Remembering Vancouver architect Joe Wai

Friday, January 20, 2017

Vancouver architect Joe Y. Wai died unexpectedly on January 11 from complications related to an aneurysm. He was 76. Wai leaves a legacy of activism and generosity, and will be remembered for his passion for architecture and community.

“Joe’s tenacity mixed with disarming humbleness set him apart,” said AIBC president Darryl Condon Architect AIBC. “Vancouver has lost a great architect and a tireless champion of community spirit and resilience. It is our good fortune that his legacy lives on through his architectural designs that help define the City of Vancouver.”

Born in Hong Kong, Wai came to Canada as a teenager in 1952. He graduated in 1965 with a degree in architecture from the University of British Columbia. After a formative period employed by notable local firms such as Erickson/Massey Architects, Thompson, Berwick, Pratt + Partners, and working abroad for Denys Lasdun and Partners and the Greater London Council in London, England, he set up practice in Vancouver.

Wai is best known for his work designing the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (photo above), with landscape architect Don Vaughan. The garden is the first full Chinese Garden to be built outside of China and it continues to serve as a peaceful retreat in the centre of the city. Chinatown’s Millennium Gate, a towering landmark that welcomes both visitors and Vancouverites alike, is another Wai creation. The “Joe Wai Special”, known for its flexible design, was specifically intended as affordable infill housing for the Strathcona neighbourhood, saved, in part, by Wai’s efforts in the late 1960s from a massive freeway construction project.

Throughout his professional career, Wai served as a committed teacher, mentor, and community activist. An active member of the AIBC, he served on council in the mid-1980s, and participated on civic design panels. The AIBC Barbara Dalrymple Memorial Award for Community Service (2001) and, more recently, in 2016, the AIBC Lifetime Achievement Award recognized his profound contribution to the profession of architecture. In addition, Wai was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design (2001), the Vancouver Civic Merit Award (2013) and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal (2013) for outstanding community service, among several awards.

A memorial celebration is planned for February 5, 2017. He is survived by his wife Lynn and his son Jonathan.

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