Scot Hein at GWAC

September 15, 2015

Last night’s monthly meeting of the Grandview Woodland Area Council (GWAC) was filled by a presentation and QA session with the articulate and interesting Scot Hein.  Scot was for ten years the head of City of Vancouver’s Urban Design Studio (UDS) until he resigned about 18 months ago.  He is now an adjunct professor in urban planning at UBC.

Scot gave the thirty or so attendees an excellent run-through of the urban design principles that drove Vancouver planning in the years he was at UDS. He noted that these design principles were the first lens through which development proposals were viewed. Ed: This should still be the case but increasingly developer profit, a sterile technocratic managerialism, and sheer panic seem to have taken over.

Scot noted his support for a city-wide plan — it helps “discipline” the planning process, he believes — but was adamant that contextuality is key and that “appropriate discussions” on form and style need to be hyper-local.  He then moved on to discuss and illustrate a wide range of case studies from across the city, featuring the Arbutus Walk development that was propelled by local activists and architects.

Discussing Grandview Woodland in particular, Scot noted that Grandview is already at or close to the 40 units per acre number that is considered reasonable urban density.  He made it clear that he and the UDS were firmly opposed to towers in our neighbourhood and similar inner ring suburbs.  In fact, he and his team produced low-rise alternatives that planners in the four Community Plans could use.

Scot put forward his theory that if land assembly by developers was prohibited in these kinds of neighbourhoods, then land value would immediately be removed from the pricing equation and lower costs housing could be built. He would prefer Council to loosen the rules on what lot owners could develop on their own land, easing the way to second houses, laneway structures, etc.  He also suggested that neighbours should be allowed to pool their lots to develop more imaginative low-impact density and thus make best use of the latent capacity already contained within the zoning guidelines.

Discussing the Boffo Tower, Scot said that UDS had seen the original proposal in 2013 (even though other planners have told us that no proposal had been submitted) and which he described as “a pig in space” meaning an inappropriate structure for the local environment and character. In December of that year UDS had presented Boffo with some ideas to reduce the height of the proposed tower from 15 storeys down to about 9.  (ed: However, they were working with the total square footage that Boffo said they needed and so their potential alternatives were limited by those requirements.) He said Boffo had agreed to proceed on that basis. However, the latest designs Scot had seen seemed to him to have reverted to the original size and massing.

Finally, Scot suggested that we gather architects and designers on our side with an alternative plan and then to request a design mediation.

When there is intelligent talk and good questions and responses, two hours seems to fly by.  Such was the case last night and I am glad to have been there to take part.

Eraser Street

April 17, 2015

EraserHenri Robideau is a photographer and cultural narrator.  This assembly of his work “mixes Robideau’s newest and oldest photographs of moments, milestones and monuments in Vancouver, tracing the character of the city and its residents during the last 40 years of non-stop growth.”

On until May 16th.

Le Corbusier Is Dead: A Memoir

December 24, 2014

Growing up in a slummed out bombed out working class district in West London in the early 1950s, there was little formal intellectual stimulation. I got lucky in two ways.  First, my grandfather was an engine driver (a locomotive engineer) and his union, ASLEF, were big supporters of Adult Education. The union arranged for its members and their families to attend lectures and films. Through them I was lucky enough to attend several years of lectures for children at the Royal Society where I learned in a most entertaining way the basic laws of physics and the solar system. Second, there was my Uncle Jack.

Uncle Jack was the brother of my mother’s oldest sister’s husband.  In the 1930s, Jack was a bum, a hobo traveling the roads of England.  At some point he decided that was not the future he wanted and, passing the entrance exam that was available back then, he entered Oxford University where he eventually became a professor of sociological statistics.  Jack never married or dated (so far as I know) and never drove a car until much later in life he visited the States and became enamoured of wide-finned machines.

knickerbocker-gloryUncle Jack’s niece was my cousin Pauline.  She was a little less than a year older than me and we were quite close friends.  Whenever he was in town, Jack would take Pauline and me on special outings: we would row on the river, or visit museums. He took us to the very first fast-food burger joint in London, and somewhere else he taught us the joys of Knickerbocker Glory and Banana Split ice cream sundaes, which hadn’t even been dreamt of in my imagination.  He treated us with the seriousness that we deserved, and we appreciated that. He liked his beer (it would be his brother who introduced me to the pleasure of bitter ale when I was just twelve) but every year he would bring to our house a fine bottle of wine from the Oxford cellars for my father and he would decant it himself by the fire.

It was through my Uncle Jack that I was signed up to attend annual lectures for children at the Royal Institute of British Architects. I became acquainted with the Greek orders, the structure of temples, Palladianism (as illustrated by Chiswick House, where my mother used to take me to play in the park), and Sir Christopher Wren.


As I got older, I continued to attend lectures at RIBA and elsewhere. It was through these that I learned about Le Corbusier (generally a god to the lecturers), Robert Moses, and had my first taste of approved brutalism (oops, I  meant modernism).  Luckily I had been brought up in a neighbourhood which, having had large portions bombed flat during the war, had undergone an earlier version of “urban renewal” and so I was already familiar with the failures of central planning.

Most of my relatives lived in subsidized housing projects (called “council estates” in Britain), huge multi-storied blocks linked with concrete walkways.  I particularly remember the rubbish chutes on each floor, the fact that the ground floor always smelled like a garbage dump, there were wide boys (or spivs) selling stolen property in the carpark, and gangs of kids hanging around the stairwells (thankfully, I knew most of them and wasn’t often troubled).  Looking back, these were terrible places to live and bring up a family (although my own family’s privately rented fourth floor cold-water walk up tenement was no better, that’s for sure — and they had hot water.)

I didn’t become an architect or anything like that, but my interest in urban design remained.  I attended further lectures in London and Manchester before I left England, and I read Geddes and Mumford and Jacobs.  It was Robert Caro’s majestic multi-volume biography of Robert Moses that enlightened me the most, though, about central planning and the social disasters that nearly always befall that sorry exercise.

When I came to Vancouver in the late 1970s, activists had already scared off most urban renewal projects, including the freeway that would have devastated Grandview, Strathcona, and Chinatown, although we did have numerous housing projects in place, such as Stamps Place, Little Mountain, and Nicholson Place. I came here pre-Expo and watched in awe as the city planners grew our city to met the event.


For twenty years or more, as Vancouver City Planning worked its way through the original Local Area Plan or LAP (which gave us the Grandview we love today), City Plan, and Community Visions systems, I was proud to tell the world about how well our planners had done.  I watched as they built a world-class city based in large part on retaining the diversity of our neighbourhoods.  That all changed in 2005, of course, and city planning here has gone downhill ever since, as you can read about relentlessly elsewhere on this blog.

What triggered this rememberance was a snippet of an article I read (and which I have subsequently lost) which argued forcefully in favour of a renewed need for good old-fashioned urban renewal. Almost immediately after, I read a Washington Post book review of a new biography of Le Corbusier. “In ‘Modern Man,‘ Anthony Flint attempts to liberate Le Corbusier from the indictments that have plagued his legacy.

His ideas and his template for disruption have value that has been obscured by the withering dismissal of those who see him as the destroyer of cities,” Flint argues. “There is much that works and much to be learned from Le Corbusier — and it’s in danger of being tossed aside, a baby thrown out with the modernist bathwater.”

Too late, I say, and thank goodness: Le Corbusier and his fascistic technocracy is dead (although there are some might say that Vision Vancouver’s social engineering-via-development agenda comes close).  We learned that lesson at least once. We can only hope that the Chinese with their numerous and entirely vacant centrally-planned mega-cities will catch on soon, and that Vancouver activists can at least blunt the edges of Vision’s cruel vision for our beautiful city.

For those who might be interested, Uncle Jack, after many years in the quiet of English academia, gained a posting to Stanford, discovered America, women, and fast cars with more chrome than style.  After two years of that, exhausted, he returned to a tenured professorship at Sheffield University in England.  One summer in the 1970s he travelled to the south island of New Zealand for an adventure holiday in the wilderness.  He never came back; just decided he liked it well enough and would stay.  If he is still alive he will be in the his mid-90s.  A grand man from whom I learned much.

Small Spaces

November 28, 2014

For more than a decade, I have written short  fictions about people living in small spaces:  a couple who live on their balcony; a street person who makes a home in a doorway, for example.  My stories, and plans for more, are filled with the ingenuity required to live in such tight spots.  But nothing I had fantasized about prepared me for the real-life inventiveness of Gary Chang in Hong Kong as told in this fascinating piece from the New York Times.

Chang has managed to cram 24 different floor plans into his tiny 344 square foot apartment.


Using shifting wall units suspended from steel tracks bolted into the ceiling, the apartment becomes all manner of spaces — kitchen, library, laundry room, dressing room, a lounge with a hammock, an enclosed dining area and a wet bar.


In the last two decades, he has renovated four times, on progressively bigger budgets as his company, Edge Design Institute, has grown. His latest effort, which took a year and cost just over $218,000, he calls the “Domestic Transformer.”

Incredible ingenuity.  I couldn’t possibly live in it, but I appreciate the design skills that have brought it about.


First published:  January 2009

Urban Age Futures Conference

November 13, 2014

For those with an interest in such matters, the Urban Age Futures conference starts on the 14th.

The programme is full of cutting-edge discussions on governance and urbanism in wide-ranging settings.  And the list of speakers is equally diverse.  Good for the big thinkers who can focus.

It might help to shake ourselves free for a moment or two from the minutia of our parochial election-time concerns.

You should be able to watch live here at the appropriate times.

Bold Geometric Skylines

April 21, 2014

I adore these designs:

bold colour



bold colour 2

And the rest which you can find here at Taxi.

The World’s Worst Architect!

February 15, 2014


Thank goodness: I am not alone in thinking that Frank Gehry is the world’s worst starchitect.  Geoff Manaugh in Gizmodo just shreds the guy, and quite deservedly.

“Gehry long ago stopped pursuing any interesting material or tectonic experimentation—and he used to be an interesting architect!—to become the multi-billion dollar equivalent of a Salvador Dalì poster tacked to the wall in a stoned lacrosse player’s dorm room, an isn’t-it-trippy pile of pseudo-psychedelic bullshit that everyone but billionaire urban developers can see through right away. What’s particularly frustrating about Gehry’s career is that he’s somehow meant to be cool, a kind of sci-fi architect for the Millennial generation, a Timothy Leary of CAD; but he’s Guy Fieri, his buildings hair-gelled monsters of advanced spatial douchebaggery …

[Gehry’s buildings] are just crumpled Reynold’s Wrap on an otherwise white-bread interior, a boring, room-by-room grid surrounded by hair spray, like some lunatic version of Phyllis Diller blown up to the size of a city block and frozen mid-stroke.”

Wow!  That’s telling it like it is.