Dry Vancouver – Xeriscaping in Canada’s Wettest City

I hate lawns. Don’t get me wrong, I love the feel of lush turf grass below bare feet, and know first-hand how amazing lawns can be as play areas, for kids and adults alike. It’s just that on paper they’re so wrong—not even native to North America, they take all kinds of wasteful energy to maintain. Don’t believe me? A great recent Freakonomics podcast goes into this issue in depth.

(It’s also the main reason I hate Las Vegas. You drive across a parched desert for hours, where every precious drop of water is worshiped like gold, only to end up in an urban oasis replete with green lawns and fountains—so phony, so wasteful—offensive, really. All the other, more obviously odious elements of Vegas pale in comparison for me. And don’t even get me started on golf courses; a Malcolm Gladwell podcast takes those to task, handily.)

Even Vancouver, BC, where it seems to rain 80% of the year (it’s actually more like 46%), enters technical drought conditions every summer. And yet our irrational obsession with lawns keeps us wasting the (arguably) best drinking water in the world—I’ve heard it referred to as “Chateau Capilano”—on keeping huge swaths of turf from turning brown for a few weeks.

All this is to say I’m a big fan of non-lawn landscaping, or xeriscaping (from the Greek xeros, or dry). There’s a couple of houses I spotted today in East Vancouver (among many, in fact, in a neighbourhood where astroturf and concrete yards are not uncommon) that have carried this non-watering yard mantle well. I must salute them:


This house featrures mulch and drought-resistant plants…but also…

IMG_3919 copy

…lime green Hardie siding! Wild!


Nice combo of gravel, plants, and mulch


Dry can be beautiful too!


Finally, of course, there’s no better metaphor for letting your yard go to shit (AKA grow wild and free) than this, is there?


Cheese Grater Cladding

Normally I’m a big fan of local Vancouver (and specifically North Shore) architects John & Patricia Patkau; their use of wood and generally organic forms—more often than not—exemplifies modern West Coast design. But their plan for the new home for the Presentation House Gallery by Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver is—how shall we put it—somewhat less than inspiring, though utilitarian.

It employs a mundane sawcut pattern in order to create some excitement in what is otherwise a bland two-storey massed design. But by applying the metal cladding (what I call “Cheese Grater”, but what others—more generously, perhaps—refer to as “Stair Tread”) to the exterior, I don’t think they’re doing any favours to the work.

What do you think?

Habitat 67 turns 50

I visited Montréal for the first time late in the winter this year, and absolutely had to make a pilgrimage to Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, a brutalist, modular series of residential concrete cubes that—whether you love it or hate it—dazzles the eye and mind with its geometric gymnastics:


Though spring was close at hand, the city had been hit by a blizzard a couple of days before, and Montréal’s snow removal army was just mobilizing. The site was covered with snow and ice, but the sun was out, so it was really only miserable if you spent too much time in the shade. I’ve since seen pictures of H67 in summer, and it definitely looks more human and welcoming with sprouting greenery and flowing fountains. (Still, I was glad I went in the winter.)

It didn’t even cross my mind that Expo 67 was 50 years ago (and also Canada’s centennial). I was more interested in checking out the condition of the pre-cast concrete, which—though I assume it has had regular maintenance—appears to be in surprisingly good shape.


There’s not much point going into the details of how the project came about or what it means; it’s all been said. What’s more, given the 50th anniversary, there’s a plethora of articles being floated around right now that all will do the job quite nicely:

First off, there’s a great transcript of Safdie’s recent keynote address at the Centre de design de l’Université du Québec à Montréal (a place which, if you live in or near Montréal, also features a great-looking free exhibit on H67, on until August 13), in which the architect relates not only his personal story of Habitat 67, but also his insights on the future of urban housing and driverless cars.

There’s a good piece here that goes into some of the more wonkish technical details behind the design and construction, and a thorough one from The Guardian that touches on some of the more negative aspects of the project, including leaky concrete (I knew it!), and ventilation and mold issues. (If you want more Two Minutes Hate time, here’s one from the Walrus from back in 2008.)

[The Guardian piece also mentions to links to/influence of the Japanese Metabolism movement, leading to the incredible Dutch website Failed Architecture. Check out their stories on the H67-related Nakagin Capsule Tower if crumbling utopian dreams are your bag.]

Still, Habitat 67 seems to follows me around. Just a couple of weeks ago, back in Lotusland, this tweet made me very happy:

And as a bonus, for all you closet philatelists, this year Canada Post issued a Habitat 67 stamp:


Image courtesy Canada Post

Finally, I can’t believe I didn’t know there was a Leonard Cohen video shot at Habitat 67:

100 Park Royal: “A Poorly Designed Helicopter”

For anyone who grew up on (or frequently visited) Vancouver’s North Shore, the building known as 100 Park Royal was one of the primary gatekeepers to the parochial municipality of West Vancouver (which, though the metrics can be debated, seems to consistently rank as Canada’s richest municipality). 100 PR is located immediately east of the Park Royal South shopping mall, tucked almost under the Lions Gate Bridge on the banks of the Capilano River, and situated upon—as is the entire south mall—the Capilano Reserve of the Squamish Nation, the original indigenous inhabitants of the area. The community that the reserve encompasses, X̱wemelch’stn (Fast Moving Water of Fish) is, for those interested in the history of settlement and stolen land, the location where Chief George Capilano met with Captains Cook and Vancouver in the late 18th century.

The building and its white rooftop “mini propeller”, clearly visible coming north on the bridge, is an icon that—unlike the majority of the shopping mall (not to mention the rest of the North Shore)—has remained virtually unchanged over the past four decades. It is a modernist (and I dare say brutalist) rectilinear blob, clad with what is likely a leaky and poorly insulated glazing system, punctuated only by four slim vertical concrete ribbons on each face, gorgeous in its mid-century ugliness. The rather clunky rental website for the building advertises it as “West Vancouver’s Premier [sic] Office Building”—a bit misleading, since, as far as I know, there aren’t really many other dedicated office buildings in West Van.

Posting a preliminary picture of this building elicited several comments from friends who grew up in West Van, almost all of whom were interested in the mysterious rotating white blades on the building’s rooftop. One asserted it was radar, related to harbour control, and that as a kid (30-odd years ago, ahem) he took a tour of the top floor as part of a birthday party—something I now think I may have also done. The internet, as for many middling things that pre-date Y2K, is not particularly helpful on this point, so this post will require some follow-up. What was and is the function of that rotating (radar) propeller? Your correspondent will find out.

For now, it still looks damn good at magic hour:


Update: A reliable source has confirmed that the white propeller is indeed radar, part of the Marine Communications and Traffic Services monitoring network (the MCTS used to be located in Vancouver, but was closed in 2015 is now on Patricia Bay, near the Victoria airport). My source says 100 Park Royal once housed Transport Canada’s Vessel Traffic Management Centre (which then morphed into the MCTS), and he remembers touring it in Cubs (which rings a bell for me too) and seeing a video of a Soviet freighter crashing into a BC Ferry in Active Pass in 1970. Though a bit of a tangent, here’s that video and a retrospective report about the tragedy:

No word on what’s on the top floors of the building today, nor on who owns it. Updates to come, if and when these things are known.



Schubart on Salt Spring

I spent a part of the past weekend in a home on Salt Spring Island, BC, a very much geographically political independent entity (hey, it has its own currency), the island a short ferry ride off (the much larger) Vancouver Island, but still home to innumerable (neo-)hippies, draft dodgers, artisanal cheese makers, goat yogis, and the like. (Not to mention legendary children’s entertainer Raffi!)

The home I was lucky enough to visit was designed and built by Hank Shubart (1916-1998), a Californian draft dodger (if by way of his kids) himself. A direct acolyte of no less a figure than Frank Lloyd Wright, Shubart ended up designing over 200 homes (!) on the island. His homes are defined by organic, light-admitting designs. This was made evident, through the excellent work on Shubart available at my domicile of chance, Michele Dunkerley and Jane Hickie’s exquisite 2012 tome “Houses Made of Wood and Light”.

Regrettably, at the home, I didn’t take any pictures, but the post-and-beam construction—along with the fact that the custom-built wood windows (almost 40 years old!) showed little signs of deterioration—wowed me considerably. As such, you’ll have to do with some internet pics of Shubart’s Salt Spring work, below:


Space Invader Brutalism

Check out the great example of Post-It Note, help-me boredom (a reference to the ghosts from the Atari video game PacMan, as well as—entirely likely, after the “documentary” Exit Through the Gift Shop—the French graffiti artist named after another Atari game) on this great, blank, teal (and brutalist, if not in the most technical meaning of the term) curtain wall, noted—pun intended—recently in downtown Vancouver, BC:



Ieper (Ypres) Station, Belgium

Ieper, perhaps better known outside of Belgium as Ypres (though most people there don’t say it the French way, seeing as it’s in West Flanders), is a curious place, drawing many World War I tourists (including me, this past spring) to a central hub of many of the decisive battles from that horrific epoch 100 years ago.


Like many medieval towns in Europe, Ieper was damaged during one of the great 20th century continental slaughters, but—as emphasized repeatedly by our guide—it, in particular, was more or less completely destroyed during WWI. Meaning all the “old” buildings you see are in fact clever reproductions, patched up and smoothed over less than a century ago. This is also often the case with temples in Japan, as hinted at in one of our previous posts.

Walking around the town today, you will also see demolition and renovation, modern construction forms of course, alongside the reconstructed—illusionary, really—medieval elements. (A future post will showcase some Deco and more modern elements that have been sneaked into the town.)


History aside, an anachronistic and surprisingly delightful part of the town is the modest train station (compare it to the majesty—as apotheosized by W.G. Sebald—of Antwerp Station): the platform itself is nothing to speak of, though the Crusader icon swabbed onto rectilinear granite panels and gentle multicolour mosaic apertures (Mondrian meets stained glass?) on its exterior walls divulge its modernist renovations (apparently, the station was opened in 1854, though no doubt few of those original elements remain).

It is the gentle obtuse angles of the roof over the waiting area and elevator, located directly northeast of the platform—clearly mid-century in influence, if not construction (a perfunctory search turned up little on the station’s architecture, though this element is likely a very recent addition)—that spark the most delight, purposefully 20th century—as opposed to the rest of the town, which could be accused (faultlessly, of course) of trying to be from another, much more ancient, era.




Of course, one can always choose to ignore this aesthetic clash of ages and retreat to the mind-numbing white-bread Belgian pleasures of frites and Jupiler, as this correspondent—against his better instincts—ultimately may have done:


Tadao Ando’s Inamori Auditorium

Since we have had so many queries—fine, it was one, but it was a serious one—about the beautiful curved concrete building featured on our cover page (and more prominently on our Facebook profile pic), here is the story: it is Tadao Ando’s 1994 Inamori Auditorium at Kagoshima University, in the south of Japan. Like the majority of Ando’s buildings, it is unobtrusive but totally awesome to architecture nerds—his exposed concrete is so expressive, yet clearly not suited to every environment (looking at you, Arthur Erickson). Without further a(n)do, here are the much requested photos from that early 2010s visit, as undertaken by your correspondent:




Construction Scaffolding

I spent a good chunk of my time in the building engineering world bashing my head on construction scaffolding, mainly because the scaffold bars were placed just high enough for me to get under without ducking—sans hardhat—and just low enough to catch that hardhat I was (luckily) always wearing. (Full disclosure: I’m not someone who learns from his mistakes.)

You’ll see scaffolding wrapping up buildings around the world; the use of bamboo in Hong Kong is most impressive, if terrifying. Part of one spire on the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral)—like any random old thing in Europe, at any random time—was under scaffolding when I went a couple of years back, the gear jutting out like a modern, singularly un-Gothic barnacle, a real distraction from the cathedral’s otherwise potent impact:


I think I took this picture primarily to highlight the German douchebag in the Porsche blocking the tour bus behind him.

Access and weather protection for construction work can take all kinds of forms. When living in Kyoto one summer, I saw an entire, huge superstructure installed over top of the Nishi Hongan-ji temple. Last week in North Vancouver, I saw a much more modest set-up sheltering a considerably younger building; this scaffolding did pretty much the same job as the faux structure erected over the Kyoto temple:


Located near 11th and Lonsdale; is this what they call LoLo?

Another construction site in Japan (a demolition, tellingly) featured a skin installed over the scaffolding that also mitigated sound transmission, to reduce annoyance to the nearby suburban neighbours—I was at once impressed and pissed off, since I had previously dreamed of someday inventing a similar, magical fabric. I don’t have a picture of that one, but here is a scaffolding sign commonly found on Japanese construction sites, whose politeness you’ll never see echoed in North America: Sorry for the disturbance!


Another cool innovation is the use of printed imagery on the scaffold netting, to reduce the aesthetic eyesore during construction. This one is over l’École militaire, near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, as seen in May this year; my European ex-pat experts tell me this is common across the continent:


At the end of the day, we need to wrap up buildings in order to construct and repair them; whether I’m bashing my head on it or not, I’ll always be curious about the scaffolding, not to mention what’s going on underneath it.