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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."

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