Friday, September 25, 2009

Please don't drink water from the urinals

Came across this warning above the urinal in the washroom at the Convention Centre. Quite frankly, I think anyone who drinks from the urinals deserves to get sick.

The Canada Line: it needs some help

I had a wine tasting event last night for Arts Umbrella at the Convention Centre, so decided to take the Canada Line from 49th and Cambie. While I really like the train, and the trip was good, we really must do something about the stations and signage.

Above is the station at 49th and Cambie. COULD IT BE ANY UGLIER? Surely we can do better. I, and no doubt others, would love to build a townhouse project on the vacant lot beside the station since that would help to partially hide it, and generate some money to improve its appearance. But somehow, I doubt this will happen in the near future.Returning from the Convention Centre, I found these signs at the entrance to the existing station...IS THIS HOW THE DESIGNERS ALWAYS INTENDED TO DIFFERENTIATE THE CANADA LINE FROM THE EXPO LINE? It directed us into The Station.Once inside The Station we looked for the entry to the Canada Line. But it is so poorly signed, especially in the evening, that it was difficult to find. I took this rather poor fuzzy photo.Ironically, when I took the photo with a flash, the sign lit up! Now that's what it probably should be like all the time.How disappointing. If anyone knows how these bad decisions were made, I'd love to know. But more importantly, let's fix this up before the world comes in February.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Belgian architecture eschews monotony, embraces variety

Shared party walls, for example, don't just divide households; they may divide contrasting designs and construction styles
Michael Geller, Special to The Sun
Published: Saturday, September 19, 2009

Recently, I returned from three weeks in Belgium and Luxembourg. While I spent a number of nights in hotels, most of my time was spent in a rambling 22-room house in Zomergem, a small village between Bruges and Ghent. While I lived in this former mayor's mansion, which had been lovingly restored, the owner and his family were enjoying my much smaller home in Vancouver.

This was our seventh house exchange. Like all the others, it went extremely well, without any problems. Not only did we exchange homes, we also exchanged cars. However, unlike some previous years, we did not exchange cats or cellphones.

House exchanges are a wonderful way to travel. Not only can you save money, you can also experience a country in a way that is simply not possible when staying in hotels and eating in restaurants.

During an exchange, one also often gets to meet the neighbours. We were fortunate in having Tom and Martine nearby. They both spoke perfect English and helped us better understand the local cultures and customs.

Although summer is now over, it's not too early to perhaps consider a house exchange as a good way for your family to travel next summer.

While Belgium is not as popular as France or Italy as a tourist attraction, it has an extremely interesting history and extraordinary places to visit. And as I discovered, in addition to the wonderful chocolates, it also offers ideas and lessons that could help make our cities more livable and attractive.

One of the first things that I noticed in Zomergem was the way the streets were designed and built to improve traffic safety. Throughout the village -- and in most nearby towns and cities -- bicycle paths are clearly marked with specially coloured paving or asphalt. There is also a separate bicycle highway network with its own numbering system, signage and maps.In and around Zomergem, road intersections are raised about 10 cm, or four inches. This is done to caution drivers and help slow down traffic. Some intersections also have large mirrors to improve visibility. Pedestrian crosswalks are very clearly marked, sometimes with tall black and yellow striped poles and additional overhead lighting. When I commented on these designs, my neighbour told me that the country had recently embarked on a very deliberate traffic safety program to reduce the number of fatalities. The goal was no more than 500 a year -- in a country of 11 million people, five million cars and thousands of national and international trucks.

I had no idea how many traffic fatalities occurred in our country, so I did some research. While I was pleased to discover that the number of fatal accidents has been steadily dropping, there were still 2,900 deaths across Canada in 2006. If Canada was to attempt to limit traffic fatalities to the same level as Belgium's proportionately, those 2,900 deaths would need to be cut in half. Improved intersection designs, better pedestrian crosswalks and safer bicycle lanes might help.

Belgium has a great architectural history and cities like Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp and Brussels have many streetscapes full of buildings dating back to the 17th century, and earlier. During the 19th century, many buildings were designed in what is called the neoclassical style and architectural revivalism, which combined various architectural styles from earlier periods. However, at the end of the 19th century, a new style was created in Europe, which became known as art nouveau. Many areas in Brussels and Antwerp were developed in this new, highly decorative style, and while some of the better examples have tragically been destroyed over the years, many good examples remain.

Looking at these buildings, I was most impressed with the attention to detail and efforts to combine architecture and art. I was particularly taken with the beautiful brickwork, which often combined different colours and patterns, including the distinctive "Flemish Bond," which incorporates bricks of different sizes.As I admired these buildings, I thought about how little additional effort and cost would be required to make our new brick buildings more attractive and decorative. Yes, architects would need to be paid to include additional details on their drawings, and bricklayers would have to pay more attention to the drawings. But just as in Belgium, our brick buildings will likely last for many centuries and they could easily be designed and built in a more beautiful manner. Why, most Toronto brick buildings have more decorative qualities than what we are building!

While the new housing in Belgium is different than what was built centuries ago, looking around Zomergem and nearby towns, I was fascinated by the differences between new Belgian subdivisions and new subdivisions in British Columbia. For one thing, it is not uncommon to see a variety of housing forms and architectural styles in one subdivision. To conserve land, the new housing form is either open, half-open or closed.

Open housing refers to detached, single-family dwellings.

Half-open housing is what we we might call semi-detached or duplex housing, with a common or shared party wall. However, unlike most semi-detached housing built in Vancouver, half-open houses are often designed by two different architects and built by two different owners. The results can be quite extraordinary.Closed housing has shared party walls on both sides, resulting in what we would call townhouses or row housing. Again, homes in the row are often designed and built by different architects and owners, just as they were centuries ago.

In reviewing the local streets and subdivisions, I was surprised by the number of modern designs being built. In Vancouver, most new subdivision housing seems to belong to another time or place. We rarely see small, modern "West Coast" houses being built in subdivisions or on infill lots.

I believe the Belgians are building more contemporary and interesting homes for three reasons:

- They have a desire to be individualistic and to not always conform.

- They have had a longstanding interest in architectural design.

- Architects are usually hired to design a house, even a small, modest house.

Perhaps there are some lessons for us here, too.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner and developer and retired university administrator. His blog on Belgium can be found at on the Internet. For more information on house exchanges visit

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Goodbye Zomergem, Goodbye Belgium

When we were first invited to consider a house exchange in Zomergem I went on-line, only to discover that the place didn’t really have much of a website. But we went anyway! after all, it was very close to Ghent and Bruges.

When we arrived, we found a very small village with a beautiful Town Hall, across from the cathedral, surrounded by a few eating and drinking establishments, a very upscale deli, and financial and service offices.

Looking up the main street, which was paved in large granite pavers, with pink ribbons of smooth pavers for the cyclists, we saw the spire of the cathedral. There was a mix of shops and houses with a variety of styles. Down the street were bakeries, the video store (we always had to check for language and sub-titles) and supermarkets.

Our house was right on the main street. It had approximately 22 rooms, plus a large basement that I never ventured into. We don’t know the age, although we were told the foundations were thought to be Spanish…yes, there was a Spanish presence in Belgium during the 16th and 17th centuries. At one time, the house belonged to the Mayor of Zomergem and for many years it was abandoned. Geert, the current owner has spent the past 6 years lovingly restoring it to its former glory.

The rooms were very large, especially the master bedroom which contained 5 banana plants and other foliage…perhaps to remind Geert's wife Lut of her roots in Africa! There were two different staircases leading to different parts of the house with three different water supply systems and three different heating systems. Fortunately, I didn’t have to touch a thing.

Notwithstanding its age, there was a very modern electrical and plumbing system, wireless internet and all mod cons. The electric cook top was so elaborate it took some time to figure out!

The former stables were used to keep the matching Renault Kangoos, a variety of bicycles, and goodness knows what else. After all, Geert was undertaking much of the renovation work himself.

Outside there was a magnificent garden, with lots of plants, as well as chickens, rabbits, tortoises, and a cat. (We ate one of the chickens for lunch the day we arrived.) The barbq was quite different from our stainless steel unit which is directly connected into the house natural gas service. Similarly, the old metal gates and locking system bore no resemblance to our garage with its remote automatic door.

Perhaps because this was such a very different property, in a very different place, we enjoyed the three weeks immensely. In fact, we were sorry to leave, since we were just starting to discover the best shops and restaurants.

Whenever I think about travelling, I often like to compare the joys of going to exotic places, only to seek the familiar, with going to familiar places to seek out the exotic. Belgium was both familiar, and exotic. In many respects it was just like Canada, and in others, it was nothing like Canada. But it is a place we highly recommend and all being well, one day we will go back.

As we return to Canada, I would like to conclude with a few more things that distinguish what we found in different parts of Belgium with what we have in Vancouver.....

Better Public Parkades: they are well signed, with an indication of how many spaces are left. In one garage we went into, all the available spaces had a flashing green light above them! There are also washrooms and vending machines.

Well marked pedestrian crosswalks, raised intersections, creative school signs: the yellow and black striped poles were hard to miss. The country is making a concerted effort to reduce the number of traffic fatalities to no more than 500 a year. Canada is currently at about twice that.

Skilled and Courteous Drivers: on the highways, everyone keeps to the right, except to pass. I think this contributes to traffic safety, and it is something that should be enforced here. (In Australia, you can be fined for not keeping to the left, except to pass!)

More Windmills: Of course, we all associate windmills with Holland, but there are many around Belgium, not just the old kind, but the new kind, which generate significant energy.

More Markets: the historic Grand Place in Brussels is still used to sell plants each morning. Public markets are a very integral part of the shopping experience.

Bike Sharing (Velos): In many cities in Belgium and Luxembourg, one can join a bike sharing network and use the electric support bikes parked around town.

Trains and Trams: Of course, Europe has a different history when it comes to trains and trams, however, there's no reason why we can't improve our rail system. I was particularly impressed with train lines that ran through the grass. (If we want to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world, maybe we should the new Broadway line along a grass boulevard out to UBC!)

More Art. a Magritte painting over a urinal is perhaps a good symbol for the national interest in art! So is the quality of artwork in the Brussels Metro.

Interesting hedges. Most homes have well trimmed hedges, but they are also used as ornamental landscaping and are sometimes found along the side of roads, separating motorists from pedestrians.

A greater sense of civic pride: Most of the towns around us were so very neat and tidy. While there was graffiti in the larger cities, (Brussels can definitely learn from Vancouver in this respect) there was none where we were. Indeed, our guests who joined us, John and Lynne Townsend, and Maxine Long both remarked on what they called tiny perfect towns....

The food. While more expensive than what we pay in Vancouver, the moules, the frittes, the salads, the seafood platters, and the wide variety of French restaurants was exceptional. Now we must try Chambar, the best known Belgian restaurant in Vancouver!

The Atomium: Brussels Worlds Fair 1958

The first time I was in Belgium in 1969, I remember driving along a small residential street and there at the end were these giant steel balls in the air! It was unbelievable.Well, those steel balls are still there. And they are worth a visit if you are ever in Brussels, since today they have been converted into a museum celebrating the 1958 Worlds Fair, which like Expo 67 in Montreal, helped put the city on the world map.As you travel through the steel tubes connecting the balls, you are reminded of what the world was like 51 years ago....the cold war between America and Russia, the fascination with 'modern things', streamlined toasters and cars, and plastics. In some respects, everything old is new again. The museum featured two cars, the mini and a small fiat, both of which have been reproduced in recent years.Outside, the Atomium's new electric car was parked.From the top one gets a fabulous view of the rest of the fairgrounds, including a miniature village and a model of the European Community. After all, it was about this time that EEC was being formed. Inside was a proud, impressive display on the Belgium Congo, although it became an independent country only two years later.As I get older, I wish I had paid more attention to what was happening around the world when I was younger! But fortunately, with exhibitions like Atomium we can relieve the past with its fashions, music, cars. As Vancouver ages, I think we need to give more thought as to how best document and celebrate our history. When was the last time you went to the Vancouver Museum? Precisely.