In Passing: Vladimir Plavsic

Vladimir Plavsic, formerly registered as an architect with the AIBC, passed away on October 22, 2014.  He was 84. He leaves behind his wife, four children, and some amazing stories.

In 1951, 20-year-old Vladimir Plavsic travelled to Salzburg, Austria, as a member of the Yugoslavian national water polo team.  At breakfast one morning, eight of his teammates suddenly announced they were going to defect to the west. And Plavsic had to make a decision — quick. “He said they gave him about 29 seconds to decide (whether to join them),” his wife Karyn said.  “And in those 29 seconds he was visualizing himself as a great architect in New York City, in a red Cadillac, two blondes on either side of him. He had this vision and stood up and said, ‘I’m going.’”  He didn’t end up in New York, or with a red Cadillac. But after immigrating to Canada, the energetic Plavsic became one of Vancouver’s top architects, owned a series of red Alfa Romeo convertibles and squired a fair number of blondes around.

Born in Belgrade, he studied at a private German school before the Second World War. His knowledge of German made him invaluable to Yugoslav partisans battling the Nazi occupation because he could run messages between groups, sometimes wearing a German uniform.  Unfortunately, one day he was among a group of partisans that were caught. A German officer ordered them executed, but a German soldier protested the teenage Plavsic was only a young boy.  “The commandant said shoot them dead, all of them,” Karyn Plavsic said. “The German soldier took pity on Vlad. He shot him, but he just grazed the side of his temple. So there was blood, and the commandant thought everyone was dead.”

After the war, the athletic Vlad became a member of both the national water polo and swimming teams.  “He was a world-class swimmer,” Karyn Plavsic said. “He said he held a world record in breaststroke in a team relay … for about 23 hours.”  After defecting, Plavsic and his teammates wound up in a displaced persons camp in Switzerland.  “They were given a choice,” Karyn Plavsic said. “They said you can go to the U.S., or you can go to Canada. (But) if you go to the U.S., you have to go to the Korean War. So five came to Canada, four went off to the Korean War.”

Plavsic had studied architecture in Belgrade, and enrolled in the architecture school at the University of Toronto. He was offered a scholarship and room and board in return for coaching the water polo and swimming teams.  He wound up marrying Jane Firstbrook, from a prominent Toronto family. But he didn’t like his mother-in-law, so the young couple moved to Vancouver to attend UBC, where he graduated in 1957.

He had a hand in all sorts of different designs, such as Capilano College, UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium and the provincial court at 222 Main.  “He had a contract with Brunswick Bowling and did bowling alleys all over North America,” Karyn Plavsic said. “He also did all the Canada Safeways, the old Canada Safeways that had that curved roof. That was his innovation.”  His most well known building is probably the Medical-Dental Building at 805 West Broadway, a 20-storey cement highrise that is hailed as a great example of brutalist architecture.  “That’s an excellent building — probably one of the best things he did,” said Geoff Massey, who shared an architectural practice with Plavsic in the late 1950s.  “It’s a very attractive building, with a large courtyard in the front.”  “He used concrete really well, and did a tasteful version of brutalism,” said architectural historian Hal Kalman, author of Exploring Vancouver: The Architectural Guide.  “He was very highly thought of by his peers, and did a lot for the city.”  Plavsic also did a lot of work in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and was even in on the founding of the ski resort at Whistler Mountain.

Plavsic divorced his first wife in the mid-’60s, and had a common-law relationship for several years. But Karyn said he was living the playboy lifestyle when they met in 1976.  “I immediately had five or six gentlemen that called me and said, ‘Run. Run as fast as you can the other way,’” she said with a laugh. “(But) he charmed me. We got married a year later.”  Sailing was another of Plavsic’s passions. He designed his own 13-metre sailboat, the Kanata, which won the 1981 Victoria-to-Maui race.  He passed on his sailing skills to his son: Zachary was a member of the Canadian Olympian windsurfing team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics.  His entrepreneurship was passed on to his daughter Sasha, who runs a multimillion-dollar cosmetic company, Ilia.  “Both my sister and I attribute all our accomplishments and success in life to our father,” Zachary Plavsic said.

Vlad had heart trouble in recent years.  “He has a triple bypass, he had a pacemaker, and he had multiple stents put in,” Zachary said.  In June, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, which had spread to his liver and lung.  But he continued to enjoy life until the end, attending his daughter’s wedding in Vancouver and in Europe this summer.  “He was a Serbian warrior to the end,” Karyn Plavsic said.  “He went skidding into his grave with a cigar in his mouth and a glass of scotch in his hand,” Zachary Plavsic said.

The above information was sourced from an article written by By John Mackie for the Vancouver Sun on October 30, 2014.

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