From June 20 to July 20, 2008, the city of London celebrated architecture. The 2008 London Festival of Architecture featured over 600 activities around the city: exhibitions, lectures, installations in public spaces, guided walks, bicycle rides, boat tours, parties, film screenings, design workshops, and debates. Canada took part in this festival with Vancouverism: West Coast Architecture and City Building, presented at Canada House in Trafalgar Square from June 24 to September 10.

As part of the “Embassies Project” organized by the British Council and the London Festival of Architecture, Vancouverism is one of many international exhibitions and events in some of London’s 28 foreign embassies where the best examples from each country are presented. To complement the show, an evening of talks entitled “Arthur Erickson’s Vancouver” was held at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Moderated by Dennis Sharp, speakers included Trevor Boddy, Bing Thom and James KM Cheng. Unfortunately, Arthur Erickson himself was not able to attend the event in London, due to ill health.

Vancouverism: A Neologism

The curators of the show, Dennis Sharp and Trevor Boddy, developed a special exhibition around the word Vancouverism, a term first used by American urban planners and architects who needed a label to describe what they found in the Canadian West Coast metropolis. The show opens with a quote from The New York Times, explaining what Vancouverism is all about: “Vancouverism is characterized by tall, but widely separated, slender towers, interspersed with low-rise buildings, public spaces, small parks and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and faades to minimize the impact of a high-density population.” The press release accompanying the exhibition plays with the city’s name to define this architectural idea: “Vancouver, Vancouverize, Vancouverism.” Thus, the name of a city became first a verb, and then a noun, a neologism that evokes a particular type of urbanism focused on high density and public amenities. In this way, Vancouver is presented to Londoners and tourists as “not Asia, not Europe, not even North America, but a new kind of city living with elements from all these.”

Even before the term Vancouverism was invented as a derivative of Manhattanism at the beginning of the 21st century, the idea of a vertical city of high-rise buildings by the sea had already been envisioned by one of Canada’s greatest architects–Arthur Erickson. In 1955, Erickson drew a beautiful sketch for Plan 56–an entirely hypothetical urban scheme for the city of Vancouver–where buildings by the sea complemented the contours of the snow-capped mountains behind Vancouver. It was there, according to Boddy, that the notion of Vancouverism really took root. And it is therefore with this striking drawing, and with an interesting written introduction (strangely, the only part of the exhibition that is bilingual), that the summer 2008 exhibition at Canada House begins.

Curating with Wood

Up to this point, the exhibition seemed really promising. But after this initial good start, things became rather confused and somehow inconsistent. Although “high-rise,” “high-amenity” and “high-design” seemed to be the key words tying together the show’s themes, the exhibition seemed more intent on promoting the work of a few of Vancouver’s main architecture firms. Indeed, almost all the projects exhibited at Canada House were from Arthur Erickson, Bing Thom Architects, James KM Cheng Architects, and Fast + Epp Structural Engineers. Is it really right to imply that only these four firms–three of which were sponsors for the show–have helped to create the ideology of Vancouverism?

The exhibition consisted of four parts: the main gallery with displays, models, and a video on the construction of the 2010 Olympic speed-skating arena’s roof; a small gallery with some more examples of podium/tower constructions; an external serpentine construction made of timber; and finally, another small wood construction, also snake-shaped, built inside Canada House. Probably the most interesting part of the exhibition, and the one that will remain in Londoners’ imaginations, was the installation conceived by Bing Thom and Gerry Epp that wrapped around the corner of Canada House–a 200-foot-long and 27- foot-high wooden wall facing Trafalgar Square and the National Portrait Gallery. Named the “Trafalgar Square Demonstration Construction,” this temporary edifice was realized by Fast + Epp and StructureCraft, the innovative engineering firm also responsible for the unique roof of the Richmond Speed-Skating Oval for the 2010 Olympics. Being situated in the middle of Trafalgar Square near the National Gallery, the Strand and the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, this curved, cedar sculptural wall on Canada House is an extraordinary showcase for our country.

The show’s methods of display were not bad at all. The curators made the decision to present architectural projects on timber panels consistent with the serpentine installation outside Canada House. The display panels were not hung on the walls in a traditional way, but were constructed as long thin planks to lean against the walls. The upper parts of these panels each showed a large black-and-white picture of each building, whilst the lower parts displayed a combination of smaller pictures, drawings and text relating to the photo above it. Among the projects on display, four were by Arthur Erickson–the MacMillan Bloedel office tower (1969), the Museum of Anthropology at UBC (1976), Robson Square (1983), and the Waterfall Building (2002); four by Bing Thom Architects–an office/condominium tower located at 855/899 Homer Street (1992), Surrey Central City (2003), the Aberdeen Centre (2004), and the Sunset Community Centre (2008); four by James KM Cheng Architects– Concord Pacific’s Marinaside (2002), a residential tower on Georgia Street (1998), the Shaw Tower (2003), and Concord Pacific’s Spectrum Costco/Condo Complex (2007); and finally, three by Fast + Epp Structural Engineers–Surrey Central City (2003), the Sunset Community Centre (2008), and the 2010 Olympic Winter Games Speed-Skating Oval in Richmond (2010).

Trevor Boddy, the main curator of Vancouverism, is a Vancouver-based critic and curator who has written about architecture and cities in many Canadian and American newspapers as well as design magazines. Dennis Sharp, co-curator of the exhibition, is a British architect, professor, curator, historian, author and editor who was appointed Head of History Studies at the Architectural Association (AA) in 1968, and was later a senior lecturer at the AA, and AA general editor and founding editor of AA Quarterly (1968-1982).

The Message

What exactly are Boddy and Sharp trying to tell the visitors of the show? As the main Canadian contribution to the 2008 London Festival of Architecture, the exhibition Vancouverism should have provided a strong and clear manifesto of the quality and uniqueness of Canadian buildings. Unfortunately, the main focus of the show was not made at all clear. I could not work out precisely what the core concern of the exhibition was. Was it the new urbanism of the West Coast, what they have called Vancouverism, and which is, apparently, now being copied from Hong Kong to Dubai? Or, was it the wood industry’s development of highly sustainable buildings and the stunning quality of cedar construction in Canada? If it was this, why were only two of the projects displayed made of timber, while the remaining projects comprised an architecture of concrete and glass? And finally, was it simply the showcase of the work of four Canadian offices that have, in the last four decades, shaped modern Vancouver? The answer is not clear. If the concept of Vancouverism was outlined quite brilliantly at the start of the exhibition, the focus was disappointingly lost in an attempt to show too man
y things in too little space.

In the brochure accompanying the show, two images of Vancouver are juxtaposed to create a contrast: one black-and-white photograph depicts Vancouver in 1953 (just before Erickson’s Project ’56) and the other image is of technicolour Vancouver in 2007. There is a world of difference between these two photos. Indeed, by bearing in mind these images, one can grasp the sense of the term Vancouverism and its importance to the city’s history over the past 50 years. It is a shame that the photos were not part of the show. There were other important omissions in the exhibition: a map of Canada and a map of the Greater Vancouver region showing Vancouver and its suburbs such as Surrey and Richmond would have been beneficial, especially to a European audience.

Was this exhibition about Vancouver a bit pretentious? I am tempted to respond affirmatively in view of some of the phrases used in the show. For example, “The Vancouverism tower-on-podium format is New York Brownstone walk-up apartment topped by thin Hong Kong towers. In other words, split the architectural distance between New Yorkers and Hong Kongers and you get Vancouverite.” This was used to describe a project in which residential towers were built on top of a Costco!

When I went to the show for the second time on a Thursday morning, it was rather empty. Perhaps some visitors wishing only to have a quick glance at the show might have been discouraged by the long and heavy security checks at the door of Canada House. Nevertheless, the strange serpentine timber construction wrapping Canada House and visible from many points in Trafalgar Square would have caught the attention of many passersby. After its stop at Canada House in London, the exhibition will travel to Paris where it will be displayed at the Canadian Culture Centre in the 7th arrondissement. In light of this fact, it was surprising to see that only the exhibition’s introductory text had been translated into French, while the remaining text was all in English.

When I got home, I Googled Vancouverism, curious to see what would come up. I found a ten-minute documentary called Vancouverism in Vancouver, produced by Robin Anderson and Julia Bogdanowicz. This video explains, using testimonies by experts in construction and city-planning, the meaning of the term Vancouverism with great clarity. Vancouverism, according to Anderson and Bogdanowicz, is “using increased-density Asianization of the town as well as high-rise living; it is podiums and towers, towers and podiums and towers; it is using increased density to finance amenities.” Why, then, was such a concise and entertaining video not part of the show, which instead showed a less relevant film on the construction of the 2010 Olympics speed-skating arena’s roof? It is still a mystery to me. CA

La-Catherine Szacka is currently a PhD student at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College in London, where she is conducting a historical inquiry on the theme of architectural exhibitions. For more information on Vancouverism, please see “Vancouverism” (CA, August 2006), concisely written and clearly illustrated by Julie Bogdanowicz.