Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Friday, April 25, 2014


A story of Venice and the New Georgian Era

First published in Perspectives Magazine Spring 2014 edition and in the new Perspectives Anthology book


The sirens had sounded early in the morning signalling the impending aqua alta, and he’d put his wellies on just in case. He’d been on Accedemia Bridge when the Vaporetto loudspeakers gave the general evacuation order in four languages. A group of giddy art students from Prague left the dry arch of the bridge onboard a garbage scow, plastic bags taped over their shoes. They’d implored him to join them. He declined, waved, and smiled.

The water was now almost a metre high on the palazzo walls, and rising as twilight fell. Fish from the Adriatic were already exploring new avenues through the cafes of Piazza San Marco, coursing through emptied jewelry cases, hovering above upturned chairs in the squares of Venice.

The sky was growing angry again and it would soon start raining. It was only going to get worse: the confluence of extreme high tide and record rainfall. Was this how it ended? Not with a bang but a splutter? George flipped the page in his journal and started another sketch.

Like many men his age, George, had been born the same year as the British prince and then named after him. He’d hated his name as a child; it mocked him from check-out line tabloids and celebrity hoopla. But it grew on him and he grew into it: a solid, old-fashioned name. There were three Georges in his final year at architecture school. The other two were more serious than he was, and maybe more talented, but they became a brotherhood of sorts and eventually formed a partnership: George3 Architecture.

George3  made a name for itself landing a plum commission as the designers of Ikea’s new line of flat-pack houses. They were the go-to firm for plug-and-play country houses and George would sometimes even co-pilot the helicopters that delivered the injection-moulded creations to sites in the hills north of the city. It all had an envigorating Brave New World feel to it and the partners of George3 were riding the wave of success. They drank Manitoba Merlot and joked about the coming of the New Georgian Era.

More suddenly than anyone had predicted, the downturn morphed into the biggest recession in decades. The plastics disappeared with the oil and work dried up overnight. Despite their efforts to save it, George3 dissolved and, as the three Georges raised a farewell glass, the tractors carted off their mobile office. The property was quickly put under the plow for a new urban field of engineered canola.

George called in some favours and finally found a position with a skyscraper demolition firm in Toronto. He read and interpreted the old plans and charted strategies for pulling down crumbling 50-storey liabilities, relics of the heyday of the high-rise. Faded paper drawings cluttered his desk. He loved the line work, the cross-hatching, the deft hand of the twentieth century architects. It was all hieroglyphics to the technicians, adept as they were at animated hologram presentations and 3D printing suites, but to George the drawings were a link to a golden age.

He papered the galley of his wedge-plan condo with old vellums of foundation details and side elevations. He became a minor authority on traditional drafting techniques of the late twentieth century, amassing a collection that read like the DNA of Canadian Architecture. His drawn records were often all that remained of buildings that were largely forgotten. An exhibition at the AGO followed. And then, as he entered his fiftieth year, he was asked to curate the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.


Borrowing from Vitruvius, he’d named the show “Firmness, Commodity and Delight: The Legacy of Architectural Drawing in Canada.” Archives had opened for him, rare drawings arrived by courier, foam-core models in crates. Old architects who had practised back in the 2020s and even earlier sent him hard-copy gems from their files. Using these curious old tools – models and drawings – George and his team put the raw seeds of his country’s built legacy on display for the world.

The newly crowned King, just turned fifty himself, was slated to open the British Pavilion and tour Canada’s show. George would meet George.

The king was architecture savvy as his grandfather Charles had been. He’d studied under Zaha Hadid’s daughter at Cambridge, campaigned for brownfield development, given lectures at the RIBA.

After the coronation, Neo-Georgian Architecture became the style-du-jour. Columns and pediments adorned re-charge stations along the Western Ontario Beltway. There was the usual righteous backlash by architects, but at least architecture was in the press.

King George was slated to visit the Canadian pavilion and review the legacy exhibition. As curator, George hoped he’d have a chance for a bit of royal small talk, maybe compare notes on their common first name. Could you ask a king for an autograph?

But that was before the most relentless scirocco in history started to pound the Venetian lagoon from the southeast. The Moses flood defense system, which had worked for the first half of the century, was overwhelmed. No one had predicted this.

The Biennale district was flooded and evacuated before the exhibition could be dismantled. There would be no opening ceremonies, no king, no autographs.


George stood on Accademia Bridge, looking east along the Grand Canal. An exodus of boats and barges streamed below him, a parade no one had ever wanted, heading for higher ground on mainland. The water rose so fast he could follow its progress up the facades of the ancient palazzi, drowning pilasters and pediments. George ignored orders from a passing fireboat to leave the bridge. He waved them on and they yelled something frantic in Italian, leaving him alone in the centre of the arch which now sprang from a turbulent urban sea.

The invading waters now lapped the tops of the ground floor windows, still rising. The twinkling lights of the Jewel of Adriatic went dark as the power grid finally gave out, sparking and fizzling into oblivion. George gripped his pencil tightly in a shaky hand. In the dim twilight he kept drawing, as if he could somehow hold back the water by recording things as they had always been: architecture as frozen music: firm, commodious, delightful – and immovable. But the Venice he’d known, the architecture the world had treasured, died quickly into darkness, wrapped in a mist of hissing rain and wind.

In the Arsenalle district, the old boatbuilding precinct where the architecture biennale was held, a new sort of procession was setting out to sea. Curled vellum drawings inscribed with the patterns of a thousand buildings spun slowly in the swirling eddies, taking a whole world to the bottom of the lagoon. Flotillas of white models drifted past, upturned modern villas, capsized works in progress, unbuilt cities of the future now destined for sodden graves. Venice had finally sunk below the waves – The Serene Republic, home to the last Architecture Biennale, submerged for the final time.

It was a show no one would ever see, not even the King, whose schedule was once again thrown into disarray by a wild world of extreme weather. And thus began the new Georgian Era.

See the published article in Perspectives digital edition:

Monday, January 27, 2014

London,Oxford,Sam & Me

Travelling with an architects' eye (and a baby)

We knew not what to expect, my wife and I, when we set off for six long weeks of trekking around England. We'd been there before, but then it was just the two of us, a bit of loose change and an architecture guide book. This time, it would be an autumn trip with three children in tow, all under 9, (which meant six extra backpacks, a baby seat, a stroller, and enough gummy bears to drive toothpaste shares through the roof.) And as with the English weather, we had no way of predicting if things would be fair or foul, stormy or calm.
Yet we were fairly certain of one thing at least: Samuel would make life difficult for us. Sam is 2.

Nothing wrong with 2, of course; some of our nicest friends had once been 2. But Sam, being 2 and proud of it, was out to undo what he could of our adventure. He had just learned to run (sideways), was long overdue for some sort of life-threatening sickness (probably Ebola), and was developing an alarming fondness for anything edible (and sugar-coated) or toylike (and plastic-coated).

Well-meaning but heartless friends had smiled weakly and suggested meekly that perhaps we should consider leaving Sam at home. Rumour had it that we were taking nannies in sufficient numbers to post a round-the-clock watch on him and his habits of mass destruction. Yet in the end, we went it alone, ready to take whatever he could throw at us.

What he did throw at us (apart from masticated gummy bears and half-empty bottles of HP sauce) was the chance to take stock and ask some slow-motion questions of ourselves. Did we really need to travel at that old hectic pace, cameras blazing? Did two cities in one day mean as much as one city in two weeks? Were frantic flybys as rewarding as measured contemplation?

Sam was a bear without his afternoon nap, and it soon became painfully apparent that we'd either have to sit inside every afternoon, losing the best part of a day’s exploration, or he'd have to sleep while we explored. The choice was between Simmering Frustration (and British soap operas) or Travels With The Amazing Sleeping Baby. We opted for the latter.

We went on tour, baby Sam and I, during the afternoons. While Katy took Harry and Molly on adventures in search of dragons and elves, I pushed him in a peaceful sleep-walk through the landscapes of my own Grand Tour.

I'd been to Bath before and marched through its crescents and squares like any duty-bound student of architecture, but this time it was different. My pace was slow and the rhythm of my walking was measured, thoughtful. Sam slept in tranquil oblivion beneath his horsey-blanket, Curious George next to his blushed cheek. At such a pace, the nuance of the honey-coloured stone wasn't lost on me, and hardly a doorway in John Wood's Royal Crescent escaped detailed analysis.

I studied the serene Georgian proportion in complete silence under the October sky, walked the leaf-strewn side streets, chatted in hushed tones with doormen, followed the movements of the clouds as they hurried towards winter.

It soon became a habit, these afternoon strolls; quiet, thoughtful, introspective. Strolls that would once have been frustrated aggravation became walks of discovery. I began to see just how much I'd been missing. The tour books had lied: a city a day? Walking tours that cover the centre of Oxford in just two hours? Sam and I spent as much time just crunching through the russet leaves of a deserted  Botanical Garden, the shadows of Magdalen College growing long beside us. Nothing could give one the sense of quiet contemplation that can be achieved at the controls of a stroller filled with a sleeping two year old.

With time to observe, my pencil and sketchbook came back into play. On the banks of the Cherwell, punters passed silently as under the blankets, Sam sailed on plush waves to the land of nod, sung to sleep by the ancient stones around him that "whispered" as Matthew Arnold put it, "the last enchantments of the Middle Ages."

Weeks of such afternoons passed, the stroller wheels showing their age, axles squeaking. We passed through villages and small towns, ruined abbeys and walled gardens and arrived finally in the hectic bulls-eye of action: London.

We studied the vanguard of modern London’s construction boom, circled the Great Court of the  British Museum for an hour, studying details, soaking in the freedom of a slowed pace. We walked the paths of Regent's Park on a lazy Sunday afternoon, avoiding impromptu football games by a safe margin, lightly crossing the cobbles, greatly enjoying tranquility in the centre of the metropolis.

It would never have been like this without Sam and his annoying  need for an afternoon nap. I would never have slowed to this pace without the pace of a slumbering child to slow me. I wouldn't have noticed the frozen angels in the cathedral close in Salisbury without him, or had time to solve the maze at Hampton Court (twice). Instead, I would have rushed headlong, striking names from the list I had mentally prepared back in architecture school. Shooting photos, marching through history, missing the minute details, the quiet lanes, the glories of an architecture that took time to absorb.

“Even sleepers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe”,  said Heraclitus in 500 BC. Heraclitus knew his babies, I'd say.

Katy and I had given our family a six-week trek through the heart of an autumnal England. Sam, his little blonde head oblivious to it all, had given the subtle shading of the ancient stones back to me.

Originally published in the Globe & Mail and in PERSPECTIVES mag.
David Gillett