Father Abraham

At the tiny hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant around the corner from his Point Grey house, Abraham Rogatnick needs no introduction. He is a regular, with his table, his chair. On a sunny afternoon not long ago the owner looked up as he came through the door. She smiled sweetly with a tiny bow of the head, disappeared into the back, and quietly returned with the Yellow Pages for him to sit on.

Rogatnick is an elfin man. Wearing a neatly knotted black tie and white shirt under a red sweater, he could be Billy Crystal’s dad. His face rings a bell, the way character actors’ faces do, though you can’t be sure where you’ve seen them. In Rogatnick’s case, it could have been the crime drama Just Cause, in which he played a nutty old judge on a couple of episodes. Since he broke into acting around 1998, at age 74—propelled by a love for the language of Shakespeare, and with a little more time on his hands at last—he has been steered by his agent away from the stage and into movie and TV roles, more Lear than Romeo.

“I’ve played old men,” he said. “Usually dying old men.”

It occurred to him, as he worked on his chicken soup, that he’d eaten here for four consecutive days, with a different companion each time. Though he retired from the architecture department at UBC in 1985, academics and artists and former students seek him out. Something about him invites questions.

His face registered his pleasure with the soup. “It’s so good today,” he said. “It’s better than it has been for a long time. It must be a new batch.” It was the soup of the day, the soup of the place. If you tried to take it home it wouldn’t be the same soup. He lingered over it. “I eat very slowly,” he said. “I just can’t swallow as fast as everyone else.”

There are people who visibly wield power. And then there are the people who quietly prop them up. Sometimes the backroom partners emerge with a bit of a profile of their own—Raymond Carver’s editor, Helen Keller’s teacher, George W. Bush’s pastor—but more often they don’t. Influence that isn’t particularly interested in fame can easily stay hidden. It’s a different kind of power, exerted by sitting on design panels or crafting inspirational lectures that ignite promising students or eating dinner with men who buy ink by the barrel—but it’s vital to the forward movement of the culture.

Abraham Rogatnick (“Abe” is reserved for his oldest friends) is an architect, a historian, a professor, a public intellectual. Newspaper reporters sometimes reach for goofy catchall phrases like “octogenarian livewire” to describe him because no single label captures him.

Behold Abraham Jedidiah Rogatnick. Who trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design under the directorship of Walter Gropius—the Bauhaus founder and one of the pioneers of modern architecture. Who popped into town in the fall of 1955 for a quick visit and was welcomed by the arts community the way a drowner welcomes a floating barrel, and just never left. Who pretty much explained modern-art to Vancouver—after opening the doors to one of the first contemporary art galleries in Canada. (This was six weeks after arriving.) Who helped create what became the Arts Club Theatre, and was parachuted in to restore stability to the Vancouver Art Gallery after its Watergate in 1974. Who invented a “studies abroad” program for architecture students, so they could live in some of the world’s great cities. (When you leave home, as the poet said, you see your own home.) Who chose a water-squeezed tourist mecca for the first platoon of outgoing UBC architecture students—and became one of the world’s foremost authorities on Venice. (That there are plenty of lessons Vancouver can learn from Venice has been one of his chief preoccupations.) Who walked its streets with Buckminster Fuller and Louis Kahn, as their interpreter. Who may have covered more of Vancouver on foot than anyone else alive. Who hiked the Chilkoot Trail with Pierre Berton. Who met Bill Reid when Reid had only recently learned he had some Haida blood in him (and so was phasing out of a career as a CBC broadcaster to explore his roots in art). Who would stand at the intersection of a sample of some of Vancouver’s most important architects and painters of the last century: the landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, architects Arthur Erickson and Ned Pratt and Ron Thom and Barry Downs and Fred Hollingsworth, painters Bert Binning and Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith. Who was present at the birth of West Coast modernism—the closest we have come to an indigenous art movement—and managed to keep his eye on the ball as a new bunch of artists emerged to put Vancouver on the map again. (He remains good friends with Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, Attila Richard Lukacs.) Who is one of a very few men in this city who can get away with wearing a cape. Who tipped the last Vancouver mayoral election. And who claims to be puzzled that people think he’s worth writing about.

OUR IMPACT ON OUR COMMUNITY is hard to quantify or observe—except when it isn’t.

The New Design Gallery, which Rogatnick and his long-time partner, the late Alvin Balkind, ginned up in the adjoining suites of the $75-a-month apartment they’d found in West Van, was an accidental milestone. By rights it should never have happened here. Rogatnick and Balkind—having driven westward in a Volkswagen from Boston—were bound for then-booming Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, and only poked up this way to visit a friend from college, who turned out to be away. Instead, they met the friend’s business partner, Arthur Erickson. The gallery they started did something hugely significant. It gave talented avant-garde artists a place to show their work. In the bargain, it helped pull a barely post-frontier hick town into the 20th century. (“It seems impossible to think this now,” said Scott Watson, director/curator of the Belkin Art Gallery at UBC, “but that gallery introduced the notion that a middle-class person might hang a contemporary painting in their house.”) The art critic John Bentley Mays, in a 1992 obituary of the brilliant and sardonic curator Balkind, gave the NDG a place in Canadian history—crediting it with boosting the careers of Shadbolt, Iain Baxter, Roy Kiyooka, Toni Onley, and Joe Plaskett, among others. For 10 years it would stand as the only commercial gallery in Vancouver devoted to contemporary art. And so, in a city whose cultural poverty was, weirdly, its great strength—in a vacuum, interesting things grow—the gallery threw open the doors to the great modernist experiment that had been thriving in Europe and beyond for decades. Modernism caught fire here as in no other Canadian city, with art and design that said: This place.

Think of those spores from the art world scattering. In the meantime, Rogatnick was hired by UBC’s architecture school as a professor of history of art and design. At that moment he became part of a brain trust that had more impact on the making of modern-day Vancouver than anything before or since. The UBC architecture school is given credit for sparking the development of modern Gastown. For creating modern-day Granville Island and southern False Creek. For stopping a freeway that was going to slice through Chinatown. For saving the Birks Building. (Faculty and students paraded through the city with coffins and black robes.)

Those are big, obvious legacies. But lasting influence is often subtler. Rogatnick’s most significant impact may well have been as a teacher. At UBC, where his almost 30-year tenure was distinguished by the size of his thoughts (as a historian, said an early student, Paul Merrick, “he understood better than all of us how man had come to settle the planet and why he built cities the way he had”), Rogatnick developed his own style. He thought of his lectures as “productions.” In the early morning he would visit the university’s slide library and choose images to create a visual banquet for each class. He’d pick a piece of classical music from the period of that day’s lecture, which the students would hear as they filed in. (None of this was accidental. His Harvard undergraduate degree was in psychology, and he took an interest in how the senses interact. When Vivaldi has just rolled around in your brain pan, he’s convinced, you learn differently.) And then, as the Vancouver writer Sean Rossiter once put it, he would “waltz into the lecture theatre like a smaller, more balletic Kramer, often surfing down the inclined, waxed aisle to the lectern.” On he would go, deploying what UBC architecture professor emeritus Andrew Gruft calls his native “teaching personality.”

Fuelled by memories of dry lectures at Harvard, he’d vowed to be the opposite kind of instructor. “All I wanted was to get them interested in the subject, and then they will go out and study it themselves.” He gave the administration agita by going off-book.

“I quit giving final exams,” he said. “Instead, there were two things they’d be graded on. They had to make a model of something: a building or a piece of furniture of the period we were talking about. You can’t do a model unless you know every detail: that was my little trick.” He would set up the second requirement with a little fireside chat. “When you finish with this course there are many things that will happen. You’ll be a citizen and will have to vote on things that should or shouldn’t be done. You may go further: you may teach this course to others. You may become an architect. Therefore, you will write a textbook.” Sometimes students turned in a leaflet, sometimes a phone book. “If it was full of things I didn’t know, they got an A.”

“I remember once an entire exam—this was in the days before he’d abandoned exams—was one question,” said Bing Thom, the architect who would go on to design the Chan Centre at UBC and SFU’s Central City campus in Surrey. “The question was this: ‘If you had to do something to the Vancouver courthouse, what would you do?’ I said it should become an art gallery.” Many years later Thom was appointed project director for Arthur Erickson’s Robson Square development. He dusted off his idea and sold it with the tag line “Take the art gallery to court!” “Abe always talked about the importance of the public realm: the public space, the street edge,” said Thom. “The street as the living room of the city. He taught us what urbanity meant.”

“I could show you places all over the city where the themes and ideas Abe promoted found their way onto the ground,” said Larry Beasley, the former head city planner. The evidence, he said, is in the easy-to-miss spaces, the vest-pocket parks dotted about in the urban core. It’s in the tiny strips of residential housing, like Mole Hill, that hang tough among the towers of the West End. Architecturally, Vancouver has never tried to sneak into global consciousness with a fake ID, acting other than its age. “We’ve gone with an architecture true to our time—the modern, the contemporary,” said Beasley. But without aping an Old Europe look, “we’re developing a city that Europeans find comfortable, just viscerally,” Beasley said. “The relationships between buildings and the street are becoming more like they’re accustomed to, and that’s part of Abe’s contribution.” (That last part, Rogatnick believes, is absurd—and overflatters the city. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from Europe, he admits; he just doesn’t think we’ve learned them yet.)

The story of a city, the life of a city, is in the details. “I remember walking back from the studio in Venice with Abe once. It took us two-and-a-half hours to make a hundred metres,” recalled Ron Walkey, a former UBC colleague and part of the “Gang of Four” of professor-friends who each specialized in one great world city. (Walkey’s was Athens.) “He would point out every single thing: ‘What are these things coming out of the building? Could they be for flags? Look at the people coming out of that café!’ The intensity of the small details of interaction was unbelievable.”

SIX YEARS AGO AT THE WESTERN FRONT—a local artist-run collective that owes a lot to the early influence of Abe and Alvin’s gallery—honoured Rogatnick with a roast. It turned out to be a fairly gentle affair—more This Is Your Life than Friars Club. Midway through, a dignified, silver-haired woman made her way shakily to the lectern. Doris Shadbolt, an early promoter of Rogatnick in Vancouver and one of his great friends, shared a tale theretofore unheard in public.

“ At least 30 years ago,” she said, “Abe had the idea of a twinning event between Vancouver and Venice. It was to be an exchange on all levels: festivals, music performances, a prolonged and glorious happening. Part of it would be a major exhibition of works of art drawn from Venetian collections to be shown at the VAG.” After months of planning, Doris and Abe and Alvin travelled to Venice to meet with the minister of culture, in a centuries-old palazzo. They entered an anteroom delicately furnished with rococo-inspired frescoes, “images of courtiers and ladies in various stages of gallantry.”

They sat down. “I was as nervous as they come,” Shadbolt continued. “It was such an important moment. Abraham was sitting beside me. He reached into his pocket and took out a ballpoint pen. And then he began with great care and deliberation to draw a mustache on one of the courtiers on the wall.” She left a Jack Benny beat as the laughter crested and died down. “Here was this act of scorn for the officialdom of this city he loved so much.”

It was a surreal moment, in retrospect—not least because Doris Shadbolt had got a crucial detail wrong. It wasn’t Rogatnick who had drawn the mustache; it was his mischievous friend Giuseppe Mazzariol. (“I’d never do something like that!” Abe insisted.) But it sounded like something he’d be capable of, which was good enough for the delighted guests, who were dining out not on facts but on mythology.

Some of the loudest laughs came from the man sitting two seats to the left of Rogatnick, who had been carried up a long flight of wooden stairs in his wheelchair. Sam Sullivan and Rogatnick met at the opening of Simon Fraser University’s Wosk Centre for Dialogue in 2000, when Rogatnick spotted him across the room. “I went over and said, ‘Who are you and what do you do?’ He said, ‘I’m a city councillor.’ I was embarrassed because I had no idea.” Sullivan, who likes to surround himself with intellectuals and “cultural creatives” to keep the idea beds watered, had found a gem. “He came to realize I know a lot about a lot of things,” Rogatnick said. “And he had this curiosity. He wanted to learn: ‘Tell me about this and that.’ My whole life has been teaching. So when someone tells me, ‘Teach me,’ I can’t resist.”

Rogatnick and Sullivan became boon friends—dining together, klatching, travelling to Turin for the 2006 Olympics and, in January of this year, to Venice for an Abe-guided primer on urban planning. For the trip Rogatnick created a textbook called Venice for Sam: nine chapters on history and festivals and urban life. “I felt that I had a university course contracted into one week,” Sullivan said. “I kept saying to him, ‘Abraham, I am so lucky to be here with you.’ And he would say, ‘I can’t deny that.’ ”

In 2005 Rogatnick became, you might say, the hanging chad of the mayoral race. In one of the more startling defections of the campaign, Rogatnick, a friend and supporter of Jim Green and Larry Campbell, committed to Sullivan. He took out personal ads supporting Sullivan’s mayoral run, and contributed $25,000. During the campaign he was often seen by Sullivan’s side, over a shoulder, Yoda-like. His switch of allegiance may have bumped Sullivan over the top in a tight race. (Campbell, now a senator, has maintained his friendship with Rogatnick, but Green no longer speaks to him.)

Rogatnick has helped shape the mayor’s most important ideas. He encouraged Sullivan to create a mayoral campaign around discretionary density. (“EcoDensity” was the term Sullivan finally coined, and actually tried to patent.) He gave speeches, at Sullivan’s request, against a municipal system of wards—a concept that had been gaining ground. (The potential for chaos, Rogatnick reckons, is too high.) Harm reduction wasn’t an idea Rogatnick gave the mayor, but it was one he helped sell to Vancouver. Rogatnick became deeply conversant with the issue, and Sullivan invited him to speak before council about why supervised injection sites are a good idea. Rogatnick was at his oratorical best. “I think it’s the only time in the history of city council that a delegation from the public got a standing ovation by the chamber,” Sullivan recalled.

It seems a strange fit, this friendship. How could an old progressive (or so many assumed) find common cause with the top dog of a conservative slate? Rogatnick breathes the arts; he is, as one writer puts it, “a resistance fighter” for art. Sullivan is a cultured man himself, but his commitment to the arts as mayor is undistinguished. They are a generation and a half apart. When the golden age of West Coast modernism was breaking, Sullivan was just mastering solid food. When the latter-day Sam was “born”—pulling out of a depression after a skiing accident and pledging to live and make a difference—Rogatnick had already retired.

But there are ways it does make sense. The two share an affinity for languages (Abe helped Sam with his Italian), and Sullivan boasts a rangy intellect of his own, a fierce self-reliance, and personal politics that are hard to pin down. “He’s a curious paradox,” Rogatnick has said of the mayor. Sullivan, with his progressively compassionate thinking about addiction and homelessness married to hard-core bottom-line thinking on development issues and a Giuliani-style commitment to sweeping crime and poverty out of view, is the kind of politician both liberals and conservatives can find reason to distance themselves from. Which is almost the definition of an iconoclast. And an irresistible draw to a freethinker. “There’s no other politician who has stimulated me that way intellectually in Vancouver,” Rogatnick has said of Sullivan.

Rogatnick is of course himself a walking suite of contradictions, a man “in love with complexity,” as Ron Walkey puts it, yet forever trying to boil things down to their pith. A proponent of no-idea-too-crazy brainstorming, yet a stickler for accuracy. A sensitive and fairly private man with a reputation as a bon vivant. An intellectual whose mercurial emotions frequently run away with him. (For all the clinical rationality of his beloved modernism, said the architect Paul Merrick, “I think Abe always operated more out of his belly than his head.”) “I guess I’m not a universalist—that’s my problem,” Rogatnick said. “I don’t think there’s one answer to any question.

“ I used to love certain students who, when I’d be talking about this or that, would interrupt and say, ‘Why is that important?’ It’s a great question!” For all the grief the hippie revolution of the ’60s brought down on “establishment” figures like university profs—it hammered the presumed authority of the architect—its great gift, Rogatnick says now, was that it forced that same kind of self-examination.

“ If you really can articulate why something is a good idea, and put it into strong words, and reconvince yourself that you were right in the first place, it’s wonderful. And just as important: you may discover you were wrong. You may realize you were just repeating something someone else told you.” Never be afraid to admit you are wrong: that’s one of the most important lessons he learned, he said, from Walter Gropius.

What’s the biggest thing Rogatnick himself has been wrong about?

He thought for 10 seconds. “God,” he said

ABRAHAM ROGATNICK IS AMONG what must be the very few who, in the middle of a war in full cry, lost God. In 1944, his unit was dispatched to the Belgian/German border to fight in what became the Battle of the Bulge. Grossly underarmed against the advance guard of the 12th SS Panzer division, Rogatnick with his comrades marched daily into direct fire. He managed to walk between the raindrops. At first, like everyone else, he prayed. And then, as the fighting continued, he stopped praying. “I think I realized that it either hits you and that’s it, or it doesn’t,” he said. “So praying is nonsense.”

To be persuaded by the philosophical principle of the scandal of particularity—the absurdity that God might favour your interests over the guy’s on the other side who’s praying just as hard—while mortars whistle past your ears takes a certain kind of mind.

That kind of mind can make for frustrating early encounters. “I’m a curmudgeon,” he told me, by way of introduction and warning, when we first spoke on the phone. It is hard to have a short conversation with him—at least a satisfying one. You detect something like disdain after the third or fourth heavy sigh. You feel as if you tried to snatch a pebble from the hand of a monk while he wasn’t looking. And then you realize it’s just part of the act. Rogatnick cannot resist being provocative, because people rise to their best when pressed. It’s in those moments that all kinds of things leak out, and most of them are interesting.

After the Chinese lunch, Rogatnick detoured us a little through his neighbourhood. We passed a yellow-and-blue home with a coach-house-like addition in the back yard. “Where there was one family there, now there are two,” Rogatnick said. “Same thing on this corner.” He scanned the street. “Doubled. Doubled. Doubled. Doubled.” We passed a house that was four metres wide. It looked like a book standing on end, on land that used to be somebody’s lawn. “Point Grey has been densifying under my eyes for 50 years, with the understanding, which I would say is parallel to the understanding that the Venetians have, of how you can do it and still keep its character. This street has become more and more beautiful. It just shows that even in the NIMBY-est neighbourhoods—and this is the NIMBY-est part of Vancouver—there are ways to do it.”

The rap against the West Side is that it isn’t shouldering its part of the needed densification of the city. Yet here was a street whose residents were doing it themselves. Because the promised changes to the zoning bylaws that make this sort of thing easy never seem to come. “I’ve been nagging Mayor

Sullivan for three years about this,” Rogatnick said. “I tell him, ‘These bylaws are wrong. Unless you change them we’ll never be able to densify the way you talk.’ ”

It doesn’t take a Scientologist’s E-Meter to detect, in Rogatnick, frustration at his waning influence on Cambie Street. What he loves most about Venice is the “little” city, the bustle of life in the little communal areas, the campi, which are strung like a necklace of oxygen bubbles and keep dense neighbourhoods habitable. In Vancouver the little city is getting overwhelmed. It thrives in certain pockets, like Commercial Drive, but it is death-rattling elsewhere. Rogatnick’s suggestions on how to stimulate it (designating one percent of a new development’s budget for public art is fine, he said, but what about credits to subsidize mom-and-pop grocery stores?) have landed like a tree in an unpeopled forest.

Rogatnick has forever preached restoration, pointed to Venice to show how it can be done practically and elegantly, showed how it can work in warehouses in Gastown (and, in theory, in old farmhouses in Richmond). But many see Vancouver turning away from a commitment to restoration in favour of a developer-driven teardown fever. In the last few years, a lot of ideas from City Hall that sounded laudable and progressive on paper have either been lost in the haze of fuzzy accounting (where is the promised social housing?) or failed to materialize outright. The betting keeps changing on which group will be thrown a proper lifeline—the urban poor or the middle class just trying to keep living here.

Larry Beasley loves Rogatnick’s mind, and twice hired him to give full-day workshops on the history of Vancouver to his staff. Brent Toderian, the new city planner, seems uninterested. “When he came in,” said Rogatnick, “he didn’t know who I was. He hadn’t bothered to find out how much I love this city and want it to develop and have devoted my life to it, and my money, and everything else. He brushed me off.”

If it’s true that he’s being tuned out, then this is a final irony. The timing couldn’t be worse. Rogatnick is almost 85: an old man. But never have his ideas about the “living room of the street” seemed so relevant as now, when city planners in Europe and South America are starting to think in terms of “maximizing the happiness” of individual citizens. As an environmental crisis looms, some of the first principles he studied and taught seem more on point than ever. “Early ideas of modernism,” as Ron Walkey said, “contain the seeds of contemporary sustainable development.

Now the mayoral race is starting to boil—as befits a moment with so much at stake. Rogatnick believes Sullivan deserves to take the NPA back into City Hall, but this time the mayor won’t have him to lean on. Nothing personal: it’s just that Rogatnick is, he claims, “too old and tired.” He has stepped off the stage, into the audience. It’s a clear perspective, new for him. He is all ears.