A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

TEXT THOMAS STRICKLAND

Inspired by the multiple layers of its material history, the town of Golden, British Columbia, is making plans for the future. Working closely with Calgary designer AKA/andrew king studio, Golden has assembled Form and Character Guidelines (2008) that ask architects, developers and builders to respond to the pressure of tourism while respecting the working history of the community–to understand the town, according to the guidelines, as a “palimpsest, a collage of traces and layers, growing continually but retaining elements from the past.” A palimpsest is a manuscript written on a surface from which an earlier text has been partly or wholly erased. Over the course of the 20th century, the term became evocative of the urban setting and has been connected to significant texts such as Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project–an encyclopedic document on which Benjamin worked from 1927 until his death in 1940. Influenced by Benjamin’s work, AKA developed an approach to urban research that they hope will encourage Golden to grow alongside its past. The result is a set of guidelines that evoke art and architectural precedents as diverse as Arte Povera and Learning from Las Vegas.

Located 262 kilometres west of Calgary and 713 kilometres east of Vancouver, the town of Golden is situated in the Rocky Mountains at the confluence of the Columbia River and Kicking Horse River. Historically, the community’s social, economic and built environments were shaped by these spectacular geological formations as well as developments in transportation, industry and new recreational activities. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) coal train marshalling yards and railcar repair facilities, for example, mark the town’s southern boundary–its strips of steel track, iron train wheels and rectilinear forms provide material traces that link Golden to the colonial period in Canada and reveal its industrial foundation. Alluding to the impact of this industry on the community, Andrew King of AKA poignantly observes that, “the town’s scale shifts when a train comes to town.” Defining a soft northern edge at the opposite end of Golden is the lumberyard and the massive steel roof of Louisiana Pacific’s engineered wood-products plant.

Early construction in the area, fostered by a short-lived gold rush, generally consisted of rough-hewn log buildings and false-front-style architecture which lined the main street. Later, Victorian hotels and residences were built. Starting in 1899, the CPR began building houses for the Swiss guides in its employment that were to reflect the building style of their native country. These homes, now known collectively as Edelweiss Village, remain a testament to this part of the area’s history. Like most civic developments that formed over the course of the 20th century, land has been distributed according to function; zones were defined for specific activities, shops and businesses at the downtown centre, which itself was surrounded by areas for residential, recreational, institutional and light industry. The postwar era saw the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway in 1962, bringing the tourist class through Golden. Over the next four decades, a corridor teeming with bright signs, flat-roofed gas stations, restaurants and variously themed hotels emerged at the overlap of Golden and Canada’s coast-to-coast highway.

While the town’s economy continues to rely heavily on logging and the CPR, the ongoing development of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort on the slope of the Dogtooth Mountain range west of the community has signalled a significant shift. Golden is becoming an international destination for skiers and backcountry adventure-seekers. Tourism is changing the built environment of cities across the globe, and communities such as Golden are feeling pressure to develop an approach to building guidelines that carefully considers their impact over the long term, architecturally and otherwise. For Golden town planner Cloe Corbett, tourism is just one aspect of the community. She hopes that the built future of the growing community will continue to be industrial in nature and at the same time be a setting for tourism and recreation. Corbett believes that strict guidelines don’t allow for communities to retain their identity. Guidelines can be a double-edged sword. Planned communities such as Seaside, Florida which emphasize a specific architectural style have become a popular image for social control. Possibly this “theme-park approach” as Corbett calls it, influenced Golden to counter with the tagline for its community plan, “Keeping It Real.”

Following an extensive consultation with the town’s subcommittee on design, Corbett asked architects to submit proposals for developing Golden’s new guidelines. “AKA/andrew king studio,” she says, “hit it right on.” Interestingly, the studio’s focus is not rural development or heritage preservation. Their built work, for instance, includes a women’s health clinic in Calgary (2004) comprised of two monolithic rectangles on either side of an atrium, and an L-shaped infill house inCalgary–complete with a curtain wall for a side elevation (2008). While the studio seems an unlikely choice to design guidelines for a mountain resort community, Corbett was searching for a unique approach, a planning strategy that refused staged cohesion but would at the same time respond to the historic particularities of an object or a place.

Like early Modern architects who scoured the industrial landscape, intrigued by storage silos and cubist shapes, King looks in unusual places to find sources in history and the built environment. In this way, his approach is also similar to that of Denise Scott-Brown and Robert Venturi who, talking back to the Modernist tradition, drew inspiration from the commercial and residential environments of the Las Vegas Strip and Levittown, from the found objects of everyday landscapes. In Golden, King’s found objects are the humble, and at times ephemeral, objects in the CPR yards, the back alleys, the gas pumps and the shops of the community. At an early stage in the project, King and student Kristofer Kelly generated a photographic essay reflecting the layered history of Golden’s materiality that was formatted as a set of “identity cards.” The 69 cards are images reflecting fragments of the town. Each picture includes part of an object; the corner of a train car, text from a painted sign, a bike pedal, or a window. The cards are included in the guidelines with the idea that the images will provide developers, architects, and individuals with contextual references for choosing building materials without imposing a building form or architectural style on new construction.

It is in this essay that a link between King’s study and Benjamin’s Arcades Project is revealed. Benjamin’s project took its name from a 19th-century architectural form, the arcades that ran through blocks of buildings in Baron Eugene Haussman’s Paris. The glass-covered iron constructions were filled with chaotic juxtapositions of shop signs, window displays and other illuminations. To document the arcades, Benjamin organized thousands of index cards and developed a system of cross-referencing that, when it was eventually published as a text in 1980, echoed the layers of the city it revealed. Like Benjamin’s study, King and Kelly’s essay seeks to establish relationships between disparate objects across the whole environment. When applied to the new guidelines for Golden, rather than defining a specific location or arrangement of materials on the building, the study represents the fact that buildings, towns and cities are built up from small parts.

In addition to developing the identity cards, Corbett and King developed a planning “instrument.” The instrument is central to the objectives of the guidelines. How it works is this: the instrument is arranged on a grid with four categories connected to Form and Character (massing, composition, materials
and articulation) along one side, and three categories connected to determined densities for the Areas (dense, semi-dense and dispersed) are arranged along the top. Each new construction or renovation submitted to the town of Golden is scored on the instrument through a point system. Interestingly, in this way, form and style are not most important–but rather, it is familiar, iconic materials and images that matter.

While the impact of Golden’s new Form and Character Guidelines cannot yet be assessed, Corbett is hopeful that they will ensure that new building projects adapt to their context. King hopes that the instrument allows for an architectural pluralism that will instigate unexpected juxtapositions of elements, materials and ideas, a landscape of looking and thinking. Indeed, while the built environment is only one part of the social and political realm that constitutes urban and civic settings, Golden’s new Form and Character Guidelines ensure that a discussion will occur in the face of development and change. In a broader sense, as Golden struggles to circumvent the overdetermined spatial arrangements and aesthetics of many planned communities, it provocatively searches for the indeterminate space between freedom and control.CA

Following a period as an architectural practitioner and exhibition curator, Thomas Strickland is pursuing a PhD in Architecture at McGill University where his research focuses on the relationship between mega-structures and medicine.

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