Canadian Architect


Peripheral Vision

May 1, 2005
by Timothy Atherton

There no longer appears to be a clear division between the suburban, urban or rural environment. There now seems to be a generic approach to the built environment that influences inhabited spaces everywhere. Often expansive and suburban, this condition does not easily show up on maps and is better illustrated through a state of mind rather than a topographic location easily represented on a map.

Yellowknife is a city perched on the Canadian Shield surrounded by Boreal forest. This isolated specimen of a city represents the perfect condition for the idea of the suburbs. Wherever you are in Canada (or indeed, North America) there is a mundane, yet reassuring familiarity to the suburbs–strip malls and big box stores. While each suburban place displays subtle individual differences, the movement towards suburbia veers away from individuality towards similarity and homogenization. The generic appears to dominate.

In undertaking my project of documenting the Canadian urban and suburban condition, it soon became apparent that the work could easily fall into what Stefano Boeri calls a “sample-book of contemporary urban kitsch.” And while that would have been an easy target to aim for–and as a body of photography, easier to convey–it was becoming clear that this wasn’t what I was seeing as I composed these urban views on the ground glass of the camera.

The two most obvious ends of the critical spectrum at that point seemed to be the Koolhaasian approach where the Generic City is here to stay. Learn to embrace its homogenized possibilities. Celebrate its beige vinyl siding, atria and the architectural possibilities of silicon adhesive. Abandon planning (because it seems to have failed anyway) and allow the laissez-faire Generic City to morph and adapt by itself. Alternatively, take the New Urbanist approach which is characterized by Seaside in Florida or Prince Charles’ new model village at Poundbury in Dorset: an approach that more often than not, seems to fall into a sort of nostalgic escapism. What I was discovering didn’t seem to fit too closely into either camp.

The more I examined it, the more Yellowknife seemed to exist as a sort of isolated urban specimen connected to the rest of North America by a thin ribbon of a single thousand-mile-long highway. Yellowknife is a sort of petri-dish urban experiment that is not guided by urban development theories but rather by mundane daily pressures and decision-making processes associated with a combined mining town, government town and territorial capital filled with workers and suburban families desiring an ordinary lifestyle. These processes are to be found within a City Hall and planning department whose urban vision is still drawn from the 1960s and ’70s. The bureaucracy is guided by a combination of blunt expediency and local business interests while paying only lip service to social and environmental planning concerns. In short, Yellowknife endures a planning regime similar to one found in many municipalities across the country, both big and small.

As I explored Yellowknife, I found that an uncritical embrace and a clear rejection of the existing urban condition made sense. Traditional planning methodologies were not able to accurately describe conditions that I was finding in front of the lens. During the initial explorations of the Yellowknife context, the view that presented itself seemed to be so overwhelmingly bland and mundane, so generic and lacking in identity that it would have been too easy to present a negative response unduly critical of the bland, unthinking and expedient development lacking any kind of coherent aesthetic. Such photographs would have had a more immediate impact, but would have lacked the necessary depth to explain the subtle context and environment that I was examining.

Nebular urban zones linked by complex ribbons of time rather than distance helped define the various relationship of the people (worker, commuter, tourist, family member, patient, consumer) to their landscape–and not necessarily their physical location. Even though it can appear so from above–from the standard topographic perspective–the view that was becoming evident wasn’t in fact a chaotic aggregation of random “urban facts” but the inadequacy of the traditional aerial topographic to delineate the monocentric city, complete with successive rings of growth and development.

At this point, Boeri’s idea and challenge of the “Eclectic Atlas” and the need for a close-up ground level perspective involving a multiplicity of views began to make sense, both as an underlying methodology as well as a key to unlock what I was seeing and photographing.

The camera was recording in detail an urban landscape where the loss of identity and homogenization seemed to be an overwhelming characteristic. But on closer examination, as the camera scanned at ground level, I was finding increasingly fewer examples of building types. There was the big box store and strip mall containing an auto parts retailer, liquor store, dentist and accountant. There was the low-rise office block, the mobile home and the single-family dwelling. However, a level of individualization was clearly being exercised within this limited range with small inflections and local variations in design, often arranged in an incongruous or apparently casual manner, but which was definitely not haphazard.

At times, these statements were strongly asserted as expressions of individuality, modifications of limited uniqueness expressing an equally limited building vocabulary, characterizing what Boeri calls “the dust-cloud of freestanding buildings that now characterize the borders of large cities…” But what I found in Yellowknife was that the dichotomy between a centre and periphery no longer appears to be as important as the relationship between particular places along the interwoven networks that link these different nebular “dust-cloud” locales together. It assumes an identity from accessibility, not from proximity. Sometimes neighbouring spaces can bear less of a relation to one another than between two spaces where the relationship is built up over a distance. How do we drive from the suburb to the parking lot or to the office? From the office to the mall? From home to the entertainment complex? Our identity and place in the city is not being built on a small neighbourhood that we consider “home” but on a series or montage of different urban landscapes interwoven together. Differentiation and variation in the predominant model of urban centres includes an expanding periphery that no longer seems to hold the same importance in these urban spaces that lack a central focus.

One aspect of my photography–which I describe as a peripheral vision–is a sort of oblique glance that attempts to delineate some of these varied and intertwined urban landscapes. One result of this approach is that within this urban landscape, the various terrains vague become clearer in viewing the photographs. Somewhat ambiguous and often imbued with a variety of different meanings, contexts and local uses, but rarely abandoned, these voids in the urban conglomeration seem to tell as much, if not more, about the spaces that we are viewing rather than the type or density of buildings surrounding them.

Although not necessarily the ones that I originally imagined, my explorations in Yellowknife revealed a lack of any requirement for what might be called an “informed” architectural aesthetic: not necessarily because of the pressures of cheap development, but more out of indifference or even resistance to any requirement for such “educated” architecture. However, the strong pressures resulting from cheap and rapid development and its blunt expediency play a large part in driving the move towards greater and greater homogenization.

While the efforts to achieve a sense of place within the Yellowknife context that I documented assert and retain a form of identity, they were at times both surprising and unexpected. One of these aspects is the use of gardens or garden spaces which
will either develop into a particular personal space, or a form of appropriation within the landscape of the North. These small and personal gardens provide a small act of resistance within the trend toward the homogenization of the landscape in which they are situated.

The photographic work that results from the exploration of Yellowknife–a particular isolated specimen of the urban condition–not only reveals these particular details but serves to lay the groundwork for broader explorations of the built urban environment in other parts of Canada.

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