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Joe Wai’s diplomacy and solution-minded attitude were crucial to his community-first approach to architecture. He used this determination to change Vancouver for the better, including helping stop a planned eight-lane elevated freeway from ripping through his beloved Chinatown in the seventies. . Credit: Brian Howell (Brian Howell)
Joe Wai’s diplomacy and solution-minded attitude were crucial to his community-first approach to architecture. He used this determination to change Vancouver for the better, including helping stop a planned eight-lane elevated freeway from ripping through his beloved Chinatown in the seventies. . Credit: Brian Howell (Brian Howell)

Civic activist, architect Joe Wai helped shape Vancouver Add to ...

In an age of blockbuster buildings and celebrity architects, Joe Wai was content to work quietly and let others bask in the limelight. Mr. Wai found it more satisfying to actually make a long-term impact – by consensus-building, designing affordable housing and preserving neighbourhood character. He died on Jan. 11 from complications of an aneurysm, at the age of 76, just two months after receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Architectural Institute of British Columbia.

Mr. Wai’s most remarkable skills were not so much in form-making as in forging the complex web of relationships that were crucial to bringing his projects to fruition. “Joe has had a vision about what the community should look like and feel like,” said Shirley Chan, who knew Mr. Wai since working with him in the early 1970s to stop a proposed freeway from destroying her family home and neighbourhood. “He understood the dynamics of a community, how it should be used in order to thrive and be authentic.”

“He used gentle persuasion as opposed to the hard sell,” said Andy Yan, an urbanist who knew Mr. Wai for more than 20 years. “There was a general humility to the man, which elicited trust that he would build something that cherishes and engages the culture.”

A prime example of that is the Skwachàys Healing Lodge, on West Pender Street at the border of Vancouver’s Chinatown and Gastown districts. Designed for the Vancouver Native Housing Society, the Healing Lodge is “an unbelievably important building for Vancouver," Mr. Yan says. Much of its importance lies in how it both challenges and respects heritage, by incorporating the region’s original dominant architectural form – the Longhouse – and subverting convention by placing it atop an existing neoclassical building. The architectural statement speaks to both postcontact and precontact history.

Mr. Wai is also renowned for a housing form he devised to address the housing needs in Chinatown. He took the well-established form of the “Vancouver Special” – the stark, two-storey duplexes designed with minimum cuts and constructed all over the city – and revised it to fit the texture and lot sizes of Vancouver’s historic Strathcona district.

Yip Wai Joe was born in Hong Kong on Dec. 11, 1940, to Kee Yan Wai, a pharmaceutical businessman, and mother Fok Lan Wai, a homemaker. The eldest of five sons and one daughter, Joe was a steadfast, caring presence for his siblings while they were growing up and grappling with their new life in Vancouver. The family immigrated in 1952, when Joe was almost 12, but his mother and father continued to spend much of their time in Hong Kong. The children were raised with the help of extended family members, first in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown neighbourhood and then on its more conventionally upper-middle-class west side.

In the fall of 1959, Mr. Wai entered architecture school at the University of British Columbia. In a 2015 interview with this reporter, he recalled hearing an instructor mention that Frank Lloyd Wright had died some months earlier. Mr. Wai’s innocent question – Who? – garnered a sharp retort: “If you don’t know that, kid, you shouldn’t be here.”

That rebuff didn’t dampen Mr. Wai’s architectural ambitions, but the learning curve was steep. He keenly felt his minority status in the overwhelmingly white class at UBC’s architecture school. There were two or three other Chinese students at the time, but not every teacher felt they belonged there. “The older generation in Vancouver associated Chinese with the coolies who had worked the railways,” he recalled in the 2015 interview. “We had a drafting teacher who told me I’d never make it because I was Chinese.”

Fortunately, Mr. Wai benefited from other, more enlightened instructors at UBC, including the artist Lionel Thomas, who taught a design studio, and architect Arthur Erickson, whose open mind and extensive travel experiences were an inspiration for him.

After graduation, Mr. Wai spent a year making a pilgrimage to architectural landmarks across North America, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin headquarters and Fallingwater residential project.

Then, Mr. Wai moved overseas, working for the Housing Council of Greater London, honing the experience and skills he would use to great effect in dealing with bureaucratic and community conflicts. During and after his time in England, he focused on travelling throughout continental Europe, exploring the vibrant historic neighbourhoods of the continental cities.

When he returned to Vancouver in the late 1960s, architect Paul Merrick, a close friend since his university days, enlisted Mr. Wai to join Thompson Berwick and Pratt (TB&P), the largest firm in the city at the time, and the prime training ground for most of the city’s ambitious architects. While at TB&P, he designed the West End Community Centre with attached social housing, the kind of civic-minded project that would characterize his career.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Wai entered the fight of his life: stopping a planned eight-lane elevated freeway from ripping through his beloved Chinatown and the adjacent Strathcona neighbourhood. At a neighbourhood residents’ meeting, he met a young lawyer named Mike Harcourt, who had a street-front firm in the area. The lawyer, who would later become mayor of Vancouver and then, in 1991, the premier of British Columbia, was impressed by the “steely determination” of this soft-spoken man.

“He was horrified that Chinatown and Strathcona would be demolished,” recalled Mr. Harcourt in a telephone interview last week. Mr. Wai’s diplomacy, negotiating skills and solution-minded attitude became crucial to the subsequent discussions. “Coming up with an alternative: that was the key,” Mr. Harcourt said. “He could see how we could revitalize Chinatown.” The project screeched to a halt when transport minister Paul Hellyer, aware of pushback from the Vancouver group as well as in Toronto under Jane Jacobs, sent a directive halting all urban renewal projects in Canada, including the Vancouver freeway.

Part of the multistage solution for revitalizing Chinatown involved replacing the housing that had already been torn down for the first two phases of the freeway. This was not a wealthy neighbourhood, so Mr. Wai devised an economical housing type now known as the “Joe Wai Special,” inspired by the city’s “Vancouver Special” homes, but revised to fit the smaller lots and complex texture of the Strathcona neighbourhood.

Family life was an important support system throughout Mr. Wai’s life, beginning with the extended family members that helped raise him. Then, in 1970, Mr. Wai met his future wife, Lynn Oldham, at the wedding of a friend he had met in London. Their son, Jonathan, was born in 1977. Mr. Wai’s siblings also figured prominently in his life, notably his brother Hayne, another ardent community advocate who introduced Mr. Wai to Mr. Yan and other like-minded people.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Wai left TB&P to start his own eponymous firm, at first renting desk space at the Yaletown office of landscape architect Don Vaughan. At the same time, he mentored younger aspiring architects. One of his proteges, Vancouver architect David Wong, relays that Mr. Wai inspired him to evolve from a delinquent street kid to a professional with a strong sense of civic responsibility.

“A lot of us Chinese-Canadians, growing up, we didn’t know how to find the opportunities because our parents were working-class immigrants and didn’t have the connections and background,” says Mr. Wong, who is currently working on a book about noteworthy British Columbians of Asian descent. “Joe was a great resource.” For him and other local youth, Mr. Wai would explain the career steps and protocols, and facilitate key introductions.

A career highlight was the early-1980’s design and construction of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, an oasis of calm in the heart of Chinatown, in collaboration with Mr. Vaughan. “Working with him on projects was truly collaborative,” Mr. Vaughan says. “You worked with Joe, not for him.”

Two decades after designing the garden, Mr. Wai designed the Millennium Gate, which marks the entrance to Chinatown on West Pender Street, a structure of huge symbolic importance to the neighbourhood’s identity and permanent demarcation.

Mr. Wai sought to balance historic preservation with the need to finance restoration, accommodate new residents, and build a positive rapport among them. “As an architect,” Mr. Merrick observes, “he cared less about the building as an object, and more about the people who would be using the building.”

He leaves his wife, Lynn; his son, Jonathan; and his five siblings.

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