On Hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s Passing

We called him The Dinosaur. Tall, old, he walked like he had roamed the earth for centuries. It was a slow walk yet you noticed him coming from afar. With each step, he seemed surprised the terrain under his feet still held him. There was a slight suspension of activity when he entered the Senate Chamber, the way a warm wind catches your face.

prudhomme

Sénateur Marcel Prud’homme greets fans in the House of Commons on Thurs, Nov 26, 2009 (his last work day). Prud’homme passed away at the age of 82 on January 25, 2017. Photo by Canadian Press.

Sénateur Prud’homme was the kind of man who shook your hand vigorously and generously. There aren’t many Senators’ speeches I remember from my days as a Senate Page, but a section from his comes back to me after ten years. It wasn’t a controversial debate or a throw-your-papers-on-your-desk finale to a vitriolic attack. I remember it because it sounded less like politics and more like poetry, something I hadn’t heard much up until then or would hear again in my two years in Parliament, and something that politics needs to hear more of. Sénateur Prud’homme had just returned from Russia where he had received the Order of Friendship that honours citizens in the Russian Federation and foreign citizens who have made a significant contribution to strengthen peace and mutual understanding between peoples and states.

Sénateur Prud’homme proudly wore his medal in the Senate Chamber where his colleagues recognized his achievement in strengthening Canada-Russia relations. In his thank you speech, he said:

If I dedicate this medal to anyone, it would be to the young people of Canada. I would tell them: Do not be afraid to stand up and fight for something you believe in. If you are lonely or if, at times, no one listens, then reach out. As I said in La Presse yesterday, my policy is reaching out. If there is no one to take my hand at first, then I reach out again the day after. I know that at the end of the day people will establish contact.

And then, so you can get a sense of his humour, he concluded with:

I am speaking with great passion. I must calm down. I will be going back to my so-called seniors’ residence to confront another great experience next Tuesday.

I wanted to remember his exact words so I actually requested a copy of the Senate recordings of the day called the Hansard. (This was not something I did often).

Upon hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s death recently, I’ve thought of him more than I expected to. He’s someone I wouldn’t have known had I not worked in Parliament. I was surprised to read he never married and didn’t have any children or grandchildren. He would have been an epic grandfather in all senses of the word. He looked like the kind of man who would have a family, more so than a lot of the men on Parliament Hill who did have families but treated work like theirs instead.

Sénateur Prud’homme was an unhurried man who liked to joke. I remember an Anglophone colleague recounting a time when he entered the Chamber in his slow and gargantuan way where she was standing at the door. He had said, “Ah, je suis vieux et décadent.” She replied, “Vieux? Non. Mais décadent? Oui!” She thought she was paying him a compliment based on her knowledge of President’s Choice Decadent chocolate chip cookies. He had given her a funny look and we all laughed and laughed when this story circulated around the Page office.

It’s unfortunate he didn’t leave behind any memoirs. I’m sure he could fill enough books that stacked as tall as he was.

This tribute is my way of saying thank you Sénateur Prud’homme for reaching your hand out. A nineteen-year-old girl shook it one day and the effect hasn’t worn off.

Let there be Light

I get a Carleton alumni magazine a few times a year, and in the latest issue, I was really happy to read the MacOdrum Library is getting a much needed facelift.

MacOdrum Library. Don’t be fooled – building in picture looks nicer than in reality

This library is so ugly it never once crossed my mind to take a picture of it in the four years I was there, and I take pictures of a lot of things. So ugly that a prof even went on a rant one class about how uninspiring it is, and how can students be expected to respect a space that doesn’t respect itself? The only good thing about that library was its hours–it stayed open pretty late, but I’ve heard that has since changed.

libraryAs the article says, everybody hates the tiny, jail cell windows. Ask anyone who’s ever studied there. And unless you have a super long torso, there’s no chance you’re even going to get a view of the quad because the windows are way too high. Did the architects think students would be less distracted if they didn’t have a window to look out of?

The renovation plan, which aims to be completed by the end of 2013, is to push out the front by six meters and to cover those four floors with one large window. The space between the current wall and the new wall will be a socializing/group study space. This expansion also seeks to rectify the growing problem of a lack of study carrels by increasing its seats from 1200 to 2000.

The future MacOdrum Library. SO. MUCH. BETTER.

The future MacOdrum Library. SO. MUCH. BETTER.

Too bad it didn’t look like that when I was there. You can imagine my relief when I arrived at the University of Victoria for grad school and was greeted with this:

William C Mearns Library. What a difference!
Photograph by Vince Klassen. © 2008 UVic Communications

That entire glass wing is called the Students Galleria and it has extremely comfortable chairs. I would sit with my books and my laptop and bathe in the bright sunlight, waiting for inspiration to strike or maybe burn me through those windows, and the connection between libraries and illumination was all too clear but I didn’t care if it was cliché because here was a spot I liked to study. In openness, in light.

Where the magic happened

These two university libraries got me thinking about a loosely similar contrast in the New York Public Library. When I was there with a friend last October, our tour guide pointed to the ceiling in the antechamber of the breathtaking Rose Main Reading Room.

mural in antechamber of NYPL reading room

The antechamber features a large mural with dark, chaotic clouds packed together. It’s supposed to make you feel tense, unsure, because that’s how research often is. You embark on a project and have no idea what you’re getting into.

But as you stick with it, either you get used to the dark or it’s actually not dark anymore (see the Emily Dickinson poem below), and suddenly, you’re in a completely new space. The clouds part, the sky speaks in a softer blue, and the sun shines gloriously through.

New York Public Library Main Reading Room

Let there be light.

We grow accustomed to the Dark–

When Light is put away–

As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp

To witness her Goodbye–

 

A Moment–We uncertain step

For newness of the night–

Then–fit our Vision to the Dark–

And meet the Road–erect–

 

And so of larger–Darknesses

Those Evenings of the Brain–

When not a Moon disclose a sign–

Or Star–come out—within–

 

The Bravest–grope a little–

And sometimes hit a Tree

Directly in the Forehead–

But as they learn to see–

 

Either the darkness alters–

Or something in the sight

Adjusts itself to Midnight–

And Life steps almost straight.

 

~Emily Dickinson

Talking through Walls

How do you renovate a historic building to respond to structural concerns while still keeping its heritage look that people have come to know and love?

This is an old architectural dilemma that frequently comes up for those involved in restoration work.

Take the Victoria Memorial Museum Building in Ottawa (more commonly known as the  Museum of Nature).

Museum of Nature

Canadian Museum of Nature

Built between 1905 and 1911, it mimics the Neo-Gothic Parliament buildings on the opposite end of Metcalfe Street:

Parliament, Ottawa

and the Beaux-Arts museums of its day, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, the Museum of Nature was built on bad foundation that started sinking a century later and endangering its one-of-a-kind collection of minerals and fossils inside — including those of a huge blue whale.

real skeleton of a blue whale

The top of the museum’s tower already had to be removed back in 1915 because it was too heavy for its unstable clay foundation.

The solution: seismic upgrades that blend the old with the new. People liked the original Gothic tower that fit with the building’s crenelated, castle-like roofline, and so the three principal architects (Bruce Kuwabara, Marc Letellier, and Barry Padolsky) erected a new, lighter tower to recall the building’s history while simultaneously evoking the museum’s future.

3 stages of the tower. © Canadian Museum of Nature

The renovations to this building weren’t completed by the time I finished my undergrad at Carleton, so when I returned to Ottawa for a visit last fall, this museum was one of the first places I checked out. Coming from Vancouver, it was odd to see this conservative city pull a signature Vancouver with the bold addition of a glass box or a “glass menagerie” as a Carleton architectural prof called it in this article.

The Museum is an example of a palimpsest – a word my sister once unforgettably referred to as “a gross combination of pimp and incest.” Ah, sisters. I spent grad school writing about palimpsests and the word has never sounded the same to me since.

example of a palimpsest – Codex Guelferbytanus B 00474

It actually means “any surface that has been altered or reused while still retaining traces of its earlier form.” It could be a writing surface, like in the picture above, or a building surface. The preservation of heritage buildings are often great (or not so great) examples of palimpsests.

With the addition of the glass tower called the Queen’s Lantern to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Victoria Memorial Museum, the Museum of Nature is a not so subtle palimpsest – a dialogue between cultural memory and present renewal. Of form and function. Before the Lantern, there was only public access to the second floor. Now the Lantern houses a much-needed staircase to provide access to all the upper floors.

And let me tell you, climbing that butterfly staircase to the lookout platform had something sacred about it. Cathedralesque. Maybe because the windows echoed the stained glass windows in a church.

cathedral windowsI had a similar feeling when I walked the ramp of the National Gallery. Maybe that’s not such a coincidence – both the National Gallery and Museum of Nature are important cultural landmarks that now have a glass affinity to one another.

National Gallery of CanadaIt’s fascinating how one building can reference so many other contexts. Here’s a historic fun fact that further connects the Museum of Nature to the Parliament buildings: it was the emergency meeting place for MPs and Senators when the Parliament buildings burnt down in 1916. The new glass tower in 2010 was meant to face the Centre Block’s tower as they both bookend Metcalfe Street, as if the two buildings really are talking to each other across time and space.

Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

So what do you think – is this conversation working?

It’s Christmas Time in the City

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks

Dressed in holiday style

In the air there’s a feeling

Of Christmas

Bard & Banker Pub, Victoria

Rockefeller Center, New York

Children laughing

People passing

Meeting smile after smile

And on every street corner you’ll hear

Douglas & Yates, Victoria

Silver bells, silver bells

It’s Christmas time in the city

Ring-a-ling, hear them sing

Soon it will be Christmas day

Legislature Building, Victoria

Centennial Square, Victoria

Strings of street lights

Even stop lights

Blink a bright red and green

As the shoppers rush home with their treasures

The Bay Centre, Victoria

Window Display, New York

Hear the snow crunch

See the kids bunch

This is Santa’s big scene

And above all this bustle you’ll hear

Rideau Canal, Ottawa

Silver bells, silver bells

It’s Christmas time in the city

Ring-a-ling, hear them sing

Soon it will be Christmas day

Santa Clause Parade, Victoria

A textual greeting, Victoria

 Merry Christmas to all my readers! May peace & joy be yours this holiday season. See you back here in The New Year!

In the Name of What?

I picked up a book in New York called Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places by sociologist Sharon Zukin. The title is a take-off of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I’ve mentioned a few times already on this blog.

Zukin analyzes the latest selling feature of urban spaces in today’s city – authenticity. We visit certain places in the name of authenticity. Authenticity has become an experience more than a characteristic, and can be said about objects and places as much as about people.

Some New York places that Zukin mentions as offering this experience of authenticity are Union Square and the East Village. Despite the gentrification these areas have experienced over the years, these spaces with their small-scale restaurants and boutiques package a local, hip, and bohemian flavour for middle-class consumption. As Zukin says, people gravitate to these places to “inhale the aura of a radical, intellectual, and artistic past . . . An authentic experience of local character becomes a local brand.”

Reluctantly, I admit that this describes my attraction to these places. I say reluctantly because who wants to confess to being part of the phenomenon that helps destroys authenticity by consuming it? Yet the chance to inhale or soak up an authentic experience of local culture explains my visit to these places, and perhaps even my desire to buy a “local” or “authentic” book about New York while in New York, and not just from anywhere in New York, but from The Strand – an independent bookstore known for its rare and out-of print books located in the East Village, of course.

I was pleasantly surprised to read Zukin including herself as a consumer of the “local,” seeing that academics can sometimes think they’re immune from the critiques they often give. She lives near Union Square and frequents its bustling Greenmarket that operates four days of the week. Reflecting on the park, she comments: One “like[s] to think [it is] an endless arcade of possibilities, reflecting and refining city dwellers’ creative ability to shape their own, spontaneous social space. Yet this high degree of face-to-face sociability hides a paradox, for the public space of Union Square is controlled by a private group of the biggest property owners in the neighborhood.”

That was news to me, and something I wouldn’t be able to guess just by looking at the park, which has the appearance of a very public space. But that’s exactly the illusion. Zukin states that “the vitality of Union Square is really a sign of the city government’s defeat by the public’s expectations.” Why a defeat? Because this so-called “public” space is actually privately owned. What’s the advantage of private ownership? Safety is a big reason – privately hired security guards and cleaners keep the park open and accessible to multiple users – but not all users. Zukin notes that control strategies in the park exclude certain groups, usually homeless people, street vendors, or street artists who have no other place to go. This relates to my previous post “Whose Space is it Anyway?” about my experience in Victoria a few months ago.  In the name of a clean, safe space for the public, the public gains a space that paradoxically isn’t so public.

In the name of safe space. Talking about “safe space” reminds me of a sign that I photographed at the entrance to the Occupy Ottawa movement that was setting up camp around mid-October.

The sign declares that this park is a safe space based on inclusion, diversity, and lack of discrimination. Being a former literature student, I love thinking about words and the implications they have. Going back to Zukin’s book, this park though – or any park for that matter – has the potential to become “safe” in the way that Zukin is using when she talks about why people generally like the safe and privately-managed space of Union Square Park. When she says the public gains the use of a clean, safe space (while simultaneously losing control over it) – this same “safe” does not imply diversity, but rather, the exclusion of diversity. Safe in this context means safety from the threat of danger and difference, from risky interactions with the “other,” from people sleeping on park benches and from walls covered in graffiti, which lower property values and detract from businesses in the area.

In her own words, “Privatized public space, in other words, tends to reinforce social inequality. Exclusion of some social groups from public space weakens the diversity of experiences and contacts that define urban life. It makes the centers of cities more like the premier privately owned public space of our time, the suburban shopping mall: clean, safe, and predictable.”

That’s a comparison I didn’t expect and which, quite frankly, scares me. I fear the day that parks, which are the epitome of public space, come to mean “safe” in the way that suburban shopping malls are viewed as safe – because of their sterility and exclusion of certain social classes. As I have not been the first nor the last to observe, The Occupy Movement seems a little shrouded in mystery as to what they are naming or claiming, but their occupations of public spaces at least speak to the importance of claiming the right to space that is safe insofar as it is truly public.

Following Mondrian

My first post featured Dutch artist Piet Mondrian whose oeuvre of grid-like paintings with squares and rectangles of primary colours has inspired a plethora of Mondrian objects from architecture to clothing.

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930)

It seems like the world just can’t get enough Mondrian.

Without intentionally seeking him out (okay maybe a little bit), I came across Mondrian in my recent travels to Ottawa and New York and figured I would write a follow-up post in lieu of these discoveries.

I’m not sure if the idea of coloured window blocks in architecture derives from Mondrian, but seeing multiple buildings in both cities with this feature certainly made me think of him.

Coloured Windows in New York

Coloured Windows in Ottawa

During my travels, I paid a visit to my Alma Mater. A lot of construction was started there as I was finishing my degree, and I wanted to see the completion of these new buildings. Not only did I see finished projects, I also saw buildings erected that I didn’t even know were part of the plan. The building above is a new residence standing in what was one of the precious few green spaces left on a campus that everyone used to adore for its green spaces. Can you tell I’m a bit nostalgic about “the good old days” when I attended Carleton?

These other Ottawa buildings also have Mondrianesque qualities to them:

In New York, I went to the Museum of Modern Art on their free “Target Fridays” – a time frame that I would recommend avoiding because of the massive crowds. It actually felt more rushed and crammed than the streets, partly because I only had an hour before closing and so was racing from painting to painting to absorb as much as I could – not the ideal pace to appreciate art.

But it was still worth it, particularly to awe at Monet’s water lilies and to contemplate this painting by Piet Mondrian that he made as an ode to the Big Apple.

Click on the right picture for an enlarged version of the painting’s fascinating description.

Looking back at the painting on the left, can you picture the city grid with the yellow lines as streets, the blue and red squares as nodes of people and activities, and the occasional grey thrown in as moments of pause or respite from the daily grind? Other New York images this painting evokes for me are traffic lights, the omnipresent yellow of taxis, the neon lights of Times Square, and the colourful lines on the subway map.

Even though the painting doesn’t literally speak, I look at it and hear the noise of the city. It’s loud. Cars are honking. People are getting in and out of taxicabs. Vendors are trying to make a sale. Strangers are getting impatient while waiting in line for their morning Starbucks. Considering that jazz music inspired this painting called “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” Mondrian’s title invites us to “hear” his painting – to mix one sense impression with another sense in what’s called synesthesia.

Composition in White, Black, and Red (1936)

Whereas the dynamic spaces in his previous compositions (such as the one that was on display beside it, which is pictured above) appear at the edges, the dynamic spaces in “Broadway Boogie Woogie” emerge at the intersections – where people, buildings, streets and conversations collide in a syncopation of lights as colourful as the city itself.