May 16, 2016

Invisible Mending with Cornelia






It was curious to see the debate about Jane Jacobs and her philosophy on the anniversary of her birth one hundred years ago. I am reminded that debate is healthy and good, and I should listen to debate more. I am also reminded that we also still work with giants in our midst. For me one of those giants is the remarkable landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.

If you have met Cornelia, attended her lectures, or read her books, you know that she is focused,  knows her plants inside out, and is passionate about doing the right work. She also completely practices what she preaches- Cornelia does “invisible mending”, restoring and building in landscapes around buildings in such an extraordinary way that you never knew the landscape did not exist before the building was built.

Cornelia had a famous partnership with Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson among many other world-wide consultancies and commissions.



Cornelia’s landscapes are legendary. My favourite is at the Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia where she has designed a curved river and a pebble beach to the north of the longhouses. The view is designed so you can imagine canoes  hidden in the curve of your sight line paddling up to the beach. It’s a great public space.

I have been out at the Museum of Anthropology in winter and found Cornelia with her gum boots on in the middle of the pond she created, ostensibly taking photos for a Christmas card. I know she was actually checking the water filtration system. Douglas Coupland the author and artist walked by  the pond at that moment and smiled at Cornelia. It does not get any more Canadian than this.



Cornelia has just received the first award of the Governor General’s Medal in Landscape Architecture. It is “the highest honour bestowed upon a landscape architect by the Canadian Society of Landscape Architecture” celebrating lifetime achievements and contributions to the profession.

 Congratulations to Cornelia who has always championed Canadian flora and sustainability in her designs. She has been an unfailing mentor to students and to practitioners. We are just now catching up with what she has been teaching us for decades.


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No, its not for more cars. The good folks at NACTO-The National Association of City Transportation Officials have come out with a new Transit Street Guide and provided this self explanatory graphic of how many vehicles, transit users, cyclists and walkers can be accommodated in different transportation modes.

I like the fact that NACTO is measuring a two-way “protected” bikeway, and found it fascinating that the difference between accommodating cyclists (7,500 an hour on a two way protected bikeway) is only 1,500 shy of how many pedestrians can be accommodated.

Should we be moving to protected two-way bike lanes throughout the city?



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You know this location-this garden is north of City Hall,  on the west side of  the former East Wing Annex located on Yukon Street in Vancouver.

From the 1970’s to 2013 most of the city departments were nestled in two buildings-the tall Art Deco/Moderne transitional style building built in 1937 by Townley and Matheson, and the annex-sometimes called the “box City Hall came in” an oblong concrete confection located at 2675 Yukon. The annex opened by Prince Philip in 1969. (The annex was declared an earthquake hazard and decommissioned in 2013. The top floors will be demolished this year. They have a permit. I checked.)

There is an internal pathway at ground level between the two buildings, and a huge concrete planter box outside of the annex on the pathway. This had been cheerfully filled with rhododendrons and other shrubs in the 1970’s and had completely overgrown to the point that no “bones” of a garden were visible. Even though this was a major pathway used to access Vancouver City Hall east of Cambie Street, it was not very walkable, or inviting to visitors or staff.


The concrete “planter box” outside of the City Hall Annex before photo


To celebrate the eighty years of diplomacy between Canada and Japan, the city’s protocol officer Sven Buemann wanted to  transform this space into a Japanese garden celebrating the relationship between these two countries.   Mindful landscaping of this concrete box could become a focal point at City Hall, and also provide citizens and city  staffers with an introduction to classical Japanese gardening. I worked as a team leader with master Japanese gardeners from the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association (VJGA), and experienced Engineering Works Yards staff  to create a new public space to walk to, enjoy and view for all Vancouver citizens and visitors.



These professional gardeners  from  the VJGA  who were already working six days a week volunteered their time and talent to design and create a most extraordinary space. In the design, there are two rivers of stone, one symbolizing Canada, surrounded by plants native to Canada, and one symbolizing Japan, surrounded by traditional elements including a stone fountain and a black pine. The two rivers meet in the front of the design, symbolizing harmony and peace. The Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association website  still features an image of the gardeners standing in front of the stone lantern at the city hall Japanese Garden.

And this garden is to be viewed from the public pathway, not walked in. That is the way it has been designed.



It was a very exciting thing to work with these Japanese professional gardeners. The design of the outline of the garden was roughly drawn up. The concept and the layout of the garden included coring out a section of the concrete planter box wall, so that viewers could “see” into the mingling parts of the river bed. The site preparation was done by City crews, who came in on the weekend to do the work. The Japanese gardeners took over the ordering of all the materials, including tons of basalt rock. The basalt rock included “one man” “two man” and “three man” basalt uprights that were installed by the gardeners with the assistance of the City crews and a hoist. The gardeners travelled up to Huckleberry Quarry near Squamish and hand picked each and every piece of basalt for its shape, size and function. Using the hoist, the Japanese Gardeners carefully placed every rock, with an inner vision so profound that no rock needed to be readjusted or placed differently. The Japanese gardeners’  experience and knowledge of Japanese Garden technique translated into this innate ability to “see” the rocks placed just once, every time seated correctly in the designated position.

There is a section of bamboo that has been carefully knotted as a screen behind the water fountain. The craftsman that worked on this screen spent days getting the meticulous pattern of knots just right. The fountain basin that is in the back of the garden was designed by one of the few people in North America that has this skill.

The plants and trees in this garden are placed with similar care and attention.

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Some unexpected and some very good news-the Friedman House located on the University of British Columbia’s  Endowment Lands has found a buyer. In this Globe and Mail article written by Kerry Gold the trust looking after this modernist gem by architect  (and first director of the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia) Frederic Lasserre has accepted an offer to purchase the house from a family in Ontario that-gasp-want to live in it and raise their children there.  Landscape architecture legend Cornelia Oberlander designed the gardens around the Friedman house as her first commission in Canada. She is already at work prepping the garden for summer and the house’s new owner.

I wrote about this house’s seemingly inevitable demise a week ago.  This house is an important bridge between Modernist design so popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s to the West Coast Style that brought forward architects like Ned Pratt.

These are not grand houses by scale, but are reflective of the mid-century designers’ optimistic  adaptation to place, light, and space. In the case of the Friedman house, this important modernist design link towards establishing a vernacular coastal style will remain.

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In late 2015, the Surgeon General of the United States issued a national call to action asking every person to walk 150 minutes a week, or roughly 20 minutes a day. We know the reasons why-walking every day decreases your likelihood of getting over 41 diseases, and every walk boosts your immune system for 24 hours. And you can get fit.

And here is the thing-our walkable cities, towns, places and spaces need help to make walking comfortable, convenient, interesting and fun. That is the reason that Walk Metro Vancouver  was formed following the Walk21 Vancouver 2011  conference.

The  free webinar  sponsored by the Centre for Disease Control is on the America Walks site on May 12. It features the stories of two people that received micro grants to make their places more walkable, as well as the story of one of the towns deemed the most walkable in the USA.  This could provide inspiration on what you can do in your neighbourhood to increase and enhance visual interest, comfort and walkability.


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The Globe and Mail reports on the scheduled demise of a truly iconic house located in Vancouver’s university neighbourhood, the  University Endowment Lands east of the University of British Columbia. The Friedman house was designed and built by Frederic Lasserre who was originally from Switzerland and  a University of Toronto graduate. Lasserre  worked in London for  the famous TECTON architecture group and taught at McGill before becoming the first head of the new Department of Architecture at the University of British Columbia in 1946.



The photo above is of Fred Lasserre in front of the Lasserre Building at the University of British Columbia. This is where the Architecture, Planning and Fine Arts Schools are located at the University. The UBC Architecture school was definitely modernist, and influenced by other emerging architects such as Ned Pratt and Bob Berwick, forerunners of the “West Coast Style”.



The house was built in 1953 for Dr. Sydney Friedman and his wife Constance, two of the early members of the Faculty of Medicine at UBC.  The garden of the house was planted by landscape architecture icon Cornelia Oberlander, in classic west coast style.  Dr. Friedman recently spent nearly $300,0000 on restorations to a house that he dearly loved, which still has its original furnishings from the 1950’s as can be seen in the photos. I have visited it and it is truly a unique and extraordinary house and setting.



Dr. Friedman passed away last year at the age of 94. He and his wife created a trust to provide for students attending the University of British Columbia. Because of the house’s location in the University Endowment Lands, Dr. Friedman could not get a heritage designation for the house because it is not located in the City of Vancouver. The members of the trust have deemed that the house needs to be for sale and it is on the market in the four million dollar range. Bids close very soon, and we will be losing an important classic modernist house, garden and furnishings that anywhere else would be cherished as a very important architectural gem. It is hoped that someone that understands the significance of the house steps forward to purchase it. Years from now we will mourn that this  modernist gem was not kept and instead becomes another residence destined for the landfill  in the relentless quest for new, larger single family homes. This residence has a remarkable tie to to our own architectural and planning history.

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On the retail front, work is going ahead on Tsawwassen Mills, the huge mall being built on First Nations lands near the Tsawwassen ferry terminal. And we are talking big-111,500 square meters or 1.2 million square feet of space with 16 anchor tenants and a food court seating 1,100 people.
The opening for this mall is planned for  late 2016, with acres of parking, and easy access from Highway 17 and 17a  for those customers.
I was at a seminar with a retired Chief Purser for BC Ferries and asked her the question-would people driving to the ferry terminal stop first at the mall to shop? She was emphatic at saying no, people going to the ferry are pretty focused on getting on the boat, not loading up on merchandise to take on the boat.
The developer of the mall, Ivanhoe Cambridge which is based in Quebec (part of the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec), also has announced a new Edmonton mall to be built at the Edmonton Airport. In January Ivanhoe Cambridge announced that their 350,000 square foot mall would be revised to 428,000 square feet, with an increase of stores from 85 to 100. No recessionary impact showing in that decision.
The philosophy of Ivanhoe Cambridge in the location of these malls  is expressed in this Globe and Mail article from 2014. The article states that the key to success of these malls is cheap land and distance from other retail locations, so that locations on major highway interchanges are easily accessible by car. There is psychology involved too-if you have driven a distance, you are going to make it worth your while by making a significant purchase.
The Tsawwassen Mills website is here, but there are no updates since December 2015 on the site.  Time will tell if this shopping mall will succeed, or  if it will eventually become the new campus for Delta University.

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The Surgeon General of the US  has issued a call to action encouraging people to walk 150 minutes a week, or 20 minutes a day. Why? Because even such a moderate amount of activity can decrease the incidence of 41 diseases. Each walk boosts the immune system for 24 hours. One mile a day can reduce by 13 per cent your chance of a cognitive decline. 

And that is where those dogs come in. Rinus Jaasma did some interesting research on walking the dog in the Netherlands. On a national basis, walking the dog covers 40 per cent of all daily trips on foot as reported in the Dutch mobility research. This may actually be underreported, as most of these dog walks happen in the early morning or late night. Dog walkers stay a longer time in parks and outdoor spaces compared to the duration of trips with other motives. Because of their high numbers, Jaasma recommends that careful consideration be taken for planning pedestrian facilities in residential areas to allow for good walking for people and pooches on streets to and from park and dog areas.

study of dog owners in western Canada  from the University of Victoria concluded that dog owners walked an average of 300 minutes a week compared to non dog owners who walked 162 minutes a week. People who owned dogs participated in more physical activity. Acquiring a dog can make you more physically active, and give you  a real reason to get out walking in the rain.

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I wrote about this earlier on Price Tags-just where are those boomers that are cashing out of those houses moving to? Are they staying in Vancouver? That link is here.
This article from Bloomberg News says that they are moving out of the city at the rate of over 2,300 people annually  and causing increased housing prices in their new communities, including Qualicum Beach, Parksville and the Sunshine Coast. Prices jumped 42 per cent there. It is suggested that these boomers cannot find suitable accommodation in Vancouver after their house sells, indicating that there is housing affordability challenges not only for people entering the market, but those seniors attempting to  transition to a more compact space. More here
Most sadly the article features two people who have made a remarkable contribution to the City who are now leaving-former City Councillor Jonathan Baker and active Dunbar resident Linda MacAdam. Both of these people cared deeply for their community and were very involved in their neighbourhoods. Not only are we losing seniors, we are losing the neighbourly capacity and knowledge as this group moves elsewhere.

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