Architect, city planner, educator, heritage activist, and the first female dean of architecture in Canada, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel was belatedly recognized as one of the most important figures in 20th-century architecture, of either gender. When she died at age 98 on Oct. 20, she left a legacy not only as a role model for women in architecture, but also in city planning, education, and neighbourhood preservation.
Blanche Lemco was born on Dec. 14, 1923, in London, England, and moved to Montreal with her family 13 years later. In 1940, upon winning a scholarship, she became one of the first female architecture students at McGill University. After graduation she worked for architects in Windsor, Que.; Regina, Sask.; and London, England.
A trailblazer and a troublemaker honoured with Canadian architecture awards
At age 25, she joined the Paris-based studio of Le Corbusier, who was then leading the international design community. She was surprised to find that the great Swiss architect, at the height of his fame and power, gave her an inordinate amount of freedom. He would issue a design challenge, and rather than instruct her how to resolve it, he would encourage her to respond in the way she saw fit, and simply discard any results he didn’t like.
Her brief tenure with Le Corbusier afforded her the opportunity to work on one of the most innovative new housing projects of the era, the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, France. The project served as a template for a system of communal living that would integrate shops, recreation and outdoor space into a residential building. Ms. Lemco worked on the design of the rooftop terrace, with a nursery and two visually prominent concrete ventilator stacks that would become emblematic.
In a 2018 interview with this reporter, she recalled the startled reaction of a group of prominent architects touring the landmark building as it neared completion. As they stood on the Unité's rooftop, Le Corbusier turned to Ms. Lemco and said, “Alors, Blanche, que pensez-vous de vos terrasses?” Upon hearing Le Corbusier asking this diminutive young woman what she thought of her rooftop terraces – in essence, publicly and properly crediting her for the rooftop’s design – the all-male clique of architects muttered in shock.
Ms. Lemco completed her formal education at Harvard University, where she earned a master’s degree in urban planning. Her Harvard years brought her into close contact with German emigré Walter Gropius, the co-founder of the Bauhaus, and with the Spanish architect and planner Josep Lluís Sert. Both were leaders of the still-young profession of urban design, and they helped steer her own design priorities toward urbanism.
Post-Harvard, she taught architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for six years, establishing the foundation for a parallel career in design education. Her Ivy League position, coupled with her experience at Le Corbusier’s studio, paved the way for her participation in 1953 and 1956 at the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), a series of historic conferences on architecture and urbanism. She would later teach periodically at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and go on to develop the first courses in urban design at the University of Montreal and McGill University.
Ms. Lemco met and married Daniel (Sandy) van Ginkel, a Dutch-Canadian architect and planner whom she had met at the 1953 CIAM conference in Aix-en-Provence. At the time, the few women who were allowed to enter the professions were nonetheless expected to fold away their careers upon marriage. Instead, her collaborative marriage helped motivate Ms. Lemco – now Ms. Lemco van Ginkel – to be a powerhouse.
Together, the couple founded their own architecture and urban-design firm in Montreal, van Ginkel Associates, and proceeded to make their mark. She became the fourth women to become registered as an architect in Quebec, and they grew a thriving interdisciplinary practice, while raising two children, Brenda and Marc. Prescient in its goals, the firm developed prototypes for alternative public transportation (the “Ginkelvan”), campaigned for the conservation of historic districts, sustainable solutions, and pedestrian-friendly environments long before these concerns became popular.
Their symbiotic partnership benefited them tremendously, with Sandy’s position as assistant director of Montreal’s fledgling planning department providing support to Blanche’s work in education and practice. “We complemented each other in knowledge and skills,” she recalled upon receiving the Lifetime Achievement award from the RAIC. “We were a good partnership, living and breathing our work together.”
Together, they succeeded in persuading the City of Montreal to halt its plans to build an expressway that would have torn through the fabric of Montreal’s centuries-old historic district. She later campaigned to save Mount Royal Park from invasive developments. “I met Blanche with Sandy in Montreal in the early 1970s,” recalls Phyllis Lambert, the founder and former director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. “They had just saved Old Montreal, but I only knew this much later, and not from them.”
Ms. Lemco van Ginkel’s characteristic modesty prevailed even as she continued her upward trajectory, as the first female Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in 1973, and, four years later, the first female dean of the University of Toronto’s School of Architecture. By then, the student body was approaching gender parity, but the faculty was still composed entirely of men, except for its dean. “Architecture wasn’t considered a ‘feminine’ profession, so she was my role model,” recalls Astra Burka, an architect-turned-filmmaker, echoing the views of other students of the time.
During her academic career, Ms. Lemco van Ginkel published and lectured prolifically, emphasizing the importance of urban design in creating a hopeful future for a city’s inhabitants. “As architects and designers, if we don’t have a vision of the future, we have nothing,” she asserted during a 1982 guest lecture in Ball State University, Ind.
However, her tenure as dean was not as felicitous as the rest of her career. The architecture school had fallen into the throes of severe financial challenges and internal debate about its future direction. At one point, the school seemed on the verge of shutting down entirely. In the eyes of some observers, the all-male faculty did not treat her fairly or well, exhibiting overt misogyny or appearing to blame her for conditions that were either beyond her control or the residue of preceding regimes.
After completing her term as dean in 1982, Ms. Lemco van Ginkel continued to teach studio courses and tutor graduate students on their thesis research projects. Former students recall her being direct, dry, unsparing but fair. In the raucous, smoke-filled thesis crit sessions, she presented a distinctively poised and elegant figure, neatly extinguishing her cigarette on the sole of her shoe when necessary.
For the Toronto design intelligentsia, their home in the Summerhill neighbourhood became a salon, festooned with maquettes, sculptures, and artifacts from their life’s work on every shelf and tabletop. After Sandy van Ginkel died in 2009, she continued to live in the house, which evolved into a kind of shrine for their illustrious practice. The Unité d’habitation rooftop model assumed a privileged perch on the fireplace mantle. She became renowned for her disarmingly youthful giggle, which accompanied discussions of the Unité and other momentous subjects in architecture and urbanism. Ms. Lambert fondly interprets her trademark giggle “almost as a private joke, [which] often references subjects of great seriousness to her.”
The CCA, in collaboration with Concordia Press, is currently preparing a book on her work and ideas, the third in the institutions’ Building Arguments monograph series. The confirmation of her legacy is further reflected in the motherlode of honours accrued in her later years: the Order of Canada, honorary degrees, and lifetime achievement awards from both the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Ontario Association of Architects.
Ms. Lambert counts Ms. Lemco van Ginkel as one of the country’s most germane thinkers on urban design, acutely aware of how every building and urban intervention, however modest, served the whole. Ms. Lemco van Ginkel reiterated as much upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the McGill University Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture in 2014. “Thinking about the nature of architecture, engineering and city planning,” she told an audience of students, “I was reminded of the rhyme ‘little drops of water, little grains of sand make a mighty ocean and a pleasant land.’ ”
Ms. Lemco van Ginkel leaves her daughter, Brenda; son, Marc; and grandson, Anthony Isaac Armstrong.