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Sandy and Blanche van Ginkel formed an architecture and planning practice in Montreal in the 1950s.
Sandy and Blanche van Ginkel formed an architecture and planning practice in Montreal in the 1950s.

Sandy van Ginkel rescued Old Montreal from freeway developers Add to ...

Nobody is going to point a finger and say there is a Sandy van Ginkel building, the way you might identify an Arthur Erickson museum or a Moshe Safdie art gallery, but making signature structures is not the only way of being an architect.

"He saved Old Montreal from being destroyed," said architect Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre of Architecture in Montreal, which houses the archive of the Dutch-born modernist, urban visionary and master planner. "The breadth of his interests was extraordinary; you can learn an enormous amount about the nature of the country - its economic development and what it wants to be - from studying his projects," she argued, before listing a diverse range of van Ginkel undertakings from across the country, and around the world.

Mr. van Ginkel died in a nursing home in Toronto on July 6, after suffering a series of strokes over the last few years. He was 89.

With his wife, architect Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, he formed an architecture and planning practice in Montreal in the late 1950s. Together, they were part of a small group of thinkers, some of them refugees from Europe, who were obsessed with how we should live, here, in this country, at this time.

A decade before Jane Jacobs and the Stop Spadina movement made civic activism a major force in city planning, he almost single-handedly persuaded the good burghers of Montreal to abandon plans for an expressway that would have cut through the old city, destroying much of its heritage and the ambience that still draws tourists and visitors.

When engineer Claude Robillard became director of Montreal's first planning department in 1961, he asked Mr. van Ginkel to be his assistant. That was too confining, but Mr. van Ginkel did work as a consultant for Mr. Robillard on several projects, including a study that unearthed the critical archaeological stages of the old city's growth, an analysis of the port area, and a circulation plan for the city centre that involved protecting Mount Royal as parkland.

Then, when Mr. Robillard was appointed executive director of design for Expo 67, he hired Mr. van Ginkel as his deputy in charge of developing the master plan for the exhibition. Mr. van Ginkel was instrumental in choosing the site, which anchored the permanent exhibitions on the islands in the St. Lawrence as a means of reconnecting the city to its port and its river.

Considered by Ed Churchill, installations director at Expo 67, as "the best recognizer of talent I've ever known," Mr. van Ginkel was the one who hired a young Moshe Safdie to work on the master plan and facilitated his ambition to build Habitat 67, the complex that revolutionized urban housing design.

"He recognized in me something very significant in my work and I found in him a great inspiration," Mr. Safdie said.

As an architecture student at McGill, Mr. Safdie had heard Mr. van Ginkel deliver a guest lecture, which so impressed him that he asked the university to go outside the faculty to appoint the older architect as his thesis critic on what eventually became Habitat.

"He had come from Europe with fresh new ideas," said Mr. Safdie. "I would meet him twice a week and we would discuss things in depth and when my thesis was done, he had it published in the Dutch magazine Forum, which was the most important architectural journal at the time in terms of European thinking."

Ironically, Mr. van Ginkel became a casualty when political turmoil and cost overruns led to the abrupt departure of the original senior management team - including his boss Mr. Robillard - from Expo.

"It wasn't easy for him and it wasn't easy for me either," said Mr. Safdie, who later wrote warmly about Mr. van Ginkel in his book Beyond Habitat .

"He had real vision and he was definitely a great thinker/teacher, but he was a frustrated urbanist and especially a frustrated architect because he didn't realize as much as he would have liked of his concepts and visions."

H. P. Daniel (Sandy) van Ginkel was born in Amsterdam on Feb. 10, 1920, the youngest of three children of Johannes Hendricus van Ginkel and his wife Petronella (née Harmsen). Three months after he celebrated his 20th birthday, the Germans invaded, overwhelmed the Dutch forces, and occupied the country until the Allies liberated Holland in May, 1945.

Mr. van Ginkel, who was tall, blond, and Nordic looking, with a sandy-coloured mustache, studied under the visionary architect Hendrik Wijdeveld at the Academy of Architecture and Applied Art in Elckerlyc. Like several of his friends, he completed his courses, but refused to sign the documents of allegiance to the Nazis that were required for graduation and so never received his official diploma.

After the war, he worked as a planner/architect in Stockholm from 1946-49 (about the time he married Lucia Hubrecht) on the design of new towns and houses and as a consultant for the Land Reclamation Authority in Ireland in 1950, before returning home as the architect responsible for the historic old city in the Amsterdam planning department from 1951-53. He then went into private practice, creating theatre designs and houses and working in partnership with Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck on the planned new town of Nagele.

For some time he had been an active member of CIAM, the International Congress of Modern Architecture. It was founded by Le Corbusier and others in Switzerland in 1928 to advance the idea of architecture as a political and economic solution to urban poverty and other social issues). The Dutch chapter was a particularly serious group with older, more established architects mentoring younger ones, such as Mr. Van Ginkel and Mr. Van Eyck.

The 1953 CIAM meeting in Aix en Provence was momentous for Mr. van Ginkel both professionally and romantically, for it was here that he joined Team Ten, a breakaway group that challenged CIAM's doctrinaire approach to modernism, and the place where he met Blanche Lemco, the woman who would become his wife and his architectural partner for more than half a century.

Ms. Lemco, whose heritage is Polish, graduated in architecture from McGill University in 1945, did a degree in urban planning at Harvard and began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 1951, where she formed an American CIAM group. She brought its project to Aix en Provence in 1953, where, coincidentally, she and Mr. van Ginkel were assigned to the same work group.

Early the following year, Mr. van Ginkel organized Team Ten's meeting in Doorn and drafted its manifesto, Statement on Habitat, which argued that the totality of a community and its environment must be the underlying consideration for any planning activity. It was a tenet he would bring to Canada and to which he would adhere whether he was working on the master plan for Expo 67, modifying traffic patterns in Manhattan in 1970, completing a development plant for Pahang Tenggara, Malaysia, in 1973, or designing a projected gas company town in the Arctic in 1976.

After divorcing his first wife and courting Ms. Lemco for nearly three years across the Atlantic - he always seemed to know when and where to find her when she was in Europe on business - Mr. van Ginkel married her in Philadelphia in December, 1956, and then visited her family in Montreal.

She assumed they would live in Amsterdam, a city she loved, but she hadn't reckoned on his immediate fascination with Montreal, a city whose heritage was threatened, not by bombs and invading armies, but by expressways in honour of urban sprawl and the mighty automobile.

"His relationship with Blanche, his wife and partner, was fascinating," said Mr. Safdie, pointing out that their coming together as a couple combined "cutting-edge thinking" in Europe with "cutting-edge thinking" in America. "There was something in the union that was also intellectually interesting."

Because the partnership was founded in intellectual curiosity, the van Ginkels worked on a huge range of projects. In the early 1970s, nearly two decades before engineer Geoffrey Ballard sweet-talked the British Columbia government into subsidizing an ecologically friendly, hydrogen-powered municipal bus in Vancouver, Mr. van Ginkel invented and built the Ginkelvan, a hybrid electric vehicle.

The Ginkelvan was a byproduct of a traffic circulation plan, commissioned by then New York mayor John Lindsay, that would have partially closed Madison and Lexington Avenues to vehicular traffic. The scheme needed a means of transporting shoppers and their parcels across midtown, so Mr. van Ginkel took existing automobile components and put them together in a new way "with guys in the office in an unused garage somewhere," according to Mrs. van Ginkel. It had wide doors, a low enough floor to allow pedestrians to walk straight on from the curb, and a roof that was high enough to allow passengers, including the more than 6-foot-tall mayor, to stand upright.

The traffic plan was shelved when Mr. Lindsay declined to run for a second term, but the orange (in honour of the House of Nassau and the city of New York, which, of course, has a Dutch heritage) Ginkelvan found an afterlife when Vail, Colo., purchased the prototype.

In the middle 1970s, long before GIS (geographic information system) software made it possible to map remote locations in precise topographical detail, Mr. van Ginkel created the first atlas of the communities of the Mackenzie River, as part of the inquiry into the proposed Mackenzie pipeline, from the delta to Great Slave Lake.

"Sandy persuaded them [the pipeline consortium]that they needed to find out more about the people who lived there and the communities in which they lived," said Mrs. van Ginkel. Once commissioned, the van Ginkels had to invent a way of doing the mapping, without the luxury of travelling down the Mackenzie River and stopping in each community. So they collected old aerial photographs and survey maps, sent one of their staff with a camera up in a low-flying private plane "counting door knobs" from above, as they called it, and then corrected the aerial photographs. The finished study, which included population numbers, was so useful that it went into a second printing.

In 1977, 20 years after founding their firm in Montreal, the van Ginkels moved to Toronto where she became dean of the faculty of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Toronto, the first woman to hold such a position at a Canadian university.

He continued to accept planning commissions and consultations in the Arctic, but gradually he turned his creative gaze inward and by the late 1980s he was working mainly as a sculptor and printmaker. Finally, at the end of his career, he was building structures according to his own vision. Mainly made of wood, modernist and angular in form, they seemed both very Dutch and yet very Canadian in their evocation of Haida totems. "It was the kind of sculpture only an architect would make," Mrs. van Ginkel said.

Mr. van Ginkel leaves his wife Blanche, three children, three grandchildren and his extended family.

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