Saturday, July 31, 2010

It's Daliesque!

Since Frances Bula has described the new Casino project in Vancouver as 'Daliesque' I thought I would post a few photos of some of Dali's projects on the Costa Brava.

Like most people of my generation, I grew up with a few Dali posters in my room. But I did not really know much about the artist until this past week when Sally and I did the ‘Dali Triangle’, which consists of ‘Castell de Pubol, a mansion he bought for his wife in Pubol; his home in Port Lligat near Cadaques where he hung around for years; and the Teatre-Museu Dali in Figueres, the town where he was born.

After visiting all three, we have a new appreciation for the man. We still think he was mad, but he was a great artist, whose work included many different styles.A few highlights: the place in Pubol still has his wife’s car in the garage…a black caddie. And outside of the garage is parked his car…an orange Datsun. Yes, he drove a Datsun…now why doesn’t Nissan feature that in any of its ads?

Also in the garden at Pubol were the elephants with the giraffe’s legs, his wife’s collection of dresses, a chess set made of fingers, and bits of fingers, and a rather ordinary kitchen.Unfortunately, we couldn’t get inside his home in Port Lligat, since you need to reserve in advance. However, we walked around the property that was once a modest fisherman’s house and is now a white painted extended property with a magnificent setting. It is not ‘over the top’, although according to the book which describes the house, there are a few very special rooms.

However, the third point on the triangle is ‘over the top’. The theatre-museum is absolutely outstanding…bizarre is not the word. It’s more than bizarre, with eggs on the roof and bears; well they look like bears, attached to the exterior walls. The story goes that Dali was asked by the Mayor to donate a painting, and he responded that he would do more…he would donate an entire museum. So in the 1960’s he started the process to renovate the burnt out municipal museum where he had his first exhibit in 1919….at the age of 14!He started by commissioning a Buckminster Fuller dome, and during the 70’s and 80’s the museum expanded until his death in 1989. Not only does the museum contain an incredible selection of Dali’s works of art, the museum itself is an incredible work of art…with another car, an old Cadillac convertible, in the central courtyard.

After his death, the museum continued to be expanded and improved and today it is the ‘theatrical dream’ that Dali hoped it would become. Here are some pictures.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Barcelona: Gastronomy and Gaudi

When I think of France, I think of wine and food. But many believe that Spain is now taking over from France as the gastronomic centre of Europe. While I’m sure the French and Italians would disagree, there is no doubt that there is a great focus on food here, and lots of different approaches to having a meal.While we are all familiar with tapas, I wasn’t familiar with ‘montaditos’ or canapés. They are very much like those served at receptions and are very popular in Barcelona restaurants which have them on the counter, and you just help yourself. When it comes time to pay, the server counts the number of toothpicks that were holding the canapés together. As Jessica Brown Duncan, our host for an evening on the town pointed out, in Vancouver a lot of those toothpicks would end up on the floor. But not in Barcelona.

Jessica took us to a number of tapas bars where our meal consisted of an ongoing variety of small dishes. Along with bottles of cava, we had pieces of bread rubbed with tomato and garlic, anchovies, smoked herring, various olives, smoked salmon, cheeses, stuffed peppers, slices of ham, slices of ham, did I mention slices of ham….and on it went. We shared some with a Danish architect and his wife, who I met at our small stand-up table, and after an hour, I couldn’t believe anyone had any idea how much the whole thing should cost. But the server showed me a piece of paper with some numbers written on it, and it was all quite reasonable and I paid. The bill included the 8% VAT. Tipping seems quite informal here. We’re told servers appreciate 5 to 10%, but it is not expected.

While eating and drinking is a favourite pastime, so is Gaudi. It’s hard to believe but 84 years after his death, an architect is Barcelona’s top tourist attraction. His works include the unfinished La Sagrada Familia, the famous cathedral surrounded with tower cranes on the Barcelona skyline, which is reportedly Spain’s most popular monument. It is now scheduled to be completed in 2026, the 100th anniversary of his death.

A few blocks from our hotel on Passeig de Gracia were La Pedrera, with its curvaceous walls and decorative wrought iron balconies, and Casa Batllo, one of the most impressive houses I have ever seen. While I was familiar with both buildings from my days at architecture school, I didn’t really appreciate Gaudi’s brilliance until I visited the buildings in person.For me, one of the most interesting Gaudi works was Park Guell, a subdivision; yes a planned 60 lot residential subdivision on what were once the outskirts of Barcelona. Patterned on the Garden City movement that was intended to bring people closer to nature, only the common areas and two houses were built before the project fell into financial difficulty. Today the site is a public park. But the entry walls, town square and much of the stone aqueduct and pathway systems were completed. As these photos hopefully show, it really was quite fantastic. It might have been even more fantastic for Sally if it hadn’t been 38 degrees on the day we visited!

Touring Gaudi’s works and around Barcelona, I couldn’t help but notice how much more architecture is celebrated in Europe when compared with North America. While one might say Gaudi was an exception, I have seen some very imaginative new buildings that I will write about in future posts. In the meanwhile, suffice it to say, both Gaudi and gastronomy are two great reasons to visit Barcelona.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Barcelona: a quick tour!

The last time I was in Barcelona was in 1977. Sally and I were on a Eurail tour of Europe, and we decided to slip out of France and briefly explore Spain. We stopped in Barcelona only long enough to visit the zoo, and then decided to escape the heat for the coast. We ended up in Sitges, where we had difficulty finding a restaurant I wanted to eat in since they were all empty. It was only later that evening we discovered that no one ate in Spain much before nine thirty!

While this time we were prepared for late dinners, we weren’t really prepared for Barcelona. We had been told by everyone who had been here that it was a very good city, but in fact, it’s a great city….on a par with London, Paris and Buenos Aires. After four days, Sally prefers it to both London and Paris.

I believe that your appreciation of a city is often influenced by where you stay. Whether as a result of our careful analysis, or luck, we chose well in Barcelona. We stayed at the AC Diplomatic, part of a Spanish hotel chain. The location was excellent; one block off the Passeig de Gracia, the city’s most fashionable street, and a block from the Manzana de la Discordia, which I will write about later.

The building was not particularly attractive from the outside, but it had attractive, contemporary designed common areas and the rooms had been renovated with hardwood floors and well appointed bathrooms. A four star rated hotel, the price seemed quite reasonable by international standards, so we upgraded to a superior room. It cost about $600 for four nights, with a free mini bar! (Beer, juices, soft drinks, waters, but no wine.) We skipped the excellent buffet breakfast, except for one morning, since we are too easily tempted, and want to be able to fit into our clothes for a wedding in UK in a week.

If you are planning a trip to Barcelona, we can highly recommend the hotel. We also recommend the Bus Touristic. We bought a two day ticket which allowed ‘hop on-hop off’ service on three different routes which take about four and a half hours to complete. After two days, we really thought we had a good appreciation of the layout and highlights of the city.

Barcelona’s most famous street is La Rambla, a very wide street by North American standards, with a pedestrian zone down the middle. It’s lined with cafes and shops and it’s what we would have liked Granville Mall to be. One of its features is a parade of street performers in the most amazing costumes doing some very silly things to earn a few cents or Euros.

At the bottom end of La Rambla, near the port is a prominent statue of Christopher Columbus. Having recently watched a movie of his life story, we now realize he’s the reason Spain enjoyed so much wealth for so many years. The nearby port area has been extensively redeveloped over the years, like Vancouver’s port, in large part due to their hosting the 1992 Olympics.I visited their Olympic Village which now seems surprisingly dated, and quite devoid of street life, especially when compared with other parts of the city. More about it in a later post.

However Montjuic, where the main Olympics facilities were built near the sites of the 1929 World Exposition, offers very impressive facilities and views and much activity. The name means ‘Jewish Mountain’, but it is not a reflection of the number of Jews there today. Rather, it refers to the location of the former Jewish Cemetery, and presumably an earlier community. While the Jews played a prominent role in Spain up until the 15th Century, that changed in 1492. (The mountain is connected to the city by both a funicular and cable car...something Gordon Harris will hopefully soon make happen on Burnaby Mountain!)

With its incredible buildings, vibrant street life, and many excellent bars and restaurants, Barcelona is a fabulous place to visit. Although we spent four days, it was not enough and we plan to return for a couple more days, before heading off to Madrid.

If you haven’t visited in recent years, plan a visit. You won’t be disappointed. In the meanwhile, here are a few more photos from the top of the bus.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Now this is what I call a roof top pool!

When I was in the Singapore Pavilion at Shanghai's EXPO, I saw illustrations of what i thought was a vision for the futurel. I was wrong. It was already built. And this week, according to Reuters, the new Sands Casino in Singapore, with a park on top opened its doors. While I am not a fan of casinos, I am a fan of gardens in the sky and so is Moishe Safdie who participated in the design of this one. Unbelievable!

I'm currently in Barcelona, staying at the AC Diplomatic since it advertised itself as having a wonderful roof-top pool with a view of the city. It does, but unfortunately, it pales in comparison with Singapore's new casino hotel.

I suspect Vancouver's new Casino will also pale in comparison. But that's another story.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Modular housing for the homeless: Redux

I was delighted to read this story by Jeff Lee in today's Vancouver Sun. Perhaps it is time for me to dust off all my old files and drawings of innovative approaches to housing the homeless with modular units. But first I'm off to Spain for a month. I'll keep you posted of what I find there, and what I might do here when I get back.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What the Mayor really thinks...and doesn't.

The Mayor is in trouble for saying what he really thinks about the public consultation process when he though his mike was off. For me, one of the most astounding aspects of this episode is that he wonders out loud whether Ned Jacobs is an NPA hack.

I first met Ned Jacobs, the son of Jane Jacobs, in early 2008 when I was part of a team putting in a proposal for the Little Mountain property, and he was one of the key community activists opposing any buildings above four storeys on the site. He is a regular speaker at Council...he has probably spoken two dozen times since the last election...Anyone who has ever seen him....or listened to him would know that he is definitely not an NPA hack. He's not even a member! It's surprising that the Mayor still doesn't know who he is.

Much will be said about this whole episode over the coming years, but no one will say it as well as Pete McMartin did in his Vancouver Sun column this morning. Here it is:

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The NPA, Miro Cernetig and Art Phillips

There recently has been much said and written about the NPA's decision to reconsider its name. Most people think it was a waste of time, given the real challenges facing the party.

The NPA Annual General Meeting and Special Meeting on a potential name change did accomplish one thing for some people. It reopened the debate as to whether the NPA is a loose association of independently minded people from various political stripes, with no over-riding policies, or indeed a political party.

And if it is a political party, does it actually have any policies? Is it intended to be Vancouver’s centre-right party? Or is it further to the right…say, Vancouver’s version of the Republican party?

While some directors and members maintain the NPA is not a party, I don’t think many people in Vancouver believe this. Indeed, they do see it as a centre right, or far right party, and certainly not something they want to be associated with.

I was impressed with Miro Cernetig’s recent front page piece on the NPA in the Vancouver Sun.

While I don't always agree with everything Miro writes (by the way, I should use the past tense since Miro announced yesterday he’s taking up a new career with an Ottawa based consulting firm…he’ll stay in Vancouver but no longer write for the Sun), I think he offered some very good advice to the NPA directors and members.

While I initially supported the idea of a new name since it might signal that the ‘association’ was going to become a ‘party’, I voted in the end to keep the old name.

Now the question is whether the NPA is going to become a truly ‘non-partisan’ association, and select good candidates for Council, regardless of their political leanings, including members of the NDP, Green Party, former COPE supporters, etc. or whether it will remain (and I use the word deliberately) a centre right party, despite its claims to the contrary.

In this regard, the discussion over a name change was not a waste of time….but if the NPA is going to play a role in Vancouver’s municipal scene, then it must quickly figure out what it is, and start to get organized. It needs to add a zero to the number of people who come out to important meetings, and somehow re-connect with more Vancouver residents who don’t want just one party representing them at City Hall.

Yesterday I attended a lovely ceremony at Vancouver City Hall when Art Phillips was made a Freeman of the City. It’s the highest honour that can be bestowed on a city resident and in Art’s case, well deserved. For those readers who weren’t around in the early 70’s, Art was a tall, handsome and successful businessman who decided to run for Mayor. (Sound familiar?) He and his TEAM council, that included May Brown and Marguerite Ford and Art Cowie and Walter Hardwick changed Vancouver forever.

TEAM was a party, but it was quite an inclusive party. In the end, some believe it folded because it was too inclusive, but I don’t pretend to know. I do know that Phillips’ Council made some important decisions such as the banning of freeways, the start on the redevelopment of the South Shore of False Creek and Granville Island (on which I worked with him), and the first efforts to convert Granville Street into a pedestrian mall…well, not everything he did was a complete success!

His wife Carole Taylor was also a Vancouver politician. When she lost an NPA nomination because of block voting by new NPA members,(she came in 11th since her name started with a 'T') she ran as an independent candidate for Council and won. She was a very popular and effective councillor and someone suggested to me yesterday that it took so long for Art to be made a Freeman of the City since it was necessary to wait until it was clear that Carole was not going to become Mayor!

To bring the discussion back to the present time, like Phillips' Council, I think Vision has made some good decisions over the past 18 months…it has continued to pursue a variety of policies related to sustainability…I say continue, since many of the ideas related to green buildings and sustainable development and food security were first proposed by earlier councils; it is continuing the direction started by Gordon Price and Peter Ladner and Fred Bass to make the city friendlier to cyclists…these are very good things. Encouraging a greater variety of street vendors is also a good thing…I just hope some will be stationed on the seawall walkways.

But it has also made some bad decisions. The STIR program was ill-conceived and ill-managed from the start, and some of the decisions re: the Olympic Village are going to be very costly for taxpayers (although I am the first to admit that many problems with the Olympic Village relate to decisions by earlier councils, of all political stripes).

I am also worried about the ramifications of some of its planning and development decisions, (such as excluding housing in and around the Central Business District; approving a 20.8 FSR building on Georgia Street just to sell some density…..but that’s another story.

As Miro correctly noted, it is in the public interest of Vancouver residents to have a variety of points of view expressed in the Council Chamber. That’s why I hope that now that the NPA has confirmed its name, it will start to sort out what it is going to be, and let the public (and its members, many of whom are not even sure if they are members) know.

I also hope that if it decides to select some Council candidates in the fall, they are genuinely seen as good, bright people, from various political stripes, true to the party’s (and yes, it is a party) name.

As I said goodbye to Art Phillips and Carole Taylor and their many friends who showed up, I was asked by a number of people whether I would run again for City Council.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and the councillors had returned to the dark Council Chamber. I was heading off to meet a friend for a glass of wine and to sit in on an event organized by the Board of Change, at which Joel Solomon would be a guest speaker.

And what did he say? He said we should all consider running for political office! That’s how we change our society for the better!

Thanks Art for all you did for the city. And Miro, best wishes for continued success in the next stage of your life.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Good on you Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation

I was delighted to come across the story below in today's Vancouver Sun reporting on Metro Vancouver's decision to make its subsidized family rental units available to families, rather than the older singles and couples who often occupy them. As a member of the Metro Housing Committee, this is something I have been advocating for some time. The fact is, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog, there are hundreds, if not thousands of larger subsidized housing units throughout Metro (including coops and other non-profit rentals) being occupied by singles and couples long after their children have moved out. These households, who may also have much higher incomes, should be asked to make way for more needy households.

While some of the councillors quoted in the story agree, I was surprised by Councillor Geoff Meggs comment that the initiative may be more bother than it is worth. I disagree completely Geoff. It is a lot easier to 'create' a three bedroom townhouse by moving out a couple that does not need it, than by building one from scratch.

Yes, we should continue to press the senior levels of government to provide subsidies to create affordable family units, but why do so when they are not reaching the households for whom they were intended? Here's the story.

As a final comment, in the mid 70's I was the federal government's Special Coordinator overseeing the federal involvement in the City initiated redevelopment of the South Shore of False Creek. Government officials went to extraordinary efforts to ensure a broad social mix in terms of third low, one third middle, and one third high...and the mix between households with children and those without. In the subsequent 35 years, the desired ratios have been distorted since household incomes and compositions changed, but the households remained. There are many 'low income' people living in developments on subsidized city land, who own principal residences elsewhere in the city and province.

These include many people in subsidized coops who are benefiting in a similar way. We should be doing something about this situation both to free up the units, and ensure some greater fairness in terms of who benefits from the taxpayers.

I hope this initiative gets a lot of support. It deserves it since it is about time.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Vancouver is Canada' most dangerous city for pedestrians

Frances Bula has a very good, but sad article coming out in Vancouver Magazine about a pedestrian who was killed in Vancouver

It prompted a considerable number of posts on her blog as to why Vancouver is such a dangerous city for pedestrians. I have a few thoughts, based in part on my travels around the world. I posted the following comment on her blog, but thought it might be worth repeating here, especially if it can get the attention of someone from ICBC and the local police.

I am astounded at the number of times I see people trying to cross at pedestrian crosswalks, while cars zip by without even thinking about stopping.

Often, when one car stops, (whether at a cross-walk or mid-block) the others do not. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can rely on human decency to address this problem. We need a public campaign and stiff fines to help people get the message.

I think the situation at many major intersections is now so serious that we should consider banning the right to make a right turn on a red light.

We should also consider copying what they do in Auckland and other cities, (and what we used to do in Vancouver) and stop vehicular traffic in all directions so that pedestrians have the right of way at the intersection…they can even cross on the diagonal.

While it would probably be beneficial to subject motorists to regular retesting of their drivers’ licenses, I realize this would be a challenge to implement. However, ICBC and the police could initiate a ‘continuing education’ program for motorists and pedestrians with full page ads in newspapers, and on-line quiz’s.

I am the first to admit I don’t always understand the respective rights of pedestrians and motorists, especially at some intersections with flashing lights, and some of the new roundabout configurations.

Finally, we need to change the driving culture in the cities and province. For one thing, anyone who drives into an intersection when the light is changing, and gets stuck in the intersection should be pulled out of their car and publicly assaulted. Ok, maybe that’s going too far. But let’s do what they do in many UK cities and fine that person an obscene amount of money for ‘entering the box’.

I would also like to see us implement regulations similar to those in Australia, where you are fined for passing ‘on the right’. (Well, it’s on the left in Australia, but you hopefully know what I mean.)

Yes Virginia, you are not allowed to pass in the curb lane. We all do it, of course, myself included. But I don’t even know if it is against the law here. It is in many parts of Australia. By promoting and enforcing such a rule, we might be able to help reduce some traffic fatalities.

I would also like to see us mark dangerous intersections as they do in some jurisdictions. A bright yellow sign with some red zig-zags and exclamation marks should help some people get the message.

Hopefully someone from ICBC will let us know if any of the ideas posted on this blog make sense. And if they do, let’s see some changes.

BTW, the situation in China and Vietnam and many other countries is much more dangerous. But we can’t do much about those places. We can do something about Metro Vancouver.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Flying Car gets an FAA approval

I have often wondered when someone would come up with a technically viable and affordable flying car. Well, it seems like someone has. Here's a link to something that will no doubt cause great consternation should it ever take off (pun intended!)

It runs on regular gasoline, rather than aviation fuel, and is being promoted as an environmentally smart way to get around. The estimated cost is under $200,000 (with options, it will no doubt be more) and the first units are expected to come to market in 2011.
Terrafugia Transition 'Flying Car' (PHOTOS, VIDEO): Extraordinary Vehicle Gets Authorities' OK