A Splendid LapseThursday, November 26, 2009
When I return from a trip from downtown Vancouver I generally take the Fir Street exit off the Granville Street Bridge. I like to look at the Filipino bakery and eatery, Goldilocks which is at the corner on Broadway. I sometimes stop to buy enzaimadas, polvorones or I splurge on a scoop of Magnolia brand macapunu ice-cream which is the most heavenly coconut flavour imaginable. But I also remember the location for another reason.
It was sometime in the middle 80s that I received an extraordinary phone call in the middle of the night from one of the most sensually beautiful women I ever photographed, Sarita the belly dancer. She said something like this, “Alex I am proposing that you take a full session at est. I will foot the bill. Est will remove your sense of guilt in leaving your wife. You will then escape with me and my daughter and we will live happily ever after in Hawaii.” As you can imagine while I was most flattered by such an invitation I turned Sarita down.” EST which stands for Erhard Seminars Training was an organization founded by Werner H. Erhard and it offered a two-weekend (60-hour) course known officially as ‘The est Standard Training'. The purpose of est was to allow participants to achieve, in a very brief time, a sense of personal transformation and enhanced power. I personally thought it was pretentious bunk.
And by now you might suspect that the yellow and blue Goldilocks building was once painted white to look like a Hopi Pueblo dwelling and it was the headquarters for est in Vancouver.
Just like birds have an innate sense of direction I think that many of us have that same sense even when the landmark beacons of the places we might have frequented are long gone. It’s almost as if the ghosts of old buildings pass through the thick concrete walls of modern condominium developments. When I drive down Richards on my way to the Granville Street Bridge I glance at the Blenz on Davie and Richards and I can pinpoint on the second floor where Mac Parry had his office in the old building that housed Vancouver Magazine upstairs and Western Living downstairs. I remember fondly how Mac would drop heavy books, on purpose, on the floor of his office. His former art director, Chris Dahl was now art directing Western Living downstairs “Alex,” he would say to me, “I like to do this because he works for that terrible magazine that features bathrooms and housed devoid of people.” He did not yet know that a few months later he would pack his books and move downstairs to edit the very magazine he disliked.
I remember even the older Vancouver Magazine office on Howe that overlooked what is now Robson Square. I remember seeing photographer James La Bounty taking pictures of an elegantly dressed Arthur Erickson ( wearing an immaculate London Fog) while standing in Mac Parry’s balcony. What was behind Erickson would be the Law Courts. The skating rink that Erickson designed is now the GE Ice Rink. The names of the people who built Vancouver are being erased and replaced by nameless memorial names.
Driving, walking or especially when taking the bus I sense these ghosts of buildings that once were. There are so many and they have been replaced by grim, lifeless towers which are paeans to urban density, affordable housing, sustainability, greenness and all those other euphemisms that we now use to replace the verb – filling the pockets of developers with mounds of cash. This is the price we must pay for a booming economy based on people wanting to come to live in our city who are less inclined to walk the seawall, visit our parks but more likely to whisk themselves into an underground parking garage, go up to their condo, turn on their espresso machine and sit down to a surround-sound experience from the flat-screen TV over their gas (much greener and much more sustainable) fireplace.
It was five years ago that my granddaughter Rebecca, my wife Rosemary and I entered one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world in Buenos Aires. El Ateneo Grand Splendid on the most fashionable and elegant Avenida Santa Fe was designed by architects Peró and Torres Armengol for the empresario Max Glücksman and as a theatre named Teatro Gran Splendid in May 1919. In the late twenties it became a cinema and in 2000 it was converted into a bookshop.
My father and mother had taken me to many films in the late 40s and early 50s to that grand cinema house. Here I now was with my granddaughter and wife so many years later feasting my eyes on people sitting in the higher boxes reading at leisure. We sat down on the stage (a café) and sipped cafes con leche while a pianist played Piazzolla on a Steinway Grand.
A prominent Vancouver journalist (not born here) told me today, when I questioned him on the sorry day of the Vancouver Parks Board voting to close down the extraordinary Bloedel Conservatory, "We live amongst barbarians."
I would agree in that we should not have to think up of relevant or logical arguments to defend the keeping of the Conservatory. Sustainability in our city is seen purely as sustainability of the corpus and an abandoning of our soul. I don’t exactly want to how our city celebrated the opening of the refurbished Queen Elizabeth Theatre. It wasn't an event that could have been that memorable. I read it in the paper and I forgot immediately. Indeed we do live amongst a legion of barbarians that do not have a sense of what this city was and still is hidden underneath all that concrete. My journalist friend explained that nobody would be interested in the preservation of exotic plants and the roof overhead as long as the occupants of the towers could keep their guilt (if any) at bay by watering their balcony mini roses.
I wonder how much money the city will grant and shower on Montreal artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer so that he can dazzle all those Olympic visitors with his spotlight project at English Bay. Consider, to that the man specializes in creating "temporary anti-monuments for alien agency." (Ken Lum, you have a lot to learn still if you are going to help us achieve a "world class" city with your outdoor sculptures.) I would much rather have seen the investment of the money to buy and line the bases of the parrots and cockatoos at the Bloedel Conservatory with pristine copies of the Vancouver Sun.
Perhaps I might save up money to visit by city of birth, Buenos Aires, where people still have a desire to live amongst the still-in-place memories of those who came before them. That would be just Splendid.
The above sounds a lot like a rant. I think it is. I have been steadfast in my commitment to not rant in this blog. I hope I will be forgiven for my temporary lapse.