Canadian Architect

Feature

Signs of Life

How a building transforms from narrative to reality is cause for concern and contemplation in the busy Vancouver real estate market.

January 1, 2005
by Colleen Dixon

With this explosion of new condominium development comes a strange and temporary alteration of the streetscape. Large-scale photographs of happy couples, attractive single women and seductively designed interiors emblazon temporary hoarding around demolition sites. With all forms of media constantly surrounding us with advertising and images of these new projects on bus shelters, televisions and billboards, we can become cynical of their message and their fundamental seductiveness and yet, we are content or are at least ambivalent about living with them. We have all become accustomed to the “coming soon” real-estate previews that are the movie trailer version of announcing the next new mixed-use development. They have become a part of our urban landscape. The act of designing a building and the process of marketing have evolved into separate acts that are in isolation from one another. That is not to say that the two processes are not inextricably linked. The opening of the next sales centre accompanied by beautifully designed marketing brochures generates its own excitement and has almost become a cultural event in itself. Like a movie premier, all participants are at their best.

Marketing graphics serve to sell the project and to get people in the doors of the sales centre. In this respect, the glossy ads, elaborate mail-outs and lusciously photographed interiors do the trick. In addition to advertising the price and size of the unit, a themed tableau is set and targets the current condo-buying market in Vancouver. Visions of gas cooktops, plasma televisions, and spa interiors belie mythical narratives of the “good life.”

While teams of highly educated and motivated marketing people are at work “theme-ing” the project, the architects and consultant teams involved toil away at important but less glamorous tasks such as HVAC and accessibility. What role do architects have in the process of creating a real estate narrative? By all accounts none and this is how it should be. Architects should and do explore aspects of popular culture in the design of our buildings, but while trends change and furniture styles morph, the fundamental ways in which we live and how space is designed transcends all stylistic gimmickry….or at least it should. This is the difference between the two processes and the reason why they work in parallel rather than together. The marketing packages are temporal and fleeting snapshots of current popular culture. The point where the architecture picks up and the marketing leaves off is when the signs surrounding the site succumb to eventual weathering and decay, and the dissolution of the dream begins. The lifestyle hopes and dreams of purchasers fade to the background while the tangible entity of the building begins to rise, its true legacy and meaning residing in its role in the public realm and the urban fabric, and as shelter for human life.

Colleen Dixon is an Intern Architect working in Vancouver.




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