Arresting perspective: Johnson Street Bridge integral to Victoria’s Old Town

July 22, 2010 at 11:28 pm | In architecture, authenticity, heritage, johnson street bridge, victoria | 5 Comments

Victoria British Columbia residents and visitors may have seen the Johnson Street Bridge before from this perspective, looking west down Johnson Street toward the Harbour:


But the arresting perspective seen in Eric Porcher‘s photograph drives home a crucial point. Porcher‘s photo clearly shows that the bridge is absolutely integral to the distinctive fabric of Old Town. Consider how well the industrial structure of the bridge, with its girders, beams, and thousands of rivets, answers the density of architectural detail that Old Town’s street facades offer.

If the Johnson Street Bridge is removed and replaced with a generic new bridge, a significant piece of Victoria’s heritage – what makes it uniquely itself – will be excised and lost forever.

It’s obvious that a destruction of the Johnson Street Bridge equates to a mutilation of Old Town. It’s also obvious that our city council speaks with a forked tongue about heritage and has no shame about hypocrisy.

In Boston, where jail is “Liberty”

June 17, 2010 at 7:48 pm | In architecture, heritage, johnson street bridge | 2 Comments

Tonight I saw a most impressive example of adaptive re-use in built form: the former Charles Street Jail, next to MGH (Massachusetts General Hospital) on the banks of the River Charles, turned into a stunning luxury hotel (the Liberty) that looks for all the world like a Jeunesse dorée hotspot.

Here’s a link to the hotel’s website that details the jail’s history and rehabilitation.

Here are a couple of photos:

former panopticon interior, now a lobby


exterior, sunlight-painted


exterior with new hotel wing in background


former cell turned luxe restroom


guest bikes for a quick getaway



What really gets me about a project like this: we can see what imagination and money can do in tandem to preserve heritage, engage adaptive re-use, and promote economic development. When you see what is possible in heritage restoration and then realize that none of those aspects are in evidence in the City of Victoria’s treatment of its historic Johnson Street Bridge, you realize just how unimaginative and benighted some political leadership really is.

Not a wrap

June 16, 2010 at 7:19 pm | In architecture, urbanism | Comments Off on Not a wrap

This is not a Christo-wrapped art work, it’s a botched development project:


^ A photo I took today: the back of Vornado’s stalled project in Boston’s Downtown Crossing (wrote about it earlier, here).

Stunningly ugly, isn’t it? Not like a wrapped Reichstag at all. Just goes to show that there’s art, and then there’s cock-up. The above is pure cock-up.

The original Filene’s building was gorgeous – the facade (still standing) remains so:


While the upper story facade looks ok, the street level is total crap: boarded up, with just a stairway access to the MBTA below ground. In all other senses, it’s a dead-zone. If it weren’t for the sheer number of people on the pedestrian-only streets or the very active retail outlets across the streets, the block would be nuked.

Gentrification 2.0?

June 5, 2010 at 11:22 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, homelessness, housing, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, social_critique, vancouver | 2 Comments

The title of my post is semi-serious, semi-ironic. I’m ambivalent about gentrification: if it means unslumming, I figure it’s good; if it means homogenization toward a single class (typically privileged) at the expense of economic diversity, it’s probably not-so-good, right?

When I write “Gentrification 2.0,” I’m saying that I’m not sure how this particular example – The Woodward’s Project in Vancouver – will play out. It’s 2.0 insofar as it’s not unslumming in Jane Jacobs’s sense, nor is it private market gentrification. It’s an interesting hybrid.

Canada’s National Post newspaper has started a series of articles about the Woodward’s Project. The reporter is Brian Hutchinson, who focuses on the neighborhood (Downtown East Side) and the social implications of putting a spiffy mixed-use high-rise development into its center. This is an unusual development, however: it has “125 fully equipped apartments reserved for low-income singles, and 75 spacious units reserved for families; 80% of the family apartments are rented at below-market rates” (source), while at the same time it also boasts market-rate condos valued at over $1million and provides the better-off residents with rooftop luxuries that afford (to use a word Hutchinson used) “bacchanalian” excess.

I wrote about the Woodward’s Project after taking my daughter to lunch in Vancouver for her birthday. It’s a fascinating project, and I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. Hutchinson is “embedded” at Woodward’s for a whole month.

Gertrude Stein might agree: -ectomy is an ectomy is an ectomy

May 26, 2010 at 11:07 pm | In architecture, cities, heritage, land_use, real_estate, scandal | 5 Comments

File this one under “why not?”

It’s not a new item, but it made me go wow…

A while back, I read that Vornado Realty Trust left a big hole in Boston’s Downtown Crossing …after demolishing Filene’s Basement.

That was “wow” #1 (not a good wow): Gertrude Stein smelled a rat when she wrote, “there is no there there,” which I’m freely marrying to her “rose is a rose is a rose” to say that “-ectomy” is an ectomy …is an ectomy …is an ectomy.

In another context, we might easily just call it a hatchet job.


Realize, dear reader, that Filene’s Basement was surmounted by a venerable piece of architecture, … namely Filene’s. (… ^Illustrated above)

Alright, I admit to an attachment to traditional (old) department store architecture: it’s a built form that has tons of embedded intelligence, and yep, it’s one of those built forms that, once you tear it down, it’s gone. And it takes a huge chunk of civic and urban history with it.

But alright, let’s move on: since it is already torn down – and the new project is not being built – at least (for the love of it all) put something interesting and striking (and bloody useful!) in its place (even temporarily).

Like this:


Arthur Dent, faced by a Vogon destroyer, might wonder, “what the hell is that?” – but you, dear reader, can rest easy knowing that it’s made-by-humans it could be made by humans (if, that is, it weren’t left unbuilt, and if, that is, humans could overcome their imagination-deficit). What is it? Bio-Fuel Growing Eco Pods [to] Rejuvenate Stalled Boston Project (Sept. 2009).

One can dream. In the waking interim (knowing it’s not gonna happen), some juicy links to the doings of Vornado (and its CEO Steven Roth):

Mayor Battles Vornado in Boston

Downtown Crossing’s money pit

Menino threatens to oust Filene’s site developer

Boston Mayor Blasts Vornado’s Roth Over ‘Blight’ Speech

Is City Truly Wise to Vornado’s Roth Deliberately Stalling Filene’s?

Curbed New York’s articles tagged “Vornado”

All in all, if you read through those links you’ll see that Steven Roth and Vornado have done a heck of a job – the company has given development a very very bad name. That by itself should get them a black eye. That this company has taken out department stores (like Filene’s and Alexander’s) and the social history they embody makes it even worse.

PS: I was going to write a “part 2” to last night’s post about Salim Jiwa’s talk at Social Media Club Victoria. It will have to wait until a later date – I want to gather my thoughts about this, and have had no time to do so today.

PechaKucha Night Victoria, Vol. 2

May 24, 2010 at 10:19 pm | In architecture, arts, creativity, ideas, innovation, local_not_global, victoria | Comments Off on PechaKucha Night Victoria, Vol. 2

Three months ago, on February 25, 2010, Elisa Yon and some friends helped instigate Victoria‘s first PechaKucha Night. That was Vol. 1, and it was a blast.

Now, get ready for Vol. 2, happening this Thursday, May 27 at the Victoria Event Centre.



I know I’ll be surprised by Vol. 2, just as Vol. 1 surprised me with Victoria-based presenters who had fascinating stories and experiences and talents to share.

But here a few I’m particularly looking forward to: architects Keith Dewey of Zigloo (houses made from shipping containers) and Ayrie Cunliffe (who will perhaps tell us about tree houses?, not sure…); Manjinder Benning of Karmetik (“…a think tank of artists and engineers exploring a digital renaissance, seeking to question and redefine the boundaries between music, the visual arts, and technology” – read more or check out Wired Magazine‘s video of the Karmetik Machine Orchestra); designer Tara Tyreman, who also designed the poster (used as illustration, above) that advertises Thursday’s Vol. 2; Quinton Gordon of the amazing Luz Centre for the Photographic Arts; and Rhonda Ganz whose blog is all about getting rid of stuff.

That list, by the way, represents fewer than half the participants, so I know I can expect double the interestingness alluded to via the above links.

The event starts at 7:30pm, but doors open at 7pm. Judging from the throng that attended the first event, my advice is to get there early.

The brilliant folks at Anonymous Advertising put together a fun video, filmed on the spot (during intermission) at the Vol. 1 event: 10×10 (10 audience members who speak for 10 seconds each), which gives a sense of how energizing that first evening was. Check out the other videos (Vimeo) of Vol. 1 presentations – great stuff.

Follow PechaKucha Victoria on Twitter for updates. Can’t wait to see Vol. 2 in action!

Notes on walking architecture

May 21, 2010 at 10:40 pm | In architecture, cities, futurismo, ideas, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, ubiquity, urbanism | Comments Off on Notes on walking architecture

It’s not everyday that you see Guy Debord and Steve Jobs in the same presentation, is it? Courtesy of Matt Jones‘s People Are Walking Architecture, or Making NearlyNets with MujiComp, it’s not only possible, it makes sense. (Read the full document on Scribd.) Jones makes the case for building “smart city networks by making inviting, intelligent products,” hence the juxtaposition of critical thinkers and people who make “inviting, intelligent products.”

Going through the 59-page document, a few pages that attracted my attention especially:

p.15, Archigram were basically right, a sentence inspired by Chris Heathcote’s Cheer up, it’s Archigram. Why Archigram (about which I’ve blogged here)? “Essentially they were user-centric designers, working with technology to create humane exciting environments with technology …with a liberal dash of 60s psychedelia…” (p.14). Archigram’s architects thought about enabling behaviors, not just about buildings. Cool. (Jones even calls them interaction designers.)

Archigram envisioned the car as the “ultimate symbolic technology of personal freedom,” but as Jones points out, that didn’t quite pan out. Today, we’re more likely to see mobile technology (phones, etc.) in cars’ symbolic stead. (p.16)

Car = 20th century; mobile phone = 21st century. (p.17)

Hence the jump to Steve Jobs – and back (in time) to Guy Debord, who defined psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” (p.18)

Jones points to smart phones as the gadget that lets users manipulate the experience of psychogeography from an individual perspective: “…a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities…” (p.20)

Cities are now “linked and learning” (Sir Richard Rogers, British architect who designed Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou), hence people are walking architecture. It’s back to Archigram, see? Architecture should enable behaviors, and what we have today are gadgets that enable behaviors relating to how people experience and shape, in a feedback loop, the urban experience. The urban experience is still informed as well by buildings, but who hasn’t also found that it’s informed by behaviors – often experienced as negative, like traffic jams, congestion, and bad infrastructure? Today – and into tomorrow – those behaviors will be more and more fine-grained, as people carry tiny mobile devices that allow ubiquitous computing, which in turn shapes the city as much as cars, roads, and other infrastructure did.

People are walking architecture, shaping the urban-scape as they move through it, devices in hand.

Next up, Jones covers Eliel Saarinen (“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context …a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan”) and Clay Shirky (Situated Software), and a bunch of other things (MujiComp; porch computing; doorways; nearly nets).

And then he gives Jane Jacobs the last word (which I appreciate, if only because every other person mentioned in his presentation is male):

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” (p.58)

Jane Jacobs, last word


May 4, 2010 at 10:00 pm | In architecture, cities, victoria | Comments Off on Rooflines

Earlier today my husband pointed me to Jets Overhead‘s music video “No Nations” after reading Tim Bray’s post about the band. I really liked the song and will probably explore more of their music, which they offer via a Creative Commons license on their website.

But what really struck me about the video were of course the city scapes – the video was shot in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. (You have to know that Jets Overhead is from Victoria, which is not known for a high-rise skyline… ;-))

Anyway, here’s a screen shot from the music video at 2 minutes 27 seconds, which captures the rooflines of two impressive buildings:




April 21, 2010 at 11:31 pm | In architecture, cities, ideas, social_critique, urbanism | Comments Off on Pulchraphilia

Yesterday the brilliant folks at the Cascadia Region Green Building Council sent out the link to the latest issue of Trim Tab, their quarterly online magazine. The current (Spring 2010) issue features an article by Jason F. McLennan, “The Role of Beauty in Green Design: ‘Pulchraphilia’; How Aesthetics and Good Design Improve Performance” (click through and scroll to p.17ff).

Building on biophilia, McLennan makes the case for beauty, essentially to say that we’re more inclined to take care of beautiful things – including a beautiful built environment – which then naturally dovetails with the interests of sustainability. (On the topic of biophilia, see also my article, Biophilic design: taking love to the street, first published in FOCUS Magazine, August 2007, available for download on Scribd.)

In other words, make “green” beautiful, and it has a better chance of catching on, being loved, getting attention, and giving back, which, taken together, means it just might last.

McLennan even coined a new word, pulchraphilia, to anchor his insight.

Yesterday, I reported on Creating Value Through Sustainability, leading with one panelist’s insight around data: “You measure what matters, and what gets measured, gets done.” Contrast that with McLennan’s discussion of quantity (vs quality?):

The real truth is that many of the most important things in life are the very things that are more difficult to quantify and any system that fails to address them is guaranteed to fall short. Just because something can’t be objectively measured doesn’t mean it has zero value; it may in fact become the most important building block of all. When it comes to green building and environmental performance, beauty and good design play an enormous role in the success of any project. In fact, aesthetics contribute to the overall effort in such significant ways primarily because people are involved and we are emotional beings. (p.20)

At first, I read this and agreed. Then I reread it and wondered how I could agree, yet be inspired by “you measure what matters.” I think now that it isn’t just a question of numerical measurement (relying on, say, conventional data), but rather of agreeing on salience.  In other words, “you measure what matters” means in the first instance agreeing on what is actually salient (if you agree something is salient, you’re much more likely to be willing to talk about its value).

That’s really the key thing: if we can agree that beauty or pulchraphilia are salient to the success of an enterprise, a project, our species, the environment, etc., then we will find a way to take its “measure” – because we will have agreed that, being salient, it’s valuable and it matters.

So, “you measure what matters” is a two-way street, infinitely open to negotiation. You can bury salience in data, drown meaning in bafflegab. Or you can make the case for what matters. And beauty is definitely worth the case.

Apropos of meaning, McLennan writes:

The first thing to understand is that any design infused with a rich cultural process is naturally imbued with meaning, as opposed to designs that attempt to strip away any connection to place, culture, climate or the era in which it resides. Context, in other words, matters – and when we build with great care, great love or great passion the result transcends building and transforms experience. Mere building turns into architecture.  (p.24)

Again, “infused with a rich cultural process” means the design has located itself within salience: the context is the history of how it came to be salient, why it stands out, why we give it attention. (If I put on my art historian’s hat, salience simply means what stands out: the figure against the ground on a canvas, for example. It’s what draws my attention.) And again, salience is itself negotiable: we may not always consider salient what previous generations did. But there’s a history to it, which, if we bother to learn it, can help us figure out how to assess salience today.

(For more on salience in a business context, check out Roger Martin‘s book, The Opposable Mind, which I blogged about here.)

Finally, the following two sentences resonated a lot with me, because (like many people) I’m on a tear against how our built environment is dictated by the requirements of the car:

Most of our current communities have been designed around modules that have nothing to do with the dimension of human life. Instead, they are based on 20- and 30-foot mechanical forms of locomotion (automobiles) that separate us, divide us and expand scale beyond the point where any meaning can occur. (p.30)

Gordon Price has written extensively about car-dependent urban planning; I blogged about a presentation he recently gave in Victoria on Motordom, or auto-dependent urban form. The civil engineers and city planners really need to step up here and rethink the codes – a big dose of pulchraphilia is definitely needed.

Next up sometime soon I might do a little photo-essay about driveways: old driveways in an old neighborhood, juxtaposed to “suburban-style” double-wide driveways on new subdivisions in those same neighborhoods. They’re as big an eyesore in residential neighborhoods as are honking great underground parking garage entrances on city streets that should present a tightly-knit street-wall of building frontages… And why are they so big in the first place? Because city engineering codes require it. Change the damn codes.)

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