99% Oblivious

One of the podcasts to which I subscribe is called 99% Invisible – “a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” Each episode covers an aspect of design that someone outside the industry just wouldn’t usually think about – for example, how architects incorporate acoustic design into large public buildings. The show’s very well made, and believe me, I need all the help I can get in this arena because, as indicated by the title of this post, I really just don’t usually notice this kind of thing.

Case in point: while I was living in Glasgow, my sister came to see me and we decided to visit the famous School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Everyone told us that we should definitely take the official tour, led by students at the school; however, we arrived about 45 minutes early and wandered around a bit by ourselves first. The building’s absolutely gorgeous and we thought we were being appropriately observant and appreciative, but apparently we weren’t even close. When the tour started, the guide pointed out the building’s recurring theme, which is symbolic of the growth and maturation of the school’s students as they progress through their education: there are acorn motifs built into many different aspects of the design of the entrance hall, sapling and leaf bud motifs in the corridors, and the gnarled wood of the bannisters in the library represents the roots and branches of mature trees. There were some other features we’d never have noticed by ourselves in a million years, such as the use of light: some of the windows were designed to cast squares of light onto the wall that are the exact shape and size of other built-in features of the room, or that complement the patterns on the floor. It was amazing, and humbling; we hadn’t been thinking about the building’s design at the right level, or even in the right way.

Well, this week I learned that I’ve been similarly oblivious to the less subtle theme behind the design of a building I thought I knew extremely well: the building in which I work. I’ve been in my current job for eight months now and worked in the same building for two and a half years from 2005 to 2007; I went to dozens of meetings there in the intervening years, too. But when my team was treated to the public tour of the building on Monday*, I learned that I’d somehow managed to completely miss the Pacific Northwest theme that graces our hallowed halls.

Now, I had at least spotted these three massive yellow cedar poles, but had not quite grasped their symbolism. They represent the trees of the local forests, rather effin’ obviously now that I think about it!


The green glass bench, one of many similar features in the building, represents our lovely lakes. I’m less embarrassed about not noticing this – half the city of Vancouver’s made of green glass, so you sort of stop noticing it.

Less obviously, the pattern of tiles on the floor represents a meandering stream or river bed:


(note more cedar and green glass in the elevators)

The fact that the ceiling of the lobby area is deliberately grey, to represent our often cloudy skies, is something I feel no shame at all in not noticing; the walls of the lobby stretch upwards to the height of two large lab floors, and the ceiling is therefore so far above you when you come in that I’d never even thought to look up.

The one feature that we all felt absolute idiots for not noticing, though, is the mountain motif on the walls of the lobby:


D’OH! Oh well, at least no-one else noticed this design that’s been staring us in the face every time we enter the building for years, either…

The other cool thing we learned on the tour is that we apparently have a ghost! A poltergeist, to be specific – and one that hates all the glass, symbolic or no. I didn’t know this, but the lovely old house (now a coffee shop) that sits right in front of our very modern-looking green glass building actually used to be where we are now, and was moved over to make way for the new development.


The story goes that the ghost that lived in the house was extremely unhappy about this turn of events, and took out its wrath on all the glass in its new home. Apparently the long curved glass top of the ground floor reception desk shattered for absolutely no reason one night – there’s CCTV footage of it breaking with no-one anywhere near it and with no seismic activity reported in the area. The architects and engineers were said to be completely baffled. Similarly, it took multiple attempts to finish the lunch room on the fifth floor, because the freshly-installed windows kept shattering and/or popping out of their frames – again, for no reason the architects and engineers could discern.

It’s a cool story, and led to much amusement on the tour. The first couple of times the tour guide asked if there were any questions, the response was “tell us more about the ghost!” or just “MOAR GHOST STORIES!!!!”

Sadly, though, the ghost has always been 100% invisible…


*Some people had never had an official tour, and others had, but a long time ago. It was actually really cool to see the facility the way it’s presented to donors and collaborators – we got a mix of both types of tour – and to learn what kinds of questions both groups ask the Operations Manager, who acts as the guide. Apparently donors mostly ask how much the various machines that go “ping!” cost, and are always flabbergasted at the response!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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10 Responses to 99% Oblivious

  1. Anthony says:

    Hah.. that’s funny – while I was at that building, the mountain/stream/tree lobby was one of my favourite features of it. I have no idea who pointed it out to me, but it was relatively early on. \

    I hadn’t, however, heard of the ghost story. It’s amazing how much you don’t see until after you’ve already moved on…

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    When you were in Glasgow did you also visit the Mackintosh House, which is part of the University’s Hunterian Museum and consists of reassembled interiors from the house that Charles and Margaret lived in from 1906 to 1914?

  3. chall says:

    It makes you really see things more in general after the tour, doesn’t it? I love it! Although, I’d admit hating that mini-moment when I feel like a complete fool for not seeing “the obvious” before it is pointed out to me.

    THe building is gorgeous. On a side note, another building that is made with care like that is on UBC campus, the forrest building (I think it’s called that). It’s a lot of wood and moss and connects to the “forrests surrounding BC and what will be studied inside the building”.

  4. Anthony says:

    The building on campus is the Forestry building – which also, incidentally, has an interesting hungarian gate outside, which is because the forestry department was largy built when UBC more or less took the entire forestry department of Szeged university after the Hungarian revolution.

    Anyhow, it is an incredible building, and well worth checking out. I’d also mention that other forestry buildings on UBC campus are pretty impressive, although in a less grandiose style. I worked in the Forintek building (Forestry Industry technology partnership building), which has a fantastic library and lobby as well in much the same style.

  5. Surely, nothing but a ghost could sit on those glass benches, they are beautiful and terrifying.
    The river bed floor is stunning, a summer afternoon with sunlight dappled through the trees, glinting on the water.
    Sadly I didn’t ‘discover’ Mackintosh until after we had moved from Scotland…

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  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I forgot to mention that the front door has recently started to occasionally open all by itself, either when you swipe your access card as you’re coming in or as you approach it from the inside when you’re going out. Not all the time, and there’s no correlation with time of day or how many people you’re with. We’ve decided that this is the ghost, and I will admit that if the door opens automatically for me when I’m by myself, I say “thank you!”

    It always pays to be polite to the resident phantom.

    Anthony, I wonder if anyone’s ever noticed it by themselves, without any prompting?

    Laurence, I didn’t go while I lived there, but I went back a couple of years later because two of my friends were getting married (to each other) there! It’s a gorgeous building too – very different from the art school though.

    Chall, at least I wasn’t the only one who felt like a complete fool! I have subsequently pointed out the theme to someone who wasn’t on the tour, and she had the same reaction too!

    I will definitely check out the UBC Forestry buildings. I’m usually lost and/or on deadline when I’m up there, so maybe it’s time for a more leisurely visit!

    UHDD, the benches are actually sturdier than they look! They support my weight, anyway 🙂

  8. Bob O'H says:

    A few years ago I went on a tour of the architecture of the University of Helsinki. The most memorable part of it, though, was having a paper about testicondy in elephants and mammoths thrust into my hands.

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