On Stupid Rules

Blitz Magazine, June 2008

stupid1The other day, I was sitting on the patio of a Vancouver restaurant and a pair of Mexican tourists sat down across from me. After their drinks arrived, they asked if I minded if they smoked. I said no. I almost said: “Uh, it’s against the law to smoke on a restaurant patio in Vancouver,” but I didn’t. Because it would have sounded unfriendly. And stupid.

It is stupid. In Vancouver, smokers can no longer smoke near the entrances of buildings. So they go into the lanes and walk around on the sidewalks. Since there are no ash trays anywhere, they drop their butts wherever they happen to be. So the streets and sidewalks are heavily-littered with cigarette butts. This mess is the basis for the latest move on the part of the anti-smoking Nazis, who want to ban smoking on beaches.

If they succeed, you will be able to drive an exhaust-spewing vehicle, be morbidly obese, raise diabetic children, live on food from McDonald’s and furnish your home with lead-laced, Chinese-made junk from Wal-Mart, but you won’t be able to sit on a beach and watch the sun go down while enjoying a cigar. While I’m sure that special-interest groups will soon form to lobby against all of the former, the latter remains strange but true.

The West End of Vancouver is home to one of the largest gay communities in North America. It’s a place where people can be proud of their sexuality. In the heart of the West End is the ironically-named Olympic restaurant. Its owner recently refused service to a heterosexual couple. Why? They were kissing. The owner, while refusing to make eye contact with the woman, told the man: “We don’t tolerate that kind of thing in here.”

I recently pulled into a parking lot, just a few blocks from that restaurant, and was in the process of straightening out the car when an officious little man walked up to my window. He informed me that there is a law against idling one’s car and that if I didn’t turn the car off, he’d call the police.

stupidA couple of months ago, I went into a downtown hotel in search of lunch. Only the hotel’s lounge was open (the ‘lounge’ being an empty room separated from the restaurant by a movable screen). I was refused service, because I had a friend’s son with me—a minor. I told Mr. Rules that he could hardly expect the Liquor Control Board to pull the hotel’s license, pointing out that the minor in question was 53 weeks old and firmly teetotal. We got the boot anyway.

Ahhhh Vancouver. One of the most beautiful cities in the world. Where a West Side housewife waged a two-year campaign to bring down the tree house of the little kids next door. Where, while community festivals shut down for lack of funding, millions are spent on ‘traffic-calming devices’ (piles of cement that jut out into the road and cause accidents and vehicle damage). Where there is a sign at Third Beach reading ‘No Ball Playing’.

Tourism Vancouver has a $14 million budget to market its city as a travel destination. It does a terrific job; 9 million people visited the city last year. Marketing materials show dazzling images and speak of all of the things there are to do here. And now millions more will be spent on bringing people here for the 2010 Olympics. I’m thinking, though, that its executives are going to have to lean on the plods at City Hall. Because if you’re spending millions of dollars communicating to the world that your product is the best choice and it turns out that it is not, why bother? If you tell people that Vancouver is the best place for their honeymoon, but public displays of affection are punished, why bother? If you tell people that Vancouver is kid-friendly and families are refused service in hotels, why bother? And who gets to tell South American, Asian and European tourists that they can’t smoke while standing on the street?

The last word goes to a British tourist who was brought here by successful marketing. Last week, the man told a friend: “This is a fabulous city, but I could never live here. You people are just too up-tight.”

Advertisements

On Garden Art

Homes & Cottages, April 1997

gardenWe spend a lot of time and money on interior decorating. We spend a lot of time and money on our gardens. We’re picky: we want that piece of sculpture over the fireplace; we want an oval tulip bed in the south corner of the garden.

Most of us, though, don’t meld the two. We think of home decoration as one element and garden design as something else. Unlike the Italians or Japanese, Canadians typically don’t put anything but plants in their gardens. In Vancouver, artists are designing garden sculpture to encourage home-owners to use art to augment and showcase the natural beauty found outside.

Vancouver artist Susanna Blunt is an avid gardener and an enthusiastic proponent of the idea. “I think that  a garden is the most wonderful place for art, yet you don’t see much of it. When you do, you see reproductions of old items, and those pieces are reminiscent of other cultures and other types of architecture. That’s why I decided to create modern, individualistic sculpture for Canadian gardens.”

Blunt’s custom pieces are made of steel, bronze, stone, glass and marble and can be simple sculptures or ornate designs. She also has a line of Swizzle Stakes, which are six-pound, 80” steel poles that have been bent or welded into creative and decorative statues. They can be grouped to create one sculpture, or used separately to support sweet peas, climbing vines or roses. They can be left to rust and age naturally, or painted to match or contrast with garden furniture or plants.

“Garden art makes any garden doubly inviting,” says Blunt. “It becomes a visual point of interest, and complements or contrasts plants so that one shows off the other to the best possible advantage. Art can turn a garden into visual theatre, even in winter, when it collects snow and ice and adds colour or interesting notes to an otherwise-bleak winter garden.”

Bradford Carrie has the same objective when creating garden sculpture, but the difference with his work lies in his materials. Carrie scours farms, rail lines, beaches, docks and abandoned houses, and uses found objects to create eclectic sculptures that can be used in conjunction with plants or as visual accents in a garden.

“My concern is with balance, colour and texture, and with showcasing the personality of objects, says Carrie. “Found objects have been used by someone in another time and this gives them character. That character becomes part of the visual value of the sculpture, and lends itself to the look of the garden.”

For Carrie, doorknobs from a turn-of-the-century house, pounded into an old oak door found in an abandoned railway tunnel, become a ‘door sculpture’, which is the ideal accent for an ivy-covered wall. The lid of a gas tank and the base of an engine are welded together and placed on a pedestal to support vines and flowers. One six-foot sculpture consists of dock fittings, a machine strap, a fishing boat hook, copper tubing and an old farm rank, all perfectly balanced with complementary, contrasting tones that age together.

Vancouver landscape architect Judith Reeve, also known from the CBC’s Canadian Gardner, refers to the use of art in gardens as “agritecture” and has long used plants, wood and odds and ends to build structures for plants to grow on. In Canada, however, Reeve finds that the concept has not quite caught on.

“Interest in garden sculpture is greater in Europe and the US. Here, the conventional, formal garden is still popular, but garden art is extremely useful. It can be used to connect garden segments, as a focus for light and water, or to dress up a blank wall. Rockwork can be turned into a pond or tiny fountain. It’s also nice to hide items that people can come across as they walk through your garden. Gardeners can make their spaces much more interesting by adding items and experimenting a little.”

Reeve adds, “There has been this tremendous snobbery about garden décor, which has made people afraid to experiment. But I say that if you find an item you like, put it in your garden. Hang it on a tree. Let water drip onto it. Make  seat out of it. Put a light in it. If it doesn’t look right, you can always change it. Art can add a little mystery and a sense of discovery to a garden and I think people should be a little more whimsical. Why not decorate your garden as you would your house?”

 

On Communicators Needing to Think Things Through

Blitz Magazine, November 2007

thinking2I was watching Leno last night. He did his regular Headlines bit. It’s funny because it contains ads which are hilarious by virtue of careless errors, ignorance, laziness, and that old bane of writers: the do-it-yourself mentality of those who refuse to hire people who can actually write.

Lately, it has occurred to me that, when communicating with the public, more and more professionals are just not thinking things through.

Last summer, the White Spot restaurant chain ran a TV spot (ad nauseam) in which the gag was that the chef was left to clean up after a team of chefs worked all day to come up with new menu items. But, in the final shot showing the messy kitchen, every pot, pan and utensil was spotlessly clean. ‘Little problem with the props and art direction budget, I guess.

In October, I was one a judge on the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario’s Design at Work show. I was judging the publications section and saw some beautiful work. But, being me, I had to read the pieces. And found that there were typos in some and grammatical errors in others. Well, if you’re producing a high-end publication, doesn’t it follow that you should hire a writer who, you know, can actually write? And who might stoop to proof the final before it goes to press?

It broke my heart to have to discard an absolutely stunning catalogue. Well, the first part was stunning. Then I got to the copy, and found that the designer had used silver type on a white background. Well, when you put silver type on a white background, you can’t read the type. And if you can’t read the type in a publication, the publication ceases to be a publication and it becomes a waste of paper.

thinking1

‘Same thing with web designers who slap 8-point type against a black background. What’s the point in putting words in view when there’s no hope of those words being read? This is why there’s now an entire mini-industry of Usability Experts—people who spend their lives teaching people to think things through.

A current TV spot for Maltesers shows two lovers cuddling on the couch. The guy is feeding the gal the balls of candy with the help of a straw. Which would be fine (sort of), except that the guy is 17 and the gal looks to be in her mid-40s. It’s actually pretty creepy. It’s as if the creative director wanted to appeal to that massive ‘high-school-kid-sleeping-with-his-teacher’ market.

President’s Choice has a new campaign, in which the tag line is ‘Worth Changing Supermarkets For.’ That’s kinda’ catchy. Or would be, if Canadians used the (American) term ‘supermarket’.

Then there’s the ‘Christmas’ v ‘Holiday’ thing. Here’s a case where communicators are really failing to think things through. ‘Christmas’ is a Christian holiday, celebrating the birth of a man named Jesus Christ. It is a very old holiday containing all kinds of rites that have been practiced for a very long time. And, even in today’s cynical world, a lot of people take it very seriously. To millions, it’s not just a retail bonanza.

But marketers say: “Well, we don’t want to insult Muslims and Jews!” And they point to some survey they did, in the course of which maybe 100 carefully-selected people who happened to answer their phones skewed in a certain direction and that was extrapolated to the population at large. Lame lame lame.

In the first place, I’ve yet to hear a Jew or a Muslim complain about feeling excluded from Christmas festivities. And I’ve yet to hear a Christian complain about feeling excluded from Hanukkah or Ramadan celebrations. Every religion has its own stuff; how hypocritical to praise multi-culturalism and diversity and pluralism and then lump the observances of three religions into a muddy term called ‘The Holidays’.

thinking

Secondly, if non-Christian religious groups are so important marketers, why aren’t large advertising dollars spent on advertising specifically to them? Crafting advertising that is clearly trying to sell ‘Christmas’, while failing to tip-toe around two other religious holidays is not only nonsensical, but arrogant, disrespectful and insulting. To everyone.

Third, marketers are not getting it right. They use the term ‘For the Holidays’, but their stores are decorated with all of the accoutrements of Christmas. At the moment, in most malls and shops, all you can hear are Christmas carols. Why not play the Dreidel Song? It’s still All Christmas All the Time—it’s just that no one wants to say that word.

This is very weird. It’s taking political correctness to a foolish extreme. Marketers say it’s ‘good business’. It’s not. It’s just silly.

On Citizen Journalism

Blitz Magazine, January 2008

Late-night host Craig Ferguson regularly stabs at tabloid stories when he says (wink) “If it’s written down, it must be true.” Which is funny, until you realize that millions of people actually do think that everything they read—just because it has been published somewhere—must have some factual basis. That’s not at all funny.

citizenIn my particular pocket of the world, the majority of people are supposed to be well-educated. But at the check-out counter at the local grocery store, I notice that the racks for the National Enquirer and the News of the World are either depleted or empty. Publications such as these have long made millions by printing doctored images and ridiculous fiction about real people. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s always asked: ‘Who reads this stuff?’, ‘Why do people read this stuff?’ and ‘How is it that these publications haven’t been sued into bankruptcy?’

The answer to the first two questions are, in my mind, that those who buy tabloid junk are either intellectually-challenged or find some escapist value in reading dreck. The answer to the third question is unknowable—perhaps the victims think that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, or they don’t want to give credence to junk by responding to it. The main reason could be that defamation suits are difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

All of this is now made much worse by the Internet, which has spawned blogs and vlogs and this new creature called ‘Citizen Journalism’. Now anyone, anywhere can say literally anything about anybody, with impunity. Anyone with an axe to grind can broadcast any fiction to millions of people, and the victims of any misinformation, slander or defamation will not be able to do anything about it—if they even know about it. Between language barriers and the vast size of the Web, it is impossible for corporations, governments and individuals to monitor what is being said about them.

citizen3

A recent example of the damage this can do popped up when a disgruntled ex-employee of Tommy Hilfiger used the Net to spread the notion that the company actively discourages black customers. By the time the company learned about it, millions of emails on the subject had been sent out—I got one from a friend, who believed it because she got it from her sister, who (egads) is in senior management at a Crown corporation, and she believed it because, it was ‘in print’. Hilfiger had the resources to fight back, and duly did the talk-show rounds to set the record straight. Only his accountants can say how much damage was caused by this particular lie.

The downside of Internet-based misinformation does not stop at celebrities and corporations. It is now creating massive problems in academia. Thanks, in part, to Wikipedia, the online volunteer encyclopedia that we now all use. In universities everywhere, students are regularly failing important exams because they’re taking their ‘facts’ from Wikipedia entries. Professors everywhere are now are forbidding students to use anything from Wikipedia.

According to Wired Campus, “Even Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, says he wants to get the message out to students that they shouldn’t use it for class projects or serious research. Wales gets about 10 email messages a week from students who complain that Wikipedia has gotten them into academic hot water. “They say, ‘Please help me, I got an ‘F’ on my paper because I cited something I found on Wikipedia and the information turned out to be wrong.”

Citizen Journalism is terrific for the exchange of opinion and ideas, and the concept is great for fostering freedom and democracy. It can help catch criminals, of all sorts. It can educate, inform and inspire. The up-side is definitely there.

citizen2

But the down-side is more pronounced. Any charlatan can file ‘reports’ on ‘new’ medications, treatments, cures. Any idiot can say “a clinical study has proven that drinking water is bad for you,” or that “the government of Somewhere is poisoning its citizens’. Lots and lots of people are not very bright; millions will send money to support the citizens of Somewhere, believe that they should stop drinking water, and buy those concoctions.

In every corner of the globe, there are people who go on-line, see tons of fascinating information, all dressed up with pretty pictures, ‘quotes’, charts and graphs. It doesn’t occur to these people to check the sources of the information; to find out who the authors are, check their credentials. They may not understand the concept of advertorial; it may not even occur to them that the guy in the white coat is an actor. They just assume that, because it has been ‘published’, it must be true.

In the civilized world, it is still only the masthead, station call letters, or network logo that allows us to believe and trust in the information that it being given to us. When we see a reporter at the site of an incident, we can trust that that reporter has done the work and is telling what he or she believes to be the truth. When it comes to political reportage, most of us know enough to read between the lines, to recognize that a columnist or talking head has a particular political bent.

We also trust that dishonest journalists will be exposed, as they have famously been at the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, and that the penalty for their deception is banishment from their profession and new careers as cab drivers or gas station attendants. The fact that we will never hear from them again is proof that mainstream journalistic entities are committed to providing accurate information, and the educated, fact-based insight that people need in order to properly understand their world. The measures taken to guarantee credibility are, of course, to safeguard corporate survival, but they are also taken in support of ethical positions and a professional dedication to protection of the public trust through the dissemination of fact and truth. Like it or not, professional journalistic entities are still the gate-keepers.

The trick is to define ‘professional’. An awful lot of Americans, on the under-educated side, think that the information they get from Fox News is true, thanks to the insane persuasiveness of the odious Bill O’Reilly and the network’s not-so-merry bank of bobbing vitriol-spewing heads. With the pervasiveness of religious fanaticism in the southern states, you have to wonder at how much of their local information is controlled by heavy-hitters with decidedly off-kilter agendas. (This is becoming an issue in Canada, as well.)

The one which could have the most negative effect on future societies—is with the under-30s, who are now used to getting all of their information from the ‘Net. Canadian children may be some of the world’s best-educated, but you can see them in the malls and internet cafes, surfing, reading and passing on information that, they assume, must be true. Because it’s ‘in print’. Then they get to university and discover, the hard way, that this is not at all the case.

citizen1They don’t think about where their information comes from. What the motivation was behind its collection and dissemination. Whether or not the people who created it had any journalistic training—what questions were asked, how they were asked, if facts were checked and images authenticated.

If Citizen Journalism is meant to be good for freedom and democracy, those involved in it may have to think about the larger ramifications. Because the fact that so many people will believe anything they read, without thinking about its genesis is, ultimately, seriously detrimental to everyone.

Dream Team: Architect Arthur Erickson & Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Landscape, June 1994

Among its many blessings and advantages, Vancouver has two national treasures who have steadily worked to define the first standard of Canadian landscape architecture.

arthurThe first is Arthur Erickson, now one of Canada’s most famous architects. While not a landscaper, per se, the Vancouver native knows more about it than most. When he was growing up in Vancouver, no one in his family had much of an interest in gardening but, from boyhood, roses were a hobby and he held a deep interest in botany and biology.

He decided, though, to become an engineer. After studying at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Erickson spent two years in the army. He was posted in India, Malaysia and Nepal, fell in love with travel and decided to go into the diplomatic service. Then he happened to pick up a copy of Fortune magazine. “I saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Desert House and thought ‘If an architect can do that, I want to be an architect’.”

Erickson headed to McGill University then, after graduating in 1950, he spent three years in Europe, observing its buildings and landscaping.

In 1953, he returned to Vancouver but found that his unorthodox approach didn’t fit with that of his conservative colleagues, so he took a teaching job at the University of Oregon. In 1957, UBC offered him a position, and he spent the next seven years teaching and working on residential projects.

As a professor of architecture, Erickson didn’t specifically teach landscaping, but he always stressed its importance. “I taught that it was crucial to design the whole site. I’ll never know to what extent this concept got through to my students—many architects aren’t interested in landscape. But when I was teaching students to sketch, I would take them outside and have them draw blades of grass—that had to have some influence.”

In 1963, Erickson won the competition to design Simon Fraser University (SFU). Unable to teach and build, he gave up teaching and never looked back.

SFU covers 900 acres, but Erickson only landscaped the central quadrangle, leaving the rest for playing fields and meadow. Much thought, however, was put into the landscaping of that quadrangle.

erickson3erickson1

“I wanted the garden to keep the viewer interested by changing with each viewpoint,” he recalls. “You can’t understand it by standing in one place—you spot something different from each vantage point and have to investigate. I like to hide things for people to discover.”

erickson2From the entry of this garden, or the top of the stairs, you see a long, formal pool featuring an enormous block of Fraser River jade. Three long stepped-up hedges of Rhododendron and Pyrus partially hide a pyramid structure in which people can sit and study, and Locust trees enclose a small playground. Silver Maples provide shade, and there are Dogwood and Hawthorn trees—loose forms contrasted with thin forms. The overall design, and the use of hedges, gives the illusion of greater distance.

Erickson is particular about what goes into his landscapes. He enjoys scented gardens, walled gardens and Japanese gardens, but feels they’re inappropriate for BC. He uses lots of rock and moss and, although he loves flowers, he avoids anything fancy. “I prefer things like single roses. Gladiolus is too stiff, Dahlias are too showy, Carnations look like pompoms.”

He always uses water, but never fountains. “Water is very important—it reflects the sky and brings light to a garden on dark days. But an upward spray is awkwardly artificial.”

The garden at Erickson’s own home has become famous due to admirers’ efforts to have it declared a Heritage Site. It reflects his opinion of how a private garden should be. “I like natural, underground gardens. Over-designed landscapes feel contrived. I want everything flowing together and messed up.

erickson6“When I bought my house, the garden was all grass. By the third year, it was weeds with a few struggling flowers. So I bulldozed the lawn into one great mound. I made a pond, which I’ve never cleaned, and I planted Pine trees and grasses taken from beside the Fraser River. For colour, I use pots of flowers. The rest grows wild.

“Thirty years later, I have a meadow surrounded by forest. And it changes every year as different plants seed themselves. I now have a Persimmon tree, a new Arbutus and tropical grasses.”

Erickson also believes that one of the most important things for any landscape is for all elements to belong. His preoccupation with a connection between the nature of a site, and what is planted in it, or built on it, comes from growing up in BC.

“When you live here, you spend much time experiencing nature. The landscape becomes an influence. That explains Wright’s influence on me as an architect. His buildings interpreted landscape experiences—the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley, or a forest at the top of a mountain. I’ve always been excited by the design adventure offered by the physicality of a site.

“I also think that this is the important difference between eastern Canadian architecture and western Canadian architecture. In Ontario, you can place the same building anywhere. Here, we never have flat sites, so every structure has to be site-specific.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve never thought of architecture as being separate from the landscape, and why I study the character of a site before I do the building. The land is always part of the building.”

This approach appeals to those who wish to build homes on difficult sites and there are several prominent Erickson houses and gardens in the Vancouver area.

“I recall one site that was a former dump; there was a stream beside it. Rather than landscape the dump and put the house beside it, I put the house on the dump and tapped the stream to make a lake. In another case, the garden was seen through a low window, like in a Japanese teahouse. I concentrated on the ground plane, added dry rock and rearranged the existing plant material to allow the garden to be viewed properly.

erickson7“Another client had a huge sloping lawn that was so over-planted, the flowers were blocking enjoyment of the wonderful lawn and the view beyond. So I removed most of the fussy garden to feature the lawn. When you do things like this, you bring the home and the garden together. When you bring the home and garden together, it makes living in the home more comfortable.”

For commercial projects, Erickson prefers an orderly landscape with touches of wildness.

“Even in the city, I try to bring landscape into the building, and every one of my designs must enhance its site and fit its character.”

One of Erickson’s most difficult sites was one of his most recent, and famous, projects—the new Canadian chancery in Washington.

My instructions from the Canadian government were to express neighbourliness, openness and friendship,” recalls Erickson. “But Washington’s regulations are severe—there are 20 committees overseeing style, shape, height. I had to use those restrictions in my design.

“I studied the street and the site, which is on Pennsylvania Avenue, opposite the US National Gallery and its new I.M. Pei wing. I was captivated by the neo-Classicism of Washington’s buildings and the consistency with which that style appears in the lines and heights of these buildings. So I chose the idiom of the southern plantation house with the grand columns and large front porch. But I put the porch inside the building and kept to the Classical order of base, body and top. Then, to echo a nearby building, I made a rotunda as a means of support. The overall effect is one great sweep which, I feel, is the character of the Canadian landscape—one enormous expanse and sense of space.

erickson9

“Through the columns, and into the courtyard, the landscaping begins. It looks like the slope of a mountain, planted with white flowers, Azalea, Hawthorn, roses. I wanted Mountain Laurel, which I felt were in keeping with the north, but we couldn’t get them in the right growth patterns.”

Naturally, there is water at the embassy. “The basin of water in the courtyard also represents the Canadian landscape, and in it we placed the massive ‘Spirit of Haida Gwaii’, which is the Bill Reid sculpture of the spirit canoe in which the shaman takes initiates to find their spirit guide. This is not only very Canadian, but could remind some of the famous paintings of Washington crossing the Delaware.”

The fact that he couldn’t get the Mountain Laurel annoyed Erickson and, though he realizes he can’t plant everything, he wishes that Canadian growers would expand their selection. “Our nurseries are getting better but too often we have to outside of Canada for what we want.”

It also annoys him that people won’t leave his landscapes alone. “The meadow at SFU was supposed to remain wild, in contrast to the groomed landscape, but they keep moving it. And we had planted Canadian columnar Juniper trees at the embassy but one ambassador removed them. I have no idea why. It’s very frustrating.” erickson10

Erickson never deals directly with nurseries or gardeners. That is left to his long-time collaborator, and Canada’s premier landscape architect, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.

“Cornelia knows how things should be done,” says Erickson. “Most landscape architects don’t take her intellectual approach or do her research. She has a wonderful knowledge of plant materials. I tell her what I want to do conceptually and she finds the plants to achieve the design.”

Cornelia Hahn was born in Germany and grew up in the U.S.  After studying history, art and botany at Smith College, she went to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she studied architecture, planting and landscape design, graduating as a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture.

Also at Harvard, Hahn met her Canadian architect/city planner husband, Peter Oberlander. In 1953, he accepted a professorship at UBC (where Erickson would later join him on staff).

“When we first moved to Vancouver, I saw Canada as a new country with untouched spaces and limitless potential and challenges for my profession,” recalls Oberlander whose first projects were the grounds of the UBC Faculty Club and UBC’s Rose Garden. But she was also raising three children, and became interested in playgrounds. She designed the playground for the Children’s Creative Centre at the Canadian Federal Pavilion at Montreal’s EXPO ’67. She also became a member of the National Task Force on Children’s Play, and co-founded Vancouver’s Children’s Resource Centre. In addition, she is Past-President of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, and its former Environmental Chairman, and she remains a Fellow of both the American and Canadian Societies of Landscape Architects.

erickson11Much of Oberlander’s work is well-known. For Vancouver’s Expo ’86, she was the landscape architect of Canada Place, the Pan-Pacific Hotel, the World Trade Centre and the Ontario Pavilion. She was awarded the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects’ National Award for her work on the Ottawa National Gallery, and she designed the grounds of the Environmental Science Building and the Ward Environmental Garden at Peterborough’s Trent University. In Vancouver, the exquisite Cathedral Place Renaissance Garden is Oberlander’s, and she worked with Bing Thom on BC’s Chan Shun Performing Arts Centre, and with Matsuzaki Wright Architects on UBC’s Institute of Asian Research.

erickson12 erickson13 

In 1990, Oberlander received the Order of Canada. In his citation, Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn said: “She is known for integrating her designs with the natural environment, yet always adds a unique new vision and dimension. Her expert technical knowledge is coupled with her concern for expressing cultural, social and environmental concepts in her work.”

Oberlander’s philosophy toward landscape design stems from her days at Harvard, where she enjoyed helping architects ensure that their buildings related to the landscape. To this day, her projects are always based on architects’ design concepts, but she infuses those with the result of her own studies of the social, cultural and physical features of each site.

Her trademarks are simplicity of form, sculpted earthen mounds and a ‘less is more’ palette. Her gardens consist of solid areas of flowers in pink, blue, grey or white, with lots of grasses and shrubs. She uses her mounds to screen out traffic, to provide an element of surprise and for the burial of building scrap. And she never uses anything exotic.

“Why be exotic?” she asks. “The history and ecology of each site dictates its use. It’s not appropriate to plant unnatural plants. I use common plants—what’s available, what suits the climate, the client, the budget.”

She does not do rockery, topiary or fountains, although she does use water to reflect the landscape. She prefers simplicity, makes sure that her landscapes require minimal maintenance and she has never exceeded a quote.

erickson14 erickson15 

Her approach is direct. She won’t take a job unless she is guaranteed supervision. She looks at the architect’s design, researches the site, quickly designs the landscape, then goes back to the architect and client and works with them to compose the palette before working out the grading and drainage. She takes time to educate the architect, contractors and maintenance people, and she stays on after each project’s completion to see that everything goes as planned.

Oberlander first worked with Arthur Erickson in 1974, when she joined the landscaping team for his famed Robson Square. They have since done three dozen projects together.

erickson5“It’s unusual for an architect and landscape architect to work so well together,” she says. “The relationship is often a struggle. Arthur and I have a very smooth relationship—we don’t even have to talk much. I know what he likes, I see his concept and I know what I have to do.

“One of the wonderful things about working with Arthur is that be believes in considering the landscape when he’s devising the building’s concept. Many architects believe that you must finish the building before the landscape can be designed. Arthur and I compose landscapes together and agree that the outdoor space should be dramatic without being fancy.

“For Robson Square, we worked out the garden before he did the drawings. Then we worked on the final drawings together, deciding on the grading and drainage—once the grading and drainage are right, the planting falls into place.

“Robson Square takes up three city blocks and we wanted to import nature into the city to create an attractive urban forest,” continues Oberlander. “Arthur changed my approach on that project. My first thought was to go with masses of evergreens. Then he said something that is so simple: ‘But there are many greens.’ I began to pay more attention to variations and now I use a wider variety of plants, especially different types of rhododendron, for a richer tapestry.”

“Cornelia wanted to keep Robson Square simple and I agreed,” recalls Erickson. “Since the design is stepped up, I suggested that we use alpine materials at the higher levels and mix Pine, Japanese maple, Magnolias and Rhododendron in planter boxes. The long rows of Memorial Roses and Laurel were her idea. But everything is there because of her exhaustive research into growing mediums.”

Another famous Erickson-Oberlander project is UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (recently featured in the film Intersection; Erickson was the model for Richard Gere’s architect).

erickson16 erickson17

The purpose of the museum is to house Pacific Northwest Native artifacts, so Oberlander felt that its landscape should simulate that of the Queen Charlotte Islands, home of the Haida Nation. She showed Erickson pictures of this landscape, with the totem poles standing on mounds covered with wild grasses and surrounded by forest. With help from seed expert Angus Richardson, the concept was realized.

Erickson’s concrete and glass building sits on a promontory facing the ocean and mountains. Rocks, shells and logs accent the landscape, which consists of meadows and mounds seeded with indigenous grasses and flowers—wild roses among Scotch Broom, Hemlock over tall wild grasses, purple, pink, yellow and white Vetches, ferns amid Oregon Grape—all of the plants used in the Haida lifestyle. A grey gravel pond reflects the mountains, and grassy mounds shield the museum from traffic and create a sense of hills rolling to the ocean, as they do in the Queen Charlottes.

Erickson and Oberlander did not get their way in all design aspects of the museum. They wanted the site covered with all plants used by Pacific Northwest natives, to create an outdoor museum, but funding problems arose. Most frustratingly, Oberlander recalls, the university kept mowing the grass. “I said: ‘Native people didn’t have lawn movers, why are you cutting the grass?’”.

An even more famous Erickson-Oberlander project is the aforementioned Canadian embassy, which Oberlander calls one of the most exciting projects she’s working on. And for it, she was presented with the National Landscape Award for the Beautification of America.

erickson8

“The chancery is important as a Canadian presence in the heart of Washington, and I was able to work as I like to—from the beginning, as part of a team aiming to integrate the building and landscape. It was also a chance to show what landscaping will be like in the 21st century, when we’ll no longer have space around buildings for our designs.

“We had no room on the ground for a garden, and only 0.25% of the building’s budget was allotted for landscaping. So it had to be economical, low-maintenance, beautiful and functional. And I had to work within their building constraints. It was a challenge.”

Erickson’s U-Shaped chancery takes up two thirds of the site and there is a pool in the paved courtyard. So Oberlander had to go up; her landscape is attached to each floor’s balconies with planter boxes, giving each office its own cascading garden of Memorial roses, Gumpo White Azalea, Delaware Valley White Azalea, and Cockspur Hawthorn. “Like cascading trees growing out of Canada’s rough mountain ledges,” she explains.

Other plants used for the chancery were Scarlet Oak, Red Oak, Eastern Red Cedar and Boxleaf Holly. To allow growth in the boxes, she created a support system of a light-weight growing medium, a low-water consumption irrigation system, slow-release non-toxic fertilizers and safety devices for maintenance workers.

The Mountain Laurel issue bothered Erickson; it didn’t faze Oberlander. She’s used to it. “I often have trouble getting what I want because I don’t mix things, I use large plants, and I need huge quantities. At the moment, I’m looking for 20 Gingko trees. Last summer, I had to find 4,000 Kinnikinnick for the National Gallery ground cover. I do, however, wish that growers would realize the importance of offering native and low-maintenance plant material, rather than focusing on fancy shrubs and flowers.”

erickson18

Oberlander has just completed work on Ottawa’s Peace-Keeping Monument and is now working on the new Ottawa City Hall, plus the landscape of the new Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly building in Yellowknife, which will be landscaped with plants that are genetically true to the region.

Meanwhile, Erickson is designing a new cultural centre in Malaysia. So we don’t know when they’ll collaborate again. But we’ll be looking forward to it.

Profile: Bing Thom, the Landscaper’s Architect

Landscape, September 1993

thom5All landscapers wish that architects were more understanding of the landscaper’s job. Well, one of Canada’s leading architects feels the same way.

Bing Thom was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. His uncle was an engineer and when Thom was eight, he visited his uncle’s office. There, he saw architectural drawings and decided to make drawing such plans his life’s work.

At the same time, he had a feel for gardening and the landscape, a sense which he attributes to his Asian ancestry. At 17, he jumped at the chance to work as a landscaper’s helper. “I spent a summer designing gardens,’ says Thom. “Building rock walls and transplanting trees was good experience—it taught me hard work.”

In 1966, Thom graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC) with a degree in architecture. After obtaining his Master’s in Architecture from Berkeley, he spent two years teaching at the University of Singapore, then returned to Vancouver and taught at UBC for another two years.

In 1973, famed architect Arthur Erickson asked Thom to help him on a project. “Erickson was my teacher at UBC,” explains Thom. “He, like Frank Lloyd Wright, was influenced by Oriental architecture and they shared a tendency toward the landscape. This appealed to me.”

Thom helped Erickson on the now-famous Vancouver Courthouse/Robson Square. “This project involved a lot of landscaping,” remembers Thom. “Vancouverites wanted a park. The government wanted an office building. So we put the park on top of the office building.

thom1“The courthouse was interesting—three mid-downtown blocks and we were putting a garden atop a man-made structure. The main questions were of waterproofing and finding the right soil mix. So we developed a totally new soil that is both lightweight and able to sustain nutrients.

“There were thousands of plants in that garden,” continues Thom. “We found an entire orchard of pines, magnolias and rhododendrons which we transplanted. Also, Spokane [WA] had 200 matching London Plane trees, which are used in cities all over the world. We bought those but, at planting time, the city’s chief engineer stopped us. He said they grew too fast and that the roots would interfere with sewers and water lines. So we planted 200 Sunset Maples and Victoria happily took the London Planes. Engineers don’t understand plants. They think there should be plastic everywhere.”

Thom next project was Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall which he designed in a park setting. In 1980, he again helped Erickson, this time on Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill project, which involved re-developing five mid-town blocks and adding linear parks and green space.

thom3 In 1982, Thom opened his own office and now employs a staff of 20, including nine architects and his wife, Bonnie.

It is Bonnie, not Bing, who has the green thumb. The daughter of a farmer, Bonnie is an educated landscaper and works on all of Bing’s projects.

 “I have a feel for gardening, but Bonnie has the talent. I tell her how I want to project to look and she compiles a list of the plants that will get me that look, according to their colours and textures.

 “More architects should consider the colours in the surrounding landscape. I never use red brick because only green plants match it. Instead, I keep my buildings neutral so that when plants flower, their colour takes over.”

Thom is an architect first, but he will not design a building unless he also designs the landscape. “It’s a personal thing. The building must grow from the ground, and the landscaping is the foundation. Each building must sit correctly on that setting, while relating to the landscape. So the landscape is actually more important than the building. Many architects don’t realize that landscaping is essential to architecture—that buildings and gardens are inter-related and indivisible.

“I start every design by looking at the property’s characteristics—the way the sun shines, the wind blows, the location, the view. I use plants only, never anything artificial. And I always use vegetation from the building’s locale. We must remember that we can’t fight nature. We have to work with it.”

What do Thom’s clients think about his approach?

“They appreciate it,” says Thom. “They may mind spending the extra money, but they never argue. I just remind them that’s money well-spent. Many people don’t realize thatlandscape architecture is more difficult and time-consuming than structural architecture, and that it takes more creativity to do a good landscape than it does to do a good building. I don’t have to account for growth with granite.”

Every one of Thom’s gardens also has a purpose. “I want my gardens to be places for meditation and contemplation,” he says “It’s important that people find tranquil spaces, even in the busiest of cities. That’s why we take care that my gardens are harmonious—never jarring or extreme.”

Surprisingly, Thom has no garden of his own. He and Bonnie live in a penthouse, with four balconies, and not a single plant. “I’m the barefoot shoemaker,” says Thom. “We’ve been planning a roof garden but we’ve never had the time to create it.”

This fits with a trend that Thom has seen increasing—and one that he thinks the landscape industry should be capitalizing on.

“People are living closer together and are nostalgic for gardens. I see more rockeries, solariums, and balcony and roof gardens, and there’s a demand for hobby plants, like bonsai. People want more colour in plants that take up little space.

“I advise landscapers to get into more public education. There’s a thirst for what landscapers have to offer. People are concerned about the look and health of their environment and there’s a need for professionals to go to the public with courses and lectures.”

Thom also advises the landscape industry to lobby for universities to include landscape architecture in their architecture and engineering programs.

“Most architects can’t be bothered with the extra work of landscape architecture. The problem is that no landscape courses are required to get a degree in architecture. This should change. The architect finds himself working on a project where the client wants a park or garden, and winds up in a situation where the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.

“Universities don’t require architects to take interior design courses either. That also makes no sense. It’s like medicine, where specialists come to think of the body in parts, rather than as a whole.

“People wonder why I bother with the landscape but it’s perfectly logical. The building, the interior and the landscape are inseparable, and the same creativity has to be behind all three elements. This should be taught as part of any school’s architectural program.

“The real key, though, is to teach engineers about landscape. Engineers do the most damage to the landscape. Traffic engineers do tremendous harm. They want to keep their roads straight and will mow down any number of trees to do it. They need to learn that roads don’t always have to be straight.”

Thom, now 53, still lectures at UBC and has just completed a three-year term as Chairman of the Vancouver Public Library Committee. His most recent achievement, however, was his award-winning Canadian Pavilion at EXPO ’92 in Seville.

thom4“I wanted to build a Canadian building in Spain, but I couldn’t transplant Canadian plants, so I made a garden using hard landscaping and evocative images to get the Canadian feel.”

For the first time, Thom had to use man-made materials. He created a jagged white front which looks like a snowdrift during the day but, when lit at night, looks like the Northern Lights. Inside, the pavilion’s focal point is a wall of shimmering blue/green water—it’s actually panels covered with etched aluminum foil. People were so enthralled by the effect, they waited up to 10 hours to get in a second time.

Thom has won numerous awards but his greatest compliment is seeing people enjoying his landscapes. “It’s satisfying to see people relax in my gardens. I see them become happier, friendlier.”

Still, he is never satisfied. “I wish I could redo every garden. No matter how careful we are, gardens never grow according to plan. That’s what makes it challenging—the hope is always that the next garden will be my perfect favourite.”