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Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination

By Lance Berlowitz

Review By Lawrence McCann

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 148 Winter 2005-2006  | p. 107-9

Dream City. The title is captivating, but what does it mean? Lance Berelowitz’s book about changes in the urban design and planning of Vancouver opens and closes by briefly discussing the phrase “dream city,” but nowhere else throughout this carefully crafted study do we encounter this expression, nor are we ever told its precise meaning. Perhaps the title is meant to play upon our imagination, compelling us to consider the many visions that have given shape to the contemporary urban form of Vancouver, that almost mythical, some would say most mystical, global place. If so, Berelowitz succeeds admirably. Dream City is a provocative read for anyone wishing to understand how past and present members of Vancouver’s creative class – its architects, planners, and developers, people and corporations like Arthur Erickson, Larry Beasley, and the CPR – have envisioned the ever-changing landscape of this youthful, still evolving West Coast metropolis. 

Berelowitz is an informed and impassioned guide. Dream City is fashioned from the discerning observations of a multitalented urbanist – a flaneur sauntering at the city’s edge, an archaeologist digging into buried layers of vanished urban landscapes, a critic with first-hand knowledge of other global cities, and a writer making informed use of secondary sources. Casting aside the linearity of historical enquiry, but keen to talk about the past, Berelowitz suggests that we enter the book at random, “po-mo”-like, to read any chapter of potential interest. This works, despite some repetition in presenting material, because all chapters are thoughtful and instructive, especially those that interpret the spaces of the original grid city and the buildings of the reinvented and contemporary postindustrial metropolis. With few exceptions, Berelowitz is at his perceptive best when he peers into Vancouver from the great walkway rimming the city’s waterfront edge. His analysis of the beaches of English Bay as public spaces is a gem. Discussions of the ubiquitous grid, of Victory Square, and of the architecture of new glass towers and social housing are equally informative. 

Berelowitz is clearly most comfortable when analyzing design and planning processes that have evolved since his arrival in Vancouver from Europe in the early 1980s. On these matters his writing pulsates with the beat of an impresario who knows first-hand how recent landscapes were orchestrated. Issues are chosen wisely to instruct both specialist and non-specialist: the development of False Creek, the public’s acceptance of Moshe Safdie’s Coliseum-like design for Vancouver’s Public Library, and the expansion of Vancouver’s circumferential waterfront walkway. There is equal passion in explaining how the seaside walkway functions as the platform for viewing the city. Berelowitz argues convincingly that Vancouver is best seen from this waterfront edge and that the walkway is the city’s most important public space. Given this predilection, would a better title for the book have been Dreaming the Edge City? For me, yes. But in provoking such thoughts in his readers, Berelowitz has achieved one of his objectives: he challenges us to rethink our understanding of this young and vibrant coastal city. 

Dream City possesses a seemingly all-inclusive quality. Its storyline ranges across space and time, emphasizing the basic natural and built features of Vancouver’s urban landscape: rain, sun, water, forests, islands, and mountains; lots, blocks, lanes, streets, major boulevards, and railroad right-of-ways; houses, lofts, townhouses, garden apartments, high-rise condominiums, and tall office towers; and lookouts, squares, and parks – all are commented upon. Thus the book is a useful source of factual information about many elements of Vancouver’s built environment. We learn of the controversy surrounding the location of City Hall and the failure to create city-centre ceremonial squares and hence a focal point for community gatherings. We are given incisive critiques about the over-planning of Robson Square, the intricacies of negotiating the contemporary design process that has rightly attracted global attention, and the not-to-be-lost merits of the Agricultural Land Reserve that lies “beyond the edge.” We learn, too, of the successful rebirth of Granville Island; and even about the value of granite – material Berelowitz, a designer himself, favoured when creating new lamp standards for the City of Vancouver. 

Given his personal approach to storytelling – particularly of excavating fragments of the urban scene – some of Berelowitz’s historical explanations of the plans, landscapes, personalities, and politics that have shaped or still dis-tinguish Vancouver’s urban landscape are rather thin or incomplete. This occurs because Berelowitz has minimized archival research in favour of the flaneur’s method of acquiring information by experiencing a city first-hand – that is, by walking and pondering the visual, by photographing the city, by talking to experts, and by drawing comparisons between Vancouver and other global places seen and studied (notably Los Angeles). Even when Berelowitz warns us that he is not knowledgeable enough to fully interpret what has transpired, the effect, for this reader at least, is to wish for more in-depth explanation. This is especially true of the truncated discussion of the unique West Coast style of modernist architecture that gave Vancouver a leading edge in Canadian architectural circles after the Second World War – a once-realized, still practised, but now, in some places in the metropolis, vanishing “dream.” True, modernist design in Vancouver has been written about by Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, a mentor to Berelowitz, but why not tell us more about the creative forces and emergent landscapes, especially planned neighbourhood units, that were apparently so very different then, compared to the conservatism that now favours look-alike glass towers and densification?1 In a similar way, readers with a penchant for the past will probably wish for a wider discussion of specific historical forces acting upon the city. For example, while Berelowitz pays homage to important historical agents of change (like the CPR and the American city planner Harland Bartholomew), one wishes for more in-depth discussion of the context within which these agents operated. To this could be added an appeal for the inclusion of some important yet curiously ignored landscapes: take, for example, the campuses of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University and their historic and contemporary impact on Vancouver’s urban form. 

All good books create in their readers a desire to learn more; and any good book on any individual city, particularly one that will appeal greatly to its residents, must surely be judged a success when it encourages readers to bring their personal knowledge to the text. Berelowitz’s Dream City does just this and more, offering the reader an intelligent and gratifying walk through Vancouver’s rapidly evolving landscape. Douglas and McIntyre must be congratulated for publishing yet another finely designed book. The typography and layout are crisp, the photographs are pertinent, and Eric Leinberger’s maps are beautifully crafted: each of these features enhances the narrative, giving the reader a deeper sense of Vancouver’s distinctive urban landscape and, dare I conclude, its “dreamlike,” reflective quality.

[1] See, for example, Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-1963 (Montreal and Vancouver: Canadian Centre for Architecture and Douglas and McIntyre, 1997); and Fred Hollingsworth, Greg Bellerby, Rhodri Windsor Liscombe and Barry Downs, Living Spaces: The Architecture of Fred Thornton Hollingsworth (Vancouver: blueimprint, 2005).