Wanted: a Gab-fest

September 10, 2007 at 9:46 am Leave a comment

Architectural critics Trevor Boddy is back from Copenhagen – and in his Globe and Mail column, he makes a point about Vancouver’s lack of comparative dialogue on architecture and urbanism:

From our side, the Architectural Institute of British Columbia’s tiny gallery on Victory Square is run by volunteers with a microscopic budget. In fits and starts, the Vancouver Art Gallery dabbles in architectural exhibitions, successfully in their mid-1990s New Spirit show on Vancouver modernism, plus their Lang Wilson Practice in Architectural Culture installation a few years ago, but much more problematically in last year’s ill-focused show on some of Arthur Erickson’s buildings. Moreover, VAG has no curator of architecture and design, nor does any other gallery in Western Canada. No institution in British Columbia collects architectural drawings, so the visual records of our nation-leading designers go to archives in Calgary and Montreal.

Moreover, the D.A.C. bookstore features dozens of books — in both Danish and English — on recent architecture and urbanism in their city and country. In Vancouver, Hal Kalman’s fine guidebook to the city’s architecture went out of print years ago, so it is difficult for the general public to understand who built contemporary Vancouver, much less shape its urban future.

There may be a reason for this neglect. In the absence of a more mature literature, the way Vancouverites talk and think about their city is shaped instead by the promotional literature of our real estate industry. Instead of scholars, critics and community advocates probing the character of our city-building, we have advertising copy writers, slick brochure designers and the interior decorators of lavish pre-sales show suites.

Even our politicians and senior urban planners fall victim to this promotional hype, spouting “our city is the best” boilerplate boasts when they should be talking straight about what’s right and what’s wrong in this town. Simon Fraser University’s City Program often falls into the same self-congratulating trap, and many of its courses seem more dedicated to promoting the New Urbanism than understanding and building the New Vancouver.

The predominance of rose-coloured visions borrowed from real estate promotion is one reason Vancouver has been so slow in coming to terms with the mounting urban tragedy of the Downtown Eastside. Because slums are so seldom included in condo brochures, we simply do not talk about them. The problem here is not our developers and their marketers and copy-writers — they do what they do well, and Vancouver has led the world in real estate marketing innovations.

The problem rather is with our governments, universities, cultural institutions and professional organizations for not investing in thoughtful talk about Vancouver. Led by London, Paris and even Copenhagen, the world’s leading cities are having gab-fests about their towns. Vancouver, one of the urban world’s great hotbeds of civic improvement, needs to start talking — and listening, too.

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