For my week as guest editor of Price Tags, I intend to view Vancouver from an architectural perspective. To this effect, I will be releasing an interview with an architect, planner, or academic each day. Each person has been selected for his/her unique and timely perspectives on the city. Our discussions will highlight each person’s practice along with their notions of city building and form in Vancouver.
I am sitting in Vancouver’s only honourable bagel bakery, Siegel’s Bagels, on Cornwall and Cypress, with Leslie Van Duzer. Leslie recently completed her five-year term as Director of the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) at UBC. During her current administrative leave, she helped launch the new Urbanarium and is continuing to work with colleagues on a series of monographs showcasing Vancouver’s most at-risk West Coast Modern architecture. Leslie graciously offered the time to join me for a chat about Vancouver.
JB: SFU has positioned itself well to study cities with their multiple downtown campuses and lecture series, such as City Conversations. What do you see as UBC’s role when it comes to advocating for urban design in Vancouver?
LVD: Indeed, SFU has done an extremely good job on this front, but UBC also does a great deal to advocate for a more sustainable, affordable and liveable city.
SALA makes a significant, ongoing contribution to the conversation. For example, every semester it sponsors a public lecture series and its Advisory Board provided the seed for the new Urbanarium, an independent non-profit organization launched on Janaury 20th. It is the Urbanarium’s aspiration to have a physical space for public lectures, debates and exhibitions on urban issues. There is surprisingly no such dedicated space currently in Vancouver, unlike most other major cities.
SALA faculty and students also do a lot of research and design work that has been, and can continue to be, of real value to the community. By way of example, there was a timely recent thesis by Mahbod Biazi who conducted comprehensive research on housing in the West End and designed thoughtful proposals for infill housing. This thesis should be part of any conversation about development in that neighbourhood.
JB: You recently published your first monograph on West Coast Modern architecture, entitled “House Shumiatcher”. This monograph will be the first in a series dedicated to the documentation of endangered West Coast Modern homes. How did this series come about and how has the reception to this work been?
LVD: When I first moved to Vancouver, the Schumiatchers were among the first people to welcome me to the city and into their home. I frequently visited their wonderful house for afternoon teas and dinners. When it came time for them to sell the house, they anticipated it might be destroyed due to escalating land values. So we set out to document the house, to be sure there was a record of its existence.
We found a publisher in San Francisco who was interested in publishing a whole series of monographs on endangered houses. I identified two SALA colleagues, Sherry McKay and Chris Macdonald, willing to join me in curating and editing the series. Swedish-American photographer Michael Perlmutter was hired to photograph all the houses and Canadian-Argentinian graphic designer Pablo Mandel will design all the books. I want to tip my hat to architect Joe Wai who encouraged the school to do more to document and help preserve this special architectural heritage. The Downs House book by Chris Macdonald will be the second in the series; it is being printed now. There has been a very positive reception from the professional and heritage community and that will only grow as more books are published. We have a series of ten planned, for starters!
JB: You are working on a project entitled “The Village Model,” a documentation of the aging-in-place movement. What insights can you draw in Vancouver between this movement, our tax deferral system, NIMBYism, and densification?
LVD: First, I need to explain what the Village Model, or better, The Village Movement, is. Few in Canada know about it, but it is a phenomenon that is sweeping across the United States.
Fourteen years ago, the first Village was established in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston. Six years ago, there were 50 villages open and 50 under development. Today, there are 190 villages open and another 185 under development. That is a total of 375! The basic purpose of a Village is to allow people to age at home as long as possible. Not only is this desirable from the point of view of many seniors, it is also a cost effective model for addressing the mounting needs of an aging population and an extremely effective strategy for more general community building. Villages are membership organizations, generally established through grassroots efforts of a group of neighbors. While this is the prevailing story, as the model catches on, some villages have been founded by religious institutions, municipalities, even health care companies.
If you are a member of a village you have access to “one-stop shopping” for vetted professional services, from home health care providers to dog walkers. This is invaluable for anyone who is new to a community or simply finds themselves needing services they never required before. More importantly, members participate in social, cultural, educational and wellness programs together, so they gain peer-to-peer support, build new friendships, and have improved health and levels of engagement. There are a wealth of volunteer opportunities so members have not only the opportunity to be served, but also to serve. Volunteers are also often recruited from the general community to allow for productive inter-generational exchange. Sorry to go on so long, but I cannot say enough about this model as one solution to our temporary aging population.
It is important that we don’t overbuild for this temporary swell in the number of seniors, and the infrastructure we do build for them, should be designed flexibly (I like to say illegibly) to accommodate new programs in the future. We need to start thinking more like this so we are not stuck with obsolete buildings just 20 or 30 years later.
Back to your question, we need to address densification, affordability, and an aging population by thinking more creatively about long-term solutions that address multiple issues simultaneous. And regarding NIMBIES, well the NIMBY chair at the working table needs to be removed.
JB: You are working on another project entitled “The Art of Deception,” an exploration of the parallels between magic and architecture. Can you talk about that work and any magic moments you have found in Vancouver?
LVD: Well, this interest dates way back to my teenage years as a magician’s assistant. My brother has been a magician for half a century, since he was a little boy. His book, “The Seven Basic Secrets of Illusion Design,” got me thinking about the secrets of magic as they relate to architecture. My brother and I subsequently taught three architecture design studios together using the tricks of the magician in the design of buildings. We became interested in more than the mechanical tricks and started exploring blind spots, misdirection, the role of memory and expectations, and many other fascinating topics. In one studio, the students had to pick a UNESCO World Heritage site and redesign the tourist infrastructure using the magician’s secrets. These were surprisingly practical lessons for the students.
The intention of my project is to illustrate the positive value of misperception. I am interested in the most subtle possible application of magic in architecture. The built world is so formulaic. If you are gently disruptive with your designs, you can wake people up by giving them a moment of wonder.
To answer your question, the most magical moments I have experienced in Vancouver have been at home, living in a tower. Imagine a reflection of a building behind my view creating a phantom building in my view, or the morning sun bouncing off the tower across the street and back into my west facing apartment. Imagine a seagull flying between the setting sun and my window casting a giant flying shadow, like a Pterodactyl, in my space. And how strange that my corner unit in the Electra Building appears from within to cantilever dramatically over Burrard Street. I could go on and on, but these have been the most magical architectural encounters I have had in Vancouver.
JB: You are also proposing a collection of essays entitled “Philanthropy and City Building.” How has the role of philanthropy in Vancouver changed between the booming years of MacMillan Bloedel and today?
LVD: I cannot speak to earlier times in Vancouver, at least not yet. I arrived in Vancouver five years ago and have just taken up this topic out of concern for the current dearth of philanthropy for public city building initiatives. I moved here from Minneapolis where there is an extremely healthy culture of philanthropy, one that has allowed the city to realize many important new cultural buildings in recent years.
When I stepped down as Director of SALA, a patron gave the school a major donation to allow me to continue my outreach efforts. I am using the first installment of that donation for the City Debates, a collaboration with the new Urbanarium. Next spring, I will use the second installment to explore models of philanthropy from other cities that could inspire Vancouver. Among other aspects, I am interested in understanding how to develop a culture of philanthropy among younger people, how Vancouver might become a corporate headquarter town, and how to create the sense of engagement in the community that leads to targeted collective giving. I hope the series of talks, and the edited volume to follow, will have a positive impact locally and beyond.
JB: Do you have any particular soap box that frustrates you when it comes to architecture and urbanism in Vancouver?
LVD: I am frustrated by the lack of a rigorous, informed and unemotional debate. My problem with public hearings is that they generally focus on particular developments and the people that come out are those most personally affected by the projects. This is of course understandable, but as our big issues cannot be resolved site by site, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, even city by city, our big challenge is to figure out how we can engage the public sincerely while dealing with extremely complex regional problems that challenge even the most expert.
I am also angered by the censorship here. I grew up in Berkeley, California in the 1960s and 1970s and am the poster-child for free speech and academic freedom. When I was the Director of SALA, I was asked more than once by city officials to silence a few of my outspoken colleagues. To my mind, this is outrageous and threatens the basic tenets of democracy.
It troubles me a lot to hear experts misaligned by the public. If you are planning something as complex as a city or a region, don’t you want experts at the helm? We should remember that our politicians, planners and other experts are also citizens who care deeply about the future of this city and region.
JB: If you could make any intervention into the fabric of Vancouver, what would you add, subtract, or modify?
LVD: I would love to work with the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation to organize a competition for young designers for beautiful new park infrastructure. There are so few architectural gems in our public realm, and given the opportunity, I have no doubt designers properly paid would pour their hearts into these projects. The work of Bill Pechet is one very good example of a designer committed to improving the public realm with delightful interventions. Think of our waterfront parks and flash to other cities like Barcelona; we have a long way to go but have no shortage of great designers to take us there.
You can learn more about Leslie and her work from her UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture bio: www.sala.ubc.ca/people/faculty/leslie-van-duzer