“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?
Ari Barnes is one of the most thoughtful and generous spirits I’ve encountered among classical performers. And as someone recently called “the best Canadian cellist of his generation” by Bramwell Tovey it would be understandable if he was more guarded with his time. Ari left Vancouver for the Bavarian city of Nuremberg in Germany in March 2017 and has been firing on all cylinders pursuing all manner of ambitious musical projects.
But despite a schedule that includes frequent and diverse performing duties, catching up with colleagues, and even some skateboarding, Ari is always ready to act as an ambassador for the appreciation of classical and new music, and the idea of a broadly engaged citizenry that can participate at every level of cultural life with an appreciation of music near its core.
I met with Ari to do an interview while he was here to perform with the Turning Point Ensemble and with Heidi Krutzen as half of the harp/cello duo Couloir. On Remembrance Day, under a pressing grey sky, we alighted to Green College at UBC for an improvised portrait session and followed up with coffee for a chat.
MM: How have things changed for you since the move to Nuremburg?
AB: I’ve felt an immense inner growth in the last couple of years, absorbing and learning a new language and acclimatizing to the new cultural environment there. It’s raised my awareness of the idiosyncrasies of musical styles as they developed through the ages. I’m more attuned to the differences between baroque music, classic, romantic, post-romantic, expressionistic, impressionistic and so on right up to 21st century art music. It’s all become more clearly delineated for me somehow. For example if you go to a museum and you’re looking at a survey exhibit, you need to pay attention to really small details from era to era to understand what transpired from moment to moment in history. That obviously applies to things like sculpture and painting but music is more abstract and it’s not as easy to observe those nuances and shifts in approach. So I’m starting to understand more clearly what they are and how the approaches shifted from Haydn to Beethoven for example.
MM: I just heard the St. Lawrence String Quartet do a late Beethoven piece at a Friends of Chamber Music concert last night. I know it’s a common observation but I’m always amazed at how contemporary those late pieces can sound.
AB: Of course, but Haydn can sound modern too. If you’re listening to Boccherini, then Haydn sounds really modern. It’s all relative. But some of Beethoven’s late compositions easily sound as if they could have been sculpted in the late 20th century.
MM: Let’s talk about the contemporary work you’ve been performing. You’re involved with new music in several capacities.
AB: One of my great passions is to create new music alongside contemporary composers, to work with composers, ensembles or by myself to develop works and/or to interpret them, express them, record them. I find working through that fresh lens really invigorating.
I recently had the opportunity to play and record (Canadian-German composer) Michael Oesterle’s Cello Concerto with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. It was originally written for a larger ensemble but he rearranged the work for us, a smaller, more tightly knit group. It then works better for touring and also pairs really well with the Haydn C major cello concerto which we were also performing on that program.
One of the things I love about 21st century art music is the range of narratives people deal with now which makes the music more relevant to us. Something that Michael was dealing with was the influence of iron during the development of industrialization. How the development of iron changed humankind in many ways and how those changes are still resonating. He makes interesting references throughout the work to various figures who brought the process forward, like the Darby family. It’s brilliantly written, beautifully scored and his rearrangement is fabulous. It’s one of the best works of contemporary cello literature that I’ve heard and then had the pleasure to play.
MM: What about contemporary solo cello pieces?
AB: Yes! A work that I absolutely love is Vez, a seven-minute work by (Montreal-based composer) Ana Sokolovic which was written in 2005, the same year as the Michael Oesterle concerto.
I learned it here in Vancouver and had the pleasure of recording it with Ana present. She’s a magnificent artist and I’ve played that piece in many places since. I took it to the 24th International Johannes Brahms competition in Austria and used it as my contemporary work, using it to share Canadian music with an international panel and audience. It was received extremely well and I was successful at that competition and owe a great portion of that to Anna’s work and my connection to it. So that’s one example of contemporary solo cello work that’s worked its way into my literature and which I love.
MM: And Canadian!
AB: I’ve come across a lot of Canadian composing talent just by way of being Canadian and frequently being asked to play Canadian music and having an interest in that. A couple of pieces I play are by my father, Milton Barnes, although these are based in a more traditional language, a Sephardic Jewish folk language, very tonal, very listenable. Then we head into territory like Farshid Samandari’s Memoirs Untold or Elizabeth Knudson’s Yarilo which are either deeply personal accounts of living with political oppression or that simply revel in the cycle of the seasons based on loosely referenced mythology.
MM: What would you like to tackle in the future?
AB: There’s a wealth of literature that I haven’t yet explored. I’d love to get into some mid and late 20th Century stuff like Ligeti’s Solo Sonata, or Penderecki’s Solo Sonata. I can happily say these are works I have yet to truly discover. I’ve heard them a number of times but haven’t spent the time getting inside of them and really absorbing the language.
And while commissioning solo works is something that’s of great interest, I have a project with harpist Heidi Krutzen as Couloir, and we’ve commissioned many duo works largely due to the fact that not much is written for that combination before we started making music together. It’s a natural byproduct of enjoying each other’s musicianship, creating new literature. We’ve created a good nine works now and that’s a lot of my commissioning focus. That and cello concerti.
Ari rehearsing the Elgar Cello Concerto at The Orpheum
MM: The last time I saw you perform was with the VSO performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto. I love that this is something that’s now being formed around you, that people are writing with you in mind.
I’ve had a few cello concerti written for me and there are more in the mix. It’s exciting work for me. What I like is that one gets to reach a much larger audience. As much as I love more intimate formats, I ultimately like playing for large rooms of people and bringing the contemporary language into the traditional concert hall. But that’s always been a thing. It’s nothing new, but I find it exciting.
MM: Your Instagram feed recently featured a video clip of you playing Bach in a church. I loved that because it absolutely stopped my mindlessl scrolling and made me wish to seek out the intimacy of live performance.
AB: That was in Limburger Dom (a gothic cathedral) in Limburg near the venue I was scheduled to play that evening. But it could have been just outside on the street in an unbelievably intimate little plaza with tables and restaurants and people flowing through. I could have just sat down there and offered a similar experience to those around me.
I think the urban surroundings overseas inspire that for a couple of reasons… one, because there seem to be so many places that invite you to play whether it be a church, cathedral, open plaza etc. Europe is full of places that make you curious about the acoustic properties of public spaces. I often wonder “What would my instrument sound like here?”. And the other is that people in general have such a deep appreciation for music as an art form that improves their quality of life. They really value it and they understand where it comes from. It’s an inherent part of the culture. Public spaces there are designed to encourage people to come together.
Overall, I’m excited to be in a place where I’m meeting new colleagues and I have the opportunity to play in many different countries and in different cultural contexts. I find it validating and refreshing to feel that the music we make in North America, which is a relatively new culture generally unhindered in it’s absorbtion of ideas from elsewhere, is music that people are happy to listen to in Europe, or in Asia, or anywhere else. This brings the idea that music is an international language into reality for me, and I love actually communicating in this language directly to live audiences around the globe.
At long last we bring you Coming Soon! which tells the story behind those beautiful, mysterious handmade prints you may have seen festooning local construction site hoardings as the city endlessly turns over its built surroundings!
It’s been a pleasure to create this as Diyan Achjadi is one of our favourite artists and we’ve enjoyed watching her work evolve over the years. Diyan previously worked with Vancouver Review in its print days to offer her work in the Centrefold feature.
And that brings us to another topic; Diyan’s beautiful prints from Coming Soon! are not for sale. But she did do a specific work called “Tottery” inspired by the project and available through VR Media’s Hi Def print series.
You can get a beautiful signed print by contacting us via our Art Editions page here on the site. They are printed by Fidelis and are limited to a run of only 20. They are $250 each. You can also e-mail direct:
In the meantime, please enjoy the video!
I first saw Lee’s work in the window of the late, lamented Dunn & Rundle Camera store on Granville Street in 2004. His detailed, highly personal photographs focused on the detritus of working life and urban surroundings. He had a rare and sensitive eye and a particular fondness for subtle greys. I subsequently tracked him down and ended up commissioning him for much delightful editorial work for the print version of Vancouver Review (2004 – 2011). He worked quickly, intuitively and always delivered something perfectly out of left field to illustrate a piece.
He is also a musician and the driving force behind an entity known as Dixie’s Death Pool which began life in Calgary in 1991. Now it’s impossible to keep track of the genres and musical configurations that bear the Hutzulak imprint.
To this day I am always taken with his posters. Originally designed to promote DDP gigs they’ve since become key to announcing exhibitions of his paintings and drawings under the “Leisure Thief” brand.
As a collector and designer of concert posters, I always keep an eye out for distinctive, consistent and effective work. Lee’s posters differ from most in that they feel like they are straining to contain some sort of colourful spirit just long enough to get your attention, make you seek out the essential information, then invite you to stand back and luxuriate in the texture, atmosphere and delicious oddness. Mostly he uses his own highly distinctive drawings and paintings but he also very effectively uses found materials and, lesser frequently, photography.
Lee is also obscenely prolific. He’s always painting, drawing and gigging and by the time you read this there will be another entire body of work floating around. But let’s at least focus some attention on some of Lee’s rather randomly selected “greatest hits” of the last 20 years! They aren’t produced in quantity and are snapped up quickly. We sat down last summer to talk posters … and I made sure I scored a few remaining copies of some favourites for the collection!
LH: “When I was in high school in Calgary I would take the train down to Stampede Station and get off walk up 17th Ave. It had a kind of vibe like Main Street. There were record stores and clubs like The Republic and The Ship and Anchor. I’d walk along to my high school and collect the coolest posters made by this theatre company called One Yellow Rabbit (coincidentally a group I’d done some video work for in the early 90s – ed.) and my room was wallpapered top to bottom with gig posters. I’d never heard the bands but most of the cool stuff did come from Vancouver. I had posters for Animal Slaves gigs long before I’d even been to a live show. I used to carefully remove the posters stapled on the wooden poles.”
MM: Ah yes, the poles. I recently had to pry some posters for a Luna gig in Seattle off a sodden pole that was encrusted with staples through layers of poster paper. And it was pouring out. Fun times! There are only a few areas left in Seattle where you can poster and the south end of Capitol Hill is one of them. But there’s been a postering renaissance in Vancouver fueled in part by the proliferation of city-managed pole display, construction boom hoarding supply and a general willingness of businesses to allow on-premises postering. It also helps that design standards have improved over the years. However, unlike, say, Germany or Holland our still largely design-illiterate coastal culture ensures that a smart, well designed poster will easily stand out. Lee’s posters work because there is a rare blend of whimsy, perverse humour and a clever design strategy. It helps that that there are no labels or PR types to interfere. But still, you need to get these things seen by the right people.
LH: “The poles in Vancouver are controlled by “the poster machine”. And if you’re doing a run of 20 you’re not going to waste them on poles anyway. You’ve gotta find windows and prime spots where there are no other posters.”
MM: Your own paintings and illustrations aside, what are some design influences?
LH: “It’s pretty all over the place as you can see! In terms of posters and graphic design? Why not Russian Constructivism (laughs)! It’s probably gotten less experimental as I’ve gone on. I usually start with a painting, find a font that suits the band so its probably influenced more by the software. There’s a formula in there somewhere.”
“What inspired me to start making posters again was getting Dixie’s Death Pool together again and needing to find something that suits the sound of the band. The Lido pub down the street here and the China Cloud are the places I play so I also design to reinforce a sense of community around those places as well. It’s important. And it all goes back to what I like about music; playing live, making a poster, a t-shirt and recording and doing a cover for an album. The whole creative world of music encompasses graphic design.”
MM: Postering strategy is important. We use Silver Fox for the Friends of Chamber Music posters I design but I’ve done my time street postering for my own projects as well. What’s your favoured route?
LH: “I poster a lot around Main Street so places like Our Town, Gene, and Budgie’s. Budgie’s displays posters using clothes pegs and wire so if you collect posters you can get them after the show in perfect shape. And also Cartem’s Donuts where I’m a regular customer. They’ve also hosted a show of my paintings. There’s also a nice big poster board at SFU Woodward’s. But Emily Carr is the BEST because there are all these white walls and there are no rules! It’s like the wild west at this point. You can put them wherever you want and they look awesome! Being close to an art college has been a real inspiration and since it’s opened nearby I’ve started really getting into making posters again and hand silk screening some of them.”
MM: You also seem to use a fairly consistent branding system across all your work.
“It’s been important for me to develop logos. I’ve developed a sort of code. Mozart used a K followed by a number to denote many of his pieces. I’m going with NGC for “New General Catalogue”. So on my posters you first see the business logo featuring an elephant (Leisure Thief), then a crown, then followed by NGC and the date. I just like putting logos on things. It makes them look official…and then there’s the micro type that you’re not even meant to read!”
Lee’s posters can be found in unlikely places around town at unpredictable intervals … but you can check out his site here:
and a piece I did on his recent Cartem’s Donuts show here:
A performance of “forever after” Hope Lee’s stunning work for solo flute as performed by Mark Takeshi McGregor. In this longer version of the video for the piece, Mark introduces the work and provides some great insight and speaks to some technical points!
Our doc on Vancouver painter Val Nelson’s foray into self-portraiture is finally done. It grew in length after life threw a few curve balls our way but it is, we think, more interesting for it.
At long last we bring you The Victoria Guitar Trio performing composer Scott Edward Godin’s exquisite re-imagining of a classic Blind Willie Johnson blues tune made semi-famous by Ry Cooder for the soundtrack of Wim Wenders’ 1984 classic film, Paris, Texas.
The full title of the piece is: Melos (melody); Dianoia (thought) and is a deliciously playful and beautiful work of new music while seeming like the product of a hazy afternoon jam on the porch of a small town shack. We interviewed the members of the group to set up the origins and intent of the piece before getting into the music video proper. Enjoy!
We recently sat down with Timothy Taylor on the occasion of the publication of his new novel “The Rule of Stephens” to talk about how one’s world can sometimes seem to oscillate between being governed by the cosmology of Stephen Hawking…or that of Stephen King.
Back in 2004 we had no idea how long the Vancouver Review (v2.0) would survive. As it happens, we published 28 issues and went on to great critical success in the liminal field of magazine publishing that thought smart essays for a generally interested public might actually be…a thing. I was of the opinion, then, that even if we only managed to squeak one issue past the local gatekeepers, this should be the cover story we were remembered for. I thought Vancouver might like to look back and see what was evident then (and long before) and try squaring it with our present nightmare. While I was nominated for a Western Magazine Award for the cover, I still maintain the article should have been the nominee, and the winner. I’m grateful to Paul for his permission to republish this and am excited by his interest in potentially writing a follow-up.
GRAVEYARD OF AMBITION: DOES VANCOUVER MURDER DREAMS by Paul Delany (published in VR #1, Spring, 2004)
“Ah, Vancouver,” my friend Christine used to say, “The graveyard of ambition.” What answer was there to that? I had arrived in Vancouver long before, from New York; should I admit that my ambitions had dwindled as the years went by? Christine came from a wealthy and powerful English family; a few years ago she went back to England. I don’t know if her ambition has revived there, but at least she now lives in a place that respects it. In Vancouver, many sparks of ambition surely have fizzled out, including some of my own. We can always blame the rain.
People must grow up in Vancouver with the usual eagerness for wealth or fame, and newcomers presumably bring their ambition with them. How is it that Vancouver murders ambition? For some, enjoying the milder pleasures of life by the Pacific may be ambition enough. Why strive for more than that, once you have joined the lotus-eaters? Why leave for Calgary, and more money; or Toronto, and corporate promotion; or Ottawa, and the meagre fame of being an MP? Many Vancouverites settle for a less brilliant career in exchange for an easier life away from the workplace.
Vancouver, let’s face it, does have fewer glittering prizes for the ambitious than most cities of its size. Prizes are measured in money or power. The big money in our society is created in cities that are financial centres; Vancouver has never been one, and it is the largest city in North America that doesn’t have a locally controlled bank. It doesn’t have a single federal politician who counts, and its three biggest employers (the University of British Columbia, Vancouver General Hospital, and the airport) have little influence outside the city. If those who live here gradually pull in their horizons, they may be adjusting to what they reasonably can expect. People who have become famous in the outside world, like Jeff Wall, William Gibson or Doug Coupland, can be considered a special case. They prefer to live here, and sometimes to find their material here; yet in a sense they have become too big to play for the home team. That may be the best way to beat the “Vancouver syndrome.” But most people have to cut their cloth according to what is on offer west of Hope.
Perhaps we should just accept that Vancouver is defined by pleasure rather than power. The whole of Canada is disempowered, to begin with; we live next door to the world’s most assertive country, which only a maniac would try to challenge head-on. One of our few contributions to world English is the phrase “You can’t win.” Within Canada, BC is in a similar position. Under the present system, it can never have fair representation in parliament. The population of BC should entitle it to 41 seats; currently it has 34 (out of 301), rising to 36 (out of 309) after the next redistribution. More important, there is no prospect of federal power shifting outside the Ontario/Quebec axis, regardless of soothing noises from Paul Martin. For many years the West has embraced the politics of protest rather than of ambition for power. Even there, it is Alberta that produces the leaders and the ideas, not BC, and certainly not Vancouver.
Things are very different in the us, where California has a smaller share of the national population than bc does, but a much bigger share of respect. It is by far the biggest state, and has 53 seats in congress (out of 435). Three US presidents—Hoover, Nixon and Reagan—have been Californians. BC’s only prime minister, Kim Campbell, was appointed rather than elected and lasted four months in office. Paul Martin may give BC a bit more attention than Chrétien did; but he’s from Québec, like every significant prime minister for the past 35 years, and he will always have to put the interests of Central Canada first.
If Vancouverites have to lower their ambitions in federal politics, how about the provincial arena? The capital isn’t here, which immediately drains away much of Vancouver’s political vitality. And until recently, BC elections have been won or lost in the Interior, not the Lower Mainland (which also is underrepresented in the provincial legislature). Political parties of both the right and the left have been populist rather than metropolitan. The Bennetts, hardware and real-estate millionaires in Kelowna, represented one style of political power; Glen Clark, the self-styled “East Vancouver kid,” represented the other. Both sides were anti-intellectual and suspicious of urban sophisticates. For the Socreds, Bill Bennett Jr. regularly chose cabinets in which no one had graduated from university. The NDP did have a sprinkling of intellectuals but its real decisions were made inside the trade-union movement, where thinking for yourself has never been welcome. Power and ambition were certainly taken seriously in the union world, but they did their work in the back room where no one could see. When the NDP regained power in the ’90s, the Glen Clark wing of the party soon pushed aside Mike Harcourt and his West Side allies like Tom Perry or Darlene Marzari.
There was a real shift in BC politics in 2001, when the Gordon Campbell Liberals swept into office. For the first time in provincial history, political power shifted to the urban middle class, putting the West Side of Vancouver into the driver’s seat. The provincial government is now socially liberal but economically conservative, a novel combination. Such a regime is possible because organized religion is weaker in BC than anywhere else in North America, and because the Lower Mainland has grown to dominate the province. The values of the provincial Liberals are those of Vancouver, rather than of more socially conservative or fundamentalist regions. As the old economic base in natural resources continues its decline, the province’s future seems to lie in encouraging what author Richard Florida has called the “creative class” to develop technology, tourism and service industries based in Vancouver. The recently elected civic government under Larry Campbell is nominally of the left, but is not fundamentally opposed to the provincial Liberals’ view of the city’s future: this is why they campaigned together to win the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The “creative class” vision assumes that you cannot separate the social from the economic. It’s precisely Vancouver’s cultural diversity and agreeable lifestyle that will attract new kinds of soft industries. They will be productive because the ferment of city life will provide the raw materials for invention and entertainment. Instead of forestry, fishing or mining, the new wealth of the province will be generated in the forest of highrises around False Creek and Coal Harbour. The Shaw Tower, under construction at the foot of Burrard, points the way: it is a live/work building with offices on the lower floors and living space above. Architect Bing Thom’s new tower next to the Georgia Hotel, and James Cheng’s proposed one for Georgia and Thurlow, are going to be live/work/shop. It is taken for granted that having more people living in downtown apartments will be good for the city, by reducing commuting and making the streets more lively. As the new condo towers fill up, Vancouver will become as vital as Manhattan or San Francisco. Ambition will arrive too, with creative people landing here from all over the globe.
One trouble with such sunny forecasts is that as densification becomes more obvious, criticism is getting louder—and not just from condo dwellers who want development to stop now in order to preserve their views. More people are not walking to work downtown. Resident population in the area has nearly doubled in the past decade, but employment in the central business core has increased very little. Many national corporations have merged or moved their head offices out of the city, and those that remain employ fewer people than ten years ago. New residents are often reverse commuters, to jobs in Burnaby or Richmond. Others don’t work at all, and Bing Thom worries about the downtown peninsula becoming “a rich enclave of retirees and foreigners.” In the extreme version of this idea, Vancouver becomes like 18thcentury Venice, a city that has lost its hinterland and is given over to the corrupt pursuit of pleasure.
Yet complaints like this have been heard from the city’s first founding. Vancouver was cursed as a parasite on the Interior, where the real work was done; it was the place where loggers, miners and fishermen came to get drunk, get laid, and be cheated. Now downtown office people are seen as the “real” workers whose jobs are disappearing. When they are gone, the argument goes, downtown will offer only recreation and shopping, provided by waiters or store clerks who can’t afford to live here. The town will then have lost all its substance: Las Vegas or Miami, with rain.
This idea of Vancouver as a corrupt, hollowed-out casino city is the pessimistic side of the argument that the most successful cities of the 21st century will be those most attractive to the “creative class.” In fact, the clustering of shops, restaurants and condo towers need not crowd out new economic enterprises in areas like software, entertainment and pharmaceuticals. Live/work/shop buildings are only one of many signs of the merger of production and consumption in the postmodern economy. The city’s dramatic new skyline just happens to make visible a consumerist lifestyle that, elsewhere in North America, is hidden in estates and gated suburbs.
How did this present building boom in downtown Vancouver come about? Shanghai used to be the New York of China; in 1949 its financial class fled the communists and set up shop in Hong Kong. The absorption of Hong Kong by the mainland in 1997 was an anticlimax, and the dream that Vancouver might become the principal link between China and North America has ended in disappointment. But patient Hong Kong money did move into Vancouver real estate, in the Concord Pacific lands and other projects. Now the north shore of False Creek has acquired its own momentum, independent of strategic shifts across the Pacific. Many of the original Hong Kong owners of downtown condos have sold out, but local residents have been happy to take their place. The opening of the Urban Fare supermarket at the foot of Davie in 1999 was the turning point in building a community in Yaletown, downtown South, and north False Creek (Granville Market played a similar role on the south side of the creek). In this decade the community will consolidate and expand around the east end of False Creek, to meet the Olympic village on the south shore.
But what kind of community will it be? The new downtown is not as sociable as it looks. Two kinds of space are emerging: the lively streets, but also apartment towers that are like medieval castles, rising above the peasants in the village square below. These are gated communities in the sky, with ever more ingenious barriers to keep out intruders. There is an arms race going on, between more people living downtown and more criminals preying on them to get money for drugs. The novelist J. G. Ballard is the prophet of this new world:
Town-scapes are changing. The open-plan city belongs to the past—no more ramblas, no more pedestrian precincts, no more left banks and Latin quarters. We’re moving into the age of security grilles and defensible space. As for living, our surveillance cameras can do that for us. . . . We’re building prisons all over the world and calling them luxury condos. The amazing thing is that the keys are all on the inside.
Without going so far, we can recognize that the upper floors of these towers are the literal commanding heights of Vancouver’s new urbanism. From them, the people in the street look like insects, not members of a common civic space. You don’t exactly live in a neighborhood, you live over it: welcome to my gondola!
The city now has a third, vertical dimension that influences housing values. People don’t just live in more or less desirable neighbourhoods; they also live higher or lower, and in more or less protected spaces. Even so, the idea of the skyscraper as a visible index of ambition doesn’t present itself as starkly in Vancouver as in Chicago or New York. For more than 30 years, Vancouver has enforced a maximum building height of 140 metres, and has also established corridors that preserve views of the mountains for people south of False Creek. The city has tried to square the circle with this policy of egalitarian highrises, which has produced a flat-topped skyline where no building sticks out too noticeably from its surroundings. And it’s not just height: as local critics have said, the architectural quality of the highrise boom is mediocre at best.
Yet the height compromise may be breaking down. The Wall Centre, the city’s highest building at 150 metres, already stands alone with its radical design. New buildings by Bing Thom and James Cheng, going higher, also aim to break the consensus about a decent height or shape for local buildings. There is still time for a landmark tower to be built before the 2010 Olympics, something well over 200 metres. It will be interesting to see who might step up to propose it, and whether the city will give permission. Regardless of whether the height limit is broken, downtown Vancouver is surely shifting into a higher gear from the cumulative effect of so many new buildings and so many new residents on the peninsula. We are building it, and they are coming. But, to return to the question of ambition, coming to do what?
More than any city I know, Vancouver encourages people to direct their fantasies and desires into a transformed future. The dream of the journey to the furthest West survives, even if its fulfillment always recedes, incomplete or unsatisfied. Yet no one seems troubled that futures they used to imagine never arrived, or arrived in disappointment. Who cares, so long as there are other things still to look forward to? What certainly has arrived, and kept the whole culture of hope going, is the ever-expanding system of consumption: new shops and restaurants, better fashions, gadgets and diversions of every kind. More people arrive to enjoy them, from the rest of Canada and all over the world; and this growing, cheerful crowd seems to confirm that, yes, we are in the right place and will soon be granted our revelation. It is like the buzz of conversation in a theatre before the curtain goes up.
Meanwhile, are the foundations of social life in Vancouver actually getting better? Is there steady improvement in transit, schools, universities, museums,health care? Are our politicians, our newspapers, our writers and artists, better than they used to be? Are crime, poverty and addiction receding? Is BC richer, more respected, more powerful within the Canadian federation? Where is all this optimism coming from?
The city needs a more mature sense both of its own history, and of what remains to be built. Starting from respect for the city’s great endowment of ocean, mountain and forest, we should cherish the continuities between current developments and earlier phases of growth. Fortunately, Vancouver is still a city where there has been relatively little demolition (except in the West End), and where few buildings are out of scale or isolated from their context. Sometimes that context is an instant creation, as in the latest Concord Pacific development east of the Granville Street Bridge. Along with the towers there is new park space, plazas, shoreline walks, and connection with other kinds of city life nearby. The challenge, here and elsewhere, will be to make such developments helpful to less favoured parts of the city, and especially the desperate problems of the Downtown Eastside.
For the rest, laments about the “graveyard of ambition” need to distinguish between substantial hopes and mere opportunism. Ambition is not just a hunger for the new, or seizing money while it’s hot. It also depends on the existence of older buildings or institutions, of things that people hope to own or inherit. True possession of the future requires a deeper appreciation of the past, even in this young city (which is not so young in the sense that it has escaped the 20th century devastations inflicted on cities in continental Europe). Vancouver needs more charitable endowments, more complex local skills, and respected traditions. Sometimes these complexities emerge from decline, as when Boeing’s troubles in the 1970s helped the rise of software and biotechnology in Seattle. Because diversification is by its nature unpredictable, it cannot be willed into existence by governments. Recently, neither the NDP nor the Liberals have had any real cultural policy for Vancouver; and it may be for the better that they haven’t even tried to create one.
To a great degree, success for any city now depends on creating attractive public spaces, helping people get access to them, and awaiting results. Vancouver could do much more to facilitate short-range transit in the city centre to complement those billion-dollar lines into the suburbs. Where are the proposed streetcars linking Granville Market to the CN station, the Roundhouse in Yaletown and the Seabus terminal downtown? Why is there no decent train service to Seattle and Portland, when these three cities have everything to gain by pooling their strengths? Why have there been no real flagship public buildings since Moshe Safdie’s public library? International architects have effectively been shut out of Vancouver for a long time, and no one seems to notice what Santiago Calatrava has done for Milwaukee or Frank Gehry for Bilbao.
A parochial architectural scene is unfortunate when the greatest advantage of Vancouver, apart from its natural attractions, may simply be its openness to the world, the ease with which it has absorbed aspiring newcomers and made itself into a champion of postmodern diversity. Couldn’t we follow British policy, which grants residence to any writers, composers or artists who can make a living from their talent? We may lack ambition, yet there are still many people whose ambition is to come and live here. The shortage of power that I have described might even turn to the city’s advantage, as the dangers of having power become more evident in this new century. In a recent article in The Washington Monthly, Richard Florida argues that us dynamism is threatened by fear of terrorism and the doctrine of preemptive wars:
Vancouver and Toronto are set to take off: Both city-regions have a higher concentration of immigrants than New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. So too are Sydney and Melbourne. As creative centers, they would rank alongside Washington, D.C. and New York City. Many of these places also offer such further inducements as spectacular waterfronts, beautiful countryside, and great outdoor life. They’re safe. They’re rarely at war. These cities are becoming the global equivalents of Boston or San Francisco, transforming themselves from small, obscure places to creative hotbeds that draw talent from all over—including your city and mine.
Cities like Zurich or Stockholm have benefited by their traditions of neutrality and peace, inglorious as their prosperity may have been. British Columbia, which is bigger than France and Germany combined, has no army base and is probably the least militarized place in North America. In coming years, there will be more freedom to travel and emigrate to Vancouver than to a us that is becoming much more fearful of strangers. Perhaps that will be the limit of Vancouver’s ambition, to be clean, prosperous and safe. Should that be enough, in a time when darker passions seem to be in the saddle everywhere else? Or should we get off that lotus-root diet and start to move faster, look further, and build higher?
Republished with permission
This is a new video connected to the Sphaerae project, a series of photos I made for exhibition and for which loscil (Scott Morgan) created eight new pieces. Eventually I made a video for VR Media using #8. You can see the first production on our homepage.
In the fall of 2016 I revisited the tracks Scott had made and felt a renewed interest and thought it worthwhile to create a new video using #1 as a soundtrack. In it I use an image of Sphaerae #1 and then let it dissolve into a blend of new footage and remixed elements from the first video. If time and imagination permits, I’ll do more of these.