Recollections: Life and times at Ontario’s Site Planning Unit
TEXT BY JOHN HICKS, OALA, WITH THE ASSISTANCE OF GARRETT PITTENGER
Watching a TVO documentary featuring the work of the Group of Seven artists, I was reminded of the work we accomplished as landscape architects within the same Ontario northern landscapes. The staff of Ontario’s Site Planning Unit, centred in Maple, Ontario, were responsible for designing much of the fabric of Ontario’s provincial parks that we see today. The initiative to complete master plans, site plans, and design guidelines to improve and standardize Ontario’s provincial parklands was innovative within the Ministry of Natural Resources Park Branch.
The Site Planning Unit operated as a satellite office of the ministry, sending its landscape architects out into the field to survey and collect preliminary data that was taken back to the design office in Maple, Ontario. Our operating expenses, including salaries, were supported mainly by the ministry’s capital budget from 1971 to 1978. The budget was a healthy one, allowing flights to field locations in the northern sectors and sometimes lengthy stay-overs. The “home office” in Maple created an atmosphere of group critique and interaction—free from the managerial and political interference existing in the district or parliamentary offices. This setup provided the ideal atmosphere to develop park facility standards and design guidelines for the provincial parks of Ontario. It was a magnificent arena for interaction, and I loved working with associates who revelled in their work. We all enjoyed the natural parkland setting of the Maple Research Station, with its mature forest, its central trout steam (a tributary of the Don River which flowed right past our office), and our makeshift volleyball court. It soon became the “park planning school” for landscape architects in Ontario and a treasure trove for those of us fortunate enough to work there. Where else could one fish for trout, walk the trails of a mature forest, or play volleyball with one’s associates at lunch or on coffee breaks?
Ismet Olcay, our mentor and boss, was appointed in 1971 by Tom Lee of the Ministry Parks Branch to set up the new site planning unit at a field research station and district office twenty miles north of Toronto. Ismet ultimately created the perfect design studio that flourished free from the entanglement and administrative clutches of the Queen’s Park office, satisfying Tom Lee’s directive to establish a separate facility for site planning. Garrett Pittenger and Maria Lehoczky were next appointed to form the core group shortly after the unit was formed, with Garrettt eventually coordinating the design functions carried out by the staff of twenty landscape architects, landscape technologists, graphic artists, engineers, and draftspersons that accumulated by 1978.
Support staff included an office manager, secretary, supply clerk, and students contracted every summer to carry out survey activities. It was a complete, self-directed design unit, benefiting from the new methodology founded by Angus Hills’ Ecological Site Planning System and to a lesser extent the work of the Ontario Land Inventory (OLI) that used the elements of soil classification, moisture regime, and microclimate to determine site unit characteristics. These new tools helped us to establish a scientific approach to site planning and, particularly, park master planning within the scope of our unit. These were exciting times for landscape architects. I was very familiar with the ecological land use planning process, having taken Angus Hills’ ecological planning course at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Forestry.
My first project in the Site Planning Unit was to finish the beach development at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, along with Trevor Franker, my assistant. Many glorious days were spent at Wasaga with Trevor, surveying and locating the extensive parking areas, road system, trails, comfort stations, and the long boardwalk which formed a new linear provincial park.
Going to work under Ismet never felt like work to me, so satisfying was the outdoor life, the relaxed pace in the office, and the freedom of design expression we had there. On Friday afternoons, after 3pm, Ismet would often convene us for a private, informal wine and cheese party (we supplied the wine). It was also an opportunity to mingle and convey our concerns relating to design ideas on our separate projects. Ismet was both a mentor and a “grandfather” to us—strict yet forgiving, he was truly respected by all of us. We never fully appreciated the difficulty he might have had supervising us, many employees fresh out of a college environment. Nor did we appreciate his battle against the park superintendents determined to have the design process done “their way” in carrying out their own “ad hoc” planning. We were, however, constantly reminded of the many attempts by superintendents to have it their way whenever Ismet proclaimed loudly on the telephone in his office his signature phrase, “We do the plans.”
When it all came to an end with decentralization in 1978, and the landscape architects were commissioned to work and reside within the newly formed administrative regions of Ontario, I was depressed. Sitting on the floor of the empty office in its last hours, I thought of all the good times and the fabulous days I had spent there. For more than a month I tried commuting to my new post in the north, unwilling to transfer from my self-built home on Lake Simcoe, but in the end, I quit the permanent employ of the Ministry of Natural Resources to begin the long uphill climb of establishing my own practice. I approached the park managers I had worked for in Central Region with an offer to be a private contractor with a maximum purchase order amount annually. It worked for me, and I enjoyed 18 more years of site planning, mainly in that great park, Algonquin.
Following decentralization in 1978, Ismet also left the employ of the Parks Branch, and joined with his old friend Tom Lee, then the Director of Planning in British Columbia Parks, where he spent the rest of his career in park planning.
I never found so many colleagues or friends around me again as I had enjoyed during my days at the Site Planning Unit, nor another place where such a multitude of design skills were allowed to flourish.
TEXT BY JOHN HICKS, OALA, AUTHOR OF THE POND BOOK, PUBLISHED IN 2013 BY FITZHENRY & WHITESIDE.
The following list includes most of the staff over the seven years of operation of the Site Planning Unit, Ministry of Natural Resources Parks Branch:
Ismet T. Olcay, supervisor
Audrey Rowlands, office manager
Ida Mahler, office manager
Sandra Kirby, secretary and receptionist
Jae Eberschlag, secretary and receptionist
Garrett H. Pittenger, senior landscape architect
Peter Alexander, landscape architect
Bela Barabas, landscape architect
Jan Willem Calicher, landscape architect
John Hicks, landscape architect
John Hillier, landscape architect
John Huang, landscape architect
Ed Leonard, landscape architect
Helen Li, landscape architect
M. Vincent van Mechelen, landscape architect
Robert Moos, landscape architect
Scott Parks, landscape architect
David Powell, landscape architect
John Sakala, landscape architect
Fred Shipman, landscape architect
Laura Starr, landscape architect
Leslie Thompson, landscape architect
Eduardo Villafranca, landscape architect
Ender Aykuz, assistant landscape architect
Robert Brewer, landscape technologist
Trevor Franker, landscape technologist
James Peets, landscape technologist
Colleen Schenk, landscape technologist
David Wells, landscape technologist
Steef Zoetmulder, landscape technologist
Maria Lehoczky, senior draftsman
Gary Lea-Wilson, draftsman
Ovak Seranian, draftsman
William Stephen, draftsman
Arslan Arslan, engineer
Darsan Basran, engineer
Askin Gokhan, graphic designer