Vanishing British Columbia
November 4, 2013
Review By Jill Wade
Recently, while speeding along West Broadway on a Number 99 bus, the older gentleman sitting next to me mused that so many buildings have been demolished that young people would soon have no idea of the street’s history. He spoke to the same issue of “roadside memory” that is addressed by Michael Kluckner in his latest and perhaps his best book, Vanishing British Columbia.
Driving along the back roads of British Columbia over a decade ago, Kluckner began to record “places” that he regarded as “the last tangible link with a significant part of our history and culture” (12). He made on-the-spot watercolour sketches of these vistas, sites, and buildings, and, acknowledging Paul Kane, F.M. Bell- Smith, and Emily Carr as his forebears and Hokusai and Eugène Delacroix as his youthful influences, he finished the sketches in his studio. Later, he started his search for the history of the Native and non-Native peoples who once lived in those places. His own Web site and his appearances on a CBC Radio One program, Mark Forsythe’s BC Almanac, were of the utmost importance in reaching the families who could pro vide the necessary oral history, photographs, and documents. Vanishing British Columbia is the tangible product of Kluckner’s quest to chronicle roadside, and sometimes waterfront and mountainside, landmarks.
But what kind of book is Vanishing British Columbia? It is not scholarly enough to meet the standards of architectural historians and historians, and it cannot be classified with Lost Montreal (1975) by Luc d’Iberville-Moreau or Lost Toronto (1978) by William Dendy, both of which are authored by architectural historians. Kluckner’s recording method is too serendipitous for a systematic heritage inventory. The book is much more than local history, travel literature, architectural guidebook, and family history; rather, Vanishing British Columbia belongs to a category of popular Canadian non-fiction describing heritage places. The intrepid Amelia Beers Warnock Garvin, know in real life as Katherine Hale, created the genre eight decades ago: she wrote several books in this style, most notably the classic Canadian Houses of Romance (1926), republished in 1952 as Historic Houses of Canada. Lillian Gibbons, who followed in Garvin’s footsteps, wrote over 300 articles about local historic places for the Winnipeg Tribune, a selection of which came out in 1978 as Stories Houses Tell. The tradition has persisted to present-day British Columbia with Valerie Green’s If These Walls Could Talk: Victoria’s Houses from the Past (2001) and its sequel, If More Walls Could Talk: Vancouver Island’s Houses from the Past, about Vancouver Island (2004).
Kluckner shares certain stylistic characteristics with Garvin, Gibbons, Green, and others working in this genre. His subject is historic places, particularly the built environment, and, more often than not, houses. He uses the personal voice to write about the stories of those places and the people who lived there, and the research is more anecdotally interesting than academically rigorous. The title Vanishing British Columbia is as tried, true, and captivating as Stories Houses Tell, If These Walls Could Talk, and Kluckner’s own Vanishing Vancouver (1990). His grouping of places is by geographical region and then by road map location. Indeed, a curious aspect of Kluckner’s book and of the wider genre is the author’s reliance upon map and car. As early as the 1920s, as the acknowledgments to Canadian Houses of Romance noted, Garvin’s husband was “her ruthless chauffeur and best companion of the road” as he drove her throughout Canada in search of historic places.
Kluckner turns the recording of historic places upside down in at least two critical ways. Ordinarily, because the authors are writers of books, newspaper and journal articles, and even poetry, they blend the written and the visual into a literary sketchbook in which the text dominates the illustrations. In Kluckner’s case, the opposite is true: his books are watercolour sketchbooks. Handdrawn maps, historical photographs, floor plans, heritage postcards, and the quietly radiant watercolours engage the reader at first glance, and together they overwhelm the text, nowhere more so than in the lavishly produced Vanishing British Columbia. Kluckner’s use of the radio and the Internet is yet another technique that turns the tradition on its head.
The most singular aspect of the genre is the authors’ shared commitment to the literary and visual memory of historic places. Kluckner is no exception. The reader may well ask where this dedication will take him in the future. Without any doubt, the participants of the Conserving the Modern in Canada Conference held recently at Trent University would encourage him to record the “vanishing modern” ar chi tecture, engineering, planning, and landscapes of post-1940 British Columbia.