Friday, May 21, 2010

Meet me at the Fair: Shanghai Expo 2010

The first time I visited Shanghai was in December 2005 with my family en route to Thailand. I was absolutely amazed by what I discovered, and happened to come across the Urban Planning pavilion promoting the 2010 World's Fair. I vowed to return, all being well.

On Saturday I am leaving Vancouver for two weeks in Shanghai. I will be accompanied by James Lee, a mid-Pacific architect I met 35 years ago while I was at CMHC, who now divides his time between Shanghai and Vancouver. I plan to record my observations on this blog, and in a series of articles I will be writing for the Vancouver Sun.

If you have friends or acquaintenances in Shanghai who you think I should meet, please let me know. Also, if you have been to the fair and have any suggestions, I would welcome these as well.

I am loading up on cameras and hard drives to record as much as I can. I look forward to sharing what I find with you. I am expecting the fabulous!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

West Vancouver's Housing Forum: Tuesday May 18

I am impressed with the efforts by West Vancouver City Council, staff, and some 'neighbourhood activists' to promote, yes promote alternative form of housing in the District. For this reason, I have happily agreed to speak on what should be an interesting panel on how to set in place an action plan to allow new housing choices. I like to think that if we can be successful in West Van, we can be successful anywhere in the region...

Join us on May 18th for a panel discussion on how to respond to West Vancouver’s changing housing needs and an exploration of new housing types…

“Housing That Fits Us and Fits In”

A free public forum on Housing

Hosted by the District of West Vancouver

Tuesday, May 18th

7:00 to 9:00pm

Kay Meek Centre

1700 Mathers Avenue, West Vancouver

(Doors Open at 6:00pm with information displays in the foyer)

The event will be moderated by Gordon Price. Speakers include: Mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Michael Geller, Noha Sedky, Robert Brown, and Adine Mees (see attached poster for details)

For more information about the District of West Vancouver’s Housing Pilot Program, please go to

or contact the Planning Department at 604.925.7055

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Detroit: Red Wings, Tigers, Casino!

The last time I was in Detroit was in my early teens, and the purpose of the trip was to buy Adler sox and madras button down shirts that were not yet available in Toronto. The city has changed.I took the tunnel bus which normally takes 15 minutes. Unfortunately, due to construction traffic and a car running out of gas which blocked the lane, it took 1 1/2 hours. (Fortunately, I had a book to read.) Arriving in Michigan I was immediately struck by the state's slogan..."Pure Michigan". The people who come up with these slogans really ought to be shot. The next thing that struck me was the GM Renaissance Centre which dominates the city's skyline.

I tried to arrange a city tour, but people laughed at me. But I learned there was a 'people mover' and decided to create my own tour. The 'people mover' turned out to be a cousin of the Vancouver's the same technology, and it was quite spooky travelling around Detroit's downtown to the background sounds of the Canada Line.

As I passed the Joe Louis Arena, I couldn't help but think that I hope they Detroit Red Wings do well....because the city does not have a lot going for it these days.
At least certainly not the downtown. There are some attractive older buildings, including a lovely art deco building, and there's a baseball park and City Opera, yes an Opera building.... something we don't have. But there are acres of parking lots and little street life on a Saturday afternoon. Detroit's Time Square is not New York's Times Square. Where is everybody?Well, I soon found out. One of the People Mover stops was Greektown, and thinking it would be nice to get a late lunch, I got off...directly into the Greektown Casino. It was packed. I mean absolutely packed! I couldn't believe it. And the people did not look like Vancouver people. I didn't take any pictures, because I once got into serious trouble in Las Vegas for taking pictures in a casino, but just try to imagine a lot of very, very large black and white people, many pushing walkers and a surprising number of wheelchairs...and you'll start to have an impression of what I found.

After a brief visit, I found it too sad to be there. So I got back on the People Mover for another loop around the city. I eventually got off at the new Rosa Parks transit terminal, an unusual tensile roof structure, to get the 4:30 bus back to Windsor. It was very cold and windy, and the bus finally arrived at 5:55. After a brief stop at Canadian Customs (don't ask me what it was like to go through American Customs with a bus full of 'foreigners') the bus went directly to....the Windsor Casino! Later that evening, as I looked back over the river to Detroit I wished the city all the best for the future. Let's start buying Chevrolets!

Windsor: Casino City

On Friday morning I boarded a VIA train in Toronto for Windsor. I can't remember whether I have ever been here before but it doesn't matter... even if I have been here, it's changed. Windsor couldn't refuse an offer Vancouver once allow an American casino operator to build a facility on a prime waterfront site along with new convention facilities. While the development was initially undertaken by another company, it is now operated by Caesars, and is quite an impressive facility. The 32 storey hotel had very nice rooms and can command $275 a night on the weekend. That's not bad for a place like Windsor.

I came to Windsor to speak to at the Ontario Association of Architects' annual conference. My topic, lessons for Canadian cities from around the world...and I was given 3 1/2 hours! (Even I wouldn't want to have to listen to myself for 3 1/2 hours.) But it was a good discussion and hopefully those in attendance thought it was a good way to spend a Saturday morning.I decided to spend Saturday afternoon walking around Windsor but everyone cautioned me against it. "It's a lively place in the summer", said the hotel concierge, "but there's not much to do today." Instead, he suggested that I go over to Detroit. I decided to ignore him and set off to explore. But as a cold wind blew over the Detroit River, with virtually no life in sight, I decided to take his advice and set off for the bus station to get the Tunnel Bus.

The RAW Party: Toronto's Best Emerging Architects

Before heading off to the Ontario Association of Architects' Annual Conference in Windsor, my friend Mark Guslits took me to the annual party of RAW, one of Toronto's new young architectectural practices. In fact, they were voted the OAA Best Emerging Practice in 2009. (The AIBC should consider this type of award...)The party was held at one of their latest projects, a Mini dealership, and I couldn't help but think what a creative idea it was....a joint venture between a firm of architects and a client...with drinks sponsored by emerging products....Beefeater Gin's newest product '24' and new wines and beers.In addition to many Toronto architects and developers, and Mini purchasers, Austin Powers was there...he is after all a Torontonian...

While Mark played with the cars...boys will be boys...I got to meet some of the developers who are changing the city's skyline...while they are not yet achieving the prices we are achieving in Vancouver, there is a lot more activitiy in Toronto, with Jon Wener's 75 storey AURA now underway at College and Yonge, and One Bloor Street about to be resurrected.Travelling around downtown Toronto I sometimes felt like a little boy who had just come in from the farm. But then I'm told Torontonians feel somewhat disoriented when they come to Vancouver. Our city is so much more beautiful!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The AGO Expansion

Since I didn't like the ROM expansion, I was hoping that I would like the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario Expansion), and I did like some of it, but not all of it. In fact, I must confess it reinforced the views of some Vancouverites who worry about trying to expand our existing gallery into something new. I liked the outside...why a fish? Because Frank Gehry likes fish. (Actually, I like fish too.) Although I thought the signage a bit 'cheap' and gimicky.

One of the best spaces is a wooden galleria...the Galleria Italia, which is behind the fish and financed by many of Toronto's prominent Italian families...(responsible for much of the new development in the city over the past five decades). It wasn't being used very well when I was there, but it would make a wonderful reception area, or sculptural exhibit area.(Perhaps this is a fundraising idea for our new gallery...we can have all the Persian business community in one space; the Chinese in another space; and of course the Italians in our version of the Galleria Italia. Who have I missed?

The view from the south across the Grange is a bit odd, or impressive, depending on your point of view. Why blue? I guess Frank liked blue. I found the tin-panning metal panels a bit unfortunate. However, the protruding staircases are very dramatic and offer good views of the city and the nearby Ontario College of Art.All in all, my friends think the gallery is a great success and a real improvement over the previous galleries...and it was wonderful to see so many works of art that I used to regularly visit in the 60's as a young student when Michael Snow, Michael Heydon and Graham Coughtry were all in thier prime.

I love New York, but not at Bayview and Sheppard

I spent the past week touring new housing developments in and around Toronto. As I drove along Sheppard Avenue I couldn't believe my eyes. There was the Chrysler building. Well actually there were two Chrysler buildings, as part of a large complex across from a shopping centre.While I was amused, I couldn't help but think there was something wrong with this mimicry, especially when the buildings at the base seemed to come from another place and another era. It seemed so forced and artificial. On the other hand, I suspect the people who bought there enjoy living in a building that is a bit more distinctive than so many of the other large apartment blocks around the city. And yes, they certainly are large.I went inside the presentation centre and was interested to read about the rationale for the design of the top of the original Chrysler building. It seeems the developer didn't want a rival to know how tall his building was going to be so he created an 'accordian' design which was extended at the very last minute. Ingenious! Here's the real Chrysler Building top...

The Royal Ontario Museum addition

In 1971 I was working with Irving Grossman Architect, one of Canada's premier housing architects in Toronto. One day, Irving announced that I would be joined in the back room by a young architect who he had hired as a favour to a good friend David Lewis, the then Leader of the NDP in Canada.

The new guy, Daniel, was David's son-in-law and had never worked in an architect's office before. He didn't really know how to draw very well; but he was a very good talker, and thinker. One day Irving called me into his office to tell me he had just lost a big contract with the Ontario Housing Corporation and there wasn't enough work to keep both Daniel and me. Consequently, he was going to let me go, since as he put it, he wasn't worried about me getting another job, but feared it might be more difficult for Daniel.

Irving was right. Within a few days I had an interview in Ottawa with CMHC and started work a month later on Mothers' Day 1972. As for Daniel, he went on to design the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the replacement for the World Trade Centre and an addition to the Royal Ontario Museum.

Daniel was, of course, Daniel Libeskind.

I thought about this story this past week when I decided to explore Daniel's chrystalline expansion to the ROM. While I watched the project under construction during infrequent visits to Toronto, I knew I would likely be upset by the completed project. I was.I can't believe this project was allowed to get built. While there are some dramatic angles and views, it is a most unfortunate design and the juxtaposition between the new and old buildings is so awkward, it is difficult to look at. The inside spaces are even worse.I watched people trying to open the front doors and they didn't know what to do. Similarly, those charged with furnishing the inside didn't know what to do.Some people have said they think this is a great building in that it reflects the look of the minerals on display inside. However, if they looked at some of Libeskind's other buildings, they would see that they too reflect the look of minerals, whether they be a War Museum in Manchester, a Jewish Museum in get the point.I would like to like this building, but I can't. Let's hope Daniel doesn't get to design Vancouver's new Art Gallery.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Take me out to the Ballgame

I spent Sunday afternoon in Toronto doing what most Torontonians don't...I went to a Blue Jays game. Sadly, in the last 15 years, since the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series pennants in 1992 and 1993, the attendance seems to have steadily dwindled and yesterday there did not seem to be many more spectators than on a good day at Nat Bailey.

I went with my old friend Ellen who along with her husband Howard have Seasons Tickets. They are exteremely good seats, row 11 behind home plate and one gets a very good view of the game. Watching in the ball park is a very different experience than watching on TV where you have to watch what the camera shows you.I had read that many people are not coming to the games since the Blue Jays are a losing team. That may be true. But I also suspect that many may not come because it can also be quite expensive for the average family. While one can buy an outfield upper deck ticket for as little as $10, a beer is $10, popcorn is over $6, even a small bag of peanuts is $5. That's too much.

I checked on-line and noticed that seats in the first row behind home plate re-sell for just over $300 each.

While the Blue Jays have not been winning, this was not the case on Sunday. For the first few innings they could do little wrong and before long had 9 runs. The final score was 9-3, and we all went home happy.One of the things that added to the game enjoyment was the open roof. If you haven't been to Rogers Park, the roof slides open or shut depending on the weather. As I sat there with the sun streaming down, I couldn't help but think about BC Place Stadium and its roof. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it could open like the Toronto Stadium. Sadly, I don't think this will happen. After seeing a model of the new stadium, I understand that our new roof does not turn the stadium into a 'convertible'. Instead, we arereally just adding a large sun-roof. It's better than nothing, but I remain to be convinced that it's worth the cost.

But if you are in Toronto, it is worth the cost of going to a game....if only once. (80 games might be a bit too much) Better still, find a friend with seasons tickets. They probably aren't using them!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

My High School Reunion

I have always been intrigued by school reunions...whatever happened to....So I decided to return to North York for the 50th anniversary of my high school W L Mackenzie. I started high school in 1961 at the age of 13 and graduated from grade 13 four years later. I attended the 25th anniversary reunion, but otherwise have had little contact with any of my high school friends, other than one friend who lives in Phoenix. So I was keen to see how people had changed.Since I was told that there would be no food served, I passed the Jewish Memorial Monuments Factory Outlet on Bathurst street and stopped off for a deli platter at Pancers Delicatessen where we regularly hung out during high school. (We really need another good delicatessen in Vancouver!) I took my copy of The Advocate and looked at old photos from our graduating year. Hopefully Honey Goldlist would show up, along with some of the other girls on whom I had a crush.

As soon as I arrived at the school I was greeted by my old friend Howie. But I was somewhat taken aback when he took my face in his hand and started to take a closer look at my beard. "You should have that looked at" he said, and I then realized he was referring to a brown mark on my cheek. I told him that I had seen my GP , but he said to ignore what a GP has to say. "See a specialist".

When I told another friend about this experience he told me that Howie was now one of Toronto's top dermatologists and I should take his advice. I will. (Who knows, maybe attending a high school reunion will help prevent getting melanoma.)

One person I wanted to see was Greg Hershoff. Greg was always a party guy with a fancy convertible and I was keen to find out what happened to him. I soon discovered he was no longer Greg Hershoff. He was now Dr. Asa Hersh DC ND of California, who specializes in healing from the inside out. I checked out his website.... His full-spectrum approach includes Bioenergy Testing, Classical Homeopathy, herbal medicine, clinical nutrition, spinal manipulation, and subtle energy healing. He has been a spiritual seeker since his youth, and is a fully ordained lay Tibetan Lama or Ngakpa of the Nyingma tradition. Well, people change when they move to California.I met up with a number of old friends, including Honey who was still a very attractive lady. I learned that she, like many of the women at the reunion, had been married, but was no longer married.
What I really wanted to know was what happened to all the guys who belonged to the Radio Club. Sadly, I didn't know them then, and wouldn't know them now. (Some one should do a study to see whether the boys who belonged to clubs like the Radio Club followed different career paths than say those who belonged to the Dance Club.)I searched for Mayna Vellis with whom I was photographed dancing in the yearbook. Sadly, neither she nor most of the other girls with whom I spent time after class in basement recreation rooms were there.It was 45 years since I had seen many of my classmates, and while some had changed and were virually unrecognizable, others hadn't changed at all!... Everyone agreed that Stan Waese should have got a special award for being the person who changed the least since 1965. Interestingly, the guys who hung around the local billiard hall still looked like guys who hung around billiard halls. Except for Ted Wineck, who was one of the event organizers...a tough guy at school...a sports hero...he told me that after many different careers, he now taught chess to elementary school children as a means of imparting life skills.

It was interesting to see some of the teachers. I went up to one lady who I recognized as a former math teacher. I told her that when I was at the school she was Miss Bennie. She looked me in the eye and said "I'm still Miss Bennie!"

A crowd favourite was Mr Gregg, the latin teacher. A number of us agreed that he had instilled in us a love of language that had remained with us to this day. Do they still teach Latin in high school?

As I left the reunion I was reminded of one of my favourite movies The Up Series, by Michael Apted.

Up Series is a series of documentary films that have followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old. The children were selected to represent the range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain at that time, with the explicit assumption that each child's social class predetermines their future. Every seven years, the director, Michael Apted, films new material from as many of the fourteen as he can get to participate. Filming for the next installment in the series, 56 Up, is expected in late 2011 or early 2012.

The students at Mackenzie were generally from fairly affluent backgrounds. The majority were Jewish, and many had parents who had survived the Holocaust. Nearly everyone in my class went on to university. There were lots of dentists, doctors, accountants, lawyers and many people 'in business'. One exception....Dave 'the voice' Lennick, who was the DJ at the school dances had followed a career in radio and the theatre. Most of the women had followed different career paths...they were teachers, social workers, and many had simply stayed home and brought up their children...until their divorce.

What I couldn't understand was why more classmates had not attended the reunion. I would have thought that everyone would be curious to see how each other had changed. I discussed this with a few people who suggested that many may not have come since they didn't enjoy their highschool years and didn't want to be reminded of a less happy period of their times. Others may not have come because they weren't as 'successful' as other classmates.

At any rate, if you have a highschool reunion coming up, I urge you to attend. It can be a worthwhile experience, and there are always a few surprises. And yes, as a rule, the women look much better than the men.