A diamond in Niagara with a side of fried rice

One of the last remaining unobstructed views of Stilt City behind St. Paul Street can be seen from a stairwell inside the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.

It was early in my tenure as a Niagaran that I clued into the possibility St. Catharines might have some self-esteem issues.

The giveaway was a gateway sign on the Queen Elizabeth Way. It read ‘St. Catharines. When you need a little Niagara.”

Every time I saw it, I imagined a family of tourists hurtling down the highway, bound for Niagara Falls (a lot of Niagara, by contrast, perhaps?), when Mom or Dad decided to pull off in St. Catharines. “You know kids, I just don’t feel like that much Niagara after all so we’re spending the day in St. Catharines instead.”

Oh, the chorus of disappointed moans and groans I was certain would follow such a decision.

Poor St. Catharines, the largest urban centre in Niagara Region and nothing to really hang its hat on. Until now.

Back then, in the days of poorly-thought-out road signs (did anyone ever stop here because they were concerned about overloading on Niagara? I will always wonder…), St. Catharines was a bit tired and lacking an identity with any real hook. Our downtown left something to be desired: usually a trip to the nearest box store monolith where you could take comfort in the convenience of buying new shoes with your lunch meat. Council at the time seemed like the Department of No when it came to doing anything that might improve the city centre. But nearly 10 years and several yeses from new councils later, things are changing for the better.

Downtown is now home to what I call the trifecta, three newly-constructed cornerstones of civic pride that city centre boosters say are a blessing. A new arena has risen from the torn-up asphalt of what was once an under-used parking lot; an old hair cloth factory is being transformed into an academic assembly line as the new home to Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School for Fine and Performing Arts; and a cluster of rundown storefronts that included a discount bridal shop and used bookstore, has made way for a new performing arts centre that will host dance, film and music performances, and community events.

Artist's renderings of Brock University's Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts (top) and the City of St. Catharines' performing arts centre.

Artist’s renderings of Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts (top) and the City of St. Catharines’ performing arts centre.

All of them are intended to be beacons to those who have bypassed the core for sprawling shopping centres with cookie-cutter architecture and the usual suspects of chain stores. The changes downtown are already evident. More cafés and restaurants have opened — independents and chains, attesting to the promising market small and big businesses alike see here. Vacant buildings have been leased or purchased with optimistic owners pouring money into renovations that will see their investments turned into liveable places and inviting commercial spaces.

Five hundred students alone are expected to call downtown their classroom, starting in the fall of 2015. And on a recent media tour through the performing arts centre and the Marilyn I. Walker school, my inner epicurean may have squealed just a little bit when Brock’s media relations manager (yes, my co-worker when I’m not on mat leave) leaned over to tell me that the university’s food services provider wasn’t going to set up shop in the building. Instead, students would have to brown bag it or venture into those neighbouring burger, burrito, bubble tea, and shawarma joints for their next meal and break bread with the downtown that is so eager to have them.

Together, the trifecta will help make the city a cultural destination, but it’s the Brock school and the city’s performing arts centre that will be the true standouts, not just on account of the activities happening inside of them but rather because of who designed them. If ever St. Catharines’ self-worth has come into question, the fact that legendary architecture firm Diamond Schmitt Architects is putting an indelible mark on our downtown with its visions for those buildings should do away with any self-doubt the Garden City may ever have felt.

Reporters snap photos of Steve Solski, performing arts centre executive director (left) in what will be the main lobby of the centre. Artist's rendering of the lobby at right.

Reporters snap photos of Steve Solski, performing arts centre executive director (left) in what will be the main lobby of the centre. Artist’s rendering of the lobby at right.

Jack Diamond, the South African-born Canadian architect, is the brilliant mind behind landmarks in cities across the globe: the Mariinsky Opera Theatre in St. Petersburg, Jerusalem’s City Hall and Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. He transformed Toronto’s Museum subway station from a typical underground transit hub into an award-winning nod to the cultural archives housed above it in the ROM and Gardiner Museum.

No wonder so many new businesses are investing in St. Catharines’ city centre. Who wouldn’t want to be neighbours with the great beauties that Diamond, colleagues Gary McCluskie and Michael Leckman, and their design teams have dreamed up?

Photo of exterior and interior of performing arts school where new construction joins the old, pre-existing building.

Where old meets new, inside and out at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.

But this isn’t the first time the architecture firm has made an impression on Niagara. Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake is his vision of a new world winery come to life. Its 200-metre periwinkle blue wall, meant to serve as a gateway to both the winery and the town, is as impossible to miss as it is not to mention when passing it.

I remember when the winery was still being built in 2007, that wall, which is Southbrook’s lifeline housing wiring and HVAC piping, made headlines. Some loved it, others were unsure. What is certain is that the wall is part of a winery building unlike any other in the region. Sure, there are other modern edifices housing tipple factories but none offer such a show-stopping tasting room, one that also happens to be filled with wines that have become favourites of mine.

Paul Bosc showed the possibility that existed here when he built his Loire-style chateau to house his Chateau des Charmes winery in the 1980s. But Diamond wanted Southbrook to be a truly North American winery. A building mimicking ancient European wineries would be out of context here, he mused.

“They don’t pretend to be French wines or American wines,” Diamond said of Southbrook, which has won several building design awards. “They are the wines of their place.”

While I can’t say enough about donning work boots four times my size and a hard hat that sat off-kilter on my nogin to get up close to the downtown construction, it was the two hours lunching and tasting tipple at Southbrook that wound up being the highlight of the day. Little did I know when I took my place in the lunch line that the polite, well-dressed gentleman handing me a plate was Diamond himself. Ditto for when I sat down next to him at the heavy wooden table around which we all dined.

Sometimes, I think my cluelessness bodes well for me. Once I found out who I was rubbing elbows with (this is what happens when left-handed me sits next to just about anyone at the dinner table), I could breathe deeply and hope to absorb by osmosis some of the greatness that was next to me. At the very least, I could show my gratitude for the day by refilling the man’s water glass.

While I’ve marvelled at Southbrook’s beauty as a visitor before this tour, learning its story from the man himself made me fall hard for this winery. Every detail is deliberate. Those two small doors in that great big blue wall? They aren’t just to gain entry to the winery.

“The nude figure is not as interesting as the one that’s half-clothed,” Diamond explained after lunch (and my filling of his water glass). Walking though the single door in that wall is like crossing a threshold to another world, he continued. Every step through the building that follows is akin to a woman undressing, revealing more.

“Architecture can’t be described in pictures… but only as you move through the space and explore it,” Diamond said. “And it’s not to be viewed but experienced.”

Winery owner Bill Redelmeier wanted Southbrook to “sit lightly on the land.” It does that with its biodynamic wine production (think organic farming guided by moons and stars) but it also achieves that thanks to the ethereal illusion of glass holding up a building with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold status — the second highest green rating a building can achieve.

Photo of grapevines in late fall on a grey day, shot through a window.

The vines at Southbrook, as seen through the German glass windows.

Every occupied space looks out onto the vines, reminding Redelmeier and his staff of the their raison d’etre. But their modus operandi envelopes them. Other than the walls of German glass, which lack the iron content and subsequent view-altering green tinge that Canadian glass has, everything in the building is Canadian, even the staff uniforms, which come from the former Forsyth shirt factory in Kitchener.

“I can’t ask someone to be willing to buy Ontario wines when I’m not using Ontario myself,” Redelmeier said. “I can buy a lot of stuff cheaper from China but if I do, the person who made it isn’t going to buy my wine.”

Of course that kind of dedication to supporting local makes my heart go pitter patter, much like the Southbrook wines we tasted. The 2013 Connect Organic White, a blend of Riesling and Vidal, with notes of peaches and cream; the 2011 Poetica Chardonnay that refreshes rather than overwhelms with oak; and the 2012 Cabernet Franc with its incredibly smooth mouthfeel, and dark cherry and spice were my favourites though there wasn’t a single vintage I tried that I’d kick out of my wine rack.

 

Southbrook and getting the scoop on the winery from owner Bill Redelmeier.

Wine tasting at Southbrook and getting the scoop on the winery from owner Bill Redelmeier.

But what really endeared me: Jack Diamond himself, his humility and his admission that he still wakes up thinking of details he wishes he could change on some of the great buildings he designed.

As someone who sweats over every word she writes, even after the ink has dried, I only empathize with a guy who still wakes up years after the fact and laments his decision to put a windowless dormer atop one of his buildings surrounded by structures bearing windowed versions. Admired it, even. Some might call it ruminating or second-guessing but what’s that Socrates quote about the unexamined life?

Speaking of which, someone second-guessed or re-examined that gateway sign. It’s gone, replaced by a version that denotes St. Catharines’ place as an important urban centre in Niagara wine country rather than something not quite worthy of the rest of the region.

And, given what’s happening downtown, that’s as it should be.

 

 

Brownfield fried rice

Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side

As a nod to the adaptive re-use of the old Canada Hair Cloth building downtown that has seen it transformed from textile factory to arts school, I give you my Brownfield fried rice. It turns leftover grains into a something else satisfying and purposeful. This was a staple in my last few months of pregnancy as I spent my days growing my belly and trying to finish my manuscript. With swollen feet and shoes that no longer fit, I found trips to the grocery store for fresh vegetables an impossible challenge some days, making me grateful for the frozen versions stashed in my freezer and the staying power of local carrots that lasted for weeks in my crisper.

The trick to making this more than re-heated rice with frozen vegetables is to use a cast iron skillet and let the rice sit for a bit while cooking to make the grains just a little bit crispy. While the recipe includes corn, peas and carrots, they can easily be swapped for another vegetable, like broccoli or cauliflower. Just follow the measurements and you’ll be fine.

And now for the confession: In what can only be called a rookie mistake, I started eating my latest batch of rice before photographing it. I set some aside to shoot after, you know, in a nice cupped bowl with chop sticks. But my cat Louie (who never does this, I swear!) discovered the leftover rice and started eating it. I clued in too late, alerted by the sound of sandpaper rubbing against the bottom of my still-warm skillet. Turns out, it was his rough tongue. Good news is, this recipe is also cat approved.

Shred:

1/3 cup carrots and set aside

Scramble:

1 egg and set aside

Whisk together until blended:

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Set aside

Melt:

2 tablespoons coconut oil or other cooking oil in a skillet over medium-high heat

Add:

2 cups leftover rice (white or brown)

Spread rice over bottom of skillet and let sit for two minutes to warm through and to crisp the grains. Stir and spread rice evenly again for another two minutes.

Then add to the rice:

Carrots

Scrambled egg (make sure the bits are broken apart)

1/3 cup frozen peas (if using fresh, blanch them for one minute first)

1/3 cup frozen corn (if using fresh, blanch kernels for one minute first)

Ginger-soy sauce

Fold ingredients into rice until well-combined.

Continue frying rice, stirring occasionally until vegetables are warmed through and carrot shreds have softened slightly (about five minutes).

Serve drizzled with toasted sesame oil and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

 

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One response to “A diamond in Niagara with a side of fried rice”

  1. Erin Wilson says:

    Always so grateful for your writing. Especially now. You keep me tapped in a little.

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