By Annmarie Adams and Tanya Southcott, McGill University
Architect, planner, educator, and author, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel (b. 1923) has been a leading figure in modern architecture for nearly sixty years. In 1957, she and her husband, H.P. Daniel (Sandy) van Ginkel (1920–2009), co-founded in Montreal their architecture and planning practice, van Ginkel Associates, a firm that became known for bold, modernist design and a sensitive approach to urban planning. With a steadfast focus on circulation, the firm campaigned for the conservation of historic districts, sustainable solutions, and pedestrian-friendly environments long before these concerns became popular.
Early Life and Education
Blanche Lemco was born in London, England, in 1923. At age thirteen, she moved with her mother and siblings to Montreal, Canada. Her father had been in the garment industry in England, where he owned a small factory, and both her parents were actively interested in the arts. At first, she favored stage design as a profession, but owing to limited opportunities for theater education in Montreal in the early 1940s, she chose to pursue architecture instead, drawn to its potential to change the world.
In 1940, she enrolled in McGill University with a scholarship. She was one of the first women students admitted to McGill’s School of Architecture, and there she found a role model in Catherine Chard Wisnicki, the school’s first female student and first female graduate (in 1943); Wisnicki, in overcoming the many obstacles and general ill will toward women, exemplified the strength and commitment of the early female pioneers in McGill’s architecture program.11As stated by van Ginkel in an interview with Margaret Emily Hodges, January 2, 2003, cited in Hodges, “Blanche Lemco van Ginkel and H. P. Daniel van Ginkel: Urban Planning” (Ph.D. diss., McGill University, 2004), 23–24. Women had not been admitted to the program until after Ramsay Traquair, its director since 1913—who had opposed the additional expense and distraction of accommodating women in the studios—stepped down in 1939. Two years later, John Bland replaced the interim acting director, Philip Turner, and promoted the admission of women as part of his vision for a modern professional school.22Annmarie Adams, “’Archi-ettes’ in Training: The Admission of Women to McGill’s School of Architecture,” SSAC Bulletin, 21, no. 3 (September 1996): 72. Van Ginkel graduated from the School of Architecture in 1945 with a bachelor of architecture degree and several prestigious student awards. She continued her education at Harvard University, obtaining a master’s degree in city planning in 1950.
After graduating from McGill University, van Ginkel worked in municipal planning in Windsor, Quebec (1945), and in Regina, Saskatchewan (1946); in architecture for William Crabtree in London (1947); for Le Corbusier in Paris (1948); and for Mayerovitch and Bernstein in Montreal (1950–51). While working in Le Corbusier’s atelier, one of her projects was the rooftop terrace of the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France, in particular the two iconic concrete ventilator stacks and the nursery. She recalled the experience with humor and clarity nearly seventy years later:
I designed the form of the ventilators (which appeared on initial sketches as a single column), proposing a trefoil plan because I was told by the engineers that there were three extractor fans. When I showed this to Le Corbusier, explaining my proposal, he said. ‘You young people are such purists.’ I refrained from saying, ‘Where do you think we learned that?’ However, my initial drawing proposed that the ventilators be modestly splayed, which would have been more descriptive of exhaling.33Van Ginkel, e-mail to Mary McLeod, February 2, 2016.
The design for the rooftop, modeled on a town square, made use of van Ginkel’s urban design education: “I designed the children’s play area and the high parapet around the running track/edge of the roof. The idea was that the roof was like the square of a small town, with its usual facilities, and that one saw the Alpes Maritimes in the distance as one would over the house roofs. This is why the parapet is relatively high.”44Ibid. In Le Corbusier’s office, she met several influential architects and planners, including Georges Candilis, Shadrach Woods, Jerzy Soltan, and André Wogenscky, an experience that informed her later involvement in the Congrés Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM).
In 1951, van Ginkel moved to Philadelphia, where she practiced architecture and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. There, with her colleagues Siasia Nowicki and Robert Geddes, she initiated the Philadelphia CIAM Group for Architectural Investigation (GAI). Van Ginkel represented the group at CIAM 9 Aix-en-Provence in 1953 and at CIAM 10 Dubrovnik in 1956. Geddes recalled:
We were a very collegial group, and we undertook to send something of our work to the Aix-en-Provence conference—I think it was 1953 and we also presented work at the 1957 conference in Dubrovnik. . . . In the first go-around, using the CIAM grid, we analyzed the new community of Levittown that was under construction in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, an analysis using the nomenclature and the colors of the CIAM grid. And then at the ’57 conference, we did a proposed redesign using essentially the same quantitative figures, but giving it a different social form and physical form.55Robert Geddes, telephone interview with the author, July 30, 2014.
From 1951 to 1957, van Ginkel taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where she, Nowicki, and Geddes were the first full-time appointments made by G. Holmes Perkins, dean of the School of Fine Arts. Perkins knew van Ginkel at Harvard during the late 1940s, when she was one of his graduate students in city planning and he was director of the department.66Van Ginkel to Hodges, June 4, 2003, in Hodges, “Van Ginkel: Urban Planning,” 2004, 18. “My time at Penn was an important experience for me,” says van Ginkel today. When Perkins became dean of the School of Fine Arts, he started a city planning department there, instituting a new curriculum based on the one at Harvard. Van Ginkel was an assistant professor at Penn, responsible for third-year students under Perkins’s reforms, and recalls that “it still was unusual for a woman to teach in architecture. I do appreciate that they treated me with courtesy and apparent respect. I did have initial minor problems with the students. Some were my age, or older, since they were army veterans; and I had a funny accent and spelled words incorrectly/Canadian when I wrote on the blackboard.”77Van Ginkel, e-mail to Mary McLeod, February 2, 2016. Looking back today, she points to the mentorship of first-year instructor Nowicki as “an enormous help,” and notes “that Siasia Nowicki has been too little recognized for her influence both on the students and on the mode of teaching itself.”88Ibid. Her colleague Geddes remembers that “in those days, there was a good sense of collaboration between city planning and architecture.”99Robert Geddes, telephone interview with the author, July 30, 2014.
She taught at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 1958, 1971, and 1975 with Josep Lluis Sert, the GSD’s dean from 1953 to 1969. In Montreal, she developed the first courses in urban design at the Université de Montréal (1961–67 and 1969–70) and at McGill University (1971–77). Van Ginkel joined the faculty of the University of Toronto in 1977, becoming its dean after a tumultuous chapter in its history, and continued to teach there until 1993. For four decades, she was active in architecture education organizations across North America, serving on accreditation committees and on the board of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), and was president of the ACSA in 1986–87.
Van Ginkel Associates
Van Ginkel’s career is closely linked to that of her husband, Sandy van Ginkel, whom she met in 1953 at CIAM 9 in Aix-en-Provence, where they were both involved in the early discussions that would lead to the formation of Team 10. They married in 1956, and in 1957, they formed a professional partnership, van Ginkel Associates, opening an office at 4270 Western Avenue (now Boulevard de Maisonneuve) in Montreal. The practice operated in Winnipeg from 1966 to 1968 and moved to Toronto in 1977.
Her architecture and urban planning are marked by a deep social purpose and a desire to produce comfortable modern environments, emphasizing cultural and collective values. As she has stated, “Architecture is a cultural pursuit and those who practice it, or are allowed to practice it, reflect our culture, our mores, our attitudes, in Canada as elsewhere.”1010Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, “Slowly and Surely (and Somewhat Painfully): More or Less the History of Women in Architecture in Canada,” SSAC Bulletin, 17, no. 1 (March 1991): 17. Drawn to urban planning by its newness, van Ginkel imagined that it might be more open to women. Her collaborations with Sandy van Ginkel on architecture and urban planning projects manifest an early interest and expertise in designing for urban traffic patterns. The van Ginkels are credited with saving Old Montreal, one of North America’s most successful heritage districts, by running an urban expressway under the neighborhood rather than following the original plan of building it at ground level and destroying its cobblestone streets. The success of that project led to the founding of urban planning as a profession in Canada, when she co-authored legislation for the first Quebec Provincial Planning Commission in 1963–67. The firm’s other major projects include the design of Bowring Park in St. John’s, Newfoundland (1958–65), which they presented at the last CIAM conference in Otterlo, Holland, in 1959; the preliminary plan in 1962 for Montreal’s Expo ’67; the preservation of Montreal’s Mount Royal, saving it from urban development; and a study of urban circulation in midtown Manhattan in 1970–72. The van Ginkels’ emphasis on pedestrian movement and on public transportation anticipated the environmental movement by at least a decade. A particularly interesting outcome of the Manhattan study was the “Ginkelvan,” a hybrid-electric minibus intended to alleviate congestion in the United States’ largest city. The prototype, designed by Sandy van Ginkel, was later purchased by the city of Vail, Colorado. Its bright orange color alluded to modernism’s focus on bold colors, as well as the pop sensibilities of the era.
Film and filmmaking were especially important in van Ginkel’s career: she frequently used film and exhibitions to communicate research results and design ideas. During World War II, she worked at the National Film Board of Canada; and while living in Philadelphia in the 1950s, she wrote a film, “It Can Be Done,” sponsored by the International Co-operation Administration (I.C.A), a branch of the U.S. State Department. In 1956, she presented it at the International Federation of Housing and Town Planning Congress in Vienna, where it won an award. During the 1960s, she was involved in organizing the Montreal International Film Festival and the Winnipeg Film Society.
Belying her petite frame and polite British manner, van Ginkel is a giant among modernist planners of the 1960s. She achieved a number of firsts (or near firsts) as a woman in the architecture profession: She was the first woman to serve as a dean of an architecture school in North America; the first woman to be elected a fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC); the first Canadian and first woman to be elected president of the ACSA; the first woman to teach at the University of Pennsylvania (with Siasia Nowicki); the first woman elected to the council of the Town Planning Institute of Canada; and the first woman architect elected as a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. She has also helped disseminate information about the history of Canadian women architects through her published articles on the topic and by speaking openly about her own experiences, as, for example, when she attributed the rarity of women students in Canada in the 1940s “to the social climate of Quebec, where my mother could not sign a contract and where women were disenfranchised until 1940.”1111Ibid., 15. In 1986, she co-curated an important exhibition, “For the Record: Ontario Women Graduates in Architecture, 1920–60,” at the University of Toronto School of Architecture; the records of that exhibition were donated to Virginia Tech’s International Archive of Women in Architecture (established 1985).
Van Ginkel has a quick wit and a sharp intellect, and is also quick to point to women’s accomplishments as architects as being more significant than their gender; as she said in 1991, “Numbers are not all, and distinction in the profession is more important.”1212Ibid., 17.