique design question and a much larger community conversation. Often those of us involved in the creative process think the minutia of the project is uninteresting to those less involved, when in fact it’s the details of the process that help us all to fall in love with the end result.

As a citizen of Vancouver, why is it so important to have open conversation around city-building and design?

I am a supporter of the idea of enhancing a community of connection and, in turn, building to connect more people. It is often joked about locally and sadly pointed out abroad that while Vancouverites are friendly individuals, we are not largely communal and inviting – which is in contrast to other global cities. If we can engage and expand the conversation around city-building and design opportunities for cultural gatherings on a more causal daily experience, we will adopt awareness for the potential of creating an enhanced social tapestry. One where we can learn and grow by engaging with our unique and varied neighbours, live a little more, laugh a lot more and, in the end, be happier people.

Your work is incredible! You could choose to go anywhere with it: Toronto, New York, London. Why do you choose to stay here in Vancouver?

Thank you! I’ve pondered the enticing question of moving away many times, yet I’ve never been compelled enough to actually leave, I’m just too attached. The truth is Vancouver is the perfect home base for me. From a well-being perspective, it’s how fresh the air is to breathe, the accessibility to diverse lifestyle activities and the abundance of makers living here that are trying to make a difference. It just feels good to live here.

From a design perspective, we have two great things going for us: an almost blank visual canvas (in contrast to older North American cities) AND an emerging excitement for creating culture (we’re starting to become cool). The youthfulness of our city is perhaps one of our most exciting and intimidating assets. The concept of a blank slate invites a fresh imagination, allowing us to visualize a newness yet experienced. There are a lot of ideas yet to be tried and so many opportunities for them. On another level, the diversity of cultures that form our city, allow for an ongoing learning of the larger world. There is so much potential to design for the many lifestyles that Vancouver houses in both micro and macro senses. The possibility of these potentials colliding is incredibly exciting to me.

Follow Margherita on Twitter at @MargheritaPorra or @arithmeticnotes. To read previous GWERK Profiles, please click here!


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