Vancouver Vanishes: Narratives of Demolition and Revival
April 17, 2016
Review By Rhodri Windsor Liscombe
The cover and larger format pages of this handsomely produced book are drear images of demolition in the older inner suburbs of Vancouver. An array are pictured on the back cover rather in the manner of a high school yearbook of graduates, while inside are images of their demise and suggestions of the former civic scenery and social pattern of Vancouver as a provincial town instead of a nascent world city. Those photographs register perhaps more strongly than those showing erstwhile interior and owner. Interspersed with engaging accounts historical and experiential, the contents constitute a fabric of loss and a nostalgia for an apparently more gracious and now-lost urban-scape and society. The narrative is compelling for those who have lived in Vancouver from before the advent of Expo 86. That spectacle came into being on the skirts of the Thatcher-Reagan deregulation of global enterprise and hastened the transformation of Terminal City into a compounding suburb of the Asias. Crumpets and tea, as it were, having been displaced by a spicy menu of profit and excess nicely manifested by accelerating downtown density and oversized house construction, much of it not regularly occupied.
The book is thus a valedictory for a passing way of living in a particular place. These fated, and generally quite ordinary, houses are commemorated here in the life-narrative of the authors and in editor Caroline Adderson’s dismay at their rampant destruction. She began her resistance through the more immediate discourse of social media. Some of its immediacy carries into her opening essay, prefaced by Michael Kluckner’s astute Introduction, which probes among the causes of rapid redevelopment the victims featured in his Vanishing Vancouver (2012). Adderson begins the narratology of once affordable Vancouver domesticity with the happier fate of two simplified Tudor-styled houses that escaped demolition through re-location. A sympathetic building contractor, prepared to accept more ergonomic than boastful living quarters, enabled their generally more sustainable renovation in a new but not far distant site. Our animation of the inert material artefacts of our existence is indicated by their being colloquially dubbed “the Dorothies.” The anthropomorphic tenor of residence, whether of specific domicile or local scene, unites the variety of contributions: from the more historical essays by John Atkin (justly celebrated for his tours of the city’s many districts) on Vancouver’s growth, or Eve Lazarus’s paean to potential heritage lost through the pressure (sometimes criminal as in the case of Englesea Lodge on the fringe of Stanley) to poems by Evelyn Lau and Bren Summers on the unremarked or private pathos entangled in the redevelopment of neighbourhood. John Mackie, Kerry Gold, Elise and Stephen Partridge, together with photographs by Tracey Ayton, and by Adderson in two other contributions, which unsentimentally evoke the lost lives of both houses and occupants.
Yet, when this reviewer was preparing an exhibition for the Canadian Centre for Architecture on a less popular era of built heritage, namely post-1945 modernism, a different viewpoint was voiced in perambulatory conversation along Burrard Street. While pondering the onset of rapid downtown reconstruction, as outlined by Atkin in this book, architect Ned Pratt averred to his peer Moshe Safdie, “All architecture is demolition!” This stands as an intriguing comment by a victim of the volatility of capital, as much as of aesthetic or ideology, that fashions the architecture — and absence thereof — moulding our everyday environs. For architecture and its overweight cousin, mere development, is as temporally as socially constituted. It is an outcome of contemporary regimes of investment and ownership and profit that, except in indigenous culture, imbue real estate. Here it might be noted that Donald Gutstein cast a particularly lucid and prescient light on an earlier phase in the city’s development industry in Vancouver Ltd. (1975), and that in 2012 I contributed two studies of advertising, commodification, and modernist urbanism in Vancouver. In our time, real estate is a performance of status, secular faith in the future, and seething discontent. In Vancouver, that last currently revolves around issues of absentee ownership, money laundering, and tax evasion — somewhat unfairly only directed against wealthy mainland Chinese purchasers (most nationalities, including the United States and Russia, are represented).
There is, too, a deeper timeliness, or timefulness, about architecture. Even suburban tract housing makes a play at time’s conquest. Howsoever shoddy those houses — including the modest Central [now Canada] Mortgage and Housing Corporation house types devised for returning veterans which are among the carnage illustrated in Vancouver Vanishes – they sought to accommodate and persist across at least a generation. These were instruments of the policy, building practice, and the usual attitude of their times — when a family of between four and six did not require thousands of square feet or innumerable lavatory facilities to survive the daily round. Even those utilitarian domiciles denoted the conceptualizing of time’s dominion through construction, and the edifices of High-style architecture have ever embodied claims, religious and dynastic, to defy time’s depredation and human hubris.
Does such preceding speculation about the mental and material combat of decay (architectural Thanatos) relate to the disappearance of housing stock in the middle-class enclaves of a burgeoning metropolis? Yes; and neither just locally nor regionally. And here the critical purview of Vancouver Vanishes could be faulted as being too parochial, a feature of much architectural history as well as current ideation of heritage policy. The main iconographic motifs of the majority of demolished houses featured here derive from the Tudor Gothic Revival and Arts & Crafts idioms of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Thus, the nostalgia coursing through the pages of Vancouver Vanishes is for an earlier phase in the eradication, or alienation, of an established environment. Despite the village cosiness of the Arts & Crafts especially — a concoction of Norman Shaw, C.F.A. Voysey, William Morris, Edwin Lutyens, and landscapist Gertrude Jekyll – this earlier phase is as indelibly stamped with Imperialist triumphalism as the admixture of Ancient with Baroque classicism (Wren-aisance) in, for example, the Prairie provincial Legislatures. Those Crafts and Classical architectonic languages of alienation and imposition transformed the landscape of Canada, particularly at Terminal City quite as much as the more recent influx of offshore wealth. The earlier phase of building settler Vancouver was traumatic for First Nations communities and for the environment. The impact on individual lives and their domicile around the current Stanley Park is the sad refrain of Jean Barman’s Stanley Park’s Secret (2005). The flow of money, people and ideas was formerly westward by railway to Terminus Vancouver; now, and for the foreseeable future, it originates eastward. Consequently, the poignancy of places of past living lost, documented in Vancouver Vanishes, belongs in a larger topography of conflicted cultural economy.
Time’s passing nonetheless imposes a duty upon each generation to account for change. While history, as an analytic of occurrence, seldom attains greater precision than the reflections of uncut gemstones, its methods enable understanding of change. Adderson begins that process of comprehending the single constituents of multiple and radical reconfiguration of Vancouver with an engaging, indeed touching, narration of her dismay at the demolition of often perfectly habitable and generally well-landscaped homes. That weave of melancholy and cogency distinguishes each contribution to Vancouver Vanishes and adds dimension to the more traditionally framed histories of architecture-building in western Canada by scholars like Donald Luxton (2007) and Harold Kalman et al. (2012). Their writings, while reflecting the sentiment of loss coursing through Kluckner’s Introduction are evocative but not sentimental. For, despite the above comments about architectural style in relation to political reality, the many forlorn piles of rubble in this book and our daily observation reveal profound matters of policy, particularly with respect to the broader structure of social justice. Moreover, Vancouver Vanishes confirms the relevance of the experiential dimension in assembling a stable historical construct. The lives of houses, to paraphrase the title of Adderson’s closing essay, recount not only the experience of inhabitant but also the larger architecture of the times.
One last Parthian shot about the underlying issue of how we understand and enact heritage. This book underscores the orphan nature of heritage in Canada and its tendency still to hierarchize particular period production. The movement was begun in Canada by two architects, Ramsay Traquair at McGill and Eric Arthur at the University of Toronto, who favoured and thankfully helped preserve the regional colonial architecture of settler society. Arthur went on to encourage greater respect for modernist design, the often-sorry fate of which merits inclusion in Vancouver Vanishes. However, instead of irritating contestation about what is to be conserved to commemorate our evolving built patrimony, let this book stand as testimony to the depressing disinterest in all levels of government in Canada to heritage action, not mere heritage rhetoric. The architectural past, as much as the aging population, needs dedicated funding if it is to remain part of quotidian experience and enjoyment.
Barman, Jean. 2005. Stanley Park’s Secret: The Forgotten Families of Whoi Whoi, Kanaka Ranch, and Brockton Point. Madeira Park: Harbour.
Gutstein, Donald. 1975. Vancouver Ltd. Toronto: James Lorimer.
Kalman, Harold, Robin Ward, and John Roaf, Exploring Vancouver: The Architectural Guide. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.
Kluckner, Michael. 2012. Vanishing Vancouver: The Last 25 Years. Vancouver: Whitecap.
Luxton, Donald, editor. 2007. Building the West. Early Architects of British Columbia. Vancouver: Talonbooks.
Windsor-Liscombe, Rhodri. 2011. “Archi-tizing: Architecture, Advertising, and the Commodification of Urban Community”, in Liscombe ed. Architecture and the Canadian Fabric. Vancouver: UBC Press, 409-428.
Windsor-Liscombe, Rhodri. 2011. “A Study in Modern[ist] Urbanism: Planning Vancouver, 1945-1965”, Urban History, 38,1:124-149.
Vancouver Vanishes: Narratives of Demolition and Revival
Caroline Adderson, editor
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2015. 160 pp. $32.95 paper