Saturday, August 22, 2009
I have been visiting retired architect Abraham Rogatnick daily for the last two weeks. My reward has been an increasing knowledge of art history, architecture and wonderful stories of our city’s leading architects. It seems that Rogatnick, who is now 86 taught many of them. Today, as an example he was telling me of three young students of his who showed promise. These were Paul Merrick, Henry Hawthorne and Bruno Freschi. It was like being in that classroom with Rogatnick and peering into the young faces of three men who have left their stamp on our city.
This is why architects have been on my mind. I looked for the picture of Dr. Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe who is a professor and head of UBC’s Art History, Visual Art Theory Department. In 2005 I photographed Dr. Windsor-Liscombe in one of his favourite spots involving Vancouver architecture. He loved the look of the post office boxes of our main post office on Georgia Street.
Because this is a Federal building I was only able to shoot 5 exposures before we were almost man-handled by security guards who threw us out. In fact I had a just as scary situation when I was attempting to shoot with my panoramic camera inside of the CN Train Station. Tourists can happily snap with their digital cameras but if you show up with something that does not fit that profile you are considered to be a terrorist casing the joint.
I have always been fascinated by our main post office on Georgia across the street from the CBC and opposite the Vancouver Playhouse and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The main post office is supposed to be one of the largest welded steel structures in the world. Since my knowledge of architecture is limited (in spite of Professor Rogatnick’s efforts to change that) I would assert that the building inaugurated September 14, 1958 is a Vancouver salute by architect Bill Leithead to Russian/Rumanian heroic architecture. It certainly is not a wall of glass suspended from a steel interior like some of the office buildings of Vancouver. It is a building that would perhaps be the safest place on earth during an atomic holocaust, particularly the mail transfer tunnel that was built to link the post office to the CPR Train Station at the foot of Seymour. The post office was too late with the tunnel as airmail was the norm. And they got another one wrong as the helipad on the roof has never been used.
For me what makes this building so special is its monumentality. You go in and if you happen to look up you will note the very high ceiling. High ceilings seem to be verboten now as all efforts have been made by some misguided modernist (not in the architectural sense but meaning someone trying to “improve” on the past) to hide it. I like the solidity of a building in a city where so many of the homes seem to be made of cardboard. I was told when I came to Vancouver in 1975 that it was not cardboard but something called gyprock. I also see a comforting familiarity with the buildings of my city of birth, Buenos Aires where Juan Domingo Perón wanted to make sure people remembered him by the endurance of his buildings.
I sometimes abuse my commercial plate and park our car on the back alley next to Holy Rosary Cathedral. From there Rosemary and I (and sometimes Rebecca, too) walk to theatrical performances at the Playhouse or for Ballet BC or Vancouver Opera shows at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. It is pleasant to pass, note, and touch the smooth surface of our post office’s granite walls. Augustus and his Romans liked marble, I like marble. There is very little of it in Vancouver. At least our post office has polished granite.
And unless we are told exactly what is going to happen to our Main Post Office it would seem that our future holds even less marble and granite.
Hydrangea aspera, Shark Skin & Hostas
Friday, August 21, 2009
Rebecca and I have been commissioned to write an essay for the Hosta Journal
which is a beautiful thick and glossy publication of the American Hosta Society. I have written for it before and I have even had a few front covers (below left) and back covers, too. This time around I am extremely excited as our theme is how to get children into gardening and hostas. What is unusual is that we are not going to write a joint essay but two separate ones.
In 1986 when Rosemary and I (and our two daughters Ale and Hilary) moved to our present home on a corner lot we were ignorant gardeners (Rosemary knew a bit more) faced with mature garden with large shrubs and trees. There was a lot of shade. I consulted garden books and they all mentioned ferns and a strange plant I had never heard of called a hosta. My interest in gardening began with this faithful cast iron plant that requires little tender loving care.
My interest in this plant that originally came from Japan, Korea and China increased to the point that I became a member of the American Hosta Society and travelled to my first national convention in Columbus, Ohio in 1992. I was befriended by all the host gurus like Alex Summers, Mildred Seaver and George Schmid. These gurus and many others were involved in the selection and discovery of many of the plants in my garden. The names of my hostas suddenly had faces attached to them. To this day every hosta in our garden has a face. I know why specific cultivars have the name they have. Many are inside jokes.
In 2004 when Rebecca was 6, Rosemary and I used the excuse of going to the American Hosta Society Convention in Raleigh-Durham to take her along with us. Rebecca met Alex Summers, Mildred Seaver and George Schmid. She connected with the first two and in one bus trip to see a garden she sat with Alex Summers (the founder of the AHS) and they chatted at length. I have no idea what it was they talked about.
At the convention Rebecca studied all the leaf specimens and she inspected the hostas in the show gardens. She went nuts over the then brand new and extremely rare Hosta
‘Blue Mouse Ears’. In my suitcase home I brought a tiny Hosta
‘Cat’s Eye’ which I divided. One was for me the other for Rebbeca.
Taking the DC Metro to the Mall (we were headed to the National Gallery) Rebecca spotted a woman who had an AHS convention pin on her dress. Rebecca casually went up to her and said, “My grandfather has Hosta
‘June’." The woman retorted with, “I have ‘Emily Dickinson’." Rebecca fired back with Hosta
‘Marilyn’ and Hosta
‘Janet’. Both kept at it until they ran out of women’s names. It was only then that I found out that Rebecca had memorized most of the names of the hostas in our garden in Vancouver.
Since then Rebecca and I have had a parallel growth in our interest in plants. Hers has been more accelerated and she has told me flatly that she does not want to write an article on how to get children to like hostas, “I would rather write about my interest in roses.”
I had to explain to Rebecca how the hosta became, for both of us, our entry into gardening and thus a hosta is a good plant for children to learn about gardening. As they become confident in their cultivation they can tackle more difficult plants. I have also shown Rebecca that come mid August when the roses wane and Rosemary’s perennials are in decline, it is the hosta that comes into its own. I showed her how some of the yellow hostas bleach out into wonderful gold colours and how the fragrance of Hosta plantaginea with its fluorescent white flower can almost compete with the fragrance of an old rose or a Magnolia grandiflora
Rebecca will tell you that the flower featured here is from a Hydrangea aspera
. There are many variations of this plant that originated in Nepal. I have three of them. This one we call the “straight aspera” although after consulting Hydrangeas – A Gardener’s Guide
by Toni Lawson-Hall and Brian Rothera I suspect it is probably Hydrangea aspera
‘Macrophylla’. While Rebecca has never touched a skark’s skin ( I did in a Mexican fish market) she will tell you that aspera comes from Latin and it means rough textured and with your eyes closed touching an aspera is exactly like touching a shark. In the scan here you can see that the rough skin acts as ‘fly paper’ to the flower’s pollen.
Rebecca and I are going to walk in the garden on Wednesday before we write our essays. She will note that the only competition that the hostas have right now are from the equally faithful and easy to grow hydrangeas.
Los Pensamientos De Lauren
Thursday, August 20, 2009
PensamientoPlanta herbácea anual, de la familia de las Violáceas, con muchos ramos delgados, hojas sentadas, oblongas, festoneadas y con estípulas grandes, flores en largos pedúnculos y con cinco pétalos redondeados, de tres colores, que varían del blanco al rojo negruzco, pero generalmente amarillos con una mancha central purpúrea los dos superiores, pajizos los de en medio y morado oscuro aterciopelado el inferior, y fruto seco capsular con muchas semillas. Es planta de jardín, común en España.
Real Academia Española
Few people unless they are serious gardeners understand that the common pansy is in the same family as the just as common violet. I need not translate that or the extremely detailed description of the pansy from my on-line dictionary of the Real Academia Española.
When you have two granddaughters and when one of them is younger (Rebecca is 12, Lauren 7) you can get away with getting a present for one without getting on for the other when the young one is very young. So Rebecca has been getting roses, hostas and the odd rhododendron from me for her backyard garden (her plants are all in pots) without any equivalents for Lauren. But Lauren began to notice and I felt guilty. I couldn’t give her roses as she was much too young to take care of them. Roses can be fussy. Last year I gave her a pot of winter pansies. She was delighted with her gift. Every time I go to inspect Rebecca’s garden, Lauren points out at the excellent condition (they are kill proof!) of her pansies. She also has Hosta ‘Peanut’. I gave her sister one of these small hostas, too.
I have observed that while Rebecca has an interest in roses and other plants of my garden, Lauren notices plants, too. She pointed at two little box hedges at our front gate and asked, “Why is one in good shape and the other one in not so good shape?” I am ashamed to report that I did not answer her. It is almost as if just because she is 7, I cannot consider her question an intelligent one, which it was. I should have answered her although she might not have liked my answer, “Dogs.”
My granddaughters and their parents are in Penticton on vacation. I miss them all very much and in particular Lauren and Rebecca. But I now understand that I might have more than one garden granddaughter. Will I have to buy them plants in twos? I think so.
A pansy in Spanish is a pensamiento. A pensamiento is a thought. But because for many of us the word is associated with that cute and indestructible pansy, pensamiento has a poetic side to it that went missing when it became thought.
Estoy pensando en mis niñas, Lauren y Rebecca y las extraño. Word for word that translates into, I am thinking about my girls, Lauren and Rebecca and I miss them
. I could try to explain how extrañar
, miss, has a root that comes from stranger, strange and foreign and only then would you understand how poor, English sometimes is to express our innermost feelings.
Our Mondrian On Burrard
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
At a recent photography class at Van Arts I told my students that there were two sure ways of finding inspiration. Finding inspiration is one of the first prerequisites for selling oneself in the commercial, editorial and even the art market. For me as I comb through my extensive files I have narrowed those two ways to taking pictures of architects and of dancers. The former have money or deal with projects that involve lots of money. There is potential there. With dancers the money potential is slim. Dancers in our city do not make a lot of money so they don’t have money to share. But they hand out inspiration in spades.
Since my class had the lofty title of Applied Commercial Photography (another way of explaining this would be for you to imagine teaching someone to swim while you are drowning) I stressed the architects. On a previous day I had told them of the lovely but now almost abandoned Dal Grauer Substation on Burrard next to the building that has gone through at least three names, BC Electric, BC Hydro and is now the Electra Building. The Electra is on Burrard and Nelson. When I told my friend and architect Abraham Rogatnick about this he insisted in giving me a copy of a book, B.C. Binning
authored by Abraham Rogatnick, Ian M. Thom, Adele Weder and with an introduction by Arthur Erickson. The icing on the cake of this book is the beautiful design by George Vaitkunas. His design won him the Alcuin Society’s award for the best pictorial book of 2006.
On December 27, 1995 I visited retired architect Ned Pratt at his home (he was a widower so he lived with his girlfriend in a beautiful old mansion on Southwest Marine Drive). I asked him how his Dal Grauer Substation came to be. He was most brief. “I sent a young chap to look up Mondrian at the Vancouver Public Library and to come back with an assessment.” That was all Pratt told me. I then asked him if he would draw for me a Mondrian rendering of his substation. This he did on computer paper. It is beautifully framed in gold leaf and I proudly display it in our dining room. While crossing Southwest Marine Drive in his VW Beetle Pratt was hit by a another car and died on February 24, 2006.
I will quote from Abraham Rogatnick’s essay on B.C. Binning called A Passion for the Contemporary.
The most spectacular of his [B.C. Binning] public art efforts began in 1952-53 when Binning collaborated on a design for a three-storey electric substation. The B.C. Electric Company knew they had to make their new building palatable to a public already tired of the drabness of the downtown street to which it was to be built.
The president of the electric company, Albert Edward “Dal” Grauer, was a cultured and sensitive appreciator of the arts who understood the aesthetic potential of such a monumental example of industrial technology. He agreed with Binning’s suggestion to the architect Ned Pratt that the entire exterior wall facing the street should be curtained with glass to reveal the interior architectural composition to the public. Binning created a composition of brilliant colours to enhance the meticulously arranged architectural and industrial elements that, like the O’Brien mural, slowed traffic on the street as people prolonged the moment to observe and enjoy it. It was one of the important sights recommended to visitors to the city.
Although the original Dal Grauer Substation colur scheme was successful, Binning changed the colours in 1956 to bring the substation into harmony with the colours he had recommended for the design of the tall office building of the B.C. Electric Company rising next to the substation. Binning’s approach to colour was now deeply influenced by his study of the regional character of the natural context of the city. He was convinced that the most appropriate colouration of buildings in Vancouver would best enhance the urban scene by harmonizing with the northerly latitude and climate of Vancouver, with its surrounding rainforest, interlacing waterways, mist-catching mountains and greyer skies. Binning’s attention to architectural colour now began to emphasize greens, blues and greys, the scheme he applied to the new B.C. Electric Building and to the revised colour of the three-dimentional “mural” of its contigious substation.
|Photograph Art Jones - 1954|
B.C. Binning – A Passion for the Contemporary, Abraham Rogatnick.
The wonderful Dal Grauer Substation has been through seismic upgrading but some BC Hydro official came up with the idea that there could be an electrical explosion within the substation so a yellowing thick plastic safety "glass" was installed which has made the building opaque. The rest of the building has deteriorated and most who pass by never give our Mondrian a look. In September 2005 I had the opportunity to explore the inside of the substation. Architect Lance Berelowitz, below, cited the building as one of his favourites in Vancouver. So we got permission to take this picture here. The insides are full of that wonder that once made us dream that technology, and specifically electrical technology that would save mankind from destruction and lead us to a rosy future. For me when I gaze upon the face of an architect I still see that belief.
It is a scandal that such a monument to the Post War Modernist Style has been pretty well let go by both our city and the executives of BC Hydro.
All photos here are mine with the exception of the colour photo of the substation which has no photo credit in the B.C. Binning book and was provided courtesy of the architect's wife.
Xantippe, Primogeniture, Subjective & Objective
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
It seems to me that the biggest difference between British and American whodunits is that while the British ones, and in particular novels by P.D. James
, stress that foul play more often than not has to do with a family will, American authors like the gore of serial killers. I dislike gore. This is why I read P.D. James, Colin Dexter and Reginald Hill. It is only recently that I have come to understand how family wills and family affairs can lead to serious crimes.
I have watched old couples in big houses in my neighbourhood be persuaded by their children that the family home is much too big and that moving to a cozier place might be an improvement. Understood in the suggestion is that whatever profits the couple might make those profits should be transferred in the direction of their children. Soon after the couples sell one of them dies and the other descends into dementia. It is for this reason that Rosemary and I have sworn to stay where we are and to be taken out in coffins. I am pleased to report that both our daughters agree on this.
But there are things, here and there, in everyday family interaction that make me still understand how right P.D. James is about human nature.
I remember that when our daughters were entering teenagehood, we had many family squabbles at our Burnaby dinner table. In fact I found out that, statistically, our squabbles were the norm and not the exception.
With some exceptions (and certainly I can not recall any P.D. James novel that would indeed be one) it can all be narrowed to the scary technical term of primogeniture. Firstborns in wealthy families of the past (I rather like the Spanish primogénito) would inherit everything and siblings would become soldiers, priests or nuns.
When my Manchester-born grandfather Harry moved to Buenos Aires around 1902 he and his wife Ellen brought their son Harry. While it was never spoken out loud I did find out that my uncle Harry was born before his parents had married or perhaps he was even born from another mother. Most of the people who could confirm this are all dead so what I write herewith is conjecture. It was the custom in the Hayward family that the firstborn male had the middle name of Waterhouse. My uncle Harry never seemed to exercise this custom. My father was, in theory, if Harry was a bastard, the first born male of the Hayward family. He then had the exclusive right of saddling Waterhouse on me. I will not explain here how I came to have an older half-brother, Enrique who is also a Waterhouse. The explanation is also conjecture.
I had a sister who was born dead so my mother always told me that I was spoiled because I was an only child. She never really had the guilt or the problem of having to tend to more than one child. My mother was the eldest of a family of three (a sister and an uncle). My grandmother was showered by jewels made in Paris by her husband (my grandfather Tirso de Irureta Goyena). My grandmother became a widow in her late 20s and my mother had to take care of the family (she was 11) in New York while her mother worked. My mother received that monthly cheque from her mother and she did the shopping, the cooking and the paying of the bills. In some way my mother and her mother lived together for most of their life. My uncle and aunt financed their divorces with funds that were obtained by pawning my grandmother’s jewels. When my grandmother died my aunt and uncle wanted to share what was left of the jewels. At that point my mother finally rebelled and said no. When my mother died and I informed my aunt I was accused of being the son of thief and a thief myself. It is not too difficult to figure out that the problem is one that P.D. James would have understood and in some way had to do with primogeniture. My mother was the oldest but my uncle, the youngest, was the firstborn.
To this day my aunt will not communicate with me and my uncle who died some years ago did not either.
I watched my wife take care of our second daughter Hilary as we both deemed our eldest, Ale to be independent and self-sufficient. Hilary was shy, withdrawn and bullied mercilessly at school. It is only as an adult that Hilary told us of the bullying. Since Hilary took most of our time we did not give Ale our emotional support and perhaps we might have even been shy in the hugs and kisses department. I never realized that a child’s jealousy and resentment could have been a factor in Ale’s growing up.
Some years ago there seemed to be a rift between our daughters but with the advent of our two granddaughters (Hilary’s daughters, Rebecca and Lauren) the rift has healed and the two sisters are close in ways that they may have never been before.
And it is with the modern communication tool of MSN with its video connections that Rosemary and her older sister Ruth (she lives in Brockville, Ontario) that I have noticed the lowering of barriers and a genuine feeling that they are sisters, at last.
Of the above I will never know as my mother always harped on my being a spoiled only child.
Yesterday it was Rebecca’s 12th birthday. Rebecca had returned from San José El Cabo in Baja California on Saturday and she and her sister and parents went for a vacation in Penticton today. I called up Hilary on Sunday night and told her that Rosemary and I would like to see the girls for at least a couple of hours. We were granted our wish, and when I asked Rosemary to ask Hilary to dress up the girls in their new Mexican dresses, she complied, too. The girls arrived Monday afternoon and Lauren even had lipstick!
As usual (as she gets closer to teenagehood, it seems to be more usual) Rebecca was not too pleased in having to pose for me in the garden. But once she did she became the excellent subject that she always is.
In the garden she asked me who Socrates was. When I told her he was a Greek philosopher she asked me what a philosopher was. I explained that philosophers worried and thought of such things as death, life, existence and free will. I further explained that Socrates had a bitch of wife and that he hated writing anything down. I told Rebecca that thanks to Platón (much nicer sounding in Spanish), who did believe in writing stuff down, we have many of Socrates’ ideas to discuss today.
When I took this picture of Rebecca ( I took many and many of Lauren and of the two together) I had a feeling about it. “Rebecca, I think this is your birthday portrait.”
While in Baja, Lauren (she is 7) received lots of attention. She was learning to swim. Rebecca swims divinely. When Hilary saw Lauren’s new Mexican dress she commented on her good taste and told her that her sun-bleached hair was beautiful. If you consider that these comments came so close to Rebecca’s birthday, you can understand why she might have felt a bit left out.
At our merienda (a Spanish tea-time that consisted of Filipino enzaiamadas, a special sweet bread baked with lots of butter, polvorones, Spanish short bread and Mexican hot chocolate, with lots of cinnamon) yesterday afternoon after our photo session in the garden I had a little talk with Rebecca. I told her of firstborns and how her mother had not been one. I explained that a first child (even if you are a father) is always most special. I explained that, subsequently, parents try to compensate by showering more attention on that second child.
I invented and put words into Socrates’s mouth and told her that he would assert that you can look at things in only two ways, objectively (thinking with the mind) and, subjectively (thinking with the heart). I told Rebecca that she must not feel jealous or sad because of all the hoopla given to her sister. She understood when I said that she had to think about it all objectively and once she did it would all be fine.
When she left she gave me a big hug and now that she is gone on her vacation I must declare (subjectively) that I miss her a tad more than I miss Lauren.
Wetting Earth - Volcanoes - Mexico - México - Méjico
Monday, August 17, 2009
In 1952 my mother made an exploratory trip to Mexico City from Buenos Aires where we were living at the time. At the time Argentines insisted on writing Mexico as Méjico. The x does not exist in Spanish. Any words with an x come from Mexican words. The x in Mexico can be pronounced as sh in Xola, as an h in the pronunciation of México and in the Ixtaccíhuatl, the sleeping lady volcano it is pretty close to the English x. Taxco the silver town on the way to Acapulco is pronounce Tasco. That x is an s. The conquering Spaniards in Mexico insisted on replacing the x with a j and even today some Spaniards will not acknowledge the existence of the X.
As soon as the Spaniard were thrown out in the 19th century the Mexican, in particular brought back the x. The Tejas Indians (pronounce like just like that) ended up as the Texas Indians which gave us Texas and the San Antonio County called Bejar was changed to a difficult Bexar so practical tejanos (nationalities in Spanish are never capitalized so canadienses are just that) simply call it Bear County.
When my fellow classmates asked me where my mother had gone I said, “Mexico,” pronouncing that x like an x in English. It sounded as exotic as Samarcanda or la Cochinchina (Vietnam).
When my mother returned she spoke of great volcanoes and mountains. I had never seen the Andes so mountains were as strange as polar bears. My mother spoke of the colour of Mexican earth and of the Aztecs and the Mayas. She brought me an obsidian knife and a little idol that smelled of dry dirt when suddenly rain falls on it. Mexico was a land of wonder and magic. When we left for Mexico to live I was prepared for an adventure.
That adventure has never ended. It persists every time I go to Mexico. I took this picture in Michoacán, Mexico three years ago. The volcano in the picture is Paricutín. A storm was about to hit and when it did it poured. When I saw this scene it became the Mexico of volcanoes that my mother had told me about. And when it began to rain I could smell that wonderful smell of wetting earth.
August & Our Urban Malaise
Sunday, August 16, 2009
In past years when I was an extremely busy freelance photographer I would call my friend, writer John Lekich and complain to him of a particular period of enervation I was going through. Lekich would tell me, “It’s spring. It’s the weather. What do you expect? Too many things are growing out there for you to worry about work.” I would call him a few months later and he would modify his advice to, “Alex, it is summer. Don’t worry about not working. Just enjoy the weather and your garden.” Come fall Lekich would say, “It’s fall so that’s why you don’t want to do anything. Come winter you will be back on course.” And, of course, when winter came, and my inactivity would make me call Lekich, he would say, “Just wait until spring and you will want to work again.” Luckily the year has only four seasons. If it had more Lekich would give me more excuses to not lift my shutter finger.
I don’t want to call him about Vancouver’s August as he would justify any inaction on the part of our city fathers, politicians, city planners, etc. In fact I can assert that in August nothing happens in Vancouver. Those who make the decisions that might affect our urban life are gone on vacation. When they come back in September they often make up their minds behind closed doors. These decisions are implemented as fait accompli. By the time our conventional media is made aware of them we are suddenly informed and there is no possible recall.
While I am a bit of an elitist, and I do not believe in a giving the vox populi more than cursory power in the affairs of a city I do not believe in leaving them completely in the dark. I believe we are in the dark about the decisions that are currently being made about the expansion of Vancouver and the respect and preservation of those places so important to our urban wellbeing.
In the late 90s and a few of the years into this century there were a couple of organizations that made me feel alive as a citizen of this city. By citizen I mean the feeling and the power of being part of a city, this city. In the middle 70s when I had visitors from abroad I would take them to see the Erickson/Massey Simon Fraser University at night. The university was all lit and it seemed to be a beacon of cultural pride. Its steps reminded me of the centres of Greek city states and the Roman Forum.
In those late 90s the urban steps of Erickson’s Robson Square led to what was then called the Robson Square Media Centre which held lectures sponsored by ALCAN or the wonderfully, almost secretive, Urbanarium Society founded by Ray Spaxman
, Vancouver City Planner extraordinaire. These lectures were held in a superb (Erickson designed!) auditorium called the Judge White Auditorium. Few of these lectures ever made our newspapers even though I could often spot architect Arthur Erickson sitting there. He always had something interesting and startling to say. Nothing of what he ever said seemed to be recorded by any media. Near Erickson I would spot Alderman (at the time they were called that) Gordon Price
(with a copy of the day’s New York Times on his lap). He was the only person from City Hall who understood what it was to have a sense of urbanity and the importance of urbanity in relation to culture. At these lectures I heard about my city and our local architects and many of fame from abroad told us of our good points and what we must do to keep our city a livable one. In the most memorable one (held at the then new Roundhouse) the panelists where Carole Taylor
, Arthur Erickson and the then city planner Ray Spaxman. The lecture was about the densification of our city. It was Erickson who said something like, “Our city will be thin in population by mid 21st century. We can ignore it and do nothing and then cope with the resulting chaos. Or we can prepare of it now. The density will be inevitable.”
At a later ALCAN lecture, architects Bing Thom (above, right) and Arthur Erickson (left) argued for the building of a tunnel under Burrard Inlet joining the North Shore with our city somewhere, perhaps, at the foot of Main. Again both architects told us that there was no way we could prevent the city from expanding to and beyond Lion’s Bay. “It’s going to happen. Depending on a three-lane bridge is madness.”
It was a couple of years ago that I heard former Premier Mike Harcourt at a lecture at the downtown campus of Simon Fraser University say, “The centre of our city, let’s call it Greater Vancouver, is Surrey City.” To me this was startling. I combed the papers the next day. Nothing.
I have friends and a particular architect friend, Abraham Rogatnick (below, centre), who would like to see our Vancouver Art Gallery stay where it is. Rogatnick's arguments are persuasive. I have since talked with a well known former dance crititic from our leading daily who was present (our former critic is also been known to defend the arts and culture by working with the Canada Council) at meetings where several and practical solutions to the “lack of space” problem of our gallery were presented and discussed. It seems that Simpson Sears at one time was willing to forgo two of its floors. Plans were discussed of building escalators that would join the gallery to a building that is a perfect box for an extension to our VAG. Since the box was designed by the famous architect Cesar Pelli we would have an art gallery extension of some renown even if most in the city hate Pelli’s design.
I have written here how, behind close doors, the hiding and the eventual virtual destruction of Paul Merrick’s CBC
has resulted in an objectionable mish mash of ugly densification.
Some of us (at least I do) want to know what the city plans to do with our main Post Office.
Some of us (at least I do) want to know what the city is going to do with the former location of the Greyhound Bus Station on the side of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
Some of us (at least I do) want to know when the city going to restore the Dal Grauer Substation
(on Burrard next to the Electra Building)to its former glory.
I read with shock that City Hall owns all the land, North, to the edge with West Broadway and that a plan is afoot to build a new City Hall! Some of us (at least I do) want to know what this plan is.
In the 80s and 90s we had a few architects who would go public on urban affairs. There was Ned Pratt (first photograph, top left), Arthur Erickson and Bing Thom. Two are now gone and I have not recently heard Bing Thom on anything although I know he may be fighting behind closed doors (Is this the only way of fighting fire with fire, fighting our city’s lack of transparency in its decision making?) at all the work that is being done to modify Erickson’s vision that was Robson Square?
Robson Square would have been a Socred fiasco. I would like to remind those with that peculiar short civic memory, that this former right-wing party sort of re-named itself and is our our Provincial Liberal Party. When the NDP won the Provincial election in 1972 the Socred plan to build a skyscraper on what was to be called Robson Square became instead a project designed by Arthur Erickson that Erickson likened to laying the skyscraper on it side. It is that advocate for the works and memory of Arthur Erickson, the tireless Cheryl Cooper who recently told me, “Arthur’s vision had the law and justice on one end (the law courts) and art (the VAG) on the other , and smack in the centre of Robson Square an urban plaza smack in the centre of the city.”
In those wonderful 90s Robson Square was an urban Mecca for me. Walking its steps, like the ones at Simon Fraser University gave me a sense of civic participation. Before the building of the big box Chapters (I must confess the books are cheaper) the area attracted me with Duthie Books, a Murchie’s where I could scan the books I had purchased across the street and an art gallery that I felt was mine. With Murchies and Duthie’s gone, replaced by high-end boutiques of clothing I would never buy, the area is not a beacon for me anymore.
Part of the problem is the complete failure (my humble opinion) of the University of British Columbia’s takeover of Robson Square. They have quietely and with no fuss removed all of its urbanity. The wonderful Judge White Auditorium (with those carpeted steps on the side where some of us would lie down, instead of sitting in the standard seats) was destroyed and converted to office space. How many people who know for a fact that Simon Fraser University has a downtown campus even know UBC has one, too? Former “Alderman” Gordon Price organizes lectures on urban affairs there. The few lectures I have gone to at the almost invisible UBC downtown campus have been partially organized by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura.
How many people are aware or ever think of visiting the UBC Bookstore that is in its downtown campus? I have been told that former UBC President Martha Piper was singly responsible for eliminating all the restaurants that were in Robson Square by forcing them to renew their liquor licenses on an almost monthly basis.
The only light in the darkness of “what are they doing with my Robson Square?” is the VAG’s extremely successful Art Gallery Café. My granddaughter Rebecca loves going there and tells me, “This place is nicer than Starbucks and it plays better music, too.”
I would like to see a formal or informal committee of committed architects (including Peter Busby, above right) and urban planners who would publicly discuss these urban issues in a transparent way and somehow urge and nudge our city, our province and our Federal Government to clue us in as to what they are planning to do with our money. Perhaps this informal committee would somehow erase that August malaise and make the citizens of our city behave like citizens of our city.
Addendum: In the SFU City Blog
Gordon Price, the Program Director corrects one of my statements above. I am extremely happy to be wrong on this one!
... but we have to note that in fact the Judge White Theatre at Robson Square still exists. Indeed, we at SFU have used it for our Shifting Gear’s series in partnership with UBC’s Bombardier Chair.