We Built This City

Text Courtney Healey

It has been one year since the Winter Olympics, 25 years since Expo 86 and 125 years since the incorporation of the City of Vancouver, making 2011 a perfect time for the city to take stock, reflect and maybe even speculate on its future. WE: Vancouver–12 Manifestos for the City, an exhibition being held at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) until May 1st, tackles the built environment as its subject and gives space to ideas that challenge the conventional practices of architecture and development that have dominated Vancouver in recent decades. The exhibition–part survey, part provocation, part catalyst–captures a feeling floating around the local design community; that is, searching for the forms and processes that will define the next generation of cultural production in the city.

The exhibition includes more than 40 works by local artists, architects, designers, landscape architects, planners and activists as well as eight written manifestos printed on broadsheets that are plastered to the gallery walls and throughout the city. VAG senior curator Bruce Grenville and associate curator Kathleen Ritter assembled a range of ideas and approaches loosely bound within a framework of 12 verbs or themes such as See, Listen, Activate, and Remember while maintaining focus on projects that display a “desire to affect change.” They cast a wide net, and exhibited works range in scale and complexity–from the Van Dusen Garden Visitor Centre by Busby Perkins + Will and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the UniverCity Childcare Centre by Hughes Condon Marler, and Mountain View Cemetery by Birmingham and Wood, to Propeller Design’s Mycologic Chandelier, Pivot Legal Society’s Red Tent Campaign, and SOLEfoods’ Urban Farming Initiative

A few projects stand out–not only for their ideas and execution but also for the way they tease and upend conventional readings of the spatial, psychological and industrial processes shaping the city today. Red Flag Design’s Banner = Bag challenges standard modes of production by interrogating the meaning of “recycled.” Shape Architecture’s Strathcona Projects illustrates the gap between Vancouver’s desire for density and its own policies that stand in the way, while Robert Kleyn’s The Kingsway suggests latent potential in the urban grid by drawing out its spatial structures and incongruities. The Goodweather Collective’s Roundabout Vancouver is particularly striking and is also one of the only works created exclusively for the exhibition. It subtly manipulates the perceived relationship between nature and infrastructure in the city and has elicited strong reactions from its audience.

Throughout the exhibition, one becomes increasingly aware of the bottleneck that occurs between hatching an innovative idea and implementing it on a meaningful scale, and the simple fact that desired change is different from actual change. Red Flag Design’s Banner = Bag project attempts to close this gap. First approached by the curators to exhibit some of the tote bags they have manufactured from VAG promotional banners, co-founders Barnaby Killam and Stuart Sproule were more interested in using the occasion to reverse the banner-to-bag recycling relationship and to develop an exhibition banner that was better suited to recycling in the first place. While this may seem simple on the surface, anyone who has tried knows that even minor changes to conventional fabrication processes brings pushback from the most affected parties. When asked if this is how the gallery banners will be produced from now on, Grenville smiled and said, “We’ll see…” 

 Shape Architecture’s Strathcona Projects illustrates a similar issue within the practice of architecture. Their large photographic panorama directs our attention to the gap that exists between one of Vancouver’s desired new forms of density–laneway housing–and the encumbered progress toward its actual realization.

Beyond realized projects, the exhibition also contains a number of speculative design works. Robert Kleyn’s project, The Kingsway, presents a long strip of tiled and offset figure-ground studies, a series of abstract geometric drawings, and a large spine-like sculpture that extends diagonally through three axes. Kleyn has studied the Kingsway for several years–a major arterial thoroughfare that cuts a diagonal swath through the city grid, leaving a number of spatial anomalies in its wake. Kleyn’s work carefully maps these irregularities, and while the project is rooted in a decades-old architectural obsession with intersecting grids, it is within the context of We: Vancouver that Kleyn’s research assumes new potential. The Kingsway evokes a desire for new spatial readings, development models and interpretations of the city. In his precise and beautiful study, Kleyn uncovers the potential for the city to flirt with transgression and perhaps see promise in spatial inconsistencies. The figure-ground study and the way it unravels an unspoken understanding of the relentlessness of the grid and the impenetrable nature of the street edge is perhaps the most successful component. 

Another project that finds potential in Vancouver’s street grid while overlaying the broader local obsession with nature is the Goodweather Collective’s Roundabout Vancouver, a piece of self-described “retroprojective urbanism” that challenges our perception of nature in the city while drawing heated debate from viewers.

Creators Michael Lis, Daniel Irvine and Chad Manley were struck by the number of roundabouts scattered throughout the city, and according to Manley, the collective began thinking that “aggregating the roundabouts creates a significant amount of space.” Around the same time, they came across a photograph in the City of Vancouver Archives describing a streetcar driving down West 4th Avenue, but what the image actually depicted was a streetcar driving through dense forest. Irvine described the image as the embodiment of “frontier west and the memory of Vancouver,” and the collective began to imagine the space of the roundabouts as a “distributed park or forest.” 

Nature as subject is inescapable in Vancouver and the Goodweather Collective capitalizes on this phenomenon by creating a project that hovers on the periphery of truth while remaining open to interpretation. Irvine describes Roundabout Vancouver‘s position on nature as a “complex interplay between the picturesque and the sinister.” Lis takes on the approach of renegade filmmaker Werner Herzog, who he sees as “understanding the profound darkness of nature, the otherness in nature.” Roundabout Vancouver, while clearly indicative of this desire, tempers it with humour and irreverence.

Organized as a loose triptych, Roundabout Vancouver begins with a dizzying projection that spins us, stop-motion style, through 10 roundabouts that each appear stuffed with the trunk of an old-growth tree. Next to this projection is a digital slideshow beginning with a map of Vancouver. Green dots emerge to mark the location of existing roundabouts, and then continue to gradually appear in every intersection with the final slide illustrating how the entire city could become equally treed as Stanley Park. The third and final element is the subtlest, and in many ways, the most provocative. It is a series of nine photographs depicting historical Vancouver cityscapes including the presence of enormous conifers in the centre of a traffic intersection, a back lane, or down the middle of a busy street. The aesthetic of the images depict periods that include the late 19th century, the ’30s, and the ’70s, leading up to present day. One constructed image captures an imaginary moment where a few large, yet-to-be-felled, old-growth trees dot a sparsely developed neighbourhood. 

The overall result is that the spinning film is first taken
as fact; the digital slideshow introduces the possibility that this is an urban design proposal, and then the photographs lay a blanket of ambiguity over the experience that something is not quite right, that something doesn’t make sense. Traffic roundabouts in a turn-of-the-century cityscape feel sort of preposterous, but the collective memory of Vancouver as a frontier wilderness seems to allow for this kind of unconscious overlap between nature and city.

The real effect of Roundabout Vancouver can be measured by the heated discussions amongst visitors, or amongst historians, artists and architects. They argue the historical accuracy of the images, testing what appear to be empirical artifacts with their own knowledge and memory of the city. They struggle to place the photograph using its assumed age and buildings as visual cues. They tend to walk away either convinced of the photograph’s authenticity or somewhat defeated at their inability to cope with the historical uncertainty. Irvine sees this uneasiness as the effect of “decoupling image fact from historical memory.” Wall text, added later by VAG curators out of concern over properly crediting the images, reads “Original Photographs: City of Vancouver Archive.” This effort to achieve clarity enhances the ambiguity. Irvine describes the work as an “action on the imagination,” and the viewer is left wondering when and why the trees were removed. Were they ever there in the first place? Are they actually still there as shown in the projection? What if they were to blanket the entire city? Wait a minute…they once did…before the streetcar.

While We: Vancouver gives space to a number of provocative ideas and may serve as a benchmark for discussions on visual culture in coming years, it remains a somewhat hastily assembled exhibition between two larger shows. Despite this drawback, Robert Kleyn, Shape, Red Flag, and the Goodweather Collective span a generation of Vancouver designers and architects and achieve an imaginative balance between reflection on the city and critical speculation on its future. CA

Courtney Healey is the Director of the Lodge Think Tank and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.