Reimagining Urban Waterfronts 

Jelle Therry of West 8 presented their internationally acclaimed work recently week at the National Gallery and for the NCC staff. This dutch landscape design firm has been involved with some of the most interesting urban design and landscape architecture in North America recently. These are some notes I took when Mr. Terry spoke at the NCC’s Urbanism Lab to a group of architects, landscape architects and planners. He presented a series of the firm’s recent projects, providing insights about how the work was developed and the importance of the public realm. 

Toronto Central Waterfront

The inner harbour had some real environmental problems in 2006 when the project began. Pike (the fish) were absent from the water and Toronto street trees weren’t well planted or cared for and typically survived only 5 years. West 8 created a master plan for Toronto’s central waterfront. One of the key problems historically were the ‘pinch points’ where pedestrian movement was constricted by very narrow sidewalk widths along the docks. The now famous curving wood ‘wave decks’ provided an elegant and compelling answer to this problem. 

Wavedecks were the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the fact that if the wavedecks cost $5, then $4 of that amount was spent on improvements to the ecosystems in the harbor; a part of the project that you don’t really see when you visit but is very important to the ecology of the waterfront. Within 5 years the pike was back living along these harbour front locations. 

The promenade was expanded and is now 18 m wide. Below the walking surface, eventually, will be a system for cleaning storm water before it enters the lake. 

Pedestrian bridges have been designed that will be implemented some day. 

The traffic flow along the waterfront has been improved. Cars have been moved to the north  side of the streetcar track. Along 1.7 km of lakefront, the public realm has been completely rehabilitated. 

Property values have improved along queens quay. What was a $200 k condo is now a $350 k condo. Mr. Terry attributes this partly to the infrastructure and public realm improvements along the Quay 

Mr. Terry closed by saying that in Toronto, strong leadership has been the genesis of these ideas. Chris Glasiek and others have really provided a vision for improving Toronto’s public realm.

Madrid Rio

The mayor was looking for re-election and identified the river and getting the public access to it as a campaign winning idea.

The ring road was buried, making way for public space. Trees and paths were added.  Today it’s a zone for playgrounds and for recreation. The royal palace has been reconnected to the river. 

Maxima Park: Utrecht, NL

West 8 did a master plan for this major urban park on the periphery of Utrecht. The park was built in phases, beginning with a bike path around the periphery. The overall build out will take 20 years. 

Jelle says that one key to the success of West 8 is that they are always collaborating with other designers. 

A natural lake has been brought back to the heart of the park. Today people swim and boat on it. 

A concrete pergola creates opportunities for creativity in the park; it acts as something to plant against, and something to create space with. It’s used to make gates. 

Governor’s Island, NY

When West 8 won a competition to  redesign this place, they were very excited to propose a new green space between Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. 

Today the island has a lot of paved area and is in poor condition. 1800 trees are proposed. The landscape is raised to create planting places for these trees, above salt water, both today and in the future. Topography and hills provide views of Manhattan and frame views of the Statue of Liberty.

Some of the most compelling elements of the project are the whimsical ones; a grove of trees supports hammocks, curving and very steep slides provide fun for kids of all ages. 

The Netherlands and Belgium Are Rich in Art and Design Culture

Northern Europe, especially the Netherlands have become a nexus of art and design culture. With events in Belgium recently, many will cancel trips to this part of the world, and it seems inevitable that tourism in this part of the world will drop. Some friends had planned to visit The Netherlands soon and I hope they will still go. When I mentioned there’s a lot of art and design culture there, he suggested I do a blog post about it. So here it is. They have plans to visit Amsterdam, at least for a day, and to connect with family in Rotterdam. 

Amsterdam’s Eye Film Museum. image from Wikipedia .

I always begin my own travel planning by looking for New York Times’ 36 hours travel guides. Their Amsterdam edition does not disappoint, even though it’s from 2011 and it is probably a good idea to check out some these destinations online before going. The focus on recently developed neighbourhoods around the harbour is great and underlines the changing face of this vibrant city, and its focus on art, design, and innovative culture.

The Van Gogh Museum features the largest collection of this well known Dutch painter anywhere. I’ve been plotting a visit to this museum for some time, myself. Van Gogh paintings are best viewed in person.

The Eye Film Museum is worth a visit both for the architecture and for the exhibits. The waterfront building was designed by Delugan Meissl architects who are known for their buildings that appear to be in motion.



The monumental Markthal, a Rotterdam success story. Image from Archdaily.

Rotterdam is one of Lonely Planet’s best places to visit in 2016. It’s been on my own radar for some time as the spiritual headquarters of Dutch architecture and design. The presence of Rem Koolhaas‘ office has spawned a lot of other good firms here, as his trainees open their own shops.

Markthal, a unique horseshoe shaped building designed by one of those firms, MVRDV is a striking indoor and vibrant food market on the waterfront. Called by some the ‘Sistine Chapel of Food’, its success is partly due to the impressive marketing effort put into the place.

Rem Koolhaas’ Vertical City offers amazing views from its top floor restaurant and is a really unique piece of contemporary architecture.

Rotterdam’s Vertical City. Image from Dezeen.

Further afield, the Belgian cities of Ghent and Bruges are two smaller cities that I’d consider visiting, maybe as a day trip. They’re both close to Rotterdam and have a lot to offer.



Ghent by day and by night.

Despite being a small city Ghent has become a tourist destination in its own right, with its upbeat character and unique culture. This city has drawn my attention because of its world class architectural illumination. The city has become a true ‘night city’ and is a place of wonder and beauty after dark.


Bruges. Image from NYT.

I visited this city as a teenager because of the medieval art that attracted my parents there. It was cast as a boring place in a very good movie called In Bruges, but has evolved into a very interesting place recently. 

Transit Bar Exhibit Closes at National Gallery

IMG_0209Vera Frenkel’s from the Transit Bar is the type of exhibit that can challenge and surprise even jaded museum goers; an installation piece about immigration and alienation it is simultaneously a working bar where one wonders where ‘art’ begins and ends. Are the glasses ‘art’? The newspapers, certainly are, being custom ‘Transit Bar’ and interactions people have in the bar are perhaps the most important part of the experience of the piece.

Created in 1992 by artist Vera Frankel the piece was in storage for years. Meticulously rebuilt at the National Gallery it has been installed there for visitors’ discovery and delight for some months.

The exhibit closed Thursday evening to speeches by the museum’s CEO, curator, and by Vera herself and it will be a loss for Ottawa. The exhibit’s next iteration of life will be at its new home at the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art in Toronto; where one hopes it will continue to surprise and please for years.