Category Archives: architecture



The spiral staircase at the Art Gallery of Ontario, shot from below with my Nikon D300s and tarted up in Photoshop to look like a rainbow nautilus shell. The stair, by Frank Gehry, is 11 residential floors high.

The curvature and pearly sheen of this image reminded me of a nautilus shell, although the spiral is not the same. The nautilus shell, in fact, presents one of the finest natural examples of a logarithmic spiral.

According to Wikipedia, nautiluses are the sole living cephalopods whose bony body structure is externalized as a shell. The animal can withdraw completely into its shell and close the opening with a leathery hood formed from two specially folded tentacles. The shell is coiled, aragonitic, nacreous and pressure resistant. The nautilus shell is composed of 2 layers: a matte white outer layer, and a striking white iridescent inner layer. The innermost portion of the shell is a pearlescent blue-gray. The osmena pearl, contrarily to its name, is not a pearl, but a jewellery product derived from this part of the shell.

Internally, the shell divides into camerae (chambers), the chambered section being called the phragmocone. The divisions are defined by septa, each of which is pierced in the middle by a duct, the siphuncle. As the nautilus matures it creates new, larger camerae, and moves its growing body into the larger space, sealing the vacated chamber with a new septum. The camerae increase in number from around four at the moment of hatching to thirty or more in adults.

Image: Copyright Jan McCartney 2012 All rights reserved.


The Monoliths

Zombie faces don’t scare me, but the Monolith, with its mindless determination and relentless advance, makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The stuff of dreams, and there is no escape. The stuff of reality as well.

2011 – A Space Odyssey: In the most literal narrative sense, the Monolith is a tool, an artifact of an alien civilization. It comes in many sizes and appears in many places, always with the purpose of advancing intelligent life. Arthur C. Clarke has referred to it as “the alien Swiss Army Knife”; or as Heywood Floyd speculates, “an emissary for an intelligence beyond ours. A shape of some kind for something that has no shape.”

(thanks, Wikipedia!)

Image: Monoliths, © Jan McCartney, 2011

Wabi Sabi

Decaying Sunflower
Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty  in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came.

Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It’s a richly mellow beauty that’s striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time – the difference between kirei – merely “pretty”- and omoshiroi, the interestingness that kicks something into the realm of beautiful.

It’s the peace found in a moss garden, the musty smell of geraniums, the astringent taste of powdered green tea, an old memory of my hometown.

Gothenburg GardenDaisetz T. Suzuki, who was one of Japan’s foremost English-speaking authorities on Zen Buddhism and one of the first scholars to interpret Japanese culture for Westerners, described wabi-sabi as “an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty.” He was referring to poverty not as we in the West interpret (and fear) it but in the more romantic sense of removing the huge weight of material concerns from our lives. “Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau,” he wrote, “and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.”

Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquility, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature.

Sabi by itself means “the bloom of time.” It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust-the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace: the chilly mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegant withering of a bereft autumn bough.

There’s an aching poetry in things that carry this patina.

More at What is Wabi Sabi
Sunflower image: Jazz Green
Garden image: Gothenburg, Sweden

Le Flâneur: Paris at Night in 2,000 Photographs

The elegance of Paris is captured in a stunning time-lapse video by Luke Shepard, a student at The American University of Paris.

The undergraduate student’s two-minute video titled Le Flâneur has gone viral since the Boston-native posted it on the popular video networking site Vimeo earlier this year.

The video is composed of 2,000 photographs which Shepard, 21, shot at night and in the early hours while roaming the French capital. Over the course of a few months, Shepard snapped photo after photo with his trusty Nikon D90 camera strapped to a tripod to prevent any unnecessary movement.

The video is set to the song Intro by The xx, an English indie pop band.

“Ever since I’ve been in Paris I’ve been wandering the streets at night either by bike or by foot,” Shepard told the Toronto Star.

“There is a very eerie feeling about it (at night). I wanted to tell its story through pictures.”

Excerpted from the Toronto Star, May 5, 2011.

Interview with Luke Shepard.

Hector Guimard and the Place Victoria Metro

Alex Park Metro

The Polaroid has, for many, allowed an image to be viewed a minute after it was captured. Polaroids are the basis of the work of photographer, Alex Park, whose altered Polaroid of the Paris metro is the subject here. His technique aims to rearrange and reveal what the original images.

To modify his Polaroid photos, he uses a sharp object to impress and accentuate different aspects of the image. The result is like an image submerged in water or viewed through a kaleidoscope.

In Paris, Park has found an ideal playground to express his vision.

Guimard metro

One of the finest pieces of the metro’s art collection, this graceful Art Nouveau portico was donated by the Parisian transit authority, to the Montreal metro in 1967 to commemorate their collaboration in designing the metro. Its instantly recognizable green cast iron form, with its shield-shaped medallions, delicately curved sign holders, and lily-of-the-valley light standards with orange tear drop-shaped lamps are a centrepiece of Place Victoria and the Quartier International.

Montreal’s Guimard is the only authentic example of these world-famous works in use on a metro station outside Paris. Since the entrances are modular, it was composed of pieces of demolished Guimards from Paris metro stations. However, the holders for the Métropolitain sign, the neighbourhood map on the entrance’s rear, and the light globes are reproductions added during the entrance’s complete restoration in 2001-2003.

Victoria Station Montreal metro

The Place Victoria metro is the inspiration for my realization of an art nouveau necklace designed by Kathy Domokos.

Kathy Domokos Art Nouveau Necklace

More about the Montreal Metro

Mirvish Books Leaves the Village

Mirvish Books

David Mirvish Books is closing its doors after more than three decades as one of Toronto’s premier spots for art, design and photography books.

The bookstore has been stitched into the fabric of the Bloor and Markham Sts. area since 1974. David Mirvish opened the store as a part of the Mirvish Gallery, which showcased the work of colour field sculptors, painters and abstract artists. In the heart of one of Toronto’s Victorian-style neighbourhoods, the establishment became a landmark in the Mirvish Village.

Store manager Eleanor Johnston said the doors will close Feb. 28.

“We are moving all of the inventory online. We’re not going to be like Amazon, that just lists everything. We will only list things that we have. It’s just another part of the world of selling retail. This is the transition that we’re taking. We’re not doing it with an aim of saying this is a better business concept.”

Frances Wood, the co-owner of Southern Accent, a restaurant across from the bookstore, said losing the 34-year-old establishment will change the face of the Village forever.

Mirvish Books is not the first independent bookstore to close in the area recently. Ballenford Books, specializing in books on architecture, on Markham St. just two doors away from Mirvish, closed last year after 29 years.

Mirvish’s closing has left some customers asking what will happen to the 50-foot-long painting by Frank Stella that dominates the store’s interior. “We don’t have any plans to do anything with it,” said Johnston.

For customers like Tracy Dalglish, who has been coming to the store since it opened, losing the building will end the romantic experience of visiting the store. Dalglish remembers visiting with her father as a 13-year-old in the late ’70s.

“I would come down with my dad for the Boxing Day sales,” she said about her trips from Rosedale to the store. “I found my love of books in this store with my dad. It’s sad when you see places you love disappear.”

Susan Warner Keene was a curious student in her mid 20s at the Ontario College of Art when she discovered the store in 1974. She has been coming ever since. She said it was the most beautiful physical space any bookstore in Toronto had to offer back then. She finds inspiration for her work with hand papermaking from reading a variety of books the store offers.

“I’ve found books here that have been tremendously helpful in my own work,” she said at the store yesterday.

“It’s probably my favourite bookstore, so it will be very sad to lose it.”

In Pursuit of Happiness


There are people who feel compelled to leave the place where they were born and the culture in which they were raised and go to Paris, where they find themselves.

The mere act of going through the motions in another city, in another language, can be a distraction from the mundane. In Paris, every errand requires a new vocabulary, words one would never come across in Molière or Baudelaire: tournevis, crochet, marteau for a trip to the hardware store; tache, doublure, before heading off to the dry cleaner.

But the truth is, Paris also takes one’s mind off troubles in unforeseen ways. Everywhere, something urges you to pay attention: a taste, a smell, some subtle flourish that a person trudging through life might otherwise miss.

From a walk-up apartment half a block from the Seine, you might listen through open windows on a summer night to the chamber-music concerts across the street at the Musée de la Monnaie, with Mozart’s ripe harmonies carried upward on the dense, warm air. Going on midnight, the noise of the traffic might be interrupted by lurching, bleating oom-pah-pah renditions of popular standards as the Fanfare des Beaux-Arts, a marching band of students from the school of architecture, snaked its way through the narrow streets, its gusto fueled by wine.

Shopping for groceries, you might bring home fraises des bois, plump figs from Turkey, and yogurt made from goat’s milk. At the bakery on the corner, you might discover congolais—haystacks of pure, intense coconut or, if it is Christmastime, crystalline marrons glacés. In the Luxembourg Gardens, you might see children sailing their boats in the fountain or, in October, watch a parade of citrus trees in their jardinières, being taken to the Orangerie, where they will sit out the winter.

Many of us in North America share the middle-class values instilled in our parents by their parents: diligence, discipline, thrift, and a particularly Calvinist delight in the virtues of self-denial. Work is every upstanding person’s reason for being, and pleasure and leisure are the rewards for a job well done. From this austere outlook, we might conclude that the self is to be constantly policed and kept in check.

Spending time with the French allows us to loosen our iron grip. We envy their capacity for moderation, and realize for the first time that pleasure makes moderation possible. We begin to build little treats into the day: a walk along a street we love, 20 minutes with a book in the Tuileries on the way to an appointment; a late-night glass of Champagne at a café; Poilâne’s walnut bread for breakfast. Where we might consider flowers a reckless indulgence, except for Mother’s Day, in Paris, no vase ever goes empty.

The French know that pleasure is something to be discovered, there for the taking, and something to be cultivated. Its pursuit, as it turns out, is not a mindless slide into debauchery but a science, rigorous and exacting, discriminating between the merely good and the sublime. The thing about pleasure is that it immerses you in the moment. The present becomes more compelling than the future or the past. There is no better cure for heartache.

Having spent time there, could one ever be happy living anywhere else? That’s not the lesson.

Because in the course of learning to love the city and its inhabitants,  one also learns to savour the texture of everyday life, in Paris or anywhere.

Sacre Coeur Dufy

Adapted from Holly Bruback, Gourmet, September 2008

Image: Arnaud Frich, Montmartre

Image: Eglise St Pierre et Sacré-Coeur par Jean Dufy