It’s been 17 years since I first wrote Global Span for the print edition of Vancouver Review, essentially an advocacy piece for loscil’s 2004 CD “First Narrows” being recognized as a kind of Autobahn-level soundtrack for local travels. Since then, Scott Morgan (loscil) has released countless works of intoxicating pulsating electronica. Any departures from the baseline sound familiar to fans have been subtle but rewarding, especially on 2016’s Monument Builders which filtered Koyaanisqatsi-era Phillip Glass through a scuffed, degraded VHS audio track enveloping the affair in a fresh, almost nostalgic air.
And the hits keep coming, even during a pandemic. Loscil’s latest release is titled Clara, and, following directly on its heels, is a limited edition photo book/CD release called Lux Refractions. The book is beautifully printed and showcases a suite of monochrome macro photographs of ice and water featuring entrapped spheres and crystal clusters seemingly suspended in space.
The second release extends the material from the Clara sessions continuing on with the kind of pulse-oriented electronica that is his usual stock-in-trade. Both sets of music are originally sourced from orchestral recordings he did remotely in 2020 in Budapest. And while there are no radical departures, the craft is top flight and the journey is pleasant and engaging. The acoustic source material is heavily processed and offers textural depth across both recordings.
“I see them as all part of the same body of sonic and visual work exploring the same themes etc. The book/CD is a bit of a spin-off project representing a deeper dive into the macro universe of ice and orchestral sounds.”
One thing notable about recent loscil recordings is how they now feel more like nascent soundtracks, not necessarily to moving artworks, but to narrative films. This can be tricky territory because every electronic artist I know who’s gone down that road has had mixed results, though the money is no doubt a motivating factor. Thankfully, these two CDs pull on the reins to keep the music squarely on the side of mutability, of being purely music for enjoyment and unexpected departures, free of narrative associations.
If I were to imagine loscil’s music in a soundtrack context it might be to parts of Annihilation, a sci-fi film from 2018 which creates an intoxicating sense of mystery around the emergence of random, fast moving, cross-species genetic mutations all contained in a zone called “the shimmer” which one of the film’s characters describes as “…a prism, but it refracts everything, including genetic information.”
But Scott is adamant that he is a creator of albums of music for pure listening…and on CD! “Clara is the full length and the main show, while Refractions offers more deep, long form drones. I guess you could say it’s a little more indulgent and meant to, essentially, be a soundtrack to the book. The cover photo from Clara is drawn from the same series as the photos in the book and appears in the book along with the cover from the Refractions CD.”
Scott and I met up on Fraser Street in the first rain of a classic Vancouver September and sought shelter in the alley behind a row of 1950s-era shopfronts. The wall behind, with its oozing mysterious organic green matter put me in mind of Annihilation. Scott was dressed for the weather. I wasn’t. But it did yield a portrait with a cinematic still quality. Scott favours black and white. I lean towards colour. Fortunately there’s room for both!
For the 10th Anniversary of the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot (aka V2.0) I thought a trip down memory lane might be in order. I’m no sports fan but when tens of thousands cram together into blockaded streets, the place is guaranteed to turn into a shooting gallery for photo journalists. Actually, the vibe was pretty good in the days leading up to the final game and I genuinely believed there would be no riot. This first section is set up as a gallery, distinct from the riot photos which follow. Click on images to enlarge!
I will add to this feature as time allows. It’s surely worth a decent essay or two. My main issue with it was that, like the first, I was appalled that it wasn’t about something worthwhile. Imagine if this kind of chaos was feared every time housing prices doubled…or any other local crisis was insufficiently addressed.
I recall from the 1994 Stanley Cup Riot (V1.0) that things really ignited when people started climbing poles and goading others. This guy is deserving of the opening spot of this spread and I’m glad he chose to do this outside the Commodore Ballroom. I call it “Rabble Yell”. If only he had an Instagram account…
Come to think of it, he deserves two spots. Where is he now?
My favourite shot from the evening’s festivities is this image of two women in a snapshot duel atop their boyfriends’ shoulders. This is before selfies were quite so prominent. What they are, in this moment, blissfully unaware of is the first teargas canister going off behind them. You can see that between them a couple have just figured this out and are making a break for it.
Some people were just having fun. But they were about to get the memo shortly after this was taken.
Wishful thinking. Looks like it had been dropped a few times.
Granville Mall was soon swept clean with tear gas. I can attest to the effectiveness of that stuff. Hot tip: Don’t use water on your eyes.
I came into the fray from Nelson after seeing a car turned upside down and a growing number of kids taunting the riot squad. Once the volley of hard objects started falling on them they understandably got the cue to charge. But it usually starts with afire being set. And who doesn’t love the smell of burning fast food garbage?
I found the ripping up and parading of trees to be one of the most depressing and barbaric acts I witnessed, and there was no mention of it in the press afterward.
And we’re off!
We ran this image in the final print edition of Vancouver Review in 2011. It was a funny, sweet scene on Seymour at Dunsmuir. Needless to say; wishful thinking.
“This is taxidermy, this is not heritage conservation.” – Donald Luxton
The following article was originally published in Vancouver Review, issue #2, in 2004. We reproduce it here because we see that façadism as an architectural “heritage preservation” approach has continued unabated and undebated in the city since it was first published. By making it available here we hope to provide a useful reference piece for urbanists, researchers and anyone concerned with the ongoing, wholesale gutting of historical architectural spaces resulting from façadist “heritage preservation” policies.
The last skinny vestige of the 1928 BC Electric Showroom rises three stories at the corner of Dunsmuir and Granville, a braced wall punctuated by Italianate ornamentation.
Its carved-stone cornice, spandrels and the grand, brass-framed windows are pinned, bolted and clamped; they look as if they’ve undergone complicated surgery. And so they have: a façadectomy. This forlorn corner remnant with its peacock friezes was shorn from the body of one of the city’s most elegant commercial heritage buildings, and will soon be attached to a contemporary live/work tower called The Hudson.
Other examples of this scene are playing out across the city—thin shells of what were once three-dimensional heritage buildings, propped up by hefty steel I-beams angling up from the sidewalk. In most cases, only one wall or corner segment remains, facing the public thoroughfare, its fancy details intact while the rest of the structure has been gutted. The gaping emptiness behind these old façades sometimes lasts for months; and the destiny of most sites is to be filled in by new structures that bear little relation, in style or scale, to their pasted-on frontage.
This “heritage” trend seems to be sweeping through Greater Vancouver, showing up not only in historic parts of the downtown but also on high-traffic arterials such as Granville Street or Lonsdale Avenue. And while façadism isn’t new—think the Scotiabank Dance Centre at Davie and Granville, or a particularly garish residential tower mushrooming out of the former Tudor Manor on Beach Avenue—the frequency with which the substance of this city’s heritage stock is disappearing is beginning to open eyes.
Certainly, there’s been no real public discussion around this trend. This could change with the visibility of developments now happening in high-profile locations. Besides the former bc Electric Showroom, there’s an unabashed façade at Granville and 15th Avenue, where the 1911 Shaughnessy Mansions have been scooped out for condos; and at the base of Lonsdale Avenue, where the 1910 Edwardian-commercial Aberdeen Block has been cored for retail space and lofts. It seems that developers are leaping on the bandwagon to benefit from the antique appeal of those frontages, and the financial perks of keeping them, while in no way investing in, or maintaining a true link to, the past. Incidentally, the buildings being reduced to façades are invariably listed on the heritage register, a compilation of the city’s (supposedly) most valuable historic structures.
If Vancouver regularly chooses to treat its heritage stock in this way, there will soon be few credible historic buildings left. And since heritage is a non-renewable resource, this could become a major problem for current and future generations. Especially troubling is the fact that, looked at from the perspective of international standards, façadism is not up to snuff in conservation circles. It’s not even up to snuff in cultural-tourism circles. If Vancouver hopes to truly preserve any of its early history—recognizing its value even though it’s only century-and-a-bit old—we’d better make sure that we collectively take stock of what’s happening.
The question is this: Do we want to become a city full of heritage tokens with little meaning, or do we want to cherish what came before for cultural, educational, and long-term economic reasons? No one is saying that we have to love the narrow colonial mindset that came along with these often-striking structures (after all, the culture that built them all but obliterated Native culture). Reducing our urban history to decorative façades, however, is nothing but a contemporary kind of narrow-mindedness.
I encountered my first freestanding heritage façade about three years ago. My partner and I were ambling away from an outdoor jazz-fest concert in Gassy Jack square, and Water Street had been blocked off to car traffic. As we sauntered down the middle of the street, we gained a better perspective than usual of the turn-of-the-last-century streetscape. I noticed light incongruously streaming through the bay windows of the Terminus Hotel, and the big beams holding up the frontage. It was the first time I’d consciously seen such a thing, and it struck me as wrong—although I later found out that fire had caused the damage. I remember thinking: What a perfect symbol of this town’s general negligence towards heritage.
Inspired by that sight, my partner took a photo of the next major example of façadism we encountered—the BC Electric Showroom—and turned it into a cheeky contribution to the 2003 Georgia Straight “Best of Vancouver” issue. It ran with the caption “Best excuse for heritage preservation.” More recently, an image of façadism turned up in the May 9 edition of The Vancouver Courier. Staff photographer Dan Toulgoet’s snap of the isolated Granville & 15th Shaughnessy Mansions frontage ran as, essentially, a standalone photo. It was accompanied by some slapdash text about the developer’s intentions, but there was no story.
So what about the real story? A bit of it played out five years ago around the controversial redevelopment of the 1929 Bank of Nova Scotia branch at Granville and Davie—an Art Deco “temple bank” designed by prominent early architects Sharp and Thompson—into the Scotiabank Dance Centre. The pros and cons show up in a 1999 document titled “Heritage Issues Raised by Dance Centre Proposal” on the City of Vancouver website. It was a particularly interesting case, because not only was the bank interior one of the city’s most intact vintage spaces—down to the cage elevator, furniture, clock, and upstairs mahogany panelling—but the new building was to benefit a needy and deserving group, the city’s dance community. On top of that, no less than Arthur Erickson was designing the new structure.
Financial considerations won out; only the Granville Street frontage was saved, the interior treasures disappeared, and the dance community got a functionally elegant, seven-storey stack of studios and offices. On today’s Granville Street, the remaining two-storey façade looks rather blocky and gray, its subtle ornamentation overshadowed by the whitish wave of glass rising above it. In this case, the cultural value of the dance centre may have helped to balance the cultural loss of the historic building (although alternate locations for the dance centre were on the table, and in an ideal world, one cultural interest shouldn’t have to win out over another). But it is curious that no significant discussion about façadism emerged as a result.
“It’s an absolute disaster,” says local heritage consultant Donald Luxton about the city-wide façadism trend. “This is taxidermy, this is not heritage conservation. It’s just, literally, a show—putting a face on something. Someone else called it ‘putting the parsley on the developer’s plate.’ It indicates to me that there’s an inadequate heritage response to the very hot development cycle going on right now. Everything is getting crunched by this massive wave of development that is quite unprecedented. I mean, we haven’t seen anything like this since about 1912.”
Luxton is a staunch heritage advocate who nevertheless sees issues from both sides in his line of work. He spoke about the situation in his office, located in the intact 1911 Rogers Block at Granville and Pender. Having worked on near-façadism projects such as the Wosk Centre for Dialogue, another former temple bank, he understands the social and economic pressures at work. But his feelings also reflect his expertise in, and love for, the province’s early architecture, knowledge that was formulated into last year’s award-winning book, Building the West: The Early Architects of British Columbia.
Since the city is clearly green-lighting one façadism project after another, Do we want to become a city full of heritage tokens with little meaning?
I had to ask: How and why is this happening? It turns out the answer has much to do with economic and development realities unique to Vancouver. According to Luxton, major factors are extremely high land values; huge development pressures; seismic and building codes; time-consuming city processes; rising construction costs; and the need for underground parking in new residential developments. Not that these are, in any way, valid excuses.
What remained of the 1911 Shaughnessy Mansions at 15th and Granville.
One of the most surprising victims of this current wave is Shaughnessy Mansions. It’s a watershed because, from a conservation perspective, the two apartment buildings seemed to have everything going for them. Besides being on the city’s heritage register, the handsome brick complex was a relatively big building with dense site coverage, a good rental stream, and lovely interior features including original floors and mouldings. The density could have been shifted to the adjacent property to the north, but residents of nearby Hycroft Towers opposed extra height to save their mountain views.
Because of this, the “Granville Rise” neighbourhood has lost one of its landmarks. I once saw the interior at a party in 1997, when my friend, freelance writer Jennifer Van Evra, lived there. “I remember the first time I walked in,” she recently remembered. “It was one of those rare places in Vancouver that reminded me of apartments in Montreal. It had broad hardwood floors, a deep almost-cherry colour. The window, which must have been 5 by 8 feet, opened over Granville Street on a swivel that ran through the middle. It had big, high ceilings that were at least 12 feet. The bathroom was the best part, with a big old claw foot tub and a beautiful multicoloured tile pattern on the floor—mostly off-white with burgundy and green. It just oozed character, and it just had such warmth. It was a great, great building.”
Its evisceration was a case, Luxton says, of neighbourhood concerns overriding heritage concerns, another worrisome new trend. He’s seeing a similar thing happen in another upcoming project, the renovation of the 1940 tan brick Moderne YMCA on Burrard near Nelson. “The Y wants a much more open image that’s completely at odds with the closed-down side and front façades, which are kind of fortress-like,” Luxton explains. “So basically, they’re taking out all the side walls, just keeping the little decorative front part on Burrard Street, and that’s it.”
Given the predictability of these kinds of pressures, the crux of the problem should be recognized as inadequate protection for historic buildings at the civic, or any other, level. To this day, the City of Vancouver has never officially adopted heritage standards or design guidelines. Its heritage planners may have policies, but these are applied informally as part of the review process, and are in no way binding. Obviously, their influence is minimal. “The heritage department knows it’s losing on many fronts,” says Luxton. “It had some successes, but generally the projects are all compromised—they’re just not that good.”
Things may be looking up, however, with new initiatives launched this year by the federal government, which include heritage standards, design guidelines, and conservation incentives. They’re still in draft form and can, at this point, be found only via the Historic Places website. While the text doesn’t specifically decry façadism, it looks promising in its broader take on “heritage value”; it emphasizes “character-defining elements,” which are “the materials, forms, location, spatial configurations, uses, and cultural associations or meanings that contribute to the heritage value of a historic place, and which must be retained to preserve its heritage value.”
Luxton sees the input of the national government in these matters as a “last hope,” given the ineffectiveness of other levels of government. It’s also high time: “We are lagging so far in this field, it’s laughable,” he adds. “We’re a very late starter—the last of the G8 countries to have heritage programs and incentives at the federal level.” Then he adds with a laugh: “And if we have Prime Minister Harper in a couple of weeks, we might not have any.”
Given that these new rules exist, Luxton finds it doubly frustrating to watch the façadism fad spreading through Vancouver. How is it, he wonders, that the new federal incentives, and the city’s existing special incentives for Gastown, Chinatown and Hastings Street, plus other tax incentives and density bonuses and transfers meant to be granted in exchange for heritage preservation, just don’t seem to be working? “We’ve got all these tools to preserve buildings, and we’re preserving the front six inches of them.”
Perhaps global standards are the most convincing argument for change—or at least a means of shaming our city into a more sophisticated take on conservation. Vancouver, of course, is not the only city ever to have been beset by façadism. A Google search brings up examples from all over the world, including the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, Australia and South Africa. In January of 1999, the International Council on Monuments and Sites even held a symposium to discuss the matter in Paris. The consensus among heritage experts from around the world is clear: Façadism should only be considered as a last-ditch option, when nothing else of value remains.
Here’s a typical statement published by the Australian government: “Façadism is generally not accepted as suitable conservation practice. Façadism is not in accord with the principles of the Burra Charter [national guidelines to assess heritage development applications], which focuses on maintaining the significance of a place by retaining and conserving all elements that make up that significance. Façadism is seen as tokenism, as only presenting one side of a place’s history. Buildings are conceived in three dimensions and so they should normally be retained in three dimensions.”
“We ought not to settle for this Halloween preservation—saving the mask and throwing away the building.” – Donovan Rypkema
“We ought not to settle for this Halloween preservation—saving the mask and throwing away the building,” writes Washington DC consultant Donovan Rypkema, a specialist in preservation economics, in the spring 2001 issue of Forum magazine. He also takes a big-picture look, pointing out the conditions that encourage façadism. “First, there must be a strong enough market that a case can be made for façadomy, because it is ludicrously expensive. Second, there has to be enough surface interest in preservation for someone to recommend this solution. Third, the community’s preservation ethic cannot be strong enough to demand a true rehabilitation project.”
Another heritage advocate (and third-generation Vancouverite) concerned about our city’s dangerous slide towards preserving only the veneer of its history is John Stuart, the curator of collections for the North Vancouver Museum and Archives. Recently, he lent me his big binder of Google printouts on façadism (saving me the trouble and the paper), liberally annotated with Post-It Notes. During an interview in his cluttered warehouse office near the North Vancouver waterfront, he also shared thoughts, such as the fact that short-term economic arguments should not be dictating the fate of heritage buildings—historical, social, cultural, legal and technological considerations should also play strong roles.
An art historian, he appreciates the architectural beauty of façades, yet recognizes that they’re only a small part of any site’s story. An antique building, he adds, is as much about the people who inhabited it, and the time and context in which it was built. If we destroy everything but the exterior, he continues, not only is there a disconnection between it and the new interior, we lose any link to, or further insight into, the past. Stuart recalls seeing extreme conservation examples in Germany, where the dirt of industrial sites had literally been preserved on the walls. While nobody is saying that’s always realistic—or that plumbing shouldn’t be updated or buildings not be made earthquake-proof—limiting conservation to façades removes almost all relevant aspects of the cultural fabric.
And then there’s the huge, untapped potential of cultural tourism in our one-time frontier town. Both Luxton and Stuart referred to studies showing the growing, newly recognized value of that sector. As the Baby Boomers age, Stuart notes, large numbers of moneyed, healthy and restless travellers will be roaming the world, looking for authentic, historical experiences—including here in Vancouver. Façadism, it seems, favours the quick buck while ignoring the long-term economic benefits of what could be a collective local cultural asset.
“I think that the future of heritage conservation is in exploitation—although I’m reluctant to use that word—in the tourism business,” says Stuart. “I think that’s what people would come to Vancouver to see, based upon what I see when I go to Europe. I’m telling you, as informed tourists, people are not going to come to see a streetscape of façades. If the interior is completely divorced from the exterior, the tourists are going to say, ‘This is just a movie set, this is phony.’ Our credibility will be wiped out and the people are going to say, ‘well, there’s nothing there.’”
In the meantime, shaky precedents are being set. Developers are clearly counting on being allowed to façade more or less any heritage building they choose. In fact, Luxton points out, they may actually be targeting heritage properties because of inherent benefits: fast-tracking of development permits at City Hall; those popular density bonuses; and avoiding rezoning costs by getting a heritage revitalization agreement. Essentially, they are being rewarded for destroying the actual heritage integrity of the sites they develop. Even more ironically, Luxton points out, the remaining façades frequently get heritage protection after the fact.
The absurdities of the local heritage situation will look even more bizarre a century from now. Not only are we not maintaining heritage, but architects are also being forced into designing strangely compromised new buildings that don’t do the past or present any favours. Luxton also wonders whether anyone will bother with the upkeep of those out-of-context façades when they need attention a few decades from now. And, even more importantly, “Are we going to look back in 100 years and say, what where those idiots thinking? Didn’t they have any respect?”
The lack of respect appears especially dire when you read developer bumff, such as the pamphlet for The Hudson. It reads: “Live the contemporary lifestyle in the heart of Vancouver’s urban pulse. Where the architecture respects its exuberant heritage setting.” Say what? And this is the website text on the (sold out) Shaughnessy Mansions: “A rare example of heritage preservation of original residences in our city. A thoughtful and artistic revival retaining such distinctive features as the original brick façade, while refashioning the interiors with contemporary sophistication.”
While demolition is forever, not all façadism is bad, of course. In the case of buildings from the late 19th century, made of unreinforced masonry, it’s better to shore up the façade and replace the rest than lose the whole thing to the first tremor. Façadism can also be seen as a postmodern middle way between real preservation and modernist demolition. It certainly is preferable to losing buildings entirely, especially when the scale of the buildings and the feel of streetscape can be preserved—take a look at the success of Yaletown. But there’s no doubt that façadism will always be the least desirable heritage option.
Façadism, it seems, favours the quick buck while ignoring the long-term economic benefits of what could be a collective local cultural asset.
So, what are the answers to the current situation? Luxton suggests that Vancouver’s heritage policies and incentive handouts be changed to match the actual level of conservation—with façade projects counting for little—and that the city and its advisory bodies take a deeper, harder look at each building and situation. A bit of political will wouldn’t hurt either. Perhaps someone in charge could actually champion the idea that the past is important, and that façadism is akin to substituting the dust jacket of a book for its actual contents.
“I think we’re taking steps towards conservation but unfortunately we haven’t got out of the development mentality, and the lack of assigning cultural value and actual economic value to our heritage buildings,” Luxton sums up. “And once a building is fragmented, there ends up being very little value to it. People are starting to wonder, is this meaningful or not? I just wonder if we should be allowing it at all. I don’t think the will is there to prevent it entirely, but I think we’re just entirely too willing to let it happen.”
The disappearance of familiar landmarks seems an economic waste in the long run, and may also lead to a sense of dislocation among city residents. Research shows that heritage conservation is one of the best things a city can do to stabilize the community and give people a sense of permanence and place. Yet here we are, ensuring that our sense of history will only ever be skin deep. One entry on façadism in a UK conservation glossary states: “While it is a practice much condemned by conservationists, in fact there can be arguments in its favour, but it needs careful handling.” Perhaps our modus operandi should be extreme caution rather than rash destruction. Façadism is akin to substituting the dust jacket of a book for its actual contents.
Artist Charles Campbell explores the resilience of the African diaspora and his own roots in Jamaica
Multidisciplinary artist Charles Campbell has exhibited worldwide, often using interventions and performances to explore aspects of Black history, particularly those connected to the Caribbean. Campbell, a former chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, is now based in Victoria, where he also finds time to work for change in Canadian art institutions as an educator, writer and activist.
Campbell’s exhibition, as it was, as it should have been, was shown at Vancouver’s Wil Aballe Art Projects in the fall of 2020 and included pieces connected to ongoing projects that involve community, performance and a deep dive into Jamaica’s history and culture. His paintings, prints, sound installation and sculpture, all relate to themes of migration, where boundaries are challenged and new futures imagined.
A second project, Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos, is a new public art commission permanently on view at the Victoria International Airport. The piece features beautiful wooden vessels inscribed with the words of American sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, who speaks to ideas about paradise being connected to home. Airborne, the vessels float high above the airport’s departure lounge, which, needless to say, is much quieter than normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. Campbell’s work is immediately intriguing and invites further investigation.
“Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos,” 2020 wood and stainless steel hardware, installation view in the lower passenger lounge of the Victoria International Airport (photo by Calum Campbell)
MM: Airport commissions are a big deal. They are places loaded with opportunities to make a powerful welcoming (or departing) statement. Your piece Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos at the Victoria airport seems to fit so perfectly into the space – above the fray, an armada of floating boats. I’m wondering if you could speak about the choices you made for this. And were those choices made in light of it being in the departures area rather than the arrivals area?
CC: The passenger lounge seemed like an interesting place to consider how time operates and how we interact with it on different scales. It’s a place that’s in-between departing and arriving, one where we may flash through or spend hours.
Throughout the work’s conception, I wanted to make a piece that could hold multiple notions of time, and would unfold depending on how one encountered it. The vessels have both a push towards the past and the future – they’re ships and canoes, they’re the body of migratory birds, seed pods, they’re space ships. Initially, the array appears chaotic, but then, as you spend time with it, the pattern begins to reveal itself.
For me, the piece alludes to the moments when our seemingly random individualized actions combine to create something larger. It’s the way ocean winds become hurricanes or stardust combines in the white fleshy fruit of an apple – a swirling, unpredictable moment when multiple temporalities collide to form something beautiful, frightening, fleeting and/or eternal.
The decisions were all about getting these ideas to operate materially – tuning the toroidal array and the spacing of the vessels so the overall pattern could move in and out of focus, finding the balance between lightness and weight, movement and stillness. A ridiculous amount of time was spent deciding on the cable and bearing system the work hangs from and refining the assembly process for the vessels.
Charles Campbell, “Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos,” 2020 wood and stainless steel hardware, detail of installation in the lower passenger lounge of the Victoria International Airport (photo by Calum Campbell)
MM: Parable of the Sower is written in Morse code on each of your vessels, so the work is very subtly and literally coded. Can you tell me what significance these poems have in this context?
CC: There are a few things going on here. Firstly, there is this idea that Victoria exists in a bubble and projects itself as a sort of paradise – a place outside of time, a city of gardens, heritage buildings, tea rooms, etc. Butler defines paradise as home: “One’s own people, One’s own world, Knowing and known, Perhaps even Loving and loved.” And the poem goes on to talk about how we are all cast from paradise: “Into growth and destruction, Into solitude and new community, Into vast, ongoing Change.”
So in part, the reference to Butler pushes against this idea of an insular Victoria, apart from global events. It affirms a notion of paradise that is about our connection to people and place, and the necessity of engaging with change.
The passage also touches on my own biography and that of many people who have roots in the African diaspora – the multiple migrations we have endured, how we exist in solitude or form new communities, and the forces of growth and destruction that accompany us.
In the context of the airport, I hope the poem is a sort of welcome to people being pushed and pulled by global events, an invitation to find home, and a statement that we’re embracing the changes that come as newcomers arrive in this community. For members of the Black creative community that hold Butler in such high regard, quoting her is also a way to say: “We’re here.”
MM: It’s literally above most people’s heads. How are people expected to decode these pieces for the deeper dive?
CC: The poem will also be engraved in the floor beneath the piece, so it will be legible for people who take the time to look.
MM: COVID-19 delayed the unveiling of this project. What are your reflections on the global stoppage of travel and the themes you explore?
CC: COVID drove home some of the issues I was dealing with in the piece and really highlighted how we’re connected to global events. When I was making the work I was thinking a lot about the refugee crisis and the forces that combined to produce mass migrations: climate change, geopolitics, movements of capital, information networks, racism, Islamophobia, colonial legacies, local conditions, the list goes on.
And then there is this small, West Coast airport that caters to tourists and business travellers, but is also a place where a lot of wealth and power moves through, a place embedded in its own colonial legacy, that has its own problems with racism, poverty and homelessness. I was thinking of how the forces at play in my city relate to global events, of the refugee families that disembark at YYJ to settle in Victoria and the fossil fuel exec that may board the same plane after penning a deal with the provincial government.
But still there was an assumed distance between local events and these extreme global manifestations. The fruiting of chaos was elsewhere. Now it’s everywhere. The growth and destruction that Butler talks about are so much more evident now, as are the forces of change.
I installed the piece at the height of the lockdown and the only people in the airport were my installation crew (my two oldest kids actually), myself and a raft of security personnel, all at their stations checking bags and waving wands as if all this was normal. I admit to thinking that maybe the piece is redundant now. Maybe the hurricane has already passed through.
Charles Campbell, “Actor Boy I,” 2009 mixed media on canvas (courtesy of the artist)
MM: Your Actor Boy paintings are lovely. They look like kinetic confections of some kind. They put me in mind of earlier eras of pattern making for domestic decoration. I can’t quite place it and I know there’s much more to it. They are connected to a series of really interesting and literally boundary-pushing performances in Kingston, Jamaica. Can you tell me how they are related and what we should look for in these works?
CC: I guess I should say that I spend a lot of time inhabiting my own fictions. In the trajectory of my work, the Actor Boy paintings represented a move from using motifs related to the brutality of slavery and the plantation system to images that referenced cultural resilience. Actor Boy is a character in the Jamaican carnival celebration Jonkonu, a trickster that lampoons the character and proclivities of his overseers.
The paintings repeat an image of Actor Boy produced in 1837-38, shortly after emancipation, by the Jamaican artist Isaac Mendez Belesario and turn it into a sort of blossoming floral motif. I was thinking about this excessive, raucous, creolized cultural expression as a threat to the plantation system, something that seeded revolts and a time when the slave population was demonstrably more than property, beasts of burden and units of labour.
Charles Campbell, “Actor Boy IV,” 2009 mixed media on canvas (courtesy of the artist)
They also became a vehicle for me to reflect on the times immediately before and after emancipation in Jamaica. After spending months with the image, I started imagining Actor Boy on the streets of Kingston and tried to imagine seeing present day events through the eyes of someone who embodied the hopes and aspirations of the recently emancipated slaves. That became the seed for the Actor Boy persona and performances.
The most important move was to position him not as someone from the past but from one of the alternate futures made possible at the time of emancipation. He thus became a time traveller able to move between different temporal streams and represents a whole set of possibilities that are difficult to imagine from our present perspective.
In the Kingston performances you mention, Actor Boy tasked himself with understanding and disrupting the city’s social stratification by orchestrating a series of creative engagements between “uptown” and “downtown” Kingston – geographic designations that routinely stand in for class and racial distinctions between rich and poor.
Charles Campbell, “Maroonscape 1: Cockpit Archipelago,” 2019 mat board and wood (Photo by Mateo Serna Zapata)
MM: The piece Maroonscape 1: Cockpit Archipelago strikes me as a set of maquettes for a futuristic development merged with the topography of a landscape. How did you get from the reality of a place that was a redoubt of escaped slaves to this futuristic vision? Will there be further iterations of this work? What were your decisions around scale and how the piece would be experienced in a gallery setting?
CC: When I think about the future, adherence to the systems that are failing us is not going to get us through. Black and Indigenous communities are already living post-apocalyptic lives and we need to reorient ourselves and pay heed to the experience and knowledges that we’re developing as we engage in the slow process of reconstruction.
The Maroons’ survival was predicated on their knowledge and relationship to the lands they inhabited and they were strongest when they acted as decentralized yet interdependent communities in their fight against the British. Maroonscape 1 proposes this as a model for the future. It’s scaled to appear as an architectural model, something that could be built, but it’s the underlying concepts that I want to build on, and the centrality of our relationship to the lands we inhabit.
This piece is the first in the series. Maroonscape 2 debuts at WAAP and is a soundscape that codes the birdsong of species endemic to Cockpit Country into Paradise, which is a passage from Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I’m working on Maroonscape 3 now. It enlarges forms similar to those in Maroonscape 1 to a more human scale for a public sculpture garden.
I hope to turn it into a gathering place for the Black community and a space for talks, performances and workshops that can explore some of the themes and issues present in the work. The Maroons, as communities of escaped slaves, operated under a violent colonial regime and represent resistance and resilience, but the bargains they struck to retain their freedom include compromises and complicity with the system of oppressions. There is a lot to learn from and think about here and I hope to dig into these issues more deeply in future projects.
MM: The times seem to be, finally, very urgent on a global scale with environmental and social justice issues really at a “now or never” point. I worry about art that is either too subtle and coded or it all needing to become agitprop. How do you determine where to situate your work? I see direct and engaging performative work that engages community and these beautiful, inviting slightly puzzling pieces.
CC: I really admire and see the need for work that is direct and to the point, but still find myself insisting on the right to remain somewhat opaque. I often create work that tries to hold together things that can’t really be held together, and as tightly as possible.
Fundamentally, we exist in excess of our representations and can’t be reduced to our “identities” and this excess and irreducibility is the richer matter of life. Resisting the urge to be reduced to a fully comprehensible or consumable entity is itself political.
The counterpoint to this is that I’m interested in telling stories and examining, creating and shifting relationships. I see this as a process of creating meaning around the artwork. It’s the park bench where two lovers first kissed, but the park bench still eludes meaning. In these urgent times we need a space to puzzle through uncertainty.
MM: As a garden variety first-generation Anglo Scots import, I find Victoria to be overwhelmingly colonial in flavour, to the point of cartoonishness. I hope that is changing. Do you find there is fertile ground for connection around Caribbean and other histories? The Victoria News referred to you as a “world class” artist. I thought we were beyond that kind of terminology now, but in the end, does it matter anymore where we create art?
CC: I have to laugh when I hear the term “world class” – it always reads like a declaration of cultural insecurity.
The ground in Victoria is beginning to shift, but for a long time I felt there was an absolute refusal to see any of the issues I dealt with in my work as relevant to here. Victoria’s identity as a liberal, all-white, colonial enclave is breaking down though. There is some very strong Indigenous leadership here and once you start digging into colonial history, the Caribbean isn’t very far away. The Douglas and Trutch families both had slave plantations in the Caribbean, for example.
The demographics are also shifting and there is now a critical mass of people interested in tackling this place’s colonial history head on and contesting the art world’s whiteness and modernist amnesia. Some of the leaders in the effort to decolonize the arts in Canada are also based here so the conversations can be very rich, even as the city keeps projecting its colonial facade. That said, we all know that artistic opportunities are not distributed equally throughout the globe. There are centres of wealth and power and places with a lot more cultural confidence than here. For my part though, I’m happy making work here.
(A version of this interview originally appeared in Galleries West in October, 2020)
Vancouver photographer Stephen Waddell won the 2019 Scotiabank Photography Prize and a new retrospective book of his work has just been published this year by Steidl. We caught up with Stephen at his studio and Monte Clark’s new gallery to talk a bit about the book but mostly about the work. We even managed to fit in some interesting local history!
Paul Dolden is a unique and unmistakable voice in Canadian contemporary music that deserves a re-introduction to a new generation of music fans.
But first, some history. Waaaaay back in a time known as the 1980s, this Ottawa-born composer, after doing hard time as a rock guitarist, decamped to the Sonic Research Lab at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver where he forged some of the most unique music ever carved out of the western formal tradition by using the recording studio to sculpt masses of meticulously recorded instrumental tracks into fantastic walls of sound.
By the end of the decade he had released a 2-CD set titled “L’Ivresse de la Vitesse” (The Intoxication of Speed) which was named by The WIRE as one of the “100 Records That Set The World On Fire”. Except nobody was listening. Now we are in a different place and perhaps the ears of the world are more receptive.
At first, Dolden’s music comes on like forboding, jagged mountain range of sound, in the shadow of which stands a listener. It’s daunting music, even deemed “oppressive” by some. And if music is a language all its own, then this work is telling you to abandon sentimentality and acknowledge that the earth beneath us might split asunder at any moment. For a listener ready to do a bit of work, and with a serious hi-fi system for playback (remember those days?) it will leave you breathless, alone and exhilarated. It’s actually genuinely exciting music, which is a rare commodity.
Dolden’s ouvre took shape at a time when the machinations for the political and social darkness we are now enveloped in were fully underway, turbocharged after the dawn of Reagan and Thatcher era. For those who believe that life is full of violent ruptures and artists are obliged to harness and channel that energy to reflect the reality of our times … and, ultimately, all time, this music is exemplary of that goal being attained.
Dolden’s music demands concentrated listening and an ear that is capable of acting like super fast CPU to take in rapidly evolving, multiple strands of sound and keeping it all distinct from noise. That’s a skillset one also needs for processing modern life, ever more so these days. At its most useful it helps a person feel less anxious in the face of the random chaos of existence.
FROM VEILS TO WALLS
Things really began in 1985 with “Veils: Studies in Textural Transformations”, Paul’s SFU MA thesis piece which, oddly enough, was a relatively listener-friendly tour de force. And by “listener friendly” I mean for those who enjoyed the music of Gyorgy Ligeti that accompanied the monolith scenes in Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Veils was a seductive half-hour of massed instruments that enveloped the listener in slowly shifting dense and overwhelming textures. The piece marked the beginning of his use of extraordinary numbers of multi-tracked instruments, to a degree never attempted before. Miraculously, Veils was even played at The Xerox Theatre as part of the Expo 86 “entertainment” line up, continuing in the tradition of world fairs paying minor tribute to music as an art form on a par with, at least, architecture. It should be noted that the temporary, quickly knocked-up, Xerox-branded venue is long gone while Veils persists. Ars longa indeed … at least until the sun explodes.
In pop music, by contrast, we might remember English pop group 10cc’s 1975 hit “I’m Not In Love” for its gorgeous and distinctive multi-tracked vocal chorus, a first for a commercial radio hit. Previously, the best known popular music created using the studio as an instrument would have been The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” or The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” albums (and, of course the “Good Vibrations” single) but it was 10cc that really introduced a lengthy and sustained textural component to popular song craft. One could also mention Phil Spector’s “Walls of Sound” production style but let’s not.
Fast forward ten years and Dolden is developing a “maximalist” aesthetic in which hundreds of digitally recorded instrumental and vocal performances are combined in multiple layers. It is truly “next level”. And as the number of tracks increased so did the intensity and power of the music. It all came to a head by the early1990s with the “Walls Cycle”, beginning with “Below the Walls of Jericho” and ending with “Beyond the Walls of Jericho”. The allusion is to the Biblical story of the actual walls of the fortifications of Jericho tumbling under the force of loudly blown rams’ horns in an ancient acknowledgement of the power of sound.
The titles also represent the 3 stages of revolutionary history as discussed by historians:
1) Below the Walls signifying revolution, usually violent.
2) Dancing on the Walls is the celebratory dance on the rubble of the revolution.
3) Beyond the Walls is the post-revolutionary period, usually turning counter revolutionary and more violent than the first period.
There were those who found it all too much, especially in Vancouver where, at the time, contemporary music was (and largely still is) seen as a less confrontational and more communal endeavor.
The late Doug Hughes, a classical music critic for The Georgia Straight (remember when such things existed?) demonstrated the level of resistance, even among the so-called intelligentsia. And that was in one of the few media channels then available for providing public exposure and critical context. In response to “Below the Walls of Jericho” he talked of his cats yowling in response and how he didn’t want the current events of the day amplified. Vancouver was clearly hostile territory. Paul moved to Quebec and immediately enjoyed far greater recognition and a growing international audience base.
You could say the music was ahead of its time but Paul, being interviewed in 1992 said that the idea was absurd, that you simply cannot be ahead of your time. Our best hope is that audiences will find the music of the true present at the time of its creation.
During a 2017 visit to Quebec’s Laurentian region where Paul now lives and records, I conducted an informal interview at a roadside diner near Val David. It coincided with the release of his CD “Music for Another Present Era” or “Histoires d’histoire”.
I had only sporadically kept up with Paul’s music in the years since he left for Quebec and was fascinated to hear its evolution into something much different but with the familiar stamp of rigourous conceptual formulation and production excellence. Since creating the Walls cycle, Paul’s music has evolved, been pulled apart, given more space and fully embraces the music of the world. It is friendlier … and funnier.
Paul Dolden: I’ve been developing in my work over the last ten years the idea of a “historical imagination”. So what interests me now is imagining other times using the language of contemporary music combined with the compositional techniques I like to use. For example on “Music for Another Present Era” the first movement is the story of Marsyas, a Greek myth. I actually use some Greek tuning systems, though I don’t actually use Greek instruments. I’m not trying to recreate ancient Greek music. It’s more of an imaginary reflection on that time. The second section is inspired by an African myth that uses alot of percussion instruments but actually has more to do with jazz and latin rhythms in many ways.
I suppose, overall, it’s a post-modern play on how we can have different historical periods of music existing at the same time. To me that very imagining is a contemporary thing. I can imagine ancient Greece because I’ve seen films like Fellini’s Satyricon where the soundtrack is a fanciful mash-up of styles, or images of Syrian ruins that you’d see in a history book.
We’re so conditioned by the number of images and sounds that we’re constantly consuming that I think it’s important to be playful with it all. I think I’m being “of my time” by doing so even though I’m often talking about historical themes in my music with pieces like “Bebop Bagdad” or “Sumerian Starlight”. I think it’s very “of our time” to be thinking of other cultures and times simply because we can.
Mushet: We’re use to the instruments and superficial motifs of other cultures’ musics for mere colour in pop music. In the classical new music realm there are often a lot of earnest attempts to collaborate by having different cultures meet in the concert hall. Although this is starting to yield some interesting work, a lot of it seems too tentative and polite, as though too many accomodations are made to account for differences in approach that the end product is unsatisfying, if pretty. You integrate things in a much more thorough and cohesive way to the point where it sounds like all the history of the music of the world is being compressed into one intense piece. That’s more interesting to me.
Dolden: It’s been decribed that way and I like that idea but it’s really more of a personal thing. I just really want to hear it all. I’m an avid listener of other peoples’ music. I’ll do a three hour hike in the afternoon and listen to all kinds of music in the evening. I’m constantly listening to music. I float in it.
Mushet: It didn’t always used to be that way. I recall you being more into Xenakis, Ligeti et al., the more established new music canonical heavyweights.
Dolden: Oh yeah. But I always had a really large record collection, like you! In the 1980s I was probably talking too much about myself but that’s because of “Young Composer disease”! I finally got some medication for that!
Mushet: We consume endless streams of visual art works that revel in the the messy dark aspects of modern human existence. People binge watch things like “Breaking Bad” for example. It’s a brilliant sprawling indictment of modern America that like “Deadwood” or “The Wire” are celebrated for expanding the idea of what’s possible in TV serial form. But as a society we can’t be assed to sit down and listen to a 15 minute piece of music that threatens to upend the idea of what’s similarly possible in music.
Now there’s been a massive expansion of the technical capacity for music creation and it’s become affordable and ubiquitous. But in the public at large there’s been a serious loss of attention to contemporary music outside of popular forms. It seems that there’s been no “trickle down effect” of discovery despite the fact that we have more and instant access to every kind of music 24/7.
Dolden: Communications theory is really interesting right now. For example, when radio was the standard consumer device for first hearing music, people in the classical and art worlds thought this device was finally going to “educate” the public, that we would all be listening to Bach and Beethoven within a few years! But with each stage of development of the various music distribution technologies, there’s been an idea that we’re bringing all the music of the world and making it availabe to everybody and this is regarded as a plus.
But it’s the employment of algorithms that’s the problem. They suggest that “if you listen to such and such then you will also like such and such”. So if I listen to one heavy metal album (because every so often I need to hear some metal!) then I’m bombarded with more metal recommendations. Then, if I listen to a piece by Morton Feldman I’m instantly guided to a whole stream of music by post-Feldman composers. So a lot of people get stuck on that. The technology is supposedly “neutral” but it’s clearly not. Everybody wants things customized to themselves so in reality there’s a narrowing of listening habits.
Mushet: But that’s the effect of turbocharged tech-capiltailsm. They are guiding us to similar products because they need to sell in predictable and increasingly reliable quantities and without producing a physical product at the end.
Dolden: But its also the service they’re selling. We both started by going to record stores and shuffling through records, except that I grew up in a home full of classical music playing constantly. But I didn’t end up knowing anything past early Stravinsky. So one day, when I was about 15, I was in one of those record stores shuffling through the delete bins. I should have taken note; notice how all this stuff is in the delete bin! It’s not out front with the Zeppelin and Coltrane! I should have turned around and gone back to the sections which were selling! Anyway, there were some Iannis Xenakis albums and I remember they were only 69 cents so I picked them up.
I started reading the back covers to learn how he made this music. I thought it sounded so insane that I had to buy it just to hear it. It was his stochastic 60s work with all the math involved in the composition and I thought “What? He’s definitely not using blues scales!” I didn’t understand a thing but wow, what a sound! So I looked up who Iannis Xenakis was and what he, in turn, talked about. And that’s how the journey began. A flukey accident with a 69 cent deleted record. Now with Spotify etc. you maybe wouldn’t come across something like that.
Mushet: The musical language and working techniques you are using, are largely the same as before but the density in your work has given way to something that feels pulled apart, more spacious and accessable for lack of a better word
Dolden: I think most composers look for increasing clarity as we get older. That’s part of it. And I now appreciate more music that has more room to breathe. So it’s aging, a maturing artistic process and overall refinement.
You have to remember that when I made “Veils” I was dealing with 250 tracks and by the end of the Walls cycle I was using up to 800 tracks! At the time I was still a young composer thinking it was all original and great and new and really cool. Now when I hear it I hear how scary it is. I don’t listen to it too often myself and I know many people don’t. But I knew I was hitting a wall. There was nowhere further to go so I had to start spreading things out.
Mushet: I think the Walls cycle holds up beautifully, still simultaneously frightening and exhilarating. It’s like setting off on a journey through a very dark mountain landscape where you are forced to realize how insignificant we are. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic but that may be why it put some people off, though it realy ultimately is life affirming. And the gentle or soft moments really stand out in relief with such a dynamic range.
Dolden: You know me as a friend and that I have a sense of humour. There’s no sense of humour in those 1980s works. I sound like a cranky, cranky dude but you know I wasn’t. So I think my personality is coming out more in my music now.
Mushet: All the music of the world seems to find its expression in “Music of Another Present Era”.
Dolden: That’s just where my interest is now. For the past five or ten years now, half of my listening time is dedicated to music of the world so it’s really starting to come out in the new work. Whenever I’m writing, composing and producing I’m primarily in a dialoge with the music of the world and the history of composers and compositional techniques.
Mushet: But you don’t want to be seen as some kind of great musical imperialist/colonizer, especially now!
Dolden: Yes this is a problem. I’ve made it very opqaue in terms of how its actually operating within my music.
Mushet: It’s really clear that you’ve looked at each intrument’s character, sound and use in its original context. It’s never just a sound source but its history seems considered as well.
Dolden: I’ve really had to seriously contemplate non-western musical language in relation to ours. It’s a “problem” for a western composer because a lot of it involves traditions that incorporate a lot of improvisation and a lot of music is meant for ritual and ceremony. I’m working in a highly written tradition, so the question becomes how do I integrate Arab or Indian or Asian musics into my compositions. That’s where the deepest musical thinking needs to happen on my part. I don’t want to do that thing that so many do where somebody simply arranges Balinese music for alto flute and vibraphone or whatever. That kind of approach sends me over the top!
Mushet: I think our eggs Benedicts have arrived! (tape ends)
So we should assume then that the power of sound and complex music may well have reached its peak with the Walls cycle and may never be absorbed or appreciated by any but a small band of fanatical devotees. Fair enough. The sun will explode one day and none of this will matter anyway. In the meantime it seems as if Paul Dolden has finally embraced the community model in his own unique way.
But history, as we now plainly see, sometimes bears repeating if only to recall how we may have missed its lessons. Accordingly, Paul has put the Walls cycle up for listening at Bandcamp. It is sad that many will only listen on a computer speaker system. I’d urge you to go full retro and order the CD for hi-fi home playback. Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream…
Then bring yourself up to date with “Music of Another Present Era” and this time, let’s hope Paul is presenting a future ahead of our time.
At long last comes our latest music video! Wrenegade was shot last summer in Musqueam | Pacific Spirit Park and animated over the winter. It’s the result of a collaboration between Cindy Mochizuki and myself in bringing Bowen Island-based composer Nova Pon’s delightful piece for solo flute to the big screen (or small screen if you’re on your laptop). Just don’t watch it on your phone! Naturally this revolves around a stellar performance by national treasure Mark Takeshi McGregor who brought the project to us.
The Holy Life of the Intellect
I believe that the human intellect is the closest thing we have to the divine. It is the way we can join one another in spirit.
Sometimes when you are listening to a great jazz musician performing a long solo, you are experiencing his mind, moment by moment, as it shifts and decides, as it adds and reminds. This happens whether the musician is a saxophone player or a bass player or a pianist. You are in there, where that other mind is. His mind is coming through your ears and inside your mind.
The first time I heard Charlie Parker playing“Ornithology,” I was delighted. I was about eleven years old. You are so much alone with your mind as a kid, so when you hear someone else’s mind improvising, you feel an excitement you will never get from some music that just wants to keep a steady beat.
I got that delight again when I first heard great improvisatory poetry. When I read The Desert Music by William Carlos Williams, the book fell out of my hands and made a loud splat on the library’s concrete floor. Later I would hear the poet Philip Whalen call this kind of poetry “a graph of the mind moving.” Yes, it is.
It can happen with prose, too — sentences you hear in your head and know how they felt inside another’s. I believe that if there is a god, this is what he wanted us to do. It is the holy life of the intellect.
If we can experience another’s mind in our own, we know that love is possible. We understand why the great poet Shelley wrote a hymn to what he called “Intellectual Beauty,” and called it an invisible power that moves among the things and people of this Earth.
It descended on him when he was a youth looking for wisdom from the words of the dead. Intelligence literally means “choosing among.” Shelley called it the spirit of delight. It is the gift of wit, which literally means the kind of seeing that makes you smile and clap your hands together. I believe that this provokes what the Greeks called agape, the Romans called caritas , and what we settled for as love. It’s greater than hope and faith, according to St. Paul of Tarsus in an otherwise questionable letter to the Corinthians.
If you want to hear it happen rather than suffer anymore of my apostolic prose, listen to the improvisation byJohn Coltrane in his immortal album called A Love Supreme. There we are: a fine intellect, a tenor saxophone and a reach for perfect prayer.
– George Bowering
From Writing & Reading out now and available from:
…or your favourite local bookseller!
Cover photo: Mark Mushet
Patrick Condon has a new book out that hopes to point the way towards a successful transformation of our cities as they endure multiple stressors.
“Unreal” Construction hoarding (detail)
EDITOR’S NOTE: The feature essay “Vision Deficit” by architecture critic/curator/urbanist Trevor Boddy was written for Vancouver Review in the last weeks of 2009, just before the Winter Olympics began in February, 2010. The piece takes a broad estimation of the state of Vancouver, from its spirit and outlook to reviewing its bare concrete and green glass towers and the architectural initiatives undertaken for the winter games. He takes us from Richmond and its Olympic venues, along the Canada Line to the Downtown Eastside and the monotonous ranks of Yaletown towers. It’s a metropolitan stroll marked by both hope and disappointment.
A lot has changed since then, particularly in our local mediascape. Boddy notes the extinction of substantive independent cover stories in the Georgia Straight (now sold to Media Central Corporation), the ever more advertorial content of Vancouver Magazine (now owned by the Yellow Pages), and the shortening and dumbing down of pieces in the Vancouver Sun where he once contributed to the Saturday “Mix” section. As a result, Vancouver’s media scene allows no space for long-form essays, nor for wide-eyed cultural criticism. The print version of Vancouver Review was one of the last “safe spaces” for just such contrarian windmill tilting. We were glad to have him and are pleased he’s back for an update.
As it happens, the “update” proved a substantial piece on its own and rather than running it as a footnote to a republished “Vision Deficit”, we thought we’d put it right up front. With the new, video-focused format of VR Media, we realize that the blog’s white-text-on-black in a narrow column format is not ideal for reading long form pieces online. We recommend you read the update here and, if you like, copy and paste the “Vision Deficit” piece into a more reader-friendly format for the long haul. It’s worth it!
My working title for the essay published as “Vision Deficit” in Vancouver Review #24 (Winter 2010) was “Unreal Estate,” but I think it better I saved this title for now. Certainly, Vancouver real estate got more and more “unreal” throughout the decade just passed, with only sister city Hong Kong emerging as the more un-affordable metropolis on the planet. The convergence of real estate, politics and media outlets that I describe here only intensified, until their bonds finally started to loosen, first with the provincial election of 2017, then the civic one of 2018, our citizenry at last realizing there was something deeply wrong. But the damage was done — not to mention the missed design opportunities — and we’ll be picking up the pieces for decades to come. In every sense, Vancouver got Trumped.
Thanks to the luxury of a writing slot long enough to set the tone of an entire city — plus the fine photography of Mark Mushet and Vancouver Review’s impactful cover by Marian Bantjes — this essay produced more chatter amongst more classes of Vancouverites than anything else I have written here. Some of that chatter was skeptical, especially in our development industry and its constant subsidiary, our political class. “Developocracy?”, they asked, “Don’t you think that is over-stating things a bit?” Not at all. With the perspective of the decade past, I know I understated the extent to which bland over-development hyper-concentrated in “luxury” tacky towers has altered Vancouver. And I should have told more about how this city’s passive media are a key part of the problem.
The self-enforcing circle of Vancouver’s Developocracy is now starting to break, due to forces both internal and external. For the past twenty years, the city has had a simple political choice of “The Developer’s Party of the Right — the NPA,” and “The Developer’s Party of the Left — Vision Vancouver.” Rather than plan a Cambie Corridor and False Creek Flats for affordable housing and architecture with grace, Sam Sullivan’s NPA and chief planner Brent Toderian polished the brand of their purposefully vague “Eco-Density” slogan. Things got more subtle but worse under “Vision Vancouver’s” subsequent wrap of clever but ineffective greenwashing with the catch-phrase “The World’s Greenest City.” And at the end of all of this, the integration of our development and political classes became complete.
Developers first gained status here via the art world, then continued to reign by pretending to carry the torch of a superficial environmentalism that banned plastic bags and promoted luxury towers with electric car plug-ins. Vancouver’s Developocracy was never so seamless and slick as under Vision, but voters finally saw through this scrim of green, and in an almost complete turnaround, threw every one of them out of office in 2018. This happened because our crisis of unaffordability and a lack of rental housing had become so intense that it threatened the middle class, and ironically, the development industry itself, as Vancouver’s land had priced itself out of all buildability. One has to turn to fantasy — the mythical “Worm Ourbororos,” a dragon that eats its own tail — to find an apt metaphor for what has happened here.
In “Vision Deficit” I proposed Bob Rennie as the man of the decade previous, “the real mayor of Vancouver.” For the decade after the Olympics, there is no possible choice other than the owner-guru-potentate of Westbank Development, the man who commissioned and built Woodward’s, Fairmont Pacific Rim, Shaw Tower, Vancouver House and so many others. Ian Gillespie represents so much of what defined Vancouver in the past decade — a turn to global investment, a creative flair for building, West Cost funkiness masking bold ambition, a revealing credentialist need for brand-enhancing validation in the form of established names in art and design.
It has to be said that no Vancouver developer has done more for innovative architecture and ambitious public art than Gillespie, and he, almost alone amongst his peers, has tried to create affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside, and who proved essential in building the Utopian, only-in-Vancouver vision of a multi-use Woodward’s, integrating luxury condos, historic preservation, SFU’s fine arts faculty and housing for the poorest of the poor. However, even Westbank’s development acumen in combination with Bing Thom’s prestige and design record could not land community buy-in for a redevelopment of the former Safeway site near Broadway and Commercial, the hub of our entire transit system still hollow after nearly three decades.
The Westbank-led up-zoning of the Oakridge mall into a forest of a dozen towers is one of the largest increases in land value ever made by a single planning decision in Canada, accomplished with little public debate under a Vision council. It got re-zoned yet again with a shrunken park and other public amenities under the current council. Gillespie correctly saw the dimming of the glimmer of the title “developer” with the election of real estate hustler Donald Trump, so soon worked with public relations experts here and abroad to convince a global audience that he is actually an “artist,” his development projects all expressions of “artistry.” No fool, Gillespie sensed that things were changing, so wrapped himself in the mantel of art, notably his 2017 “Fight for Beauty” exhibition-in-a-tent, and then the 2019 Granville Bridge under-dwelling “Chandelier” by Rodney Graham.
The most recent sign this version of Developocracy is ending is Westbank’s turn to rental (not usually affordable rental, but soon-to-skyrocket-in-cash-flow-unregulated-market rental), and his biggest current project, the huge “Senakw” multi-ultra-tower development at the south end of the Burrard Bridge, is on First Nations land and will consequently require no city planning approvals, no City Council vote. It is an unusually risk-free proposition for a developer. There are even larger projects looming, with many more towers to come on the huge Jericho lands, plus the former RCMP lands at 33rd and Heather, both sites where Aquilini, not Westbank, is the main development partner. First Nations-controlled sites will thus be the largest source of housing in Vancouver over the next decade. A bold, injustice-righting initiative by our Squamish brethren, or a new, more multi-hued version of Developocracy? We’ll see…
In closing, a return to what I got right, and wrong, in my essay of a decade ago. I was wrong about the half billion-dollar boondoggle of the BC Place new roof not proceeding. It got built, and was even more expensive, a squandering of public funds that could have sparked the construction of 5000 affordable housing units on the False Creek Flats. Instead, the Flats is becoming a parking lot for forlorn institutions, notably St. Paul’s Hospital (insisted upon by American-run Health Maintenance Organization “Providence Healthcare,” so the half billion dollars of land value of their West End site could be extracted—Unreal Estate, post-religious version!), and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, one of the last great Public-Private-Partnerships of the Liberal government, a building so clumsy and bland and pointless its students sometimes call it “Evil High School.”
I wish they had let Ian Gillespie build ECU — the man at least understands art and quality architecture — rather than just lend his name to some sponsored rooms inside. Realizing an architectural blunder from Toronto’s Diamond and Schmitt Architects was in the making, former Lululemon majordomo Chip Wilson sponsored the lotus-like red-petaled café (or yoga hall or whatever it is) in front of ECU, to create a distraction from the architectural embarrassment behind it. We have progressed from green-washing to petal-fogging!
The Vancouver Art Gallery did not get built on False Creek as wished by Campbell, nor anywhere else because of the Developocracy-inspired intransigence of now-fired VAG director Kathleen Bartels, who insisted instead on a starchitect-designed new building by Herzon and de Meuron — a muddled embarrassment of a design. What is painful, if a VAG extension on their current site, or a renovation of the former Main Post Office had been initiated (preliminary studies investigating these options were suppressed), Vancouver could have funded and now be using the increased gallery spaces it so much deserves.
Here on Cambie Street, a building nearly as dull as the Canada Line station was indeed built over it, and the billions of dollars of new condos lining both sides of this street all the way down to Marine Drive are an architectural lost opportunity of global scale. It is ever clearer that the PPP-promoting teams of the Liberal government and SNC Lavalin under-designed the Canada Line and its stations — maybe we should enshrine the latin words for “Penny Wise, Pound Foolish” on our provincial crest? There are winners and survivors of the Developocracy wars, and I am one of them. I am still living in a rented house on Cambie, sold years ago to Mainland China interests now caught up in Vancouver’s glacial development approval process.
There are some extremely talented architects under 40 now at work on the fringes here, working with a new generation of developers less obsessed with running city hall and muting our tiny trickle of media voices. I lecture and consult and write all around the world, and fully knowing every alternative locale, still choose to live here. Whatever else, this city becomes ever more interesting and is still almost entirely unwritten-about. I would not write this if I did not love our Vancouver, now safely out of adolescence, but facing a huge case of the Troubled Twenties.
– Trevor Boddy
January 14, 2020
I first noted the city shifting last October. Subtle but there — a new skip in our collective strides, a quickening of urban pulse along newly patched streets, a wakening from suburban slumber. Or, at the risk of overstating it, a new sense of self emerging from our collective après-ski/après-Grouse Grind torpor that passes for this city’s inner mental life. Or maybe it was just that last October saw several weeks’ respite from drug-trade killings, or, just as likely, the seasonal return to seriousness after a sybaritic summer of sun. The towers surged, the engines strove, the dirt was heaved, and soon after we were squatting at the edge of the improvised stage, waiting.
Vancouver is changing — there can now be little doubt — at last overcoming its jejune isolation and exaggerated sense of its own beauty, like a talented adolescent leaving behind the happy sureties of childhood for the risks of adulthood as a full-grown, not-just-latent metropolis. Awake, and just like any teenager preparing for a big date, camped out in front of the mirror, looking hard to sort out the hype from hope, the urban blackheads from the inherited good bone structure. The pre-Olympic moment found Vancouver nervous, neurotic and anything but neutral.
In the same way that EXPO 86 gets way too much credit for an overdue and inevitable recovery from the desperate resources-price-crash experienced through the early 1980s recession, the 2010 Olympic Winter Games will forever be over-praised by the naïve and over-governed — those who buy into the cant of economic multiplier effects and multiplier effects upon the multiplier effects. For all times, this group will no doubt mis-credit the Olympic Games for ending the Great Recession, solidifying our destiny as high-end resort of convenience for anxious global money, even for fixing potholes and soothing out the lines of our city’s visage.
This is why provincial cash keeps getting shoveled into bricks and mortar (Nearly a half-billion dollars for a new roof on a seldom-used football stadium? Did I copy down that number incorrectly?) This is happening at the same time as BC’s arts are being devastated, and education and health spending barely maintained. This grumpy ungraciousness is accompanied by a neglectful ignorance of how truly new and lasting actual wealth is created. British Columbia is now dominated by a self-sabotaging disinterest in creative ideas, truly innovative businesses, and especially, the minds of the very people needed to shape them. Tragically, we have confused a real-estate boom with an economic boom, and have handed over the management of our cities, towns and province to sharpies on the hustle. As nowhere else I have ever known — even Alberta in the 1970s — this province has become a passive state run by and for real-estate developers.
Cash gets shoveled into Olympian efforts because BC is run by a managerial class in which real-estate developers predominate. These are minds that believe, as an article of faith, that those streets of public cash just multiply through the private sector into wide freeways, and then great shopping mall parking lots paved with cash, the runoff money trickling down to help those incapacitated by age, compromised health, addictions, and yes, even to artists — all fine being, just as long as these groups remain at the edges.
Going into its major debut on the world stage, Vancouver, or more specifically and fairly, the 2010 Olympics management organization VANOC, has decided architecture is unimportant to the opinions the world will form about this city. For another opinion, my own, ours will be the least architecturally ambitious Olympic Games since Melbourne in 1956. Ours is the first Winter or Summer Olympic Games in decades not to have sponsored a design competition for even one of its venues. For years I have fielded calls from editors and sub-editors of European architectural journals asking me when the winners of the design contests for Vancouver-Whistler 2010 would be announced. These editors were, to a person, dumbfounded when I tell them that our organizers and our provincial government — the real client of consequence in these matters — had chosen to select cronies and corporate toadies as designers for every one of their installations. In the new British Columbia, golf games with cabinet ministers count more than design awards, and design competitions? What are those?
As will be seen in the following tour of 2010 constructions — both Winter Olympics venues themselves and other constructions rationalized with the needs of the Games, a huge opportunity has been permanently lost. It is telling that the only venue possessed of a world-beating design, was also the only building site where some semblance of civic entrepreneurship was permitted. Richmond stole the Speed Skating Oval away from sleepy Burnaby, fair and square. Structural engineers Paul Fast and Gerry Epp were linked with almost every architectural team short-listed to design the Richmond Oval, because it was apparent both city and provincial governments wanted a showpiece for BC engineered wood here, especially blue stain beetle-killed pine. We now have unsold mountains of blue stain pine since the no longer frost-killed beetles destroyed an area twice the size of Switzerland, at the same time Americans stopped building wood frame suburban bungalows.
Fast + Epp Engineers — who for many years featured Arthur Erickson and his architectural practice as an extended rent-paying guest in their offices, and who have worked with Bing Thom and every other Vancouver designer of note — are by any estimation the world’s best devisors and crafters of engineered wood construction. In the spirit of total declaration, and proof that I am not some anti-Olympics zany, the roof engineering of the Richmond Speed Skating Oval was the standout element for both the London and Paris showings of my “VANCOUVERISM: Architecture Builds the City” exhibition, and which will be mounted in a different form in the atrium of the new Woodwards complex during the 2010 Games themselves. Much more because of Fast + Epp’s brilliant roof design than my own curatorial and promotional efforts, the Richmond Oval was several months ago awarded the 2009 “I-Struct E Prize” in London, the Nobel or Pritzker Prize equivalent for structural engineers, beating the Beijing Bird’s Nest 2008 Summer Olympics stadium in the process.
So what have Fast + Epp’s associated architectural firm of Cannon Design and VANOC done with the world-leading, Arup-Associates-Beijing-Bird’s-Nest-beating design? They have corrupted and confused it at every stage. The architectural embellishments on the inside and outside walls are 100% Cannon Design and 100% distracting mere graphics, like tacky billboards set up under the ancient coffered dome of Rome’s Pantheon. VANOC/Richmond engaged Stantec as electrical engineers, who are 100% responsible for the bare-glare, headache-inducing, no-hood, non-directional lighting elements arrayed over the inside of the entire roof. These lights are so needlessly visually distracting that it is virtually impossible to see the world-famous roof, other than at its edges—no up-light, no recognition that this is one of the world’s largest wooden roofs, composed principally of two-by-fours gang-nailed together, and as sublime an object as has ever been devised in British Columbia. Clearly, Fast + Epp learned something from the decade Arthur Erickson spent camped out in their premises.
The final and most foolish indignity to the Speed Skating Oval comes from VANOC itself. Richmond spent almost $20 million extra to open the north side of the Oval to magnificent views of the North Shore Mountains (who knew Richmond had mountain views?), and to admit stable northern light as a green design element. VANOC has announced plans to entirely cover up these windows with black plastic sheets for every minute of the Winter Games, lamely proposing that television cameras cannot deal with a mixture of artificial and natural light. “A crock,” says every television cameraman I have asked about this. The real issue here is ambush marketing, as paranoids at VANOC are worried that a floating blimp with the Canadian Tire logo on it moored over Mount Pleasant seen through these expensive windows will steal the televised glory from 2010’s official sponsors.
Let me tell another story about the anti-design bias of British Columbia’s current managerial class, and how their predilections have shaped 2010-related constructions. I live on Cambie Street, south of King Edward. The decision for what became known as the Canada Line to switch to cut-and-cover construction rather than the previously announced bored tunnel had a real effect on me and my family: a 100-foot deep hole for two years at the edge of our front lawn, endless construction noise, scrambled traffic, not to mention the mass murder of merchants down the street.
Despite this, there may be no more enthusiastic riders of the Canada Line than us. This is, in large part, because of the extra-wide and more-frequent Siemens transit cars, with their panoramic front windows; the viewpoint of these seats has already become the most popular stoner thrill-ride going, those Canada Line cars going up and down and all around, into an ever-winding vanishing point. The word on Vancouver streets is you score dope on the Expo Line, then enjoy the high on the front seats of the Canada Line. How different the Canada Line cars are from those narrower Expo Line SkyTrain versions produced by Bombardier, as different as the Quebec company’s cramped Regional Jets are from competing Airbuses built in Europe. Much as I hate CRJ’s and bump my head going in and out, I will, in fairness, state here that the Bombardier-devised 2010 Olympic Torch is the best thing to come from their designers since their category-originating Ski-Doo.
While the Canada Line’s cars have made me a happy passenger, the rest of it has made me an unhappy architecture critic and urbanist. For one thing, this is not the route priority I would have picked, but it is the direct airport access route that the provincial cabinet thought essential to bolstering the chances for its Winter Games bid proposal. For another, I am furious at Vancouver’s city planners and three previous city councils (COPE, NPA and Vision — shame on them all) for lacking the political will to propose, nay, insist on increased housing and workplace density around stations like mine. Astonishingly, 24 years after the opening of the Broadway-Commercial hub of the SkyTrain system, there is still no major redevelopment there, and City of Vancouver planners have barely touched their notepads on the redevelopment of King Edward and Langara Station areas along the Canada Line. Meanwhile, Richmond’s civic minders quickly worked out deals with adjacent landowners (such as Aberdeen Mall) leading to built connecting links and increased building density around stations, both in evidence even before the Canada Line started running. A silver medal to the City of Richmond for its 2010 land use planning, but a scrub-out, did-not-finish for those two lazy non-competitors, the City of Vancouver’s council and planning department.
As the hoarding came off the station at King Edward and Cambie, my architectural fears turned to horror. A bunker! A cheap and nasty leftover from the Maginot Line, built with the blandest and cheapest of materials — plain glass walls and un-adorned concrete structure. Electrical switching stations are designed with more grace and urbanity than this grey hut. Never did I think I would find myself longing for the sheer minimalist good design of the utilitarian ceramic tile-work used in the Toronto Subway system. But those lime-green walls of the St. George station on the Bloor Line now seem to my eye like the palatial platforms of the Moscow subway, when compared to the penny-wise, pound-foolish stations on Vancouver’s Canada Line. Via Architecture’s Marine Drive and Stantec Architecture’s City Hall Stations are a notch better, but even these are far below the standards of the worst stations on our last expansion, the Millennium Line. Could there be blander wall tiles than the cream ones chosen for King Edward? Could the station have been made smaller, cruder, dumber than the one we got from line-builder SNC/Lavalin, under a Public-Private-Partnership arrangement? My architectural training tells me that the King Edward station will eventually be surrounded on two sides by a new building, but it is, and will remain, inside and out, an architectural disgrace.
The epitome of the Canada Line’s cheapness is the virtual non-provision of seating on the platforms. Standing, always standing there, one can imagine the contractual language for the Private Public Partnership proposal calling for “seating” to be provided. And didn’t those devilishly sharp-pencilled “value engineers” used to structure and evaluate then build the Canada Line not just figure out all on their own that two metal chairs meet the minimum contractual definition of “seating.” Often these pairs, sometimes trios of hard metal chairs are separated, like a squabbling family. This means there’s none of listening into the nattering of side-by-side seniors that was one of my secret delights while taking Metro and Tube to and from installing “Vancouverism” in Paris and London last year.
How could so perfunctory and idiotic a public construction as the King Edward Canada Line station have come to be? One cannot put the entire burden of blame on the skill level of the Canada Line team of executives — senior staffer Jane Bird, for one, was in a prior incarnation the needed smart and public-minded client for the exceptionally fine stations built along the Millennium Line, notably Peter Busby/Architect and Fast + Epp/Structural Engineer’s Brentwood Station, celebrated in design circles around the world and happily included in my “Vancouverism: Architecture Builds the City” exhibition on our best design, running here during the Games at Woodwards. I do blame the architect for this bland to banal design — Norman Hotson of the once-grand firm Hotson and Bakker, which started out by designing Granville Island, but have recently merged into the Calgary corporate design firm with the squirm-inducing name of “Dialog.” But my criticism of the architect is tempered by knowing that the real villain here is the provincial cabinet, and the Private Public Partnership design-build system they insisted on as the means of delivering the Canada Line.
Moderately useful in delivering such relatively simple products as sewer systems or bridges, the weakness of a PPP setup is evident whenever it tries to deliver architecture. This is because the width of bridges, capacities of sewage plants or frequency of transit cars can all be readily quantified and compiled into the elaborate documents that set out the deliverables in PPP bids. But provincial bid-writers are at a loss when setting out the contractual terms for anything else servicing human behaviours more complex than getting cars over rivers or disposing of crap. PPPs in the design-build mode fail utterly when the issues are cultural, social, or aesthetic.
It is all in the language of the proposal call, as minimum satisficing is the strategy needed to win these contracts, then cheapening things even further when the construction actually starts. The design of the cars was a given from SNC/Lavalin’s supplier in Korea, so things got squeezed where they could be: the modality of construction (that hugely disruptive cut-and-cover chosen over promised bored tunnel, which was slightly more expensive); and in the quality and character of architecture and other high-contact touches, from the signage system, the seating, the accommodation of merchants and so on. The irony lurking in this whole turn to PPPs is that the difference between interest rates available to even huge corporations like SNC/Lavalin and those available to governments would have entirely paid for glorious architecture and a bored tunnel. In other words, we got disruptive construction and appalling architecture solely to satisfy our provincial cabinet’s ideological need to promote PPPs.
The architecture of the King Edward Canada Line station reminds me, tellingly, of the bare concrete-and-glass condo towers downtown and elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, which developers and their designers continue to pass off to us coastal rubes as being the epitome of luxury. The King Edward Canada Line Station is a bunker indeed, an outpost for the visually dead ethos-cum-ideology that is reshaping our province. The core belief for our real estate industry is to build it cheap and bland, then over-praise the heck out of it through marketing.
This is the very formula perfected by my choice for the Vancouverite of the decade just closed, the conscience of his generation, the real mayor of Vancouver: condo super-marketer and art collector Bob Rennie. Rennie once told me that if you include real estate agent’s commissions, Vancouverites devote on average 18 percent of their condo housing dollars on marketing costs, while all design (architecture, engineering, landscape design) merits barely a third of this. We pay more for marketing than any other contemporary society: unreal estate.
2010 architecture and urban infrastructure such as the Canada Line stations is so bad because we live in a society run by and for real-estate developers. The entire career of Premier Gordon Campbell can be read in real-estate terms, from his early years with Marathon Real Estate (the Convention Centre expansion is on former Marathon lands that once preoccupied the premier-to-be), to his insistence as mayor that competition-winner Moshe Safdie abandon design development and build every architrave and metope of the tacky Neo-Roman scale model concocted to get votes for his Library Square design concept in the shopping mall polls that helped decide the winner. Since Campbell has moved from mayor to premier there has been latitude for more design buffoonery, such as the wooden clamshell he had theme-park architect Clive Grout devise to arch over Arthur Erickson’s Robson Square and Robson Street. A concerted campaign by me in my former column in the Globe and Mail and by Miro Cernetig on the pages of the Vancouver Sun killed the clamshell (the editorial board of the city’s broadsheet of record even produced their first-ever bit of architectural criticism, by suggesting the clamshell was a very dumb idea.)
The clamshell died the death it deserved, and I will bet good money Campbell will not get a chance to build his obscenely expensive “grands projets” in the manner of late-regime French Presidents Chirac and Mitterrand: a new roof for BC Place Stadium and a Vancouver Art Gallery relocated to the shores of False Creek. I will stick my head out by proposing that the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre expansion projects, consumer of just under one billion scarce public dollars, will be the tomb, the cenotaph, the discount coffin barn for developer Gordon Campbell’s architectural ambitions. Space does not permit a recounting of all the details of this textbook case of “scope creep,” where the design got larger and splashier, doubling its construction budget in the six years it was being devised, but several features need to be pointed out about this, by far the most expensive of the 2010-justified public buildings.
Campbell’s former firm of Marathon Realty sold options years ago to the Provincial government for the Convention Centre’s expansion site-to-be. With the rejection of the NDP’s proposal for a location near the SeaBus terminal, attention shifted west. During the City of Vancouver’s re-zoning process, criticisms of sterilizing so much of our precious waterfront land to serve corporate zombies watching PowerPoint presentations in the view-less dark were countered by the announcement that the entire roof of the planned building would be a two hectare waterfront public park. The re-zoning was approved on this basis of this amenity back to the public for the loss of this stretch of waterfront.
Alas, this vast and important public benefit was not to be, in large part because an American architecture firm was principal designer, and this was George Bush’s fear-heightened era of ‘Homeland Security.’ LMN Architects of Seattle are noted more as partners than authors of designs, notably in their superb implementation of Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Public Library design, established as one of the world’s finest public buildings of the decade just-vanished. Amidst the prevailing climate of fear that shrouded 2002 and 3003, the American designers argued, effectively, that miscreants could strap plastic explosives around their middles, set out a picnic on the roof of the new convention centre, then blow to smithereens Bill Gates in a convention hall below, stopping him in mid PowerPoint. Structural capacity for that roof is the solitary feature that got shrunk while Convention Centre design progressed, ensuring that no future regime can undo this paranoia, there now being no structural capacity in that roof for Frisbee-players, picnickers or couples in love strolling above the waterfront. The provincial cover story is that the green roof could not be designed to withstand public use. “A crock,” say the green roof experts I have talked to.
Sometimes design details are poetically revealing far more than intended. LMN principal designer Mark Reddington told me in a recent interview that after reviewing a nearly final design for the Convention Centre expansion, Premier Campbell insisted that the designers find a way to incorporate wood in the nearly entirely steel and concrete building, with its core design nearly complete. It was too late to call in Fast + Epp for one of their brilliant roofs (the Oval) or turned wood structural columns (as they devised for Bing Thom’s Surrey Central City), so they instead had an interior designer devise a mere inches-thick interior wall panel system that was detailed to look like stacks and stacks of bundled two-by-fours awaiting dockside to be shipped away somewhere. The detail was conceived of in 2005, and by 2009 with the Great Recession and virtual cessation of American house building, this was revealed as an utterly prescient design idea — we had bundles and bundles of wood studs on our docks waiting to be shipped somewhere!
It’s not just Campbell; involvement in real-estate investment and development is a strain that runs right through much of his cabinet. Yet even this skew to hustlers of condos and constructors of strip malls pales before the concentration of developer types on the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC), and its predecessor organization that prepared the winning bid book. Former Daon Development Corporation CEO Jack Poole’s long decline to cancer blunted the criticism that he and his colleagues deserved for the real-estate ethos permeating everything VANOC has touched. Poole’s key associate on the bid-book phase was Dave Podmore, his fellow co-founder of Concert Properties, that only-in-BC fusion of union pension funds with condo development.
If Bob Rennie is its flashy prince — all conceptual art and media micro-management — Dave Podmore is Vancouver city-building’s eminence grise. He is also a man with a single-minded and career-long obsession with BC Place Stadium. I worked with him as a summer architecture student in Edmonton in 1977, when he was a recently minted city planner. Soon after, he was central to the team at BC Place, the provincial crown corporation charged with building a downtown bubble-roofed stadium and developing the lands around it in the run-up to EXPO 86 — another architectural washout dumbed-down by the provincial cabinet.
It was Podmore who insisted — counter the practice in all previous Olympic winter games — that BC Place be used as an indoor venue for the nightly medal ceremonies. This is a hall that looks empty with 20,000 people in it, and has the worst acoustics of any stadium in which I’ve ever tried to hear music or halftime announcements. I went to the famous triple concert of David Bowie, The Tubes and Peter Gabriel there, and could hardly tell the sonic difference between them, so muddied were the acoustics. Predictably, VANOC is being forced to throw in free rock concerts as an inducement to get crowds to watch the medals get pinned on the Norwegians and Chinese by minor aristocrats from the Continent. My only hope is that the Weakerthans pen a civic anthem for Vancouver equal to “One Great City” (better known as the “I hate Winnipeg” song) and play it under the bubble top, a note of irony between the national anthems and impossible-to-hear homilies.
Why did Poole and Podmore insist on using BC Place, given these problems? As we learned a few years ago when the Teflon roof tore in a windstorm, the warranty on that air-supported membrane is nearing an end. The other inflatable stadia of its vintage that inspired former premier Bill Bennett into a bad design choice (back then, ICBC had a windfall cash surplus, and it was a choice of using it for a stadium or returning the dollars to taxpayers) have largely been abandoned — the Pontiac Michigan facility that the former premier toured in the early 1980s was recently sold to a Canadian group for less than a million dollars. Podmore et al pumped up the role BC Place would play in the Olympics in order to save it from almost certain demolition; the economics of stadia are such that it costs more to replace a roof than to build an all-new building, and because the downtown land upon which BC Place sits is now worth a half-billion dollars, so there’s a huge ‘opportunity cost’ here, to boot.
Frustrated by his inability to build the wooden clamshell over Robson Square, the architectural legacy-seeking Campbell now wants to rebuild the roof over BC Place stadium for $450 million — 10 times the cost of the original stadium. This is nearly a billion dollars (adding in the redevelopment value of this prime downtown land) of public money frozen, when for one-third of that price they could build an all-new stadium on the False Creek Flats, then use the net difference to fund the most astonishing affordable-housing program this province has ever seen. (Transportation connections on the Flats — both public transit and roadway — are better as well.) And who did Campbell recently appoint to run PavCo, the inept provincial crown corporation that allowed the costs of the new Convention Centre to spiral out of control? Why, Dave Podmore, of course!
Welcome to the “Developocracy”, or perhaps more mellifluous to the ears is “Hustlervannia.” There is likely no more civic-minded and honest soul in Metro Vancouver than Podmore and his colleagues. They are not into this for their own interests, and they are huge supporters of causes they feel will benefit the community — like huge sports stadia and global athletic competitions. The problem is that they view the world as builders, too often programmed by their métiers to build for building’s sake. What they know about design is how to max out short-term return, to get things done to the simplest of mandates. They are undistracted by ideas, have the thinnest grasp of any notion of architecture of quality, have surprisingly simplistic notions of cities, and know little about art, other than using the easy-to-buy-into art world to pump up their social stations.
The Developocracy has solidified over the past two decades to dominate this city, but this was not always the mode of our city-builders. What is now called “Vancouverism” is claimed as their own by the city planners and condo developers who were the last on decks for the explosion of construction in recent years — mere sailors claiming to be naval architects. Vancouverism was not an invention of former City of Vancouver co-director of planning Larry Beasley, nor of Concord Pacific Developments, but rather conceived in the minds and hearts of an earlier generation, principally architects James Cheng and Arthur Erickson. You’ll notice I used the word “minds,” a locution seldom applied to the concocters of pre-sales centres, designers of green-glass condo window walls attached to bare concrete towers, or officials authoring planning regulations that uncritically bless any version of skinny towers set on trays of townhouses.
It is necessary to pause here to praise Vancouver’s Visionaries, both because they are so different in outlook and accomplishment from the developers, and because we are all literally living in their ideas of 30, even 50 years ago. The Visionaries had the intellectual heft and courage of conviction to invent one of the most amazing new cities anywhere. The Vancouver Visionaries never really got their due, but now they are fading away, so the minions of the developocracy are taking their place.
Let’s start with Peter Oberlander, the former UBC professor of architecture who, with landscape-architect wife Cornelia, built two dynamic modernist houses in the Endowment Lands. Like his brilliant wife, Peter’s real accomplishment, however, was as an urbanist — a man with a global notion of cities, a diplomat of enlightened city-making. Oberlander was one of the devisors of Habitat 76 (and the World Urban Forum that followed it 30 years later), a far more important event than EXPO 86 for putting Vancouver on the radar of city-builders worldwide.
We also lost Abraham Rogatnick, the architectural historian and man about the arts. With his longtime partner Alvin Balkind, he founded the first modern art gallery in Western Canada, then undertook a kind of Henry Kissinger-like shuttle diplomacy, getting artists, architects and civic officials to talk to each other as never before. Rogatnick was a talker, and people listened when he drew lessons from his beloved Venice to inform too-new Vancouver. A former director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, with his dear friends Gordon and Marion Smith, plus Doris, Jack and Doug Shadbolt, he proved that intellectuals could take part in the civic arts.
Less well known was Mary Roaf, who died at 95 this year. She was but one of the dynamic women of privilege who took matriarchal possession of city-building here. We would have no heritage buildings at all if Roaf and her colleagues had not wielded their influence with friends, husbands and politicians to stop the demolition derby that starts up every time commodity prices peak and Vancouver booms. She had a long association with the Community Arts Council at a time when this community organization acted as the conscience of the city, the frontal lobe of our civic brain. In 1955, her organization commissioned a vision document on the future of the city from two dreamy young architects.
“Plan 56,” was the name of the resulting report, and it was decades ahead of its time, getting its authors — Geoff Massey and Arthur Erickson — thinking on a grander scale, helping them enlarge their propositions (houses only to that date) so that, only a few years later, they could go on to win the design competition for Simon Fraser University. My London/Paris/Woodwards exhibition traces the singular invention of what was later called Vancouverism to Erickson’s amazing soft-pencil sketch for “Plan 56,” showing soaring organic towers of 40 stories and more set along continuous urban bases dominating the West End (which back then consisted solely of old wooden houses and walk-up apartments) and across to Kits Point, the whole hyper-dense ensemble framed by mountains and punctuated by trees. High-density, high-rise urban living in consort with nature—it was all conceived a half-century ago, and designed in a more gracious form.
The age of Vancouver Visionaries ended with Erickson’s death last spring , and now we are left with the Developocracy. The last few years were difficult for Erickson, and not just for a mind increasingly clouded by dementia. He was a true public intellectual, and paid the price for his strong opinions on Vancouver’s need to shape better architecture and make the civic investments appropriate to its inevitable role as a World City. Erickson was given no significant commissions under his sole control in his hometown from age 55 to 75, prime time for any architect. The creative mind behind Robson Square and the Macmillan-Bloedel office tower on Georgia Street was thought to be ‘difficult,’ so a generation of ‘less difficult’ corporate architects and their development buddies took over.
Vancouver’s development industry belatedly rediscovered Erickson in his last years, rolling out his name and elegance whenever it suited their marketing needs. The last Erickson building of which he is clearly the principal design author is, appropriately enough, Concord Pacific’s “The Erickson” tower at the end of a False Creek peninsular. What should have been the exclamation point capping the huge urban adventure of Li Ka Shing-cum-Terry Hui’s Concord Pacific was diminished by urban planners, who took 10 crucial stories off its necessarily monumental height to placate neighbours and conform to their own visionless land-use and view-control policies.
Bob Rennie told me he played a crucial role in bringing three late commissions to Erickson — the waterfront condos and community centre for Millennium Development’s Olympic Village, and a twisting hotel-condo tower branded with first Ritz-Carlton, then ultimately the Trump Tower for a long-vacant West Georgia Street site. The concern of Rennie and others for the welfare of the pension-less, twice bankrupt, childless gay man was real and appreciated, but where were other Vancouver developers and politicians who might have supported him 20 or 30 years ago? The Olympic Village condo and community buildings will be among the best structures Erickson’s longtime associate Nick Milkovich has ever helped construct, but I am not alone in seeing almost no connection in these designs with the previous work of Canada’s most prominent architect, ever.
The same is even truer of the Ritz-Carlton now re-named Trump Tower, currently being revised and pushed even higher, after briefly falling victim to the recession. As the Trump tower was finalized, Arthur Erickson’s name and photographic portrait played large in Holborn Development’s pre-sales-period advertisements. When I first saw these slick ads on the pages of lifestyle magazines and urban weeklies, I thought I saw a bit of Arthur’s rascalish twinkle, sparkling out to question, ever-elegantly, “How did I end up here?” Few people understand the power of an uncorrupted brand better than Rennie, one of the world’s leading marketers of housing. As a fitting tribute after death, I hope Rennie can convince Holborn Developments to take Erickson’s name off the condo pylon which soars 67 floors above West Georgia. If the developers who run this city are incapable of being visionaries, the least they can do is respect the memory and reputation of a Vancouverite who surely was.
I became and remain a Vancouverite because of these visionaries: Doug Shadbolt hired me away from Alberta; Abe Rogatnick mentored me at UBC; Peter Oberlander sparred with me; Mary Roaf challenged me; Marion and Gordon Smith hosted me, and most of all, Arthur Erickson sponsored and inspired me. What Olympian marvels would have resulted from minds such as these, had a group like them been set to the task of the 2010 Winter Games?