Vancouver Matters

Edited by James Eidse, Mari Fujita, Joey Giaimo and Christa Min. Vancouver: Blueimprint, 2008.

Vancouver Matters presents some highly insightful perspectives on a city that has thrived in the past few decades, both literally and in the global imagination. Regularly touted as one of the best places to live in the world and soon to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, the city has undergone a significant amount of growth and change in recent years. The hype has been further fuelled by “Vancouverism,” a term implying a “kind of point-form urbanism” that has become a planning model for communities across the globe (see CA, August 2006).

In response to this, the editors of Vancouver Matters asked contributors in Vancouver’s design and academic community to conceive of essays focused on a material condition within the context and processes of the city. The range of themes runs the gamut from those most obvious and elemental such as Water, Trees, View and Grass, but extend to intriguingly abstract titles like Intimacy, Veil and Residue.

In Stucco, Kenneth Terriss details the evolution through the decades of the “Vancouver Special,” the derisively named banal and bulky two-storey stucco box so prevalent throughout the city. Plans, sections and photographs depict variations of the Vancouver Special, transforming an uninspiring and inelegant housing type into rather fascinating subject matter–from what is essentially a practical housing solution that emerged in response to the relentless city grid and the 33-foot-wide lots that carpet “the entire eastern half of the city and much of the west side.”

Taking an unusual position, Hannah Teicher poses the intriguing question of what Vancouver might have gained had it not managed to so successfully quash various freeway initiatives throughout its history. To illustrate this point, Teicher’s Freeway considers Granville Island, the much lauded planning achievement and entity loved by all–created out of the residual space beneath the Granville Bridge, one of the city’s few thoroughfares resembling a freeway. Since the 1970s, Granville Island has flourished and continues to do so, boasting a highly mixed community of retail, hospitality, educational, cultural, recreational and even industrial functions–and which also embraces locals and tourists equally. Teicher suggests that as Vancouver evolves, it “awaits its own particular third wave,” a finer-grained approach to challenge its pervasive and monotonous grid, “offering up multiple ways of experiencing the city.”

Lyndsay Sung’s Hedge provides amusing respite, a moment of levity in the midst of some heavily academic essays. Picking up on the ubiquity of nature in Vancouver, Sung focuses on the abundance of quasi-anthromorphic topiary found around the city, and takes it one step further. Embellishing the greenery with white paper cutouts of smiling mouths and eyes, she has created a photo-essay of various shrubs and hedges that grin blankly at the camera, comically giant blob-like aliens that randomly dot the urban residential landscape.

The 16 essays all highlight the fact that–as suggested by the book’s title–Vancouver does indeed matter. But what they really do is encourage us to look beyond the rallying cry of civic boosterism to critically engage with the real Vancouver, and to consider the possibilities of what it might yet become. Reviewed by Leslie Jen