“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!
“UNREAL ESTATE”: Vancouver in 2020
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?