The Accidental Architect

June 17, 2013

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"72 Hours in Toronto"

A lot can happen in 72 hours. You just have to pay attention to the small stuff.
This is the first instalment of a short illustrated 72 hour whirlwind journey to the "Big Smoke."

"It's Only a Beard Dude!"

As I bomb around the city on my Brompton, I have noticed that there is a new fashion trend on the rise. I keep seeing these dudes, sporting these huge beards! There is nothing particularly new about the beard, but these are definitely different - They are bigger and bushier.

Facial hair has alway been a symbol of manliness (no pun intended). I am certainly no expert on beards, in fact I couldn’t grow one until I hit my forties, but my guess is that the beard was an evolutionary thing, to make men appear bigger, stronger and more intimidating to their enemies and competitors. Why do you think hockey players sport the playoff beard - it’s not for good luck, but is intended to intimidate the crap out of the opposing team.

Men wear beards for many reasons. They are often worn for religious beliefs. Followers of Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Sikhs, Hindu and Rastafarianism believe strongly that maintaining their beards is a function of their faith. Beards were worn by kings, emperors and world leaders as a symbol of power and aristocracy - Emperor Meiji of Japan, Czar Nicholas of Russia, Henry the 8th, and President Lincoln to name a few. Beards came and went over the ages as fashions changed.

Beats, poets, philosophers, athletes, artists musicians, rebels, hippies, hipsters and grunges all sported beards. Some notable beardo’s include Charles Darwin, Carl Marx, Earnest Hemingway, Brahms, Che Guevara, Castro, Henry David Thoreau, Jesus, Brad Pitt, Alan Ginsburg, Chuck Norris, Walt Whitman, Kimbo Slice, Kenny Rogers, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill (ZZ Top), Santa Claus, Leonardo Da Vinci, Rasputin, Rembrandt, Gerry Garcia, John Lennon, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Macho-Man Randy Savage, Luciano Pavarotti, Sigmund Freud, Gandalf, Lanny McDonald, Joaquin Phoenix, Colonel Saunders, Curt Cobain and of course you can’t forget Clint!

As I read various webpages about beards, I have come across some interesting anecdotal tidbits of historical facts, truths and hyperbole. Did you know Alexander the Great banned beards in his armies because he was of the opinion that enemy soldiers would grab them in battle? I read that online - it must be true!

So as I said above, there is definitely something going on. I keep seeing these big awesome beards all over the place. Skaters in the parks, hipsters in the coffee shops, bikers (as in cyclists), and musicians, all sporting these big, bushy, kick-ass Viking beards. Call em hip, call em cool, call em funky, whatever. All I can say is this dude, is suffering from kind of beard envy!

I may just have to grow me one of those “Attitude Beards!” Haha! Now that would be a sight as I play my banjo!

May 28, 2013

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"Ditch That Car Dude!"

It was exactly one year ago that I made a life changing decision.

We were sipping a glass of wine on an outdoor patio at the “Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno” (Valencia Modern Art Museum). It was a glorious day. The sun was out, the flowers in full bloom and we had just spent a few hours going through one of the best galleries I have been to in years. Our timing could not have been better. The entire museum was dedicated to Architecture and design exhibits. There was a retrospective of the Madrid based Architectural Firm A-Cero which blew me away (Check out their website to see some seriously cool design). There was a floor dedicated to mega city planning and man-made environmental design for space stations and under sea submersible laboratories. There was also a gallery exhibition of original Russian Constructivist art and and design. It was the most incredible collection of El Lisitzky, Malevich, Tatlin and other major Constructivists that I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe my luck to see such important works.

OK, I digress.

So back to the life changing decision. While sipping our wine, I couldn’t help to notice this older gentleman in a suit, sitting at the next table. Under the table was a folded bike that was no bigger than 600mm x 600mm (24”x24”). It sat under the table next to him like a brief case. He settled his bill, said his goodbyes, picked up the bike which he carried off the terrace and with a quick flip-snap the bike was unfolded and he was off, down the street, blazer flying in the wind. I was gobsmacked! That was one unbelievable cool peace of engineering. I knew right then and there that I had to have one of these bikes.

Later in the day I found a bike shop in the old quarter of Valencia and they just so happened to carry these bikes - the bike was called a Brompton. I had never seen nor heard of a Brompton Bike up until that point. I immediately pulled out my iPhone and went online to find out about this company called Brompton. You definitely have to check out the Brompton Website. This company has such a kick-ass product and they have created a total cult following. The Brompton is the true Hipster urban commuting bike. These guys are marketing geniuses. They have created a brand that has a rabid cult following all over the world. Brompton owners post videos of their exploits with their bikes. They have Brompton Bike clubs in cities worldwide and there are even Brompton races every year held in places like Barcelona, Osaka, Seoul Korea and Rio De Janeiro.

As a designer, I knew I was going to own one. And the best news yet, there was a distributer (Tall Tree Bikes) in Ottawa, less than a kilometer from my home. I immediately placed my order.

When I returned home to Ottawa, I was in a major transition. I had shifted Architectural firms just before heading to Spain and had just closed my art studio. Three of our five kids had moved out and it was time to downsize. Janice and I bought a condo, which meant purging our lives of all unnecessary stuff - I could write a book on that event!

This was when I decided to ditch the car.

It was a huge decision to get rid of the car. I have been driving for 33 years, and had grown accustomed to having the convenience of a vehicle. I hated it though. I am very conscious of the environment and what we are doing to the planet, but I would not consider myself a hard core activist. Consideration for the environment did play a part in my decision, but the major factors for ditching my car were economics and health.

When you add up the cost of gas, parking, maintenance and insurance, the car felt like an anchor - and I didn’t even have loan payments! Public Transit is completely out of the question for me. Ottawa has, if not the most expensive, then very close to it, transit fares in Canada, and it is going up yet again this coming July. There was a point when we had five kids in school, and the cost of transit passes hit $450/month. That in addition to the $18/day for parking my car drove me nuts.

I come from a family of athletes and fitness and health have always been a big part of my life. I found that driving increased my stress levels and I found it more and more difficult to get consistency with my fitness program. I haven’t played hockey in a few years now,and driving to a yoga class just seemed kind of, wrong. Even before I ditched the car, I found myself more often than not commuting to work by bike or on foot.

I have been car free now for ten months, and I have to say I do not miss driving one single bit. It never even crosses my mind any more. My default is biking or walking. When the weather is nice, I pull out the Brompton. When it is not so nice, I walk. I no longer stress about traffic, or have to deal with crotchety people on the bus. I take my Brompton everywhere, to the office, the job sites, grocery shopping and even to the pub. I am healthier, way more fit, and my blood pressure is the lowest it has been in 15 years - not bad for a life long stress cadet!

So, if you are trying to de-clutter your life, or simply want to get in shape, I highly recommend you ditch that car and get yourself a Brompton! Yes, you will definitely look like a nerd, but the planet will love you and you’ll feel like a 10 year old kid again! It’s that fun and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

"Now THAT is a Termite Mound!"

I was musing about a project today while eating my lunch. It was very surreal. Here I was, working day to day with a bunch of faceless people that I have little in common with, on a project for a bunch of bureaucrats, technocrats and other seemingly important people, going about their business, doing whatever it is they do, being busy shuffling around in a sort of hive-like mentality.

I was instantly transported back to a course I took in my first year of the Masters of Architecture program.

The school I attended had a multidisciplinary faculty, made up of the Architecture program, Industrial Design, Planning and Environmental Studies. There was a mandatory philosophy course that we all had to take. Maybe philosophy is the wrong term. The course was really about interdisciplinary studies with a philosophical and ethical bent. Needless to say, it was a course that we all had to take, together.

About half way through the first term we were subjected to a round of psychological testing - basically a Meyers Briggs type testing. The point being we were learning about our own personal character traits. It was actually quite interesting as you learn an awful lot about yourself and how you interact and navigate your world. It was after the testing that things got interesting.

We were split up into groups of eight and assigned a project to complete in 2 weeks. Each group had two students from each of the four disciplines (Architecture, Industrial Design, Planning and Environmental Science). Each group was also made up of people with scores on the Meyers Briggs that were complete polar opposites in every respect. We were assigned a design project - an intervention in one of the various areas of the local zoo. Our task, as a group, was to design a kids play structure for the African Exhibit. Our first thoughts - “ No problem - great - we have two weeks - piece of cake!” - and off we went.

Now you have to picture this. We had eight people from four different disciplines, and each person with a completely different temperament. The Architects tended to look to a visionary utopian approach, bent in modernist ideals; the Industrial Designers, many of which likely ended up working in the oil patch or high tech, were more Engineering focused - they like gadgets; the Planners were very much process oriented. Planners make great bureaucrats; and the Environmental Studies students were very focused on environmental issues, some of which I might add, were rabid activists. So I am sure you can see where this is going..............DISASTER! We could not agree on anything!

A week into the two week project, we were all gathered together in a lecture hall, and the bomb was dropped. What we thought was a quaint little project on human dynamics, a concept we all got and were muddling our way through to get the credit, was now a real project, with a real client, and we were to present to that client the following Friday. Not only that, the media had picked up on it as a general interest story. We were doomed! Our only solace was that every other team had exactly the same stunned look of shock on their faces.

Now the pressure was ratcheted up significantly. We had one week to get consensus, and design a real project that had some kind of relationship to the African Savannah.... And what does our team decide to design? A termite mound climbing structure. It was at this point that I wanted to stick a gun in my mouth or jump off a bridge. A friggan termite mound - I could not believe what I was hearing, but since the clock was ticking who was I to object.  I sucked it up and went along with teh group.

So we got through the next week, without killing each other, and all the teams presented their little projects to the Zoo Officials and our Professors. The Profs had their fun, they got to see us all squirm presenting our projects. The Zoo officials politely thanked us for our efforts - they played along perfectly. We learned exactly what was intended of the course, which is to understand and respect other conceptual frameworks and find any means possible to work together in a team environment, even if we have absolutely nothing in common, to reach a specific goal.

After it was done, we all licked our wounds, tipped back our beers in the pub, had a good laugh at our individual project designs and agreed to never, ever work together on a project.

A few years later, I took my then three year old daughter to the zoo. I had completely forgotten the experience from school, until I rounded a corner near the lion pen and there it was - a 15 foot high concrete structure, charcoal grey in colour, with a little ramp up through the centre, holes all up the sides inside and out, with a gaggle of kids hanging off, laughing away. I was stunned as I watched my daughter run up the ramp.

Then I laughed and thought to myself, “Now that, is one hell of a termite mound!”

And I chuckled to myself today, realizing my life hasn’t changed much. Twenty plus years later, I am still designing termite mounds!

“Never Take ANYTHING for Granted” and “Yes! You can teach an Old Dog New Tricks!"

“Never Take ANYTHING for Granted” and “Yes! You can teach an Old Dog New Tricks!

You have all heard the adage “Never take ANYTHING for granted”. Well today I spent the morning having my eyeballs poked and prodded. As an Artist/Architect obviously it would suck big time to loose my vision.

A few months ago I noticed a blurry blind spot in the middle of my right eye, which, as you might expect scared the crap out of me. This is not exactly new, but it is still disconcerting. I first started having vision problems back in my twenties when I got hit at the side of my right eye with a hockey stick. The stick didn’t even hit the eye but the side of the orbital socket. At the time it was no big deal, a simple stitch and scar to add some character. Man was I surprised when over the next 30-60 days I started to get a white cloudy film over my pupil. I had developed a traumatic cataract at the ripe old age of 27. I was totally blind in my right eye.

Two surgeries later, I was implanted with a plastic interocular lens and I was back in business. As for today’s episode, I was lucky. What was a macular edema two months ago, had corrected itself before the specialist had his chance to stick me with another needle in the eye!

The long and the short of it, is that you simply cannot take anything in life for granted.

This takes me to the second part of this post. As a creative type, what would I do if I were to lose my vision? I wouldn’t be much of an Artist/Architect if I could not see! These are questions that we should all be asking ourselves. What if we were to get sick, lose our health, lose a spouse, lose a job. One thing for sure, I wouldn’t be sitting around doing nothing! I’d play banjo!!

I always wanted to learn to play an instrument. Unfortunately it was one of those things that just kept getting put off. Self doubt and negative commentary from others sabotaged any early ventures into music. It’s amazing how many well intentioned people there are out there that are willing to give an opinion on wasting your time on frivolous activities, like wanting to play music! Funny, I heard the same rhetoric when I started my Architecture and Art Careers.

So, I did what I do best, ignored what people around me were saying (including myself) and picked up a guitar at 48 years old, and took some lessons. I was brutal. I spent the better part of the first year trying to do a bar chord. It took me another year to torture my wife with a really bad version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”. But then it happened. It actually started to click. I realized I knew a lot of chords, and I could actually play a song. Then two, three and so on. I still suck, but I pick up the guitar pretty much every day and I pick away. I just play, and lose myself in the music.

It was getting close to my 50th birthday, and for some bizarre reason I wanted to try the banjo. I secretly would check them out at the Ottawa Folklore Centre, too embarrassed and shy to pick one up. Then out of the blue, a few days before my 50th, Janice sends me a YouTube clip of Abigail Washburn, playing “City of Refuge”. I was immediately hooked and I bought myself my first banjo - a half-century present to myself. And here we are, a year and a half later, and as with the guitar, I pick up the banjo every day, and yes, I suck. But I keep at it and I can actually now play some tunes. I am learning frailling or claw hammer style banjo, a style completely different from guitar playing. It is really difficult, well for me anyways, but I love it, and I lose myself in it. Learning to play is a musical meditation.

So if I were to lose my vision, the Accidental Architect would simply have to become the Accidental Musician! Apparently yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks!

So my only word to you tonight, don’t take anything in life for granted, and go play banjo!

Introducing - The Accidental Architect

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So here I am, 33 years into a career that hardly seemed planned.  It was truly a freak accident that I became an Architect.  When I first went to University I had absolutely no clue what an Architect did. I started my education taking a year of Engineering.  It took me about a month to realize I would probably be a crappy Engineer so I spent the better part of first year in the pub.  I was a creative type and Engineering was stifling.  It just so happened that my room mate in residence was in first year Architecture.  I looked at what I was doing and what he was doing and realized I wanted to be doing that.   I always drew and sketched, and I looked at Architecture as a happy medium between being an artist and keeping my Dad happy. It was the start of a 33 year love-hate relationship with my career.

This is a cautionary tale of the obscure life of the Accidental Architect.  It is a memoir of sorts about the life of creative type struggling between two careers - Architecture which fed the family and Art which fed the soul.  It’s a story about a guy who did everything against the grain, about desire to live life on one’s own terms, fighting social norms, ignoring the masses, striving to live life creatively.  It’s a memoir about failure, success, freedom and the absurdity of life. This is not a memoir about buildings or paintings - The Accidental Architect is about being the Architect of your life!

A word of warning: Be careful what you wish for in life - you might just get it!  And I can guarantee that it will be much different than anticipated!