If you’ve been following architecture news in Vancouver lately, chances are you’ve come across Gesamtkunstwerk: a German word translated as “life as a total work of art.” You can watch some videos of famous and no-so-famous Vancouverites guessing how to say it and what it means over at

IMG_7555The Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition is open to the public from now until May 18, introducing Vancouver to a new residential development + urban village idea planned for the the north side of the Granville Street Bridge in 2018. Design by the Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and developed by Westbank, a Vancouver-based company, the residential tower is just one part of the “total design” concept that champions a synthesis of art, architecture, interiors, urbanism, and energy with public-mindedness.

IMG_0281This public-mindedness is apparent in the chance to witness the plans and ideas behind the site long before it appears on the downtown cityscape. I spent roughly an hour touring the exhibit housed in an unused warehouse/storage space characteristic of this Beach Avenue area.

IMG_7556IMG_7573BIG and Westbank want to turn this rather dark and seedy parking and storage-infested “neighbourhood” under Granville Bridge into a vibrant village with a residential tower, low-rise retail and office buildings, as well as a recreational facility. Public art is planned to brighten the underbelly of the bridge through Rodney Graham’s spinning chandelier and overhead, coloured lightboxes curated by students from Emily Carr University of Art + Design.


site of the future spinning chandelier


model of Rodney Graham’s spinning chandelier underneath Granville Street Bridge


computer rendering of the lightboxes on the ceiling of the bridge

When looking at the models for the site, it’s hard not to be impressed by the scope of the design, specifically in light of the building’s challenges. The shape of the land is triangular to begin with, making it resemble New York’s Flatiron Building, which was the innovative convergence of a unique site + the use of steel as a building material for skyscrapers.


New York’s Flatiron Building in mid-torque


Vancouver House with its midway torque

Vancouver House, the name of the proposed residential tower on the north end of Granville Street Bridge, takes the Flatiron’s challenge one step further because city building restrictions require a 30 metre setback from the bridge. BIG’s solution to this design challenge was to torque the rectangular building once it got past the 30 metre mark, so that the top half of the tower is actually double the amount of apartments as the base—a pretty incredible feat. What’s so interesting is that you can’t even tell the building is torqued as you’re approaching it from the south—it simply looks like a rectangle. This “building with a twist” concept also provides maximum light for all the suites, as well as those million-dollar Vancouver views.

IMG_0267New York inspired the site in another way too. As you’ll see in the model below, Granville Street Bridge is no longer just a car bridge, but now includes a 2-lane greenway in the middle—basically, a park on the bridge, similar to New York’s High Line. There will also be rooftop gardens/parks on the other triangular-shaped plots created from the bridge’s infrastructure—a much more aesthetic view coming into downtown than the current monochromatic greyness of parking lots.

IMG_0276One wall of the exhibit gives you a peak into the interiors of the residential suites, and one  cool feature that caught my eye is a torqued kitchen island that matches the outside of the building—another example of a syncretism between exterior and interior. Life as a total work of art.

I would recommend going around the exhibit with the free audio tour, which explains the Vancouver’s famous tower and podium-style architecture often referred to as “Vancouverism,” and how Vancouver House is an updated, “2.0″ version of this style. Arthur Erickson paved the way for this style, and one of Gesamtkunstwerk’s claims to fame is a never-before publicly-shown Erickson sketch of a futuristic-looking Vancouver with spiral, curvy buildings that Erickson imagined way back in 1955. Now that’s a man who thought way ahead of his time.

BIG’s innovative Vancouver House seeks to pay homage to Erickson’s vision. It’s exterior resembles another Erickson-designed Vancouver building—The MacMillan Bloedel Building with its tapered walls and deeply recessed windows that give it a waffle-like façade.

MacMillan Bloedel Building

MacMillan Bloedel Building


exterior modelling of Vancouver House

As you can probably tell, I’m excited at the idea of beautifying and enlivening north Granville to match its neighbour to the south, Granville Island. I also like the addition of soft curves to our hard-edged cities, akin to Janet Echelman’s TED sculpture that I talked about here. And given the 6500+ people that have toured the exhibit since it opened on March 22, I’d say Vancouverites like to be engaged in the planning of our city, even if we still don’t know how to pronounce Gesamtkunstwerk when we walk out of the exhibit.


Gesamtkunstwerk exhibit space

Of Petals and Poems

The city is at its loveliest right now. The cherry blossom trees have bloomed and the city is awash in pink and white petals that paint Vancouver like a fairy tale. I walk under a canopy of trees and hold my breath as if I can’t swallow all this beauty around me.


The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival is on right now until April 28. The website shows you the various locations you can find these trees, as well as other events: a bike the blossoms day, a plein-air painting day, a photo contest, Sakura illumination, and more.

My neighbourhood of Marpole is a jackpot in terms of cherry blossom sightings if you’re curious where to find them. Or you can just stumble upon them as you’re out and about since they’re pretty much everywhere.


In honour of spring and the Cherry Blossom Festival, I’m posting some photos matched with haikus I wrote. The cherry blossom is of Japanese origin, as well as the haiku, so I thought it was a good pairing. Even more so because the cherry blossom tree symbolizes the ephemeral nature of life with its season of intense beauty and then quick death. Here today, gone tomorrow. Likewise, the haiku, a Japanese poem of 17 syllables in three lines of 5, 7, and 5, forces an economy of words. It’s over before you even begin. Haikus also tend to evoke images of the natural world. What better marriage of form and content than writing haikus of the cherry blossom tree.

Queen Elizabeth Park


 pink beauty falling
like rain on my eyelashes
wakened from a dream


mother brings son close
under a japanese tree
smile, click, and leave

Vancouver Art Gallery


petal against stone
a sweet pulse and then silence
everything turns grey




a sidewalk greeting
here today, gone tomorrow
revolving house guests


all these family trees
the comings and the goings
the one that points home


Listening for Sounds of Hope

Every writer is trying to describe old things in new ways. It’s a good bandwagon for me to join, to distance myself from my high school days when I was dubbed “the queen of clichés.”

the tree

I’m looking out my apartment window and see a tree. I live in the city but on nights like these, I am back in my childhood home of tire swings and hedges and well pipes you bang your car into when you’re sixteen and first learning to drive. I listen closely, trying to describe what the city sounds like to my imaginary readers. How do I describe the sound of tires going across a road at 80 km/hr to someone who’s never heard a moving vehicle before? When I hear a dozen or more cars flying down my street, halted by a changing green, I hear an intermittent waterfall. But how do you explain a waterfall to someone who’s never heard water drip from a kitchen faucet, let alone nature’s caverns?

nature's caverns

Everything has a referent in this world. It’s like when the dictionary defines a word using another word you don’t understand, and you’re now looking up another word in the dictionary, only to look up seven other words. You’re caught in a cycle of referents so deep you don’t even remember the first thing you were trying to define.

I pay more attention to sound these days after watching a video of a British woman deaf from birth who, thanks to science, can now hear. Joanne Milne: a modern miracle.

If this doesn’t give me hope about recovering what was lost—something you thought was irretrievably lost—I don’t know what does. She probably never imagined her story would be rewritten to read: “Be opened!”

I imagine the deaf and mute man brought to Jesus in Mark 7:31-37 didn’t either. Jesus took him away from the crowd and spoke to him in silence. Fingers in his ears and spit on his tongue, he looked up to heaven and shouted for the silence to be broken. “Ephphatha!” For the doors to open—two doors, actually. Sound and speech restored. And how did the crowd respond? They were “overwhelmed with amazement.”

“The world is just sounding so, so loud to me at the moment” Joanne says in her BBC interview. She had to take the battery out of her clock hanging on the wall.

I don’t know what Joanne’s new world is like. I willingly moved from the suburbs to the city so I could be surrounded by loud and big and exciting and all those adjectives that cities have to offer young twenty and thirty-somethings searching for post-secondary meaning. I fall asleep easier to sirens and honks and activated pedestrian signals than I do to the low hum of a refrigerator or to nature’s insects chirping in the great outdoors or to absolute quiet. When I’m driving, I turn up the volume of my car stereo three or four notches higher than the default setting it was turned to when I bought it. It happened gradually.

Night Driving

I don’t know what it’s like to be surprised by loud. I grew up with it, so I don’t know if I ever did.

Joanne Milne is waking up to sound for the first time and it is a beautiful thing. It is an emotional thing. But, from her interview, it also sounds like it is an overwhelming thing. How do you go from utter silence to utter loudness? Was there something peaceful about listening to a blank soundtrack, images without audio interpretation? Did it foster the imagination in any way? And then I think of music and the beauty of waking up to notes played over time, at different lengths and pitches, tones and volumes, and if I would cry over the sound of a doorknob twisting to open, how much more would I cry/die over a Bach’s Air on the G String or Yann Tiersen’s Comptine d’Un Autre Été?

I wonder if the ideal process for an education into the sounds of the world would be to start small and work up. Clocks and hand clapping, doors and foot tapping, running water and cackling fires, church bells and street hustle, music concerts and outdoor festivals. But in our world of noise, you are educated not with a whisper but a bang—a big bang. You don’t learn things in increments. It’s everything all at once. Everything has a referent.IMG_5201

Joanne Milne is embarking on a life-changing education in middle age and I am a little envious of her wonder. I would like to hear the world through her ears—to remember what it’s like to be surprised by sound again. And then to listen closely and to write this hope in new and beautiful ways.

A group I recently discovered on NoiseTrade does this so well. I cannot help but imagine Loud Harp (note the name) is responding to Jesus’ fingers in their ears, their eyes, their mouths: “Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Let’s (TED)Talk About Art

As many of you know, the TED2014 conference just wrapped up here in Vancouver, the first time this conference has ever happened in our city. It was TED’s 30th anniversary, so they wanted to try a new space. The conference was held at the Vancouver Convention Centre from March 17-21, and while most human beings could not afford the ludicrous $7500 entrance ticket, thankfully, they live streamed the talks at a number of universities, community centers, and non-profit groups so everyone could get a slice of these “ideas worth spreading.”

TED2014 at the Vancouver Convention Centre

One of the presenters this year was Boston artist Janet Echelman, whose aerial sculpture titled “Skies Painted With Unnumbered Sparks” was installed specifically for the conference. This 745-foot wide installation, which Echelman calls “a custom-knitted sweater for the city” is made of soft netting and hangs between the roof of the 24-storey Fairmont Waterfront Hotel and the Vancouver Convention Centre. It’s only up for one more day before it travels to other cities, so I made sure to stop by one rainy Tuesday evening and catch some pictures of her biggest sculpture to date.

Skies Painted With Unnumbered Sparks by Janet Echelman. 2014

The word “amoeba” immediately came to mind when I beheld this breathtaking sculpture because it never looks the same: 1) it moves with the wind, forming new shapes against the sky, 2) it looks different depending which angle you view it from, and 3) it’s installed with interactive lighting, which means anyone with a cellphone can sign in with the wifi password (indicated on a plaque nearby) and choose which colours and shapes will dance across its sinewy arms. My friend is responsible for the yellow spiral on the bottom right:

I love the interactiveness and playfulness of this sculpture. Not only can the everyday passerby contribute to the beauty of this piece, but we can do so with other strangers—all experimenting with the same thing as we experience a marriage of technology and art.

If you watch Echelman’s TEDTalk below, it’s absolutely fascinating how she started working with nets in the first place. I love how she describes what she’s trying to do with her aerial artworks that have spanned skies in Sydney (Australia), Porto (Portugal), Amsterdam, Seattle, Phoenix, and Denver. As she says in her kickstarter campaign, she wants to bring an “experience of softness as a counterpoint to hard-edge cities” and a “symbol of resiliency through the ability to adapt to a changing environment.”

I have never seen anything like it before. And she’s right—the softness and whimsicality it carries, like a parachute or a kite, serves as a welcome change from the angular edges of our cities and of our own lives, reminding us that soft, gentle, and transparent can be just as powerful as hard, strong, and sharp.

Making Miniature

This past week I stepped into a miniature world: the world of Joseph Cornell, the world of boxed assemblages. Having never heard of him but curious about the small but complete worlds he made, I came out to learn about an artist and style that hadn’t crossed my path before.

Joseph Cornell, 1971

Untitled (Pink Palace). 1946-48

The Art of Joseph Cornell was a community event hosted by a group of people at my artsy church, led by Shari-Anne Vis who is also one of the members of a bi-monthly arts group I am part of in Vancouver. We spent the first part of the evening learning about Joseph Cornell, a 20th century American pioneer of assemblage and filmmaking, followed by an hour of making a boxed assemblage of our very own, inspired by his work.

Untitled (Pharmacy). 1943

Shari introduced us to the ideas of Constructivism and Surrealism that lie behind Cornell’s projects. The boxes themselves are smaller than the photographs suggest–only a foot or so high and wide. They are filled with found objects—the old, the discarded yet still beautiful that, according to this website, were the result of trips to New York scouring old bookshops and thrift stores looking for souvenirs, old prints and photographs, trinkets, music scores, and French literature.

Shadow boxes become poetic theater or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime. The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets—a connotation of moon and tides—the association of water less subtle, as when driftwood pieces make up a proscenium to set off the dazzling white of sea foam and billowy cloud crystallized in a pipe of fancy. – Joseph Cornell

Untitled (The Hotel Eden). 1945

Untitled (Soap Bubble Set). 1939

Objet (Roses des Vents). 1942-53

Many of Cornell’s boxes have moveable parts, making them interactive, childlike, playful. Apparently for his last major exhibit, he installed his boxes at a child’s height and served soda and cake for the opening reception. Sounds like a cool guy. He often organized his boxes around a theme: the Aviary boxes, Pink Palace boxes, Space Object boxes, Pink Palace series, etc.

After the presentation, we discussed Cornell’s appeal and questions like Why work in miniature and 3-D? Some thoughts we came up with:

  • feels more real, invites you in—especially if you can play with the pieces
  • it’s less intimidating to look at and enter something small
  • the juxtaposition of everyday objects in a confined space makes you consider the objects in new ways
  • you have to look closely to catch all the details
  • the boxes may be small, but they’re complete—whole worlds in themselves. You’re zooming in and zooming out at the same time
  • when you’re forced to work in a box (literally), a surprising amount of creativity can flow from all the permutations that can happen. As another friend & artist says in this short documentary, “I think boundaries are really important to having a sense of creativity and freedom otherwise it’s too wide open. . . . If there is no frame and if there is no context, you’re left with nothing, and I think it’s pretty hard for people to create something out of nothing.”

So with those ideas nesting in our minds, we got to work for 60 minutes using the materials provided for us. I was astounded at the variety of assemblages people came up with out of the same materials and in such a short amount of time. Some really, really beautiful pieces I would hang in a house. I don’t classify mine in quite that same category, but the process of making it was tremendously fun, maybe worth more than the product. My shout-out to Cornell was the unglued pieces of the pine cone and almonds sitting in the petri dish that can be taken out, played with, rearranged. As someone at my table suggested, I could replace the almonds with small candies at Christmas time, like presents under a Christmas tree. Who knows? The possibilities are endless.

Lost at Play. 2014

Cooking up a Literary Concoction

One of my favourite things about The Book Lover’s Cookbook is making dishes that have a literary connection. If you like books and you love to cook/bake, why not combine the two interests?

Book Lover's Cookbook

Each entry has a connection to a literary work—maybe the characters are making dinner or talking about their favourite stew, or maybe a guest is bringing chocolate pecan pie to a family gathering.

Such was the scenario for what I baked last night: Mother’s Chocolate Pecan Pie submitted by Judith Guest that goes with her book, Errands.

“Snip, snip, snip,” says Jess, coming in the front door.

“When are you guys going to quit fighting?” Ryan is behind her, carrying a pie plate. Her mother eyes it with phony delight masking her alarm.

“We’re not fighting, for heaven’s sake. Now, what’s that you’ve got, Ryan Dougherty? You’re a guest here. I hope you didn’t think you had to bring your own food to Thanksgiving dinner!”

“Small contribution,” he says with a smile. “Made it myself. Chocolate pecan pie. My mother’s recipe.”

“Why, how lovely!”

Jess takes the pan from Ryan, carrying it out to the kitchen, while Annie follows her.

“Oh, you are a devil, sister.”

“What?” Jess gives her an innocent look, but they both know: holiday menus never vary—it’s turkey on Thanksgiving, shepherd’s pie at Christmas, ham for Easter. Likewise, with the side dishes and desserts. They’ve never thought to challenge it.

“Did he really make it himself?”

“He did. He’s a great cook.”

Ryan Dougherty’s mother’s chocolate pecan pie ended up as good as predicted. Very, very sweet though. My only deviation from the recipe was using a bought crust, which I’m perfectly okay with since I’m not THAT hardcore. Sorry I don’t have a picture of the whole pie before I dived into it, but here are some mid-way shots (I had some help eating it, in case you were wondering. It wasn’t all me!)

Yummmmm….The great thing about this book (other than the good recipes), is that it also introduces me to works of fiction that I’ve never heard of before, but then want to read and recall as I’m working in my kitchen, reading and making the dish inspired by it.