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. 

Shumiatcher Exterior
House Shumiatcher – Photograph by Michael Perlmutter

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.

Bill Pechet Bench Shipyyards
Bench, Bill Pechet – Pier Furnishings and Lighting

You can learn more about Leslie and her work from her UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture bio:


  1. With regard to coming up with solutions to issues such as densification, affordability, and an aging population, Van Duzer states that “the NIMBY chair at the working table needs to be removed”. Perhaps if Van Duzer were more familiar with the history of Vancouver planning, she would know that Vancouver is the livable, attractive city it is only because neighbourhoods opposed “expert” plans that would have destroyed it. For instance, while “experts” applauded & supported a plan to cut a freeway through the City, the neighbourhood of Chinatown said “Not In Our Backyard!”, got organized, and galvanized others in order to stop it. This is just one example of how damaging theories by wrong-headed “experts” must be reality-tested through ongoing & meaningful collaboration with neighbourhoods. So to Duzer’s rhetorical question, “If you are planning something as complex as a city or a region, don’t you want experts at the helm?” the answer is no. What we do need is an effective collaboration between the City administration and affected neighbourhoods for the best planning outcomes.

    1. You should have also noted that many more professionals aka “experts” joined the citizens and got elected to the TEAM council than ever before. And since the freeway fiasco, many ,ore like-minded “experts” joined the Planning Dept. and became private practitioners. In fact, I would say the freeway planners of the 50 and 60s were a small faction that were empowered by a council with few professionals and a lot of tilted ideology about economics.
      I do agree about the need for more neighbourhood collaboration, but it will take professionals / experts to lead the process and to derive better neighbourhood plans. When I hear the citizen chant against experts, I can’t help but hear the faint taint of denial or ignorance about the challenges we face as a community and protectionism, in the sense that “we can move here and change the neighbourhood by impacting the people who lived here before, but god forbid anyone else can!”
      Instead, we need to be defining just how citizens — all of us — in each neighbourhood are going to accept more growth. That’s a tough question, but lumping all professionals disdainfully into one category called “experts”, just as climate change deniers lump scientists into the “expert” pile, is not a way to achieve productive results that are acceptable to everyone and meet those challenges while preserving neighbourhood character.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this interview, as well as the others posted. Thanks to both of you for it, James and Leslie. The encouragement of young designers is particularly noteworthy, and a new park infrastructure competition, suitable administered and compensated, would be an ideal opportunity for joint ventures between budding architects and landscape architects.

  3. On one hand Van Duzer laments the silencing of her outspoken colleagues but then notes that the people that come out to Public Hearings are those personally affected and later laments experts being misaligned by the public.
    It has been my experience that the the public who do summon the courage to speak up with their views care more deeply about the future of their community than anyone else, including the many “experts” who may or may not live in the community themselves.
    There is a direct relation between “experts misaligned by the public” and “the lack of rigorous informed unemotional debate”.
    The public is continually calling to be Involved ASAP in authentic, rigorous, informed and unemotional debate about planning and development issues but that simply does not happen.
    Often major plans are drafted behind the scenes and the public only gets to comment after it essentially “done” and their influence limited.
    The public does not elect officials because they think they know better than themselves. They elect people they feel will best represent them. If their views are not being represented by their elected officials or any hired “expert” it is their duty to speak up and continuing to speak up until they are heard.
    That is not misalignment. That is democracy.

    1. I don’t believe that to be quite true. There is nothing more frustrating for public officials than to organize, advertise and host a public meeting all in the name of democracy, then to have hardly anyone show up.
      Also, the notion that everyone can be an expert and draw up plans for their neighbourhood doesn’t hold water when you really put citizens to task to do just that. Many come armed only to say No!, then absent themselves from any further discussion. Others come prepared to take over the agenda and mold it in the shape of their own vision without having the skills or ability to listen and succeed by proposing something acceptable to all parties, or the maturity to accept compromise.
      There needs to be a more collaborative approach, especially in older established neighbourhoods. I am speaking for the Metro and not just Vancouver, which really isn’t the centre of the known universe. I believe there is great potential in a deeper citizen workshop process where more than one table speaks for a neighbourhood. In this process citizens need to be challenged as much as they would challenge the “experts” and politicians. Accepting growth is now one of the biggest issues. Controlling the form of growth is perhaps the most important tool citizens and experts have, but not accepting growth in any form, or whittling it down to a nub, isn’t a feasible argument any more. And no matter how much “experts” are disdained, they are very handy to putting ideas to paper and defining acceptable alternatives in a professional manner.
      I agree that NIMBYs should never be offered to chair a table, but let them occupy a seat and express their opinions. And it is extremely important to have several tables working independently on one topic, then to bring them together at the end by a neutral chair.
      Enter political courage where all points of view are duly considered, then a decision is made without fearing the consequences. Politicos who base their lives on getting re-elected all the time need to get another life.

      1. Not quite true?
        Here are a couple of many, many examples:
        1300 block Marine Drive West Vancouver. Majority of citizens wanted to lease rather than sell the lands to a developer. But an unelected panel of experts recommended the sale of the lands to finance a Public Safety Building.
        No other means of financing the Public Safety Building were discussed as the experts had spoken.
        The proposed development at this site was about double the height and density prescribed in the OCP. An overwhelming majority supported development of the property – but not at this size and scale. They wanted to see smaller scale options. For this they were branded anti-development and dismissed.
        No other options for discussion. In fact the “public engagement” sessions -held by the developer no less – included the pubic putting blocks into suitable designs – but with the catch ALL the blocks had to be used.
        So here the public were completely shut out on ANY discussion on density.
        It was accept the huge increase in density or the developer would walk away.
        Talk about needlessly dividing the community. Development was supported – just not double what the OCP stated.
        Town Hall meetings where everyone gets the same information and hears what questions are asked and the answers given? That has been replaced by “open houses” where people mingle and questions and answers are not recorded. Messages can be shaped. The public opinion mitigated. These “Open houses” have as much to do with community feedback as a straight jacket has to do with freedom.
        I agree with you that not everyone has the skills to do proper planning and citizens DO expect their planners to in fact PLAN.
        If they did due diligence planning we would not be subject to “spot-zoning” over and over again. Spot zoning is the hallmark of poor planning and treats the OCP like some piñata where developers are armed with bats and the public is blindfolded.
        Proper planning that AUTHENTICALLY involves the public does have challenges, but it can be done! It can be done so that those with a one word vocabulary of “no” don;t have a place at the table. It can be done so one person or group does not overtake the agenda. The process needs to be inclusive, not exclusive. It takes specific skill sets to do this – these are not skill sets professional planners have. Nor should they! They have other skills that are very important. However – there ARE people with these skills and this type of engagement IS possible – I have just yet to see a municipality ready to do it.
        As long as the public is presented with public involvement “theatre” rather than true authentic public involvement – the peasants will keep planning the revolt.

      2. It’s not clear what you are advocating in your anecdotal development example. Public meetings instead of open houses? I beg to differ. Public meetings are not the way to initiate a planning process. The one who screams the loudest, or the group with the most placards and chants, can dominate everything. Planning by disruption and domination 0is just not constructive.
        Public opinion IS most definitely recorded at open houses hosted by cities. Just because the opinions are quietly written individually (and not yelled to a crowd) doesn’t mean the officiators do not tabulate them. And mingling with reps close up with graphic panels allows individuals to get answers directly and read the detail closely. Those of us who have hosted open houses find them extremely informative, and we bristle at the utterly false accusations that the meeting wasn’t advertised after 4,000 mail-outs were sent well in advance and notices posted on Web sites and community centre boards, or that we are biased in our tabulation of public input when original comments are kept as evidence.
        Better still are the workshops mentioned above. However, these pertain to a wider planning process to develop or update neighbourhood plans, not necessarily to each individual development proposal, unless you’re talking about big ones like Concord Pacific.
        The spot rezoning process you refer to is not unique. But they are becoming more controversial as the development pressure builds and land prices escalate, and leaders have to address it. The measure of a council is their ability to say no to excessive demands by developers, or to a public who want no development anywhere near their own home no matter how reasonable — after they moved in and impacted the community themselves. A wise council and planning dept. would split the difference or draw an average, depending on the circumstances.
        Finding an acceptable median can be a tough gig that gets planners nothing but grief, but it can be done. Once example: The O’keefe lands at Arbutus and 12th. The developer wanted a 15-storey height over several blocks, the community wanted a maximum of four. Community workshops hosted by the city ensued, and after hard negotiation everyone settled on a max height of eight storeys in only a few locations. The result was a comfortable four-storey human scale urbanism along Arbutus with continuous ground level commercial and residential above, now the successful model for other arterials. The maximum height was achieved further along overlooking a park, and the developer made their profit. Though the project was a success from several perspectives, all three groups (the developer, the community reps and the city planners) went grey.

  4. Who is “MB”? I take it you have direct experience with the City of Vancouver, including hosting open-houses pertaining to development? It’s good that those hosting open-houses find them extremely informative, but it’s important that the general public find them useful as well. Personally I have found open houses held about planned developments in my community (West Van) to be a wast of time. It’s difficult to process information from multiple-display boards in a crowded and noisy environment and there is limited time to speak to public officials (if you can get near one). Also no tally of who attended or what feedback was provided; rather anonymously completed questionnaires (with leading questions) are accepted, tainting the legitimacy of official results. But that’s just my experience in one community. (MB – do you post those original public comments and names? That would help alleviate concerns of bias.)
    I agree that Council should say no to excessive demands of developers, but how does one determine what “reasonable” development is and, perhaps more importantly, WHO determines what reasonable development is? MB’s solution of splitting the difference or drawing an average plays into what many suspect happens now – a developer asks for 20 stories when they’d gladly build 8. Then residents are supposed to be happy that they only ended up with 10 stories, or that they got 4 storeys except where 8 was allowed. How exactly is that a win/win?
    Most residents assume the Official Community Plan sets parameters for reasonable development. The community should decide what type and size of development is acceptable by way of neighbourhood plans (I like MB’s idea of a deeper citizen workshop process). If the community decides a maximum of 4 stories is reasonable, then that should be the final word. If a neighbourhood decides they do not want any further density increases at this time, then that must be respected. It doesn’t mean that neighbourhood will never change, it just means not at this time. By the way, I have yet to encounter an example of a neighbourhood in WV saying absolutely no to any change. Most people seem willing to accept increases in density but might have a different view than “experts” or developers on how that should take shape. For example, a single family neighbourhood may be open to duplexes or coach houses, but not townhouses.
    I think it’s become far to easy to brand an opposing view as NIMBYism. Most unfortunate that those immediately impacted by a development are doomed to be discounted if they object to a proposal.
    At the crux here is the notion that we must blindly accept growth, and according to Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy, we must accept millions more residents in the coming years. Who exactly decided on the numbers and where does it end? I suspect a majority of residents feel their quality of life is being destroyed by all this growth. Perpetual population and economic growth are not solutions, rather, they are the problem itself. It will take real political courage to acknowledge that and stand up to this insatiable demand for ever-increasing density; to accept a neighbourhoods idea of acceptable growth, especially if that means duplexes and basement suites instead of another high-rise.

  5. MB states Public Opinion is most definitely recorded at Open Houses, but I have specifically asked and (in my municipality ) have been told – no such records are made. No questions asked and answers provided are recorded.
    If they are recoded in other communities, Bravo!
    MB does play into one of my biggest fears – and that is that there are some that organize Public Input meetings that do so without real motivation to listen to public views – they are merely a hurdle to overcome.

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