August & Our Urban MalaiseSunday, August 16, 2009
In past years when I was an extremely busy freelance photographer I would call my friend, writer John Lekich and complain to him of a particular period of enervation I was going through. Lekich would tell me, “It’s spring. It’s the weather. What do you expect? Too many things are growing out there for you to worry about work.” I would call him a few months later and he would modify his advice to, “Alex, it is summer. Don’t worry about not working. Just enjoy the weather and your garden.” Come fall Lekich would say, “It’s fall so that’s why you don’t want to do anything. Come winter you will be back on course.” And, of course, when winter came, and my inactivity would make me call Lekich, he would say, “Just wait until spring and you will want to work again.” Luckily the year has only four seasons. If it had more Lekich would give me more excuses to not lift my shutter finger.
I don’t want to call him about Vancouver’s August as he would justify any inaction on the part of our city fathers, politicians, city planners, etc. In fact I can assert that in August nothing happens in Vancouver. Those who make the decisions that might affect our urban life are gone on vacation. When they come back in September they often make up their minds behind closed doors. These decisions are implemented as fait accompli. By the time our conventional media is made aware of them we are suddenly informed and there is no possible recall.
While I am a bit of an elitist, and I do not believe in a giving the vox populi more than cursory power in the affairs of a city I do not believe in leaving them completely in the dark. I believe we are in the dark about the decisions that are currently being made about the expansion of Vancouver and the respect and preservation of those places so important to our urban wellbeing.
In the late 90s and a few of the years into this century there were a couple of organizations that made me feel alive as a citizen of this city. By citizen I mean the feeling and the power of being part of a city, this city. In the middle 70s when I had visitors from abroad I would take them to see the Erickson/Massey Simon Fraser University at night. The university was all lit and it seemed to be a beacon of cultural pride. Its steps reminded me of the centres of Greek city states and the Roman Forum.
In those late 90s the urban steps of Erickson’s Robson Square led to what was then called the Robson Square Media Centre which held lectures sponsored by ALCAN or the wonderfully, almost secretive, Urbanarium Society founded by Ray Spaxman, Vancouver City Planner extraordinaire. These lectures were held in a superb (Erickson designed!) auditorium called the Judge White Auditorium. Few of these lectures ever made our newspapers even though I could often spot architect Arthur Erickson sitting there. He always had something interesting and startling to say. Nothing of what he ever said seemed to be recorded by any media. Near Erickson I would spot Alderman (at the time they were called that) Gordon Price (with a copy of the day’s New York Times on his lap). He was the only person from City Hall who understood what it was to have a sense of urbanity and the importance of urbanity in relation to culture. At these lectures I heard about my city and our local architects and many of fame from abroad told us of our good points and what we must do to keep our city a livable one. In the most memorable one (held at the then new Roundhouse) the panelists where Carole Taylor, Arthur Erickson and the then city planner Ray Spaxman. The lecture was about the densification of our city. It was Erickson who said something like, “Our city will be thin in population by mid 21st century. We can ignore it and do nothing and then cope with the resulting chaos. Or we can prepare of it now. The density will be inevitable.”
At a later ALCAN lecture, architects Bing Thom (above, right) and Arthur Erickson (left) argued for the building of a tunnel under Burrard Inlet joining the North Shore with our city somewhere, perhaps, at the foot of Main. Again both architects told us that there was no way we could prevent the city from expanding to and beyond Lion’s Bay. “It’s going to happen. Depending on a three-lane bridge is madness.”
It was a couple of years ago that I heard former Premier Mike Harcourt at a lecture at the downtown campus of Simon Fraser University say, “The centre of our city, let’s call it Greater Vancouver, is Surrey City.” To me this was startling. I combed the papers the next day. Nothing.
I have friends and a particular architect friend, Abraham Rogatnick (below, centre), who would like to see our Vancouver Art Gallery stay where it is. Rogatnick's arguments are persuasive. I have since talked with a well known former dance crititic from our leading daily who was present (our former critic is also been known to defend the arts and culture by working with the Canada Council) at meetings where several and practical solutions to the “lack of space” problem of our gallery were presented and discussed. It seems that Simpson Sears at one time was willing to forgo two of its floors. Plans were discussed of building escalators that would join the gallery to a building that is a perfect box for an extension to our VAG. Since the box was designed by the famous architect Cesar Pelli we would have an art gallery extension of some renown even if most in the city hate Pelli’s design.
I have written here how, behind close doors, the hiding and the eventual virtual destruction of Paul Merrick’s CBC has resulted in an objectionable mish mash of ugly densification.
Some of us (at least I do) want to know what the city plans to do with our main Post Office.
Some of us (at least I do) want to know what the city is going to do with the former location of the Greyhound Bus Station on the side of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
Some of us (at least I do) want to know when the city going to restore the Dal Grauer Substation (on Burrard next to the Electra Building)to its former glory.
I read with shock that City Hall owns all the land, North, to the edge with West Broadway and that a plan is afoot to build a new City Hall! Some of us (at least I do) want to know what this plan is.
In the 80s and 90s we had a few architects who would go public on urban affairs. There was Ned Pratt (first photograph, top left), Arthur Erickson and Bing Thom. Two are now gone and I have not recently heard Bing Thom on anything although I know he may be fighting behind closed doors (Is this the only way of fighting fire with fire, fighting our city’s lack of transparency in its decision making?) at all the work that is being done to modify Erickson’s vision that was Robson Square?
Robson Square would have been a Socred fiasco. I would like to remind those with that peculiar short civic memory, that this former right-wing party sort of re-named itself and is our our Provincial Liberal Party. When the NDP won the Provincial election in 1972 the Socred plan to build a skyscraper on what was to be called Robson Square became instead a project designed by Arthur Erickson that Erickson likened to laying the skyscraper on it side. It is that advocate for the works and memory of Arthur Erickson, the tireless Cheryl Cooper who recently told me, “Arthur’s vision had the law and justice on one end (the law courts) and art (the VAG) on the other , and smack in the centre of Robson Square an urban plaza smack in the centre of the city.”
In those wonderful 90s Robson Square was an urban Mecca for me. Walking its steps, like the ones at Simon Fraser University gave me a sense of civic participation. Before the building of the big box Chapters (I must confess the books are cheaper) the area attracted me with Duthie Books, a Murchie’s where I could scan the books I had purchased across the street and an art gallery that I felt was mine. With Murchies and Duthie’s gone, replaced by high-end boutiques of clothing I would never buy, the area is not a beacon for me anymore.
Part of the problem is the complete failure (my humble opinion) of the University of British Columbia’s takeover of Robson Square. They have quietely and with no fuss removed all of its urbanity. The wonderful Judge White Auditorium (with those carpeted steps on the side where some of us would lie down, instead of sitting in the standard seats) was destroyed and converted to office space. How many people who know for a fact that Simon Fraser University has a downtown campus even know UBC has one, too? Former “Alderman” Gordon Price organizes lectures on urban affairs there. The few lectures I have gone to at the almost invisible UBC downtown campus have been partially organized by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura.
How many people are aware or ever think of visiting the UBC Bookstore that is in its downtown campus? I have been told that former UBC President Martha Piper was singly responsible for eliminating all the restaurants that were in Robson Square by forcing them to renew their liquor licenses on an almost monthly basis.
The only light in the darkness of “what are they doing with my Robson Square?” is the VAG’s extremely successful Art Gallery Café. My granddaughter Rebecca loves going there and tells me, “This place is nicer than Starbucks and it plays better music, too.”
I would like to see a formal or informal committee of committed architects (including Peter Busby, above right) and urban planners who would publicly discuss these urban issues in a transparent way and somehow urge and nudge our city, our province and our Federal Government to clue us in as to what they are planning to do with our money. Perhaps this informal committee would somehow erase that August malaise and make the citizens of our city behave like citizens of our city.
Addendum: In the SFU City Blog Gordon Price, the Program Director corrects one of my statements above. I am extremely happy to be wrong on this one!
... but we have to note that in fact the Judge White Theatre at Robson Square still exists. Indeed, we at SFU have used it for our Shifting Gear’s series in partnership with UBC’s Bombardier Chair.