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.

Respect and the authoritarian personality

June 11, 2010 at 11:55 pm | In ideas, johnson street bridge, justice, victoria | 7 Comments

Aretha Franklin demanded it, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, because to get it confers authority on the person who is respected. Singing from the perspective of the blues, that is, of the oppressed, to get authority and therefore respect is a good thing.

But what happens when established authorities themselves harp on demands for respect? Or when the supporters of the powerful circle the wagons and call those who are critical “disrespectful”?

What happens when demands for respect are just a cover to protect the powerful from criticism?

That’s a question I’ve been grappling with, here on Fantasy Island (aka Victoria BC), where it’s common coin to tell those who are critical that criticism is (a) “disrespectful” and of course (b) unwise, because, after all, it’s a small town and we just can’t “afford” to piss anyone off.

Telling someone that they’re “disrespectful” is a put-down of the first order that squashes ideas (and critique). You’re essentially telling that person that they have no right to speak: you’re being a “daddy” (or perhaps a “mommy”) who’s tutoring the ignorant in manners.

That’s the way of all authoritarians, isn’t it? It’s so easy to shut people up by telling them that they’re not respectful. Add to this cop-out strategy the tendency for people to feel offended by the slightest thing, and respect becomes the currency of the realm.

It would be interesting to see The Authoritarian Personality, a (somewhat flawed) 1950 study on right-wing authoritarianism, get a rethink with an eye to our Western culture of entitlement and our prickliness about being offended.

The study has been criticized (mainly because it focuses on right-wing authoritarianism), but check out the F-Scale Test and see how many questions still resonate …even on the supposed left. Granted, none of the flaming right-wing questions would be answered in the affirmative by anyone in “proper” society these days, but it’s almost uncanny how many of the questions apply if you make slight alterations. Take the following three, for example:

[2] A person who has bad manners, habits, and breeding can hardly expect to get along with decent people. [substitute: doesn’t subscribe to “our” way of thinking, doesn’t try to fit in, isn’t “one of us”…]

[5] Science has its place, but there are many important things that can never be understood by the human mind.  (and) [6] Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions he obeys without question.  [group-think on eco-spiritualism / new ageism, anyone?]

Anyway, we live in interesting times when a politician (for example the City of Victoria’s mayor) can shut down debate by telling a perfectly reasonable critic that he is disrespectful – all the while totally avoiding the criticism that was leveled – or when a supporter of a politician is offended by a critic calling that politician “foolish,” offended to the point of accusing the critic of being “disrespectful.” Interesting – and definitely strange – times indeed.

As far as I can see, the authoritarian personality is alive and well, right here in Victoria.


Open Government, Transparency: it’s what we need

June 8, 2010 at 10:55 pm | In ideas, innovation, johnson street bridge, leadership, politics, victoria | Comments Off on Open Government, Transparency: it’s what we need

As residents of Victoria British Columbia continue to struggle with a closed, secretive city council that (with the exception of one councilor, Geoff Young) prefers to do its business behind closed doors or from a lofty perch of Sonya Chandler- or Lynn Hunter-style “know-it-all-ism,” here’s a story from the local daily that illustrates just how far Canada (as a country) has to go before it reaches the level of transparency and open government that the people of the United States have come to expect from government: Washington leaves Campbell red-faced, by Times-Colonist reporter/ columnist Les Leyne.


On Jan. 4, the NDP opposition submitted two identical freedom of information requests. One went to the state of Washington, one went to the province of B.C.

The request was for records relating to joint cabinet meetings held a few months earlier, led by Gov. Christine Gregoire and Premier Gordon Campbell.

The B.C. government issued a fairly detailed news release after the October meeting headlined “B.C., Washington State Partner on Cross-Border Opportunities.”

But the NDP was curious about the framework and some of the intricacies of the various policies discussed.

On Feb. 3, the New Democrats got a note back from Gregoire’s office. It offered all the requested documents for a grand sum of $63.60.

The NDP paid the bill and on March 3, two months after filing the request, it got 300 pages of documentation from the state government.

The striking thing, for a B.C. observer, is that not a single page has been whited-out or censored.

The 10-centimetre stack of documents contain everything you’d want to know about the work that went into discussing Olympic readiness, climate-change initiatives, border issues, H1N1 plans and more.

There are e-mails, minutes of meetings and “confidential drafts for discussion purposes only.”

The governor’s response even includes the expenses of the state officials who worked on meetings leading up to the joint cabinet session.

What did the Opposition get from B.C. officials when they submitted exactly the same request?

Absolutely nothing.

In the US, data is owned by the people because the government is by the people, for the people, of the people. The people paid for the production of the data in the first place, and the people have a guaranteed right to access it. In Canada, data is not owned by the people. It’s owned by the Crown (the Queen), and we have to beg for it. Sure, we can have it, but the bureaucratic culture isn’t on board.


It’s scary to me just how backwards City of Victoria staff in particular and local politicians in general are when it comes to embracing openness and transparency – and genuine public engagement.

For a shining alternative example, click on image (above) – link goes to a great Youtube video with Anil Dash, currently with Expert Labs.

Victoria’s Johnson Street Bridge scandal just keeps going

April 22, 2010 at 10:18 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, johnson street bridge, local_not_global, politics, scandal, victoria | Comments Off on Victoria’s Johnson Street Bridge scandal just keeps going

It’s mind-boggling. The scandal of how the City of Victoria has tried to bum rush the historic Johnson Street Bridge into oblivion just keeps growing.

If you’re interested in questionable municipal shenanigans as a spectator sport, check out FOCUS Magazine‘s latest issue (May 2010), now available online as a PDF download, and go to page 26, where Sam Williams dissects in excruciating detail the FOIed email exchanges between City of Victoria engineer Mike Lai and his colleagues at Delcan Engineering, specifically Mark Mulvihill.

I am ashamed to live in such a banana republic of a city.

The current council and mayor (imo lame duck, with the exception of Geoff Young); from L to R, standing: Chris Coleman, Phillipe Lucas, Pam Madoff, Dean Fortin, Sonya Chandler, John Luton, Geoff Young; seated: Charlayne Thornton-Joe, Lynn Hunter

Wishing local government had an opposable mind

April 19, 2010 at 8:51 pm | In ideas, innovation, johnson street bridge, leadership, social_critique, urbanism, victoria | Comments Off on Wishing local government had an opposable mind

I’m reading Roger Martin‘s book, The Opposable Mind, and came across the following paragraph this morning. It stopped me in my tracks because it made clear what’s wrong with the way thinking typically goes in government (and I’m referring both to the politicians and the bureaucrats / managers).

The paragraph describes the differences between conventional thinking and what Martin calls integrative thinking:

The two types of thinking [integrative versus conventional thinking] are diametrically opposed, and so are the outcomes they generate. Integrative thinking produces possibilities, solutions, and new ideas. It creates a sense of limitless possibility. Conventional thinking hides potential solutions in places they can’t be found and fosters the illusion that no creative solution is possible. With integrative thinking, aspirations rise over time. Conventional thinking is a self-reinforcing lesson that life is about accepting unattractive and unpleasant trade-offs. It erodes aspiration. Fundamentally, the conventional thinker prefers to accept the world as it is. The integrative thinker welcomes the challenge of shaping the world for the better. (p.48, emphases added)

That description of conventional thinking absolutely nails what you can see happening in municipal government.

In Victoria BC, conventional thinking shows itself in the city’s approach to development as well as the Johnson Street Bridge.

I’ve said from the very beginning that the city’s plans to demolish the historic Johnson Street Bridge and replace it with a new structure showed a colossal failure of imagination. It’s also a blatant manifestation of conventional thinking.

There are far too many examples of conventional approaches in government. Because of market pressures, businesses have to reform themselves – or go under. By the same token, it’s crazy to allow conventional thinking to continue unchallenged in government. Cities (and municipal governments) need to show imagination, and integrative thinking. If they don’t, they will stagnate. Surely the lessons of integrative thinking can be deployed in public service, if nurtured by civic leaders. They can, that is, if there is civic leadership that steps up to the job.

Congestion is our friend

April 8, 2010 at 10:19 pm | In cities, green, johnson street bridge, land_use, transportation, urbanism | 4 Comments

On March 31 Gordon Price spoke in Victoria about what he calls Motordom, or “auto-dependent urban form.” Motordom basically is the generative transportation paradigm that has shaped urban form (and dominated urban planning) since at least the mid-20th century. It’s now perhaps finally coming to an end (albeit with many many loose ends).

I’ve been intending to write a proper blog post about Gordon’s excellent deconstruction of Motordom.

However, … just a quick note today that touches on another transportation-related event I attended on Tuesday night (April 6), Going Beyond Gridlock- Green Party Sustainable Transportation Forum, because it fits so neatly both with some of the points raised by Gordon Price as well as with my concerns around a local issue.

At his March 31 presentation, Gordon noted that congestion is our friend. When roads are congested, the solution to that problem isn’t to build more roads. Instead, let the congestion be the impetus for developing transit and for giving people choices that let them get out of their cars.

At the April 6 meeting, every single speaker agreed that solving transportation problems does not mean building more roads, but rather taking car lanes away: transforming them into cycling or multimodal lanes.

No one at Gordon Price’s March 31 lecture could answer his question (in the photo, above), “Where is there a good example of an urban region that has successfully dealt with traffic congestion by building more roads and bridges?” Especially when he added the qualifier, “A place we want to be more like”?

And everyone at the April 6 Green Party-sponsored transportation forum agreed that building more roads fails to lead to transportation solutions that are sustainable. Everyone instead agreed that taking car traffic lanes out of the urban grid and converting them to cycling, multimodal, or transit lanes was the more sensible thing to do.

The obvious question for the City of Victoria is then: why don’t you apply this line of thinking to solve multimodal transportation issues on the Johnson Street Bridge? Specifically, why not look to Vancouver’s example?

In Vancouver, the city took a traffic lane on the Burrard Street Bridge and turned it into a cycling lane. In Victoria, we could easily try the same approach with our historic Johnson Street Bridge – an approach already suggested by Councilor Geoff Young, but poo-pooed by the Mayor and his friends on council. The latter include Councilor John Luton, who spoke at the April 6 event in favor of getting people out of their cars and preferably onto bicycles or other sustainable transportation options instead. He even made a point of showing images of the Johnson Street Bridge, which he considers a key piece in Victoria’s multimodal puzzle – except in Luton’s mind, only a new, expensive bridge will suffice.

It’s funny that those same politicians will flock to hear Gordon Price, applaud the critique of Motordom, agree with other sustainability experts that the best strategies include removing car traffic lanes from the grid, …yet adamantly maintain that the relatively tiny Johnson Street Bridge crossing has to stay at three car lanes. Come on, people: give your heads a shake. Take a lane out, remove the slippery steel deck, re-deck it with fiberreinforced polymer (FRP), and give it over to bikes. (Note: “Since FRP bridge decks are still considerably more expensive than concrete decks, they are basically competitive where light weight, corrosion resistance, and/or rapid installation are demanded. Accordingly, competitive applications are mainly found in movable bridges, historic bridges, and urban environments.” [source/PDF])

Much cheaper than a new bridge, better for the environment (think of all that new concrete needed for a new bridge, and the steel manufactured in China and brought to Victoria with bunker oil burning freighters – how sustainable is that?), and much better for the local economy (fixing the bridge would employ local people, building a new one would not).

Getting it up with coffee

March 26, 2010 at 11:14 pm | In johnson street bridge, victoria | 1 Comment

How did I miss this till now?

I had a meeting this afternoon with Elisa Yon (the woman who brought Pecha Kucha to Victoria) and Aleya Ryan of Anonymous Advertising at Victoria BC’s Bean Around the World. Because Elisa drew it to my attention, I finally noticed the best t-shirt ever.

The front shows a small rendering of the Johnson Street Bridge, surrounded by the words “Bean Around the World Victoria” – the name of the wonderful cafe on Fisgard Street in Chinatown.

On the back, a schematized rendering of Victoria BC’s fabulous Johnson Street Bridge, partially raised above the waters of Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

Above the rendering, the words “Johnson Street Bridge…”

And underneath?

“…getting it up since 1922”

(Hell, yeah!)

Too bad our city council and staff don’t bother to keep it up anymore. (I guess they forgot that if you don’t use it, …you lose it.)

Thank you, Bean Around the World, for a great inspirational t-shirt. Whether you’re visiting Victoria or live here, don’t miss the Bean’s excellent coffees, comestibles, and ambiance.

Preservation is inherently sustainable

March 16, 2010 at 11:47 pm | In heritage, johnson street bridge, victoria | 1 Comment

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Barbara Campagna speak at Victoria City Hall. Her presentation was part of a Transformational Lecture Series sponsored by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council.

Barbara Campagna is the Chief Architect of the National Trust, which administers a Sustainability Program to ensure that the “29 historic sites of the National Trust are integrating historic preservation values with green building practices – from green housekeeping techniques to sustainability master plans to LEED certification for historic rehabilitations.” (source) As the lecture description also noted:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Sustainability Program is demonstrating that conservation and improvement of our existing built resources, including re-use of historic and older buildings, greening the existing building stock, and reinvestment in older and historic communities, is crucial to combating climate change.  The construction and operation of buildings accounts for more than 40% of the United State’s carbon dioxide emissions. But reusing and retrofitting our existing buildings can reduce these emissions dramatically. In fact, our existing buildings are one of our greatest renewable resources.

Campagna’s informative presentation made the case eloquently that preservation is inherently sustainable. Preservation means that you:

  • reuse existing buildings
  • reinvest in communities (making existing communities and the city core attractive and amenity-rich counters sprawl)
  • retrofit older buildings
  • respect historic integrity

It turns out that buildings built before 1920 and after 2000 are the greenest in terms of low energy use: they have venting windows, and they’re adaptable (office to condo and vice versa). The worst buildings are those built in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s: difficult to adapt to any kind of reuse, inflexible HVAC systems (no individual control over venting, for example), high-energy usage. Quality of materials also comes into play: buildings from before 1920 and after 2000 are better quality. All of this suggests that in the post-World War II decades we went on a bender – of building cheap (not to last) and also of building mono-culture buildings. (For example, Robert Stern points out that modern office buildings can only be good for being office buildings: their huge floor plates mean that the distance from exterior wall – where there are [non-venting] windows that let natural light in – to the core [center] of the building is too far to allow carving the space into discrete rooms. The only thing these buildings are good for is an open plan cubicle farm – and even then, you need electricity to bring light to most areas. To retrofit a building like that so as to allow reshaping it into either smaller offices or even living spaces would involve carving a light-well into its center – a huge and costly retrofit, as we’re seeing here in Victoria with the retrofitting of the old Hudson’s Bay Department store into condominiums.)

Campagna also spoke about life-cycle assessment, which (if I understood her correctly) is a significantly better metric than embodied energy for assessing eco- or “green” questions when dealing with preservation. If I understood her point, much of what’s applied to preservation comes from a 1981 study on embodied energy – and it turns out the data is suspect.

The City of Victoria likes to congratulate itself on its work with historic preservation, and one of Victoria Council’s most outspoken defenders of built heritage, Councilor Pamela Madoff, was at Campagna’s presentation.

However, sadly Councilor Madoff also voted in favor of tearing down Victoria’s storied Johnson Street Bridge and replacing it with a new structure. One wonders whether Campagna’s illustrations of preservation and sustainability provoked any kind of reconsideration of Victoria’s unique historic bridge, or whether Industrial Archeology is simply too far a stretch for just a building preservationist.

Another thing to note: one of the arguments that the City of Victoria’s Engineers made – an argument subsequently embraced by some of the councilors who profess Green allegiances, notably Councilor Sonya Chandler – is that building a new bridge represents less embodied energy than refurbishing (preserving) the old one. Yet as Campagna’s lecture suggested, the embodied energy argument has to be pondered carefully. Surely, manufacturing new steel in China (after burning bunker oil to transport the raw materials from South America, say, to China’s factories), then burning more bunker oil to transport that steel to Victoria, is not the greener option. And let’s not even get started on how much fresh concrete a new bridge will require.

There was an irony in seeing a councilor who’s a heritage advocate listen attentively to an expert historic preservationist make the argument that the embodied energy argument should be viewed with skepticism, that preservation and reuse are always the greener options, and that retrofitting old buildings – can we say old structures? – is the environmentally responsible thing to do, given her readiness to trash the Johnson Street Bridge.

The question is: will Campagna’s message reach Victoria on the issue of the Johnson Street Bridge, or will Victoria remain comfortable in believing that it’s doing its best with regard to preservation …and sustainability?

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

January 24, 2010 at 1:31 am | In arts, free_press, heritage, johnson street bridge, links, newspapers | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • Surprised to see that Victoria’s Johnson Street Bridge made it into the “Journal of Commerce – Western Canada’s Construction Newspaper” (Jan.25/10) …for its heritage value (not its potential as a mega-replacement construction project)! Right on. (Would love to know the story behind JSB’s entry into the the Journal of Commerce…)

    From the article:

    “The main opening span is 148 feet in length and when in the open position is balanced over a 45-foot fixed span. The Strauss Bascule Company Ltd. prepared the design for the bascule spans and the operating machinery.

    The superstructure of the bridge was fabricated in Walkerville, Ontario and contains 100 tons of steel. “


    tags: johnson_street_bridge, victoria, journal_of_commerce, heritage, preservation

  • Would really like to view this film. The paintings by Nicolas Poussin and by Jacques Louis David are both such powerhouses, one can’t help but think that only film-video artists of overarching ambitions would tackle this subject. This interpretation by Eve Sussman sounds very intriguing:


    “The Rape of the Sabine Women is a reinterpretation of the Roman myth, updated and set in the idealistic 1960’s. Filmed on location in Athens and Hydra, Greece, and in Berlin, Germany, the 80 minute video was directed by Eve Sussman with an original score by Jonathan Bepler, choreography by Claudie De Serpa Soares, and costumes by Karen Young.\n\nThe Rape Of The Sabine Women was conceived as allegory based loosely on the ancient myth that follows Romulus’ founding of Rome. Re-envisioning the myth as a 1960’s period piece with the Romans cast as G-men, the Sabines as butchers’ daughters, and the heyday of Rome allegorically implied in an affluent international style summer house, this version is a riff on the original story of abduction and intervention, in which Romulus devises a plan to ensure the future of the empire. While the Roman myth traces the birth of a society, this telling suggests the destruction of a utopia. The intervention of the women is fraught, and the chaos that ensues transforms the designed perfection into nothingness.\n\nThe Rape… is a video-musical conceived in an operatic five act structure that opens in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, moves to the S-Bahn and Tempelhof Airport, Athens’ Agora meat market, a classic modern 60’s dream house overlooking the Aegean, and finally, Athens’ Herodion Theatre. Forgoing the compromise of the original, the Rufus Corporation’s re-imagining pits mid-twentieth century ideals against the eternal themes of power, longing, and desire. A modern process piece created in improvisation-a product of 180 hours of video footage and 6000 photographs-the video with 7.1 sound installation features compositions by Jonathan Bepler, recorded live on site , incorporating a bouzouki ensemble, a Pergamon coughing choir, and a chorus of 800 voices.

  • tags: video, films, rape_sabine_women, eve_sussman, rufus_corporation

    • Beautiful video of Aakash Nihalani creating his “tape art” interventions in New York City’s public spaces. By taking us with him (through his tape interventions) I think Nihalani is really re-imagining and re-seeing space, and that’s an amazing gift to the rest of us.
      “When artist Aakash Nihalani moved from the suburbs to NYC he was compelled by its symmetry. As an organic response he started laying down tape on the streets and on buildings, creating brightly colored sticker tape boxes framing aspects of the city he wanted to show people, creating tableaus from real life. Both uncomfortable at potentially defacing property by using permanent materials, and enraged at the continued treatment of public artists as vandals, we join him as he brings 3D to his work for the first time, via use of mirrors and passers-by, and discuss why impermanence is important to the acceptance of street art.”

      tags: art, aakash_nihalani, street_art, video

    • A rather amusing look at history according to Victoria’s mainstream media (in this case by Times-Colonist reporter Bill Cleverley). Wow, this is quite the ellipsis…

      If there’s one thing I’m learning from the whole Johnson Street Bridge issue and process is that one apparently can’t trust our media to get the stories right.

      tags: johnson_street_bridge, media, newspapers, times_colonist, bill_cleverley

    Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

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