Skip to content

Curating Laiwan’s four decades of artistic production, activism, theoretical engagement & teaching based in Vancouver: A resource site

The New Cubism: Alex Grünenfelder on Cube Living in Vancouver

Alex Grünenfelder’s Cube Living. credit: Emily Jackson, Metro News

After making a sale, Alex Grünenfelder assembles the packaging for the space he is selling. credit: David Beers

Last month, Alex Grünenfelder’s Cube Living had a short run at Vancouver Chinatown’s 221 Gallery almost simultaneous with Vancouver Council taking the last brakes off the neighbourhood’s rapid redevelopment and gentrification (Mickleburgh 2013, Bula 2013). Grünenfelder’s part design intervention and part spoof was a much needed tonic; a sardonic exploration of densification of Vancouver’s urban spaces combined with both growing lack of affordability, on one hand, and signs of a bursting of the local real estate bubble, on the other hand. There is a queasy volatility packed into Grünenfelder’s Cubes. The spaces created by those assembled cardboard boxes continue to pose questions about this city, and smaller globalizing urban centres more generally, as most populations cope with the negative sides of what Grünenfelder’s terms “neoliberal market logic” (Wong 2013).

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: I first heard about Cube Living through an announcement and then went to the website. I read part of the text on the site some of which comprises the ‘fine print’ on the box itself. But it is when I encountered the physicality of the assembled boxes in the exhibit that I realized the utter adaptability of the ‘cubes’. The first time I looked at them, I thought of moving boxes for a growing population that will not be able to afford to buy and could well be insecure and perpetually moving within the Lower Mainland for much of their lives. Then I looked at the boxes again and thought of sea level rise and how plastic versions of the boxes might float to create rafts. Then later, I thought of how lovely it would be to frame a flattened box to turn it into a piece of art. Lately, the boxes when assembled strike me as a potential metric to determine precisely the volume involved in a particular residential sale. What attracted you to the cube metaphor and did you want the concept and the boxes themselves to be both so multi-purpose and ambiguous?

Alex Grünenfelder: The boxes are actually just an ancillary container of the real product which is the volume of space they contain. In order to dispel any potential ambiguity about this I sell only the contained space and not the boxes themselves. As manufacturer I maintain ownership of the containers and provide them to buyers on loan and free of charge. Similarly, when you buy a Strata condo unit you’re buying ownership of the space inside the unit’s containing walls. (Everything outside the bounds of that spatial unit — including the walls themselves — is owned collectively by the strata corporation. That’s the nature of Strata ownership. Under the Strata Act the architecture is necessary in order to define and identify the space which can be owned.)

But that in itself doesn’t explain why the sales units of Cube Living are cubic in form. The form and scale of the Cubes was primarily a pragmatic design decision based on the objectives of the project: Architect Mark Ashby and I started Cube Living (Phase 1) in early 2008 as a critical response to a Vancouver real estate development industry that increasingly appeared to be using architecture as a mere packaging container for spatial consumer commodities. It was clear that the real estate market was operating primarily as an exchange for speculative spatial commodities. The primary factor driving real estate prices was their value as speculative investment vehicles rather than their use as living spaces. This was evident in the planning, financing, design and marketing of the condo tower developments. But the real estate industry was still using the rhetoric of building and selling “homes”, and as designers we felt that there was a socially-corrosive duplicity in this messaging. I think that when people conflate the need for housing with the desire for investment vehicles this leads to a dysfunctional urban culture and politics.

As a thought experiment, we asked ourselves what would be the most practical way to produce a tradeable spatial commodity and what would be the most honest way to market it. In design parlance this was our “design problem”. From that point of view, the cubic foot is an obvious format. The square foot is the standard unit of measurement for urban real estate in North America, so the cubic foot is the logical standard unit for a spatial commodity—people understand its relationship to real estate property right away. A cubic foot is also happens to be a scale that relates well to the human body; it permits a degree of physical interaction that would be impossible with a larger unit like a cubic meter, while still retaining a clear relationship to the built environment. So the 12” cube format was the virtually inevitable result of the design process: it was the simplest formal solution to the design problem we’d identified.

Metaphorically I like the cube form because it embodies the reductive form-follows-function methods and aesthetics of the International Style and Bauhaus which came to shape much of modernist art, design, architecture and planning. If Le Corbusier’s architecture was a machine for living, then Cube is a machine for spatial commodification. This reflects architectural design in Vancouver today, which is primarily an engineering calculus that aims to maximize saleable space and profit on a given area of land. That sounds very cynical, but I did find a way to avert the morbidity of this scenario, as I’ll explain later.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: But as a “thought experiment” in the context of a kind of hyper-speculation (or at least a particular high-water mark for speculation in Vancouver’s cycles of speculation), isn’t it a bit paradoxical that this version of Cube Living, a product that can also be used as a moving box, is exhibited as there are finally signs of “a cooling of the market” or what others might speculate as the implosion of “The Bubble”? For me there is something fetish-like about the aesthetic of those (moving) boxes.

Alex Grünenfelder: I don’t see a paradox. We are all inescapably caught up in the vagaries of the real estate market, regardless of whether it’s waxing or waning. Both situations can be equally destabilizing, and in either case Cube Living offers a viable solution.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: Isn’t it a bit ironic that you are stating that “real estate density is theoretically unlimited, resulting in the potential for infinite capital gain” at a time of a softening market in Vancouver? If a person were to over-invest in real estate in Vancouver this year, they could end up having very little to show for their money aside from some flattened moving boxes.

Alex Grünenfelder: I don’t think it’s ironic. If we’re committed to the ideology that urban space can only be created through a neoliberal free market driven by economic growth (which is an ideology that Canadians seem unusually committed to), then Cube Living is a very realistic model for addressing our slackening market condition. When a market is exhausted you can’t just go home and let the economy lie fallow—that would result in disaster. So, you need to create new markets. Over the past 150 years Vancouver has grown through successive waves of real estate market innovation. The most dramatic innovation of recent decades was the BC Strata Act of the 1960s. This allowed the subdivision of existing property lots into many smaller units which could then be sold off at lower prices while dramatically increasing the aggregate value of the original lot. Through decreasing the unit price and reducing the cost of financing while simultaneously increasing land values, it effectively created a whole new real estate market. We’re now at a point where this Strata property innovation has been exhausted. Strata units are too expensive and resource-intensive to build, too cumbersome to buy and sell, and too complicated to finance. As a result they don’t represent a very liquid investment. The unit costs and the overhead costs of trading are so enormous that buyers and sellers must be highly motivated in order to participate in the market. Cube Living solves these problems by taking urban densification a step further than the Strata model. Due to their extreme density, the Cube unit price is so low that affordability and market access become non-issues. Almost anybody can afford to buy Cubes, so this opens an enormous new market potential. Furthermore, the costs of trading your Cubes are very low — unlike conventional real estate, there is almost zero overhead cost in the sales and ownership transfer process — so that makes Cube property incredibly liquid. This is exactly what you need if your goal is to reinvigorate a stagnating market.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: That argument strikes me as similar to the one for investing in art and rationales for investing in art over more conventional investments such as real estate. I wonder if there is not an undercurrent represented in the aesthetic of the boxes themselves that is a reflection of chronic homelessness, for one demographic (the extremely poor), and a new kind of down-sized and nomadic household of the privileged such as described in Graham Hill’s March 9, 2013 essay in the New York Times, “Living With Less. A Lot Less.” For both strata owners, and less privileged demographics and classes who rent, the roles of homes, households, indeed neighbourhoods, have become secondary to work, speculation (for those people with money to invest), consumption, and migration. In this world, public space becomes compressed and often arid. But everybody needs a box for all sorts of reasons from storage to moving to shelter. Were you conscious of codifying a new aesthetic of precarity and provisional occupation that are largely results of this heightened level of real estate speculation?

Alex Grünenfelder: Yes. Cube Living offers its owners a highly transient relationship with space. Cube Living’s space is very easy and convenient to liquidate at any moment, so owners suffer minimal commitment obligation and enjoy maximum opportunity. That might sound a bit machiavellian, but on the contrary: Because the owner’s relationship with Cube Living is so highly voluntary from moment to moment this requires a continuous reaffirmation and allows for a more sincere engagement.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: Being a connoisseur of boxes, your cube, and its flattened form, is lovely. Did you intend to create such a pleasing object?

Alex Grünenfelder: Real estate clearly benefits from a fetish value and I would like Cube Living’s spatial property to function similarly. I hope the container is aesthetically pleasing in its minimalism and unity of form and function, but ultimately any fetish value should be conferred onto the actual product itself: the contained space.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: Why did you choose the white coating and that lettering? Is there a suggestion that in gentrification, people end up with only pretty boxes and insecurity as art?

Alex Grünenfelder: There are several reasons for the particular design of the containers. The Cube Living product is challenging, unconventional and unfamiliar to many buyers. So I wanted the project materials to be as simple as possible and avoid any extraneous elements that might cause distraction or confusion. To be as objective and transparent as possible, I opted for a minimalist surface design treatment. I wanted to de-emphasize the container because its primary function is simply to make the space perceptible, identifiable and saleable.

My hypothesis was that urban real estate is approaching the condition of an undifferentiated market commodity. However, it is a very expensive commodity and it needs to be saleable in a consumer market, so real estate requires branding in order to identify it and create the perception of value. (This is why a real estate development’s marketing budget is usually at least double or triple the architectural design budget.) I recognized that this Cube Living product would similarly require a certain degree of branding to identify it within the market and generate value. (But I wanted the branding to remain as minimal as possible.) So it made sense to partner with the 221A Artist Run Centre in creating a unique 221A space. 221A space is more valuable than generic space. This value premium isn’t purely symbolic, it’s actually based on function. For one thing, 221A space is in limited supply, whereas generic space is by definition virtually unlimited. Secondly, space that is part of the 221A Centre benefits from the infrastructure that the Centre provides. For example, one of the things that 221A does is to produce exhibitions, and accordingly we’re planning several exhibitions that will be held within the Cube 221A units. So, the owners of the units can derive value from this infrastructure. It’s a productive space.

As for the white colour of the boxes, this is intended to mirror the palette of 20th century functionalist modern architecture. It also embodies the so-called “white cube” of the archetypal modern art gallery which theoretically ought to function as a completely neutral vessel framing the autonomous art objects that it contains.

Cube Living’s corporate colour is green because Vancouver is now in an era of “Green Capital” (as proclaimed by city hall) and Cube exemplifies this. Cube is indisputably the most environmentally sustainable spatial property development in the city. It consumes almost no resources and energy its construction and maintenance. And its units are fully biodegradable.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: How many ‘buyers’ (as in art and space buyers) do you suspect will keep the box flattened and even frame it further collapsing space and commodifying it as art?

Alex Grünenfelder: Flattening the container is actually prohibited by the Cube Living sales contract. Maintenance of the container form is necessary in order to preserve the 1 cubic foot spatial property. If the container is flattened then the space is destroyed and ownership is forfeit. At that point the buyer is contractually required to either destroy what remains of the container or return it to the manufacturer.

Cube Living 221A does function as art in several ways. It has diegetic, performative and discursive dimensions. It also deliberately conflates the real estate market and the art market. On the one hand it can be read as a spatial sculpture because its material form is pure volume and it strikes up a physical relationship to the human body and the surrounding environment. It is also an inherently relational and social artwork because the spatial object is created directly at the point and time of purchase through a contractual agreement between the institution, the manufacturer and the buyer. Only at that moment does the object come into existence. This legal and social performance must be repeated for every unit produced. Furthermore, the buyer is subsequently obligated to maintain the form and condition of the container, so they must continue to perform their relationship with the manufacturer until the space is sold or destroyed. So, you can see that flattening the container actually leaves the owner with nothing.

Gordon Brent Ingram: Is it really possible to completely flatten the container once it’s been constructed into a box? Some space is still there, at least rhetorically. And what inspired you to set the rules? As an artist? As a real estate agent operating in a highly manipulated market? ‘Rules’ in art production, even reiterating real estate and speculation as art production, strike me as an anathema to the current spirit of the times. But perhaps not. And just as the new rules around federally insured mortgages are reshaping housing in Canada, how are your rules for this project transforming the modes of engagement around works such as these that are heavy in content and conceptual conversation but minimal in materiality (except for abstract space and air)?

Alex Grünenfelder: The rules simply make explicit the conditions that are necessary for the existence of the spatial object. They’re largely a pragmatic means for clarity in communication and interaction. The contract tells everyone exactly what the object is. It also provides a framework for a relationship between the institution, the manufacturer and the buyer. Many market processes do seem to thrive in obscurity but I hope clarity in communication and relationships aren’t anathema to the spirit our times!

Gordon Brent Ingram: The facade of the 221A Gallery for your exhibition was wonderfully ambiguous. The Jackie Wong article in The Tyee described a neighbour who thought that the gallery had become another real estate show room. And then she was reassured that you were only selling the box, the potential space, as art — which that person found less of a threat. But sometimes art economies can be part of displacement of less economically secure groups. What was your intent with that front window?

Alex Grünenfelder: My intent was to provoke curiosity and draw passersby into the sales centre. I also wanted the storefront to enter into a visual dialogue with the many real estate sales centres that besprinkle our city.

Personally I find the sale of spatial property in cubic foot units to pose a higher potential threat than the sale of condos. The development of real estate as a commodity subject to global speculation can often displace local populations, excluding them from their native neighbourhoods. As the developer and manufacturer of Cube Living I wanted to design a spatial property that would minimize or eliminate this danger. I’ve tried to mitigate the threat by ensuring that Cube Living 221A is generative, creating new space rather than consuming existing space. Because the 221A spatial units are defined only in relation to the walls of their container—and not in relation to any particular city Parcel Identifier or geographic location—they can happily coexist within most other urban spaces and territories. They have a friendly and collaborative relationship with their surrounding territories, rather than agonistically displacing other spaces and demanding the exclusion of other environments.

Gordon Brent Ingram: With the sardonic fine print on the boxes, were you making a comment on unscrupulous clauses sellers and landlords often insert into purchases agreements and leases? Your comments were clear and reduced the transaction to a pure and disposable commodity. But normally, buyers and renters tolerate the fine print (that often goes unread) is because they think that they are buying the trappings and security of home. Cube Living takes the home out of the transaction which is more honest. But the print on those boxes can distract from the truth that people tolerate those kinds of caveats, the fine print that allows them to own or be tenants, because they are just desperate to find places to live.

Alex Grünenfelder: I think the increasing proliferation of unreadable contracts throughout daily life has a corrosive effect on civil society and social relations—and they’re by no means limited to the domain of real estate; even updating a mundane software widget requires acquiescing to reams of incomprehensible terms and conditions. This renders people blind to the actual nature of the relations they’re engaged in. So, I’ve tried my best to keep the Cube Living ownership agreement as clear and as simple as possible while still fulfilling its necessary function which is essential in creating the object.

Gordon Brent Ingram: What recent movements and works influenced Cube Living? The movement that came to mind for me, in looking at the exhibition and then interacting with a possible cube purchase as performance, was Arte Povera which sometimes spoke to political and urban crisis and poverty, from Italy in the 1970s, as well as some of the early Fluxus performances.

Alex Grünenfelder: The most significant influence on this project has simply been my experience living as a designer in Vancouver over the past 12 years. The particular methods employed in the development of the project draw from the rigorous, rationalistic design ideologies of Le Corbusier and Müller-Brockmann as well as the conceptual practices of Malevich, Duchamp, Klein, Weiner, Graham and Matta-Clark. The thought of Wittgenstein, Harvey and Lefebvre was also instrumental. (Kind of embarrassing that they’re all men, but I’m sure that’s probably reflected in the nature of the project.) But the greatest single inspiration has been from observing how real estate developers are able to create new properties out of thin air.

Gordon Brent Ingram: Can you cite a specific work…For example, you mentioned Lawrence Weiner who has such a long history of diverse work that a particular work would be good to mention.

Alex Grünenfelder: I mentioned Weiner because his work really opened my eyes to the potential of a purely text-based art and I admire his rigorous language-based process. But Weiner explicitly stated that “my own art never gives directions, only states the work as an accomplished fact. […] The work need not to be built”. A good example is his artwork “Placed up on the horizon (casting shadows)”. (That phrase itself actually constitutes the entire artwork.)

Weiner’s work employs declaration as a medium of art. But his declarations remain abstract. They are not performed or delivered in time from one agent to another, they are only received asynchronously on the page, or on a wall, by an anonymous audience. The conditions they describe can never actually be realized because the declarations are incomplete and concern universals that aren’t subject to verification. This seems directly in line with Joseph Kosuth’s 1969 claim that artworks are “artistic propositions”, and that they function similarly to analytic propositions: their validity (and value) is based purely on their internal logic and not their correspondence to any real-world conditions or empirical state of affairs. This is very different from the way language is employed in Cube Living.

Cube Living 221A is based on a series of declarations that are performed by the institution (221A), the manufacturer (myself) and the buyer through a contractual agreement. These declarations produce the spatial object as a social, legal, and physical reality. The sales centre functions as a social and physical staging for the casting and enactment of these roles and the ensuing performance of the declarations.

In Cube Living the declaration is an essential part of the work, but the declaration isn’t sufficient (unlike in the work of Weiner or Sol LeWitt). To establish the existence of the spatial object, the declarations must have the force to bring about action on the part of the interlocutors and create an enduring relationship between them. —Hence, the use of a contractual format. In the case of Cube Living the work must be built. The declarations aren’t important in themselves. What I’m interested in is the power of a declarative process to establish relationships, perceptions, properties, objects, environments and realities.

Earlier (on the phone) you mentioned Warhol’s Brillo boxes. That might provide another point of contrast. The Brillo boxes are pure surface, pure exteriority—the question of their contents doesn’t even really arise for consideration. The Brillo boxes aren’t actually packaging anything; they’re non-functional objects for their own sake. (Many of them actually aren’t even boxes—they’re plywood sculptures.) Cube Living on the other hand is pure interiority. The surface—the container—isn’t even properly part of the object. The Cube Living box is simply functional packaging that is necessary in order to define and protect the spatial object it contains.

These art references may be a little dated. I should explain that I’ve been in a cryogenic sleep since 1969 to avoid a root canal and I just woke up a couple months ago.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: In my mind, Matta-Clark’s works tended to invert and reconstruct aspects of inhabited space, whereas as Cube Living reduces and abstracts. Is there an essence in Cube Living that could guide us in reconstructing urban space as another symbolic material similar to Lego pieces?

Alex Grünenfelder: I was thinking in particular of Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates project which deals with residual properties in Queens that were artifacts resulting from inefficiencies in the municipal property administration process. Cube Living could be used as a lens to examine the symbolic processes that constitute urban spatial property.

Gordon Brent Ingram: Where does so-called ‘Vancouverism’ fit into the Cube Living equation?

Alex Grünenfelder: Cube Living Phase 1 was a direct response to then-Mayor Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity initiative of the mid-2000s. Sullivan claimed that increased urban densification would benefit the environment by reducing car travel and also promote housing affordability by saturating the real estate market with new condos. (Apparently UBC Professor Patrick Condon has said that Vancouver was the first city in North America to unapologetically accept increased density as an official city policy.) As was fairly obvious at the time, neither of those predictions would pan out. Homes got more expensive than ever and many people are now faced with a reverse commute to the suburbs because high real estate prices drove offices away from downtown. However, Vancouver’s planning policy remains unchanged and council seems to have doubled down on the density panacea through repeated and controversial high-density land rezonings that favour wealthy developers and extremely expensive developments while neglecting the measures that many other cities have successfully employed to mitigate land speculation. Cube Living was an attempt to take this densification ideology to it logical extreme, while also clarifying and solving some of the problems evident in its implementation.

“Vancouverism” on the other hand, doesn’t really have such an overt social or environmental mandate as the Ecodensity initiative. It’s more specifically about implementing a podium-tower building typology that preserves scenic view corridors while also facilitating mixed-use (commercial/residential/office) neighbourhoods. It’s about shaping urbanity as a lifestyle experience. Obviously that’s a more modest goal because it doesn’t seek to address any dramatic problems. But if we consider this Vancouverism plan for a moment, it will seem odd that visuality should be given such a paramount role in shaping the city, along with the implication that visual experience should play the central role in our interaction with the urban environment. We can see how this kind of thinking has resulted in a city of glass towers where the living spaces are designed to be little more than viewing platforms—platforms from which the owner can gaze endlessly away from the city. Like a camera obscura, these real estate properties capture, contain, package and sell the view of Vancouver’s surrounding geography. And conversely, this view is employed by marketers to package and sell the real estate properties themselves.

This became a part of my investigation in Cube Living 221A. I am interested in packaging as a site of production. Cube is partly an exploration of how packaging is increasingly important in constituting the products we consume, and how an ideology of packaging is shaping our entire environment and (through communications technology) all our social interactions.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: Do you think that Cube Living is perhaps the apogee of Vancouverism?

Alex Grünenfelder: No.

Gordon Brent Ingram: In evoking the cube, were you at all thinking of cubism of a century ago? Perhaps, you are beginning to describe the basis for a new nomadism that extends to a kind of architectural cubism; with the motion of 20th Century Cubism, under the shadow of World War I, replaced by today’s globalized insecurities and hyper-mobilities.

Alex Grünenfelder: I can see how Cubism’s destabilization of pictorial perspective might be analogous to the destabilization of economies and nations produced by the global movement of capital. Cube Living is a probe that explores possibilities for navigating our spatial economics, but I don’t think it bears any direct relation to Cubism.

Gordon Brent Ingram: In your comments on neoliberalism in Cube Living, what have been your most important influences and discussions?

Alex Grünenfelder: David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre. There was also a great symposium called Intangible Economies hosted by Fillip magazine in 2011.

Gordon Brent Ingram: Your cultural production in this project is quite varied: the flattened boxes, the assembled boxes, the exhibition space, the performative interactions in the space, and the website. How do you intend to document and build on the project? And did not you create a separate domain for the project? Do this suggest that you will have related projects, iterations, and additional ‘products’?

Alex Grünenfelder: It’s an ongoing investigation. Cube Living Phase 1 was largely a design fiction project manifested in the form of a sales presentation. Cube Living Phase 2 (221A) involved the creation of a saleable product and a sales centre environment. That allows for a more relational situation where there can be a direct interaction between myself, the 221A institution and the public. Roles are negotiated, agreements are made, territories are created. It sounds really dry when I put it that way and spatial politics can be a pretty depressing topic, but the sales centre was a really convivial environment—as a host I think I generally succeeded in giving visitors an enjoyable experience within the project. The relational and interactional aspect is definitely something I’d like to continue in the future. I also want to activate the current infrastructure and relationships that have been created.

articles cited

Frances Bula. 2013. Behind the changing face of Vancouver’s Chinatown. Globe and Mail (January 12, 2013).

Graham Hill. 2013. Living With Less. A Lot Less. New York Times (March 9, 2013).

Rod Mickleburgh. 2013. Buildings to soar over Chinatown after Vancouver eases height restrictions. Globe and Mail (February 24, 2013).

Jackie Wong. 2013. Buying Vancouver Space One Cubic Foot at a Time. With a wink, Cube Living promises hyper-dense real estate ownership for (20 February, 2013).

Alex Grünenfelder is an artist and designer based in Vancouver, Canada. Employing the media of graphics, text, architecture, sound, video and performance, he pursues a creative practice that combines the project development methods of design practice with the critical discourse and dialogical goals of the liberal arts. He is also a director and co-founder of the Vancouver Design Nerds Society, an organization that facilitates interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration between designers, artists and the public. His artwork explores the power of media to shape the perception of environments.

A recent history of Railway and Gore Streets in Vancouver

Salish Canoe most likely Squamish in Burrard Inlet near Gore and Railway Street circa 1900

The corner of Vancouver’s Railway and Gore Streets was, little more than a century ago, the mouth of Luk’luk’i Creek. The Squamish, Tsliel-Waututh and Musqueam used the historic beach, now filled and extended at the northern end of Main Streets, for beaching canoes and seasonal camps. Above the beach, where today is roughly The Edge and CORE Co-op complexes and Railtown Studios across the street, was an extensive grove of large Big leaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, trees. In their recent memoirs as urban planners in the Vancouver region, former Premier Mike Harcourt and Ken Cameron referred to an aboriginal camp called “Kumkumalay” meaning “big-leaf maple trees” a short block east at Railway and Dunlevy Streets (Harcourt and Cameron with Sean Rossier. 2007. City Making in Paradise: Nine Decisions That Saved Vancouver. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. page 37).
As the industrial operations along Burrard Inlet expanded, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the area became a margin of urbanizing Gastown often dominated by the Canadian Pacific Railway and its lines along Burrard Inlet.

Vancouver’s Gastown ca1880 one of the last remaining Bigleaf maple trees Vancouver Archives AM54-S4- Dist P11.1

The Railway and Gore block was soon part of the last Restricted District for brothels which was dismantled soon after 1917. As the sex work was shifted south, Gore and Railway became the centre of Vancouver’s expanding Japantown, Nihonmachi, an area exceptionally important for Japanese-Canadians. There were dormitories for new immigrants (such as the still-standing wooden rooming house on Alexander near Gore), warehouses for fish export, and a wide range of shops especially along Powell Street just a block to the south. In 1920, the warehouse, that was later renovated as Railtown Studios as today’s 321 Railway Street (formerly 303 Railway Street) was constructed specifically for refrigeration and fish export, especially salmon.

concept of the Canadian Pacific Railway lines in Vancouver’s Gastown along Burrard Inlet circa 1886 Vancouver Archives AM1594– Map 979

The once thriving neighbourhood saw massive removal, appropriation, and some subsequent deportations of the majority of the population, Canada and Japan-born Japanese Canadians, from February to June of 1942. Many died in the hastily constructed internment camps east of the Coast Range. Though a small portion of local residents returned after 1945, the neighbourhood’s populations never recovered. In 1945, the 303 Railway Street warehouse (now Railtown Studos at 321 Railway) was used as a morgue for the bodies of Allied troops who died on the ships while they were returning home.

City of Vancouver redevelopment concept for the post-World War II period - project 2, part of area “a” - pavements, curbs and sidewalks - Vancouver Archives AM1594- MAP 1006

The 303 Railway Street building continued to be used for refrigeration of fish and other perishables until at least the late 1970s with some warehouse use continuing. But by the 1980s, the building was identified as being contaminated with PCBs, from the refrigeration equipment, and its uses were increasingly limited. Well into the 1990s, 303 Railway Street was rented through the City of Vancouver, that at some points held title, for temporary film sets. As the area’s industrial and food production declined, subsidized and various kinds of below-market rental and co-operative housing was established and have constituted much of the local population in spite of intensifying gentrification.

City of Vancouver redevelopment concept for the post-World War II period  - project 2, part of area “a” - aerial photograph - Vancouver Archives AM1594- MAP 1004

Today, we can view the transformations of the neighbourhood as a series of clearances, removals, and deportations of human populations, from Salish subsistence and ownership to aboriginal day workers to expansion of the railways combined with sex workers serving multicultural populations, to Japanese-Canadians, to industrial workers, to people living on fixed incomes and cultural workers, and from subsidized, low-income cultural producers to the kinds of digital ‘incubator’ professionals established down the street at the now abandoned, first headquarters of HootSuite down the street at Railway and Dunlevy Streets.

View of the 300 block Railway Street (303 Railway to become Railtown Studio building 321 Railway Street on extreme left) circa 1980 - Vancouver Archives COV-S511- CVA 780-327

Today’s fractured legacy of ‘Railtown Studios’ at 321 Railway Street: disconnected from previous waves of settlement and economies with cultural activities as much as about historical obfuscation as contemporary production.

Vancouver’s City Market in 1908

Vancouver’s City Market built on piers at what is today Main & East 1st Avenue. Opened in 1908 on what was then Westminster Avenue (and what became Main Street after roughly 1910), this market was on False Creet just west of what was then the False Creek Bridge.

Analysis: Proposed City of Vancouver Bylaw Amendments “to Support Artist Studios in Industrial Areas”

pdf copy of Ingram’s analysis for Recommendations to City Council of Vanocuver to be discussed and probably approved on January 15, 2013: 2013-jan-12-awls-from-ingram-proposed-city-bylaw-amendments-artists-in-industrial-with-city-docs

Gordon Brent Ingram BFA PhD

side stream environmental design

January 12, 2013


AWLs the artist work live studio consultative group of Vancouver


Gordon Brent Ingram, side stream environmental design


Comments on the January 7, 2013

Proposed City of Vancouver Bylaw Amendments

“to Support Artist Studios in Industrial Areas”

title of document:

“Proposed Amendments to the Zoning and Development By-law to Support Artist Studios in Industrial Areas – 9863″


January 7, 2013 (that’s not a lot of time for public comment given that Council is voting on this on January 15, 2013)

key function of proposed amendments:

“Low-impact artist studios are currently allowed in only four industrial zoning districts. This amendment would allow low-impact artist studios in all 12 industrial zoning districts.”

recommendations to AWLs:

1. This amendment represents a modest improvement for artists in Vancouver. I recommend that colleagues in AWLs support this amendment but critically.

2. The problem is that the amendment, standing alone, favours larger operations, such as digitally based production studios, over individual artists, with modest incomes and budgets. This low-income artist group (that characterizes the majority of current tenancy in these buildings) are potentially MORE vulnerable if this amendment is approved. In particular, current tenancies are vulnerable to higher rents and displacement — if landlords can now rent to larger arts and cultural organization who can pay more (especially when desperate for space). This ‘problem’ warrants public discussion in front of Council with one mitigation measure being some kind of tenancy protection or ‘rent control with maximum annual rent increases of 3 or 5%’ for current artist tenants in industrial areas for the next five years.

3. I am most concerned that the City of Vancouver staff who developed the proposed amendment claim that there was adequate stakeholder consultation (without naming the organizations and individuals with which they claim they met). I subscribe to numerous list-serves and view numerous sites on contemporary culture in Vancouver and have never heard of any public consultations around these topics. People involved in these issues, such as AWLs, would have a strong basis to complain to Council about the process around these so-called ‘consultations’.

4. Finally, the addendum of the report tells Council about all of the good strategic work that city staff is doing (and a lot of supposed consultation) very little of which I have any evidence is actually being achieved so far.

key sections of text of proposed amendments:

“Following on direction from Council, the recommendations in this report will increase the number of industrial zones in which “work-only” artist studios are allowed, and will ease the approval process by allowing artist studios as outright uses in more industrial zones. Together, these amendments will expand opportunities for artist studios, and increase access to affordable production spaces.”

“On October 6th, 2011, Council approved the Artist Studio Regulatory Review Implementation Framework, which describes opportunities to improve the creation, preservation and operation of artist studios.”

“Although the local creative sector is vibrant, artists still struggle with Vancouver’s high cost of real estate and lack of affordable production spaces. These issues are intensified by the living wages of artists — in Canada the median annual income for an artist in 2005 was 36 percent lower than the overall Vancouver labour force.2 While there are many enticing qualities that draw artists to live and work in Vancouver, the lack of affordable studio space is a significant issue.”

“Very little data currently exists on the number of “work-only” artist studios in Vancouver. However, we do know that artists struggle with three key space-related needs: affordability, functionality and tenure.”



“The priority for implementation is to focus initially on “work-only” artist studios over “live-work” studios. The rationale for this recommendation is the critical need for creation/production spaces. As stated in the Council Report: “Solutions for “work-only” studio space will have the broadest impact and applicability to the largest number of artists.””

I would challenge this thinking. Most artists cannot afford to rent two spaces, one for living and one for work and therefore are forced to produce where we live. The artists who can afford two spaces, with one specifically for production, will tend to use the designated production space as much for display and show than actual production. This need for production / display space, especially with the advent of the Eastside Crawl and other venues, is really limited to a small group of more elite cultural businesses, such as digital production enterprises, that can pay relatively high rents for production spaces (often at higher square footage rents than for housing rentals).



“The proposed zoning amendments will expand opportunities for “work-only” artist studios in all industrial areas, which provide access to the most affordable work spaces in the City.”

Today, artists usually can rent portions of more run-down industrial-zoned properties today — at relatively low rents because respective buildings are rarely upgraded for cultural production (more toilets, less toxic residues, less obvious hazards). This amendment change gives landlords of industrial properties to make relatively cosmetic changes to properties and, in turn, rent spaces for two or three or even four times the rents for industrial uses. However, at least these spaces would be available. Probably the best example of an benefit of this amendment would be 1000 Parker Street where cultural production uses would be consistent with the bylaws — not that most of these uses were contrary to the industrial bylaws that currently take place.



“In all industrial zones, artist studios are currently allowed only as conditional approval uses. This amendment would increase the number of zones where artist studios could be approved outright.”

The status quo has not been an issue for most artists who are too often prepared to move their production spaces every few months or years. More importantly, the conditional or provisional use of a space, for cultural production purposes, has been a way for artists to rent space at low rents — the tradeoff being no secure tenancy. For the majority of artists in Vancouver, lower rents have been the preferable trade-off for insecure tenancy. So that this Proposed Amendment is really oriented to larger operations, businesses and organizations who cannot move into a space until making expensive space modifications (painting, repair, heating) that in turn would only be only worthwhile if there were a longer-term lease.



“Artist studios are currently permitted in buildings existing as of September 10, 1996 (i.e. the date when previous artist studio regulations were enacted). To reflect the stock of buildings constructed since then, that date would be changed to the date when this report’s zoning amendments are enacted.”

These two ‘maps’ (related to Bylaws permitting artist uses) of artist studio permitting, from September 10, 1996 and when and if this Proposed Amendment is approved are quite political and have huge implications. Attention should be given to these ‘maps’ in the coming months.



“Staff met with six key stakeholders from the architecture, arts and culture communities to discuss the proposed zoning amendments. These representatives have broad knowledge about designing, developing and operating artist studios.”

The statement is absolutely galling. I know of no group that was consulted about these proposed amendments even though I have been in contact with the City of Vancouver related to artist live work space issues for 18 months and have even contacted politicians and was contacted to meet with interested city officials and councillors (Ellen Woodsworth and Susan Anton). I would be willing to make this comment in public to Council about this documents.



IMPLEMENTATION FRAMEWORK: Artist Studio Regulatory Review

“immediate action”

“Explore requiring all new multi-tenant studio developments to have artist-led building management body”

“Identify opportunities for studio development through rezonings underway and City-controlled spaces”

“Launch “interim” program to assist artists to address by-law issues and enforcement actions during the course of the Review”

“Explore effective ways to issue permits and licences in a timely manner”

“Require multi-tenant artist studio buildings to post City-approved uses in common areas of the property”

Personally, my sense is that none of these “immediate action” activities the City is claiming that it’s already undertaking are actually happening just as nobody I know has ever heard of City ’stakeholder consultation’ around these issues. In fact, the only public City meetings with artists that any of us can recall left most artist feeling like the City was going to make their lives and tenancies more difficult (while making it easier for landlords to raise rents while providing few additional amenities).

The report mentions the following report that is worth reviewing.

Kelly Hill (Hill Strategies Research Inc.) 2010. Mapping Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada’s Large Cities. Prepared for the City of Vancouver, the City of Calgary, the City of Toronto, the City of Ottawa and the Ville de Montréal.

Vancouver’s Great Fire soon after its incorporation in 1886

City of Vancouver By-Laws for Railtown Studios 321 Railway Street: Analysis of the City of Vancouver By-law CD-1 (354) By-law No. 7645 for Artist Live Work Rental Studios Class B

City of Vancouver By-Laws for Railtown Studios 321 Railway Street:

City of Vancouver By-law CD-1 (354) By-law No. 7645 (Being a By-law to Amend By-law 3575) for 321 Railway Street for Artist Live Work Rental Studios Class B

PDF available from the public City of Vancouver document: city-of-vancouver-by-laws-cd-1354-railtown-studios-321-railway-st

1996 aerial views of a Vancouver Peninsula far less dense than today

Vancouver-based Coupeletat recently appropriated a 1996 promotional video of the Government of the Province of British Columbia entitled “Over Beautiful British Columbia” — with aerial views of the Vancouver Peninsula that are far less dense than today.

The Vancouver Renters Union position on Railtown Studios (321 Railway Street Vancouver)

The most recent statement by the City of Vancouver on the By-laws & operation of Railtown Studios 321 Railway Street

The most recent statement by the City of Vancouver on the By-laws and operation of Railtown Studios, 321 Railway Street, was made in August of 2011 by Mr. Michael Gordon, Senior Planner, with the approval of the City’s Solicitor General. A PDF copy of this affidavit is available below:


The 2nd Annual CRAFT PRIDE PROCESSION, Stratchona - Chinatown, Vancouver

CRAFT PRIDE PROCESSION was created in Vancouver, Canada, in 2011.
“We came together as a small collective to share our passion for textiles, process art and craftivism.
We were inspired by Lacey Jane Roberts, who has connected queer theory and craft in a very intelligent and creative way. The result of this is the Procession through which we want to celebrate art, claim our space, make ourselves noticeable, reflect upon local and social issues, create and have fun.
Craft Pride Procession is an open, inclusive, democratic and collaborative project that continues to flow, be transformed and flow every year.”

Some definitions & regulations in the By-laws for Railtown Studios, 321 Railway Street (formerly 303 Railway Street) Vancouver


A PDF copy of this report is available here:

2012-2-by-laws-definitions-reg-321-railway-st-vancouver-artist-live-work-rental-class-b .

“Vancouver is an instant city…” stated Architect Gregory Henriquez

“Vancouver is an instant city,” says Mr. Henriquez, with a snap of his fingers. “There’s a repetition to all of that stuff that’s very cookie cutter.

It lacks the idiosyncratic nature of those cities that have evolved over a larger period of time. It’s not the fault of the architecture – it’s the fault of the speed of development.” Architect Gregory Henriquez

(Kerry Gold. 2011. A garden in the sky in the heart of Vancouver. Globe and Mail (West Coast edition): November 29, 2011.)

Is the problem ‘the speed of the development’ or rather the political economy economy of the development that scrimps on assessment, design, and benefits to neighbourhoods?

“Vancouver’s waterfront has been ruined by its new communities of high-rise towers…designed for people who don’t want much to happen in front of them.” Fred Kent 2011

“Most designers are into their own ego rather than creating something remarkably human,” says Fred Kent, who founded the New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS) in the 1970s after helping to chart the behaviour of people in streets and parks with groundbreaking sociologist William H. Whyte.

Their research resulted in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), considered a classic among urban designers. Since then, PPS has contributed the master plan for the revitalization of Manhattan’s once-derelict Bryant Park into a public square that sparkles with crowds of people drawn to concerts, restaurants and treed lounge areas.

The agency is currently working on placing new marketplaces in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and catalyzing some 300 small spaces, over the next five years in cities in the southern hemisphere, for the human-settlement agency UN-Habitat. “It’s only in the last 20 years that public space has become important again,” Kent told me this week. “But we don’t have a lot of really great public spaces that are people places.”

Vancouver’s Granville Island, he suggests, for good reason, is an exception. Its variety of publicly accessible spaces wonderfully combine culture with food markets and harbour jobs. But Kent is unimpressed with the intensification of Vancouver’s waterfront and its tracts of land bisected by bike paths.

Unlike Stockholm, for instance, where restaurants and highly active parks connect effortlessly in and out of the water, he notes, “Vancouver’s waterfront has been ruined by its new communities of high-rise towers surrounded by isolated playgrounds with no seating, or isolated rocks. They’re designed for people who don’t want much to happen in front of them. There’s no sense of life or delight.”

from Lisa Rochon. 2011. Cityspace:  Squaring public space with human needs. Globe and Mail November 26, 2011: R2.

Crawl & Beg: Municipal Election Ennui High Tea for Enforcement of City of Vancouver Artist Live Work Rental Studio Bylaws

PDF available: 19-nov-2012-crawl-beg-high-tea-vancouver

The Terminal City: Vancouver, British Columbia’s Lower Mainland & the Gulf Islands with south-eastern Vancouver Island as The

Vancouver and the British Columbia Mainland based on a photograph taken by an astronaut in 1999. Portions of West Vancouver and North Vancouver are in the extreme upper left. The Vancouver Peninsula is directly below. The mouth of the Fraser (StoLo) River is in the centre of the image along with Sea Island (and Vancouver International Airport) and Lulu Island (the Municipality of Richmond). Tsawwassen and the U.S. dependency, Point Roberts, is in the extreme lower portion of the centre of the image. In the centre and to the far right is Boundary Bay, Semiahmoo Bay, Campbell River, and the town of White Rock.

Port of Vancouver adjacent to Gastown operated by Dubai Ports

strange weather

Squatting in ‘Vancouverism’: Public art & architecture after the Winter Olympics 1/3

PDF copy of this article: ingram-2010-squatting-in-vancouverism1

Ken Lum’s from shangri-la to shangri-la, 2010 site-specific installation, Vancouver, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

Part 1 of 3

Public art was part of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver; there was some funding, some media coverage, and a few sites were transformed. What were the new spaces created and modes of cultural production, in deed the use of culture in Vancouver, that have emerged in this winter of the Olympics? What lessons can be offered, if any, to other contemporary arts and design communities in Canada and elsewhere? And there was such celebration of Vancouver, that a fuzzy construct was articulated for ‘Vancouverism’ that today has an unresolved and sometimes pernicious relationship between cultural production and the dynamics between public and privatizing art. In this essay, I explore when, so far, ‘Vancouverism’[i] has become a cultural, design, ‘planning’, or ideological movement and when the term has been more of a foil for marketing over-priced real estate.[ii] In particular, I am wondering what, in these supposedly new kinds of Vancouveristic urban designs, are the roles, ‘the place’ of public and other kinds of site-based art.

The new Woodward’s towers and the restored Woodward’s W sign from the historic centre of 19th Century Vancouver at Carrall and Water Street, January 2010, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

January and February 2010 were the months to separate fact from fiction and ideas from hyperbole. By the end of February’s Winter Olympics, the mounting bills and utter repetitiveness of Vancouver’s self-promotion[iii] already cast a shadow over the notion that the city was ever ready to be any sort urban example.[iv] Bandied about were a few principles, even the bare bones of a future manifesto. What were are the ideas and what were the actual achievements? Over the last century, Vancouver has been a centre for an array of social movements and ideological projects from the more utopian union organizing of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, to a curiously effective advocacy of smaller numbers of people sharing beds and bedrooms to the activism of Greenpeace spawned in Kitsilano in the 1970s. Moving into the second decade of a new century, a few of the City of Vancouver’s planning policies, along with the modernist sensibilities of a handful of architects, are being branded as a movement for sustainability through the emphasis on residential towers. But this talk of ‘Vancouverism’ comes at a time when many city cores throughout the world have already attained higher human densities more elegantly and with less severe ecological footprints. More troubling is the contradiction that much of the innovative architecture in Vancouver has been lower density and often better serves suburban than core urban neighbourhoods. In contrast, the supposedly Vancouveristic towers are repetitive, rarely involve lead designers who are locally based, generate heavy ecological footprints, will be increasingly expensive to maintain, and have included few technological innovations. And Greater Vancouver has as much sprawl as any other North American city.

The Woodward’s Building complex, under construction and before the atrium was erected, in mid-2009.

In the recently marketed notions of ‘Vancouverism’, the roles of the city’s public spaces, hard-fought notions of social justice, and contemporary art-making, involving sectors and movements often at odds with the towers built and marketed by a remarkably small number of transnational investors, remain unresolved. A few events in January and February, in the redeveloped Woodward’s Building, the hallowed Western Front, and further afield, provide clues as to what work has been based on well-researched history and theory, what is the innovative design, what is advertising, and what is provincial hype. The opening of Trevor Boddy’s exhibit, Vancouverism, in Vancouver’s new Woodward’s atrium on the 15th of January 2010 coincided with the unveiling of Stan Douglas’s massive photo-based mural, “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971,” recalling the Gastown (police) Riots[v]; the recent completion of the two residential towers designed by Gregory Henriquez and developed by Ian Gillespie, structures that support both public housing units and tony condos; and the first use of Simon Fraser University’s cavernous, Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre where various figures such as Henriquez and Gillespie lounged and self-congratulated. On the same evening, the reconstructed tower with the Woodward’s neon ‘W’, was lit and was turning for the first time in over 15 years.

The 15 January, 2010 celebration for the opening of the Woodward’s Building, the unveiling of the Stan Douglas mural, “Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971 2009,” the first use of the Simon Fraser University’s Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, and the restoration of the ‘W’ (for Woodward’s) turning sign. photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

A week after the Woodward’s celebrations, a more critical discussion of the role of architecture and public art in neighbourhood regeneration, Coming Soon: Negotiating the Expectations of Art in the Public Sphere[vi], was held as the first symposium of the just-opened Audain Gallery of Simon Fraser University @ Woodward’s. Coming Soon began to publicly explore the implications for the expansion of cultural infrastructure in the Woodward’s complex along with neighbourhood gentrification, the growing privatization of public space, the shortage of low-income housing, and homelessness. A week later, another symposium was held, Learning From Vancouver, at The Western Front and asked another set of questions about the limits of architectures of high-density redevelopment and the making of site-based art within the context of pressured real estate markets.[vii]

Shadowing these events in January was the recent publication of an essay by Trevor Boddy entitled “Vision Deficit”[viii] that articulated a profound critique of Vancouver’s urban planning and design establishment. But while Boddy celebrated ‘Vision Deficit’ at the January 15th opening of Vancouverism, he was already backpedalling from his core arguments.[ix] Given Boddy’s central role in articulating a theory of Vancouverism, the curious contradictions between the Vancouverism exhibit, Vision Deficit The Essay, and what Boddy has stated in subsequent weeks warrants a closer look. And as almost a challenge to the erasures embodied in much of Olympics-synchronized Vancouverism was the installation of Ken Lum’s comment on Vancouver’s shift to neoliberal architecture, from shangri-la to shangri-la[x], with three, doll-house-like replicas of historic squatters shacks placed at the foot of a new hotel and condominium tower that was also the product of the same Woodward’s developer, Ian Gillespie. Untying this knot of contradictions from a winter of aggrandizement, historical referencing (and revisionism), boosterism, and ideological horse-trading is important given the pressures to redefine Vancouver after the Olympics and the inevitable contraction, and potential implosion, in the Canadian real estate bubble.[xi] And in the midst of the Olympics spectacle were some lyrical and under-reported interventions as part of the Bright Light arts festival that brought “together the creative energy of fourteen arts organizations active in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside”[xii] in manners that often said more about the urban texture of Vancouver than the pronouncements from the architect developers.

Representation of the Woodward’s Building project, as viewed aerially from the south-east, from the website of Henriquez Partners

The Woodward’s Building as Concretizing Ideology

January 2010’s Vancouverism danced around an unfinished complex, the redeveloped Woodward’s Building: two new towers, a constructed department façade of a department store, and a performing arts centre. Not coincidentally, much of Vancouverism, as it has been articulated so far, is a celebration of a particular kind of public-private partnership where an exceptional amount of public funds went to developers to build 400 low income, public housing units while allowing some handsome profits to be made on sales of the adjacent condominium units. Now, Woodward’s is also being marketed ideologically as an effective mode of creation of low income housing, by private developers, when less than a generation ago Canadian public agencies were supporting far more community oriented housing designs and getting units built more economically. But that was before a wave of neoliberalism conjured that private enterprise was more effective at spending public funds. And it remains to be seen whether or not such mixed housing will contribute to or slow gentrification in Gastown as part of the amorphous, Downtown Eastside.

The new buildings in the Woodward’s complex, designed by Gregory Henriquez[xiii] were not even completed before they were being celebrated as a success. Initial audits related for social use, which Henriquez estimates at “4,000 people a day on site, living, working, shopping, playing, making art and using community services at Woodward’s[xiv] as well as any contributions towards sustainability, especially in relationship to other new towers being built in other parts of the world, are a year or two away. Such supposed successes are more credibly declared after several years of evaluation – especially for a concept and design with severe deficiencies in terms of its its long shadow in a neighbourhood already starved for winter light and its highly debateable contributions to heritage conservation[xv] and to sustainability transitions. So the Woodward’s ’space’, in particular the line between private and public where the Vancouverism exhibition was presented, remains contested and under ongoing examination.

At the unveiling fete on January 15th, such words as ‘rebirth’ (as in of the neighbourhood) and ‘collaboration’ (as in huge transfers of public resources to private developers) were invoked. Trevor Boddy went on to use terms such as ‘mission’, ‘utopian’, and ‘mix of uses’ stating, “Even by our standards, Woodward’s is not normal. It took extraordinary dedication” [for private developers to insist on such excessive public subsidies]. Boddy sang Third Way incantations such as “function of healing” and “to make a liberal, inclusive state.” There was a sprinkling of references to modernist visionary, Arthur Erickson, Vancouver’s saint of concrete, and his 1955 high-density vision for the Vancouver Peninsula, Plan 56. [xvi]

“Proposal for the redevelopment of the West End of Vancouver,” Arthur Erickson, 1955, January and February, 2010 exhibit, “Vancouverism” curated by Trevor Boddy, Woodward’s Building Atrium (drawing courtesy Erickson Collection Architectural Archive, University of Calgary)

Later on the evening of the 15th at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, the discussions become more cautious. Bathed in pink light on a white leather couch, developer Ian Gillespie noted that the extent of the long-term success of the Woodward’s complex, especially for mixing low and high income groups, will “depend on the effectiveness of mental health programmes” – a pointed comment at a time when provincial cuts are putting the disabled, especially those with compromised mental health, increasingly at risk. Harkening back to Vancouver’s boom and bust economy of a century and half century ago, the celebration on January 15th seemed to be more about the project having gotten as far as being near completion without running out of money – with supposedly 92% of closure of sales on the luxury condo units having taken place on schedule. Or was some celebrating about the fact that the developer had supposedly made a relatively high level of profit on subsidized housing? Or was there something profound about a kinder, gentler form of neoliberalism with even greater transfers of public resources to private developers? This was the rather dire form of urban utopianism in Vancouver in the winter of 2010.

The root of any authentic celebration, on the evening of January 15th, was that various governments and developers had ever collaborated at all, in the early 21st Century, for the sake of low-income housing. In this way, the 21st Century Woodward’s came full circle with the original Woodward constructions, the first department store on Canada’s West Coast of a century earlier, which displaced and destroyed small businesses on the block.[xvii] A closer look at this so-called ‘body heat’[xviii] mode of gentrification, of using a particularly wide set of government subsidies from municipal variations (that are eventually paid for by municipal ratepayers) to education funding as in the case of the Simon Fraser University gallery and theatre to grants to artists projects, to repopulated a declining neighbourhood, infers a responsibility to a community – especially when the government funding for the low-income housing, that provides homes for but a few artists, has been provided at effectively above-market returns. In other words, the developer of Woodward’s made money off of subsidies to the arts in at least three different ways: in funding directly to arts facilities [involving funds that were then transferred to the developer], through supposedly bringing more artists back into the neighbourhood through being paid to build low-income housing [involving more funds to be transferred to the developer], and through marketing the repackaging of these social subsidies as effective community amenities as crucial to the private marketing of the hundreds of still very expensive and small condo apartments [that lead to even more funds being transferred to the developer].

While this supposedly privately financed model of gentrification-through-cultural-infrastructure is now being applied in nearly every major city on earth, the public money that went into pay for ’space’ for the arts, in the Woodward’s building, has undoubtedly been more per square foot than has been seen anywhere at any time. And during this Winter-of-the-Woodward’s-Honeymoon, the unresolved problems of the design of the block, from its impacts on a heritage neighbourhood to blockage of light the difficulties of maintaining such towers efficiently – not unlike the kinds of perennial problems with modernist towers that a few decades back pushed such high density forms of urbanism out of favour – became more and not less evident . But even an article in the relatively progressive website, The Tyee, gushed uncritically.[xix]

model of the Woodward’s redevelopment, Henriquez & Partners Vancouverism exhibit, Vancouver, January 2010 photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

Consumer dilemmas: Which brand of Vancouverism is worthy buying?

Before exploring some of the specific conversations in Vancouverism it is necessary to examine the development of the term and where it originated and how its usage has shifted and remained malleable. The term ‘Vancouverism’ was first used widely in a 2005 article in the New York Times.

“The surrounding 40-acre area, much of it opened up after highways damaged in the 1989 earthquake were demolished, is to become San Francisco’s most densely populated neighborhood, based on a planning model known as Vancouverism. Named after the city in British Columbia, Vancouverism is characterized by tall, but widely separated, slender towers interspersed with low-rise buildings, public spaces, small parks and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and facades to minimize the impact of a high-density population.”[xx]

At the time of the writing of the 2005 article, the only neighbourhood in Vancouver that fit that description was the Concord Pacific redevelopment along False Creek the lands nearly all of which having been acquired by the Province of British Columbia for Expo 86 and then sold in one block, after a huge amount of public controversy in 1987 and 1988,[xxi] to then Hong Kong-based Concord Pacific. The sales of the early Yaletown towers built by Concord Pacific were lucrative and the controlling figure in the group, Li Ka Shing, had a rapprochement with Beijing and expanded his operations into other parts of China. In the meantime, the Vancouver division was further developed by Stanley Kwok and Bing Thom with their concepts the bases for the urban and building designs. And little more than a decade later, this relatively small neighbourhood (that involved a lot of capital and heavily subsidized mortgages) was being equated with so-called ‘Vancouverism’.

Much of the Vancouverism exhibit, at least the version that was shown at Woodward’s redevelopment in January and February of 2010, celebrated a corporate culture where the work of developers, planners and designers were conflated under the guise of ‘collaboration’. Such a form of neoliberal urbanism affords corporate entities, such as Concord Pacific which also has large projects in Hong Kong and Beijing, the status of architect while effecting side-lining community-based designs and innovations. In the case of Vancouverism as a redevelopment style, more innovative West Coast planning policies and designs of specific buildings and public space that have involved a more diverse set of contributors most not receiving (or effectively giving) funds to multinational developers, are ignored.[xxii] So the supposedly exceptional level of collaboration celebrated in Vancouver codifies a particularly neoliberal notion of planning and design processes and of urbanism in general.

What undermines the credibility of the Vancouverism exhibit is how Trevor Boddy has linked the two decades of bland towers by Concord Pacific with Gregory Henriquez’s efforts to design a more purposefully democratic and innovative spaces. Even more problematic is how Vancouverism and the discourse it generated conflated these high-density residential projects and the relatively small Yaletown neighbourhood with distinct aspects of the overall planning strategy of the City of Vancouver[xxiii] – even though most other cities in the world also have neighbourhoods of residential towers, though they may be better designed and constructed, than those in Vancouver. In other words, there is nothing sufficiently distinctive about to Vancouver’s towers to warrant a badge of exceptionalism such as ‘Vancouverism’. The greatest contradiction in the Vancouverism exhibit at Woodward’s is that most of the important architectural works do not include, and even suggest a counter narrative to, residential towers especially the 1983 redevelopment of Robson Square by Arthur Erickson and Cornelia Oberlander, Erickson’s 1976 Museum of Anthropology. And many of these projects are for relatively low buildings (such as most of those at the Olympic Village) with many quite a distance from the areas of towers in Vancouver’s core.

So if the works in Vancouverism do not conform to the definition of Vancouverism, what do they describe? Other than Erickson’s Museum of Anthropology, most of the designs barely work with or celebrate respective sites – within Vancouver’s spectacular landscape. Views, both those afforded and those removed, by projects are poorly described (suggesting that they were poorly considered in respective design processes). And few of these projects other than the Olympic Village[xxiv] that is still being audited, engage seriously in current or past standards for sustainability such as the LEED certification system. But well after many Vancouver architects began engaging in sustainability transitions, most of the designers included the Vancouverism exhibited were avoided engaging in standards such as LEED. To the rest of the country and world, the whole notion of Vancouverism as based on the evidence in this exhibit begins to smell of a stale kind of provincialism brought out of a cupboard for guests coming for the Winter Olympics.

It is a relief that in Boddy’s pantheon of local corporate architecture, he mercifully relieves us, in Vancouverism, of mention of the works of the Paul Merrick group that was publicly chastised not so long ago.[xxv] In contrast, the absence, from Vancouverism, of celebrated West Coast figures, most notably Bill Pechet and Stephanie Robb[xxvi] whose work spans a range of design disciplines, is problematic and suggests Boddy recycling the cronyism that afflicted the West Coast modernism for so long. Similarly, the absence of examples of the wealth of contemporary West Coast landscape architects, so deeply engaged with sites and sustainability, as well as innovative residential architects is problematic. Worse, Vancouverism the exhibit is obstructive to explorations of the wealth of innovative design and urbanism in the region. With so much missing, I am forced to wonder whether or not the relatively high degree of `private’ financial support for the Vancouverism exhibits, from London to Paris to Vancouver, by Woodward’s developer Ian Gillespie[xxvii], has constrained critical discussion of the work in the exhibit – including Erickson’s.

There is another problem in the Vancouverism exhibit that suggests historical revisionism. It remains to be determined how much of central Vancouver’s pedestrian-oriented, higher density character was the product of a supposedly enlightened partnership through architects being dominated by developers. A well-established historical narrative, one that is well-substantiated, describes how much of central Vancouver has been more the product of the municipal political economy coping with a wave of community activism in the 1960s and 1970s that precluded a system of freeways, limited mass evictions for redevelopment, and than initially put significant constraints on the designs of Concord Pacific. While Boddy has argued that the Vancouverism exhibit was something of a correction for what he has stated as excessive credit given developers and planners, with insufficient acknowledgement of pioneering architects such as Erickson[xxviii], the murkiness of the relationships between planning parameters, design process, and developer bottom lines continues to become more opaque the more talked up is so-called Vancouverism.

After visiting the Vancouverism exhibit a score of times, I was left with the question of whether or not the few substantive principles teased out of the examples are more those of the architects or more those of Boddy as the theoretician. Has Boddy’s interpretation of Vancouverism simply been enabling a group of architects and developers at the expense of developing his own manifesto or even school of architecture (which still appears to me more like a grab-bag of principles of the most socially responsible, contemporary design viable under neoliberalism)?


[i] The term ‘Vancouverism’ has not been used widely in the city nor has it been precisely identified. In recent years, ‘Vancouverism’ has been used primarily by Trevor Boddy especially for a travelling exhibition of a small group of Vancouver architects. The term was first used in mass media in The New York Times in 2005 (Lisa Chamberlain. 2005. Trying to Build the Grand Central of the West. The New York Times (December 28, 2005)).

[ii] The following passage is but one example of the extent of the increasing blurring of Vancouverism as both an urban movement and a marketing ploy (as the bursting of the high costs of the current real estate bubble is widely acknowledged to be inevitable). “The re-imagining of downtown Vancouver as a residential neighbourhood, of attached homes, highrise and low-rise, and the re-imagining of the attached-home interior occurred more or less simultaneously, in the previous two decades. In that simultaneity is the possibility that the open-plan interior is as much an attribute of “Vancouverism” as are the more widely discussed attributes of the ideology, the creation of space between highrises, for example, with low-rises and public amenities.” (Christina Symons. 2010. Open-plan interiors infuse small spaces with large life. Vancouver Sun (February 19, 2010)).

[iii] One of the more tiresome pieces of a kind of self-congratulation combined with faux self-reflection on the eve of the Olympics was Gary Stephen Ross. 2010. A Tale of Two Cities: The Vancouver you see, and the one you don’t. The Walrus (31 January 2010).

[iv] Douglas Haddow. 2010. Vancouver’s Olympics head for disaster. Two weeks before the games and with police officers on every corner, Vancouver is far from an Olympic wonderland. The Guardian (31 January 2010).

[v] Robin Laurence. 2009. Vancouver artist Stan Douglas revisits the 1971 Gastown Riot. Georgia Strait (December 30, 2009).

[vi] The public symposium, Coming Soon: Negotiating the Expectations of Art in the Public Sphere, will be held at the Audain Gallery, Woodwards Building, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, on Saturday, January 23, 2010. and

[vii] The public symposium, Learning From Symposium, was held at Vancouver’s Western Front on the 29th and 30th of January, 2010.

[viii] Trevor Boddy. 2009/10. Vision deficit. Vancouver Review 24: 8 – 13.

[ix] Don Hann and I ran into Trevor Boddy on the 31st of January, 2010, in the front of Vancouver’s Roundhouse Community Centre. After Hann complimented Boddy on his “Vision deficit” essay, Boddy admitted that while the essay had “ruffled a few feathers,” but that he was already back on good terms again with Director of the Planning Department of the City of Vancouver, Brent Toderian.

[x] Ken Lum from shangri-la to shangri-la, 2010 site-specific installation, Vancouver. The banner accompanying the work states, “The work of Vancouver artist Ken Lum examines the way modernism and mass culture shape our individual experiences of contemporary life. Here Lum has created a site-specific artwork based on the squatters’ shacks that conce inhabited [sic] the north shore of Burrard Inlet, in an area commonly known as the Maplewood Mudflats. Positioned above shimmering surface of the Offsite reflecting pool, Lum’s scale replicas of these now-destroyed dwellings appear as a lingering memory of a particular moment in the lower mainland’s history, one that proposed a rustic concept of the ideal life that contrast dramatically with the visions of ordered perfection embodied in the surrounding architecture.”

[xi] Murray Dobbin. 2009. Why Canada’s Housing Bubble Will Burst (’The largest sub-prime lender in the world is now the Canadian government.’). (Vancouver). 22 Oct 2009. & Boyd Erman and Tara Perkins. 2010. Big Six banks urge Ottawa to tighten mortgage rules. The Globe and Mail (6 February, 2010).

[xii] “Bright Light brings together the creative energy of fourteen arts organizations active in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Outdoor performances, video projections, urban planning demonstrations, social events and a parade are just some of the manifestations that animate the historical heart of the city. The group includes artist-run centres, a fashion artist, an architecture studio, a commercial gallery, an art publisher and a public gallery.

Bright Light is one of a wide variety of public art projects that have been commissioned to mark the occasion of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Games.”

[xiii] Robert Enright. 2010. Body Heat: The story of the Woodward’s Redevelopment. Vancouver: Simply Read Books/BLUEIMPRINT. ISBN-13: 978-1897476017.

[xiv] Gregory Henriquez interviewed by Wendy Stueck. 2009. Gregory Henriquez: The architecture solution. The Globe and Mail (Feb. 18, 2009).

[xv] “Referring to the relaxing of height restrictions in the heritage neighbourhood that allowed for the twin towers, Skip Towne of Vancouver asked, ‘How is architecture ‘ethical’ if a neighbourhood’s stakeholders, apparently solely for financial gain, cavalierly disregard and circumvent heritage protections that have been carefully preserved for generations? ‘” Gregory Henriquez interviewed by Wendy Stueck. 2009. Gregory Henriquez: The architecture solution. The Globe and Mail (Feb. 18, 2009).

[xvi] Arthur Erickson. 2006. Arthur Erickson: Critical Works. Nicholas Olsberg and Ricardo Castro (editors). Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre and Vancouver Art Gallery.

[xvii] One of the businesses that was displaced the first Woodward’s ‘redevelopment’ in the years before World War I was the dry goods store owned by my paternal grandparents. Growing up with the oral histories about the Woodward family, their access to capital, and their engagement with employees and the community did shape some of my views of this subsequent redevelopment.

[xviii] Robert Enright. 2010. Body Heat: The story of the Woodward’s Redevelopment.

[xix] Christine McLaren. 2010. Woodward’s Designer Reveals Secrets: Architect Gregory Henriquez gives a tour of his creation’s quirky nooks and crannies, and replies to his critics. (25 February 2010)

[xx] Lisa Chamberlain. 2005. Trying to Build the Grand Central of the West. The New York Times (December 28, 2005).

[xxi] Province of British Columbia, 34th Parliament, 2nd Session, INDEX, Debates of the Legislative Assembly (Hansard), March 9, 1987 to March 11, 1988 See entries for Concord Pacific Developments Ltd.

[xxii] And the one local studio of innovative designers that has been able to avoid economic marginalization has been Henriquez & Partners Vancouverism where Gregory Henriquez’s had a long history of designing the more interesting of Vancouver’s forest of bland towers going back to the 1970s and 1980s.

[xxiii] Michael Sasges. 2010. Our ‘ideology’ of downtown residency speaks to the world’s aspirations - Woodward’s exhibit celebrates 50-year pursuit of density and amenity. Vancouver Sun (February 20, 2010).

[xxiv] Lisa Rochon. 2010. It took a village, but they got it right. Globe and Mail (February 13, 2010).

[xxv] Trevor Boddy. 2007. DWELLING: CONDOMINIUMS: DESIGN - A condo on the rocks. Globe and Mail (June 15, 2007).

[xxvi] Pechet and Robb Studio [Bill Pechet and Stephanie Robb with essays by Christopher Macdonald and Greg Bellerby]. 2006. Sweaterlodge [Catalog for the exhibition representing Canada at the 10th Venice Biennale of Architecture from 10 September until 19 November, 2006]. Vancouver: Blueimprint.

[xxvii] Don Hann and I ran into Trevor Boddy on the 31st of January, 2010, in the front of Vancouver’s Roundhouse Community Centre, and Boddy stated that Ian Gillespie still owed him over $13,000. for his commitment to funding part of the exhibit.

Squatting in ‘Vancouverism’: Public art & architecture after the Winter Olympics 2/3

PDF copy of this article: ingram-2010-squatting-in-vancouverism3

Ken Lum’s from shangri-la to shangri-la, 2010 site-specific installation, Vancouver, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

part 2 of 3

fragment of Stan Douglas’s “Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971″ (2009) Inkjet in Laminate Glass photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

Public art and community memory under Vancouverism

So how can public art and community memory fare in a zone of state subsidized real estate speculation for the generation of private space (largely for the middle class)? The cultural centre-piece at Woodward’s may tell us where arts production and artists can fit in to landscapes of real estate inflation. Stan Douglas’s “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″[i] is a massive photographic installation that uncomfortably extends the parameters of photography, public art, and monumental art in general. “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 is an exceptional achievement in the Vancouver-based artist’s rich body of work – and perhaps his most ‘public’ in it being permanently installed outdoors and indoors in a strategic site in the neighbourhood. And how has Douglas brought a discussion of history back to one of the most strategic historic neighbourhoods in Canada in terms of early multicultural alliances and labour activism?

More than in any of his other works, Douglas aligns with Mexican political muralists of the early Twentieth Century with a re-creation of police violence, at the Woodward’s block, four decades before. But rather than a painting, this work is a massive, backlit photograph, almost a homage to the stage historical reconstructions of Vancouverite Jeff Wall, that is installed on both side of the same wall. And given the different lighting between the outdoor representation of the heavily constructed photograph and the indoor luminescence over the course of a day and event, that duality, in itself, adds to the discussion of the importance of and critical interpretation of recent urban history.

More of a departure in the canon of murals is the examination, in “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971,” of the relationship of police violence, which Douglas linked in a short public comment on January 15th, to the subsequent decline along Hastings Street (an area now facing rapid gentrification due to the Woodward’s redevelopment). The 1971 police riot was reconstructed by Douglas on a set at the Pacific National Exhibition. The scene of the police violence and resistance to it was certainly not celebrated in the iconography of the mural as heroic. Instead, the youthful bodies being bundled off by the police come to symbolize how the old Downtown of Vancouver, a multicultural public sphere, was effectively abducted and depopulated. The deep greys, blacks and browns suggest other uses of history, of the melancholy of lost opportunities. In this way, this double-sided photograph is a stark departure from a long cannon of political murals that while celebrating resistance to violence of states, oligarchies and capital have rarely looked as closely at the damage and impacts of social conflict. and state repression. The oppressed don’t really triumph here but those sufficiently broken and who have survived might one day qualify for a paltry amount of subsidized public housing. There is no romanticism in “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971.” The result is stark and, for a North American city that has been less able than many to confront its history of police violence, almost embarrassing. “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″ is a reminder that the panopticon gaze of contemporary culture is upon the Woodward’s complex even if there are hints of a movie set in Douglas’s muralism.

fragment of Stan Douglas’s “Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971″ (2009) Inkjet in Laminate Glass

photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

There are two constraints on the credibility of “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″ that reflect the limits of Douglas’s work. Like much of the historically based pieces by Douglas, ‘Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971′ is short on historical research and thin, verging on cliché, on theory. Given all of Vancouver’s moments of activism and repression, in the 1970s alone, serious questions remain about the relative importance of the police riot at Abbott & Cordova, adjacent to the site of the mural, on the 7th of August, 1971. And the link between this particular police violence, the progressive impoverishment of the neighbourhood, and the journeys and hardships of the over several thousand of its current residents who are effectively homeless remains poorly researched. Police violence clearly did play a huge part in the decline of the neighbourhood in that period but most of the abuse was hidden and did not involve a well-documented riot. In this way the 7th of August 1971 riot becomes more of a distraction, a surrogate for broader knowledge and clarity. What took place in that decade and what followed was the dismantling of one of Canada’s earliest crossroads for multiculturalism and working-class activism. The evacuation of what was only later labelled the ‘Downtown Eastside’ was partly because a range of previously ghettoized ethnic groups finally had the economic clout and human rights protections to move out into the less expensive suburbs while the white working-class that were left either bled into Vancouver’s middle-class – or remained in the neighbourhood because of institutions such as unions, coops, and subsidized housing along with related jobs. The demographic vacuum that resulted was only partially a result of police violence.

fragment of the exterior face of Stan Douglas’s two-sided “Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971″ (2009) Inkjet in Laminate Glass, with reflections of one of the Woodward’s towers to the right and the Simon Fraser University Harbour Tower on the right, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

What does give “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″ credence is that this was on one of the last ‘police riots’ in a long history of violent altercations largely initiated by the forces of the City of Vancouver and public knowledge of these events have largely been erased. And curiously, there were no representatives of the City of Vancouver Police at the January 15th unveiling even trying to distance themselves from the old violence or even suggesting there was some kind of ongoing process of truth and reconciliation. Instead, the historical conversation about police abuse in the neighbourhood has been truncated (while violence against the most vulnerable continues today). While big and shiny, “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″ says something about history, as if public memory were a commodity to be reworked as part of marketing edgy real estate, there is little acknowledgement of the economic cycles and restructuring that could one day see impoverishment of incoming residents especially as a housing prices, for the units in Woodward’s, may not remain so high.[ii]

The other somewhat ‘Vancouveristic’ contradiction embedded in “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″ is the erasure in the tableau. All of the discernible faces in the mural are of European heritages. Douglas has effectively whitewashed Vancouver’s old multiracial downtown. Perhaps he was anticipating the new demographic resulting from the redevelopment. The August 1971 episode took place in the decade when this same neighbourhood, formerly a major centre for multiculturalism within Canada, was largely emptied of people of colour – with most except the elderly leaving happily. The violence portrayed in the reconstructed photograph as historical record was against young white people. This particular police riot was a relative exception – in targeting so-called ‘white, middle-class kids’. The tableau does not even suggest, let alone reference, the century of white supremacist riots on the same streets, the forced relocation and urbanization of aboriginal communities (sometimes into and sometimes out of this neighbourhood), the deprivations forced on Chinese Canadians, the 1942 deportations and effective erasure of Japantown, and the vicious police entrapments and harassment of Indo-Canadians – all within three blocks of the site of the mural. The violence against white youth in 1971 was a historical after-thought for the City of Vancouver that eclipsed a century of daily police violence against people not of European heritage. For viewers with heritages not European, the effective racialization of ‘Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971′ can be confusing and discomforting. Perhaps this error is the result of both Douglas’s aversion for critical historical research, while engaging in monumental art about historical topics funded by developers, combined with his growing up in the elite West Point Grey, when his was one of the few African-Canadian families.[iii]

A closer look at the 15th of January, 2010 unveiling of the Stan Douglas mural, “Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971,” photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

[i] The plaque below the inside manifestation of the work states,

“Stan Douglas

Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971


Inkjet in Laminate Glass.”

[ii] Murray Dobbin. 2009. Why Canada’s Housing Bubble Will Burst (’The largest sub-prime lender in the world is now the Canadian government.’). (Vancouver). 22 Oct 2009.

[iii] Stan Douglas, personal communication (at a dinner party), 1993, Vancouver.

Squatting in ‘Vancouverism’: Public art & architecture after the Winter Olympics 3/3

PDF copy of article: ingram-2010-squatting-in-vancouverism

Ken Lum’s from shangri-la to shangri-la, 2010 site-specific installation, Vancouver, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram part 3 of 3

The multiplicity of publics in Vancouver’s public art: Coming Soon?

One of the first conversations of the kinds of difficult choices that will be necessary for making art in the public realm in post-Olympics Vancouver came at the opening of the major exhibition space at the Woodward’s complex: Simon Fraser University’s Audain Gallery. The first commissioned work for the Audain Gallery was by Ken Lum was shown in its Hastings Street windows just before the official opening of SFU Woodward’s. Lum’s 2009 - 2010, “I Said No” was a powerful beginning for what could become the region’s centre for critical theory on the multiple publics of art and architecture. “I Said No” occupies a major historic site of Vancouver’s retail culture where there were street windows throughout much of the 20th Century and explores the most basic impulses of refusal for engagement be it consumer culture, social contracts, or perhaps even the Winter Olympics. The work’s power is in its ambiguity. For many decades Vancouverites were lured into the former department by the same kind of big type on paper banners advertising sales and other discounts. But in January the Gallery was advertising more of a kind of refusal compounded by a lack of access to the interior spaces from the street. The use of the retail sale typography was even more paradoxical given that the artist is fully aware that art, even public art, is often a form of consumption increasingly tied to the making of new wealth (even in a time of funding cuts to the arts). The ambiguity and intensity of “I Said No” aptly laid out the debates to come.

Ken Lum 2009 - 2010, “I Said No,” Audain Gallery (East Hasting Street window), Vancouver, January 2010 photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

A week after the opening of the Woodward’s redevelopment, Audain Gallery held its first public meeting with the Coming Soon Public Symposium aimed “address questions regarding the different, and often competing, public and artistic expectations of art in the public sphere and art as a public discourse.”[i]

Gallery Director Sabine Ritter stated that the Audain Gallery was expressly established out of “a commitment to art in the public sphere” public art must interact within a “locational identity” and competing notions of “publicness.” Ritter went on to acknowledge divergent notions of public from “social homogeneity” to communities of difference and asked the central question for this early conversation of “Which publics do artists want to make alliances with?”

Within the discussion of multiple and heavily managed notions of ‘publics’ at Coming Soon, Lorna Brown’s site-less but neighbourhood-specific piece, based on her long involvement in the Downtown Eastside, was the most compelling. Brown presented a digital work in progress where she “recombined” the more commonly used terms and phrases of 50 businesses and nongovernmental organizations in the neighbourhood. Brown noted that, “Mission statements are examples of euphemistic public identities.” Through “indexing and archiving while introducing elements of chance” “in order to create a big myth,” Brown created a nonsensical essay with allusions to sides of these groups that were more about social management and obtaining (dwindling amounts of) funding.

Emerging artist Jamie Hilder discussed a work in progress “exploring the actual city versus the manufactured image” to eventually produce a performance and video. Hilder sketched his initial practices around gathering information on and infiltrating the Downtown Ambassadors a subsidized but effectively private security business that collects data to make the case for more private security in the neighbourhood. Hilder concluded that Vancouver’s Downtown Ambassadors were part of an “urban security mercenary movement.” He discussed the implications of recent amendments to British Columbia’s Trespass Act for removing undesirable individuals, especially poor and homeless people, from public space adjacent to urban private property.

Am Johal, who works in the office of Jenny Kwan, Member of the Provincial Legislature, for Vancouver-Mt.Pleasant, spoke about the recent history of the neighbourhood and the use, beginning in the neighbourhood activism of late 1960s, of the term ‘Downtown Eastside’. Soon after, an aboriginal member of the audience noted that the area has a much longer history being labelled ‘Skid Road’ and a long-occupation by First Nations communities. Makiko Hara spoke about the engagement of Centre A Gallery, which is two blocks to the east of the Audain Gallery, with the public space of Hastings Street through using its very large glass windows for art installations that acknowledge the fluidity of the lines between the public and private.

Ken Lum spoke about his piece, “I Said No” that at the time was still installed in the Gallery and stated “Does the work try to redress some missing rights for some people?” “Am I trying to restore a voice to the people down here? My answer is ‘No’!” Questions from the audience shifted to his piece installed the month before in East Vancouver, the so-called ‘East Van Cross’. [ii] Lum then distanced himself from the Christian iconography of that cross and argued that such symbols were used in “pre-Christian Roman times.” Lum did not elaborate on his suggestion of what the alternative uses of what symbol might be – even though the allusion would be to Roman imperial crucifixions. And there was no mention of the fact that for all of the moneys that went into the arts in Vancouver around the Olympics, this work will be the only permanent piece of public art added to the ‘East Van’ neighbourhood – an area of the city that has the highest concentration of artists and studios in the city and where the resistance of the Olympics proposal, especially around the February 22, 2003 municipal referendum, was strongest – in no small part because of the relatively low combined levels of arts funding that have been historically been made available in British Columbia.

The invitation for the first public events of the Audain Gallery, Simon Fraser University at Woodward’s in January and February of 2010

Learning from Vancouver?

While Coming Soon? began to sketch a set of positions in opposition to those bankrolled by the Woodward’s developers, the architecture panel at a conference at the Western Front a week later, Learning from Vancouver,[iii] laid the basis for exposing Vancouverism as little more than a cultural variation on neoliberalism. In the panel on architecture, Matthew Soules first invoked Venturi and Brown’s seminal 1972 Learning from Los Vegas[iv] as a response to the crisis of modernity and the shift to postmodernism. He then argued that Learning from Vancouver was in response to a new crisis — in the notions about and expectations for cities that have been transformed so thoroughly in just three decades. Soule went on to describe the shift in conceptions and expectations of urban form and function from relatively discreet and predictable ideas of cities, as “clear operating systems and clear boundaries” to multiple challenges to manageability especially from the proliferation of megacities and slums. In contrast to these urban zones of crisis, Vancouver provides a “manageable notion of a new kind of city — at a time in history when there is something of an intellectual wasteland in terms of explorations of the possibilities of cities.” Soule provided one example of this paucity of creative thinking in urbanism in the awarding of MIT’s 2007 Kevin Lynch Award to Ray Spaxman, Larry Beasley, and Ann McAfee of the City of Vancouver Planning Department.[v]

Soule went on to argue that within the global pantheon of urbanism, Vancouver has become “a mythic construct.” “Vancouver is now one of these archetypes…that everyone looks to for precedents…as the liveable city.” He noted that this particular urban myth conflates liveability with the designs of the Concord Pacific development along the north shore of False Creek where there was a particularly “collaborative” relationship between the public and private sectors, especially between one multinational corporation and the City of Vancouver as “a relative seamlessness of public and private.”

Another characteristic of the Vancouver model, described by Soule, is the high open space ratio that for the Yaletown developments has been around 30% combined with podium towers with townhouses at their bases. Soule linked notions of liveability to marketing typologies emphasizing “views, air, sunlight” equated with “the good life” (for real estate marketing) that “creates a kind of urbanity that is oriented to order and opposed to anti-social mixing.” In fact, the Yaletown redevelopment in Vancouver may have been the first time that a city was reorganized around the notion of “liveability.” And a key requirement for liveability in Vancouver has been “heavy masterplanning” almost entirely driven by developers. Soule described two recent projects, in Toronto and Fort Worth, that invoked Vancouver in proposing high density developments reconnecting neighbourhoods to waterfront.

Soule went on to argue that so-called ‘Vancouverism’ is often a euphemism for the use of neoliberal political ideologies shaping economies but more within the Blairite project of The Third Way as articulated by Antony Giddens. Within the pantheon of redevelopment, the north side a Vancouver’s False Creek is increasingly viewed as a kinder, gentler form of Canary Wharf-style redevelopment and gentrification - a quarter century after that expensive, and largely unsuccessful, redevelopment effort began in the East End of London that was the flagship of early, Thatherite neoliberalism. In contrast, (North Side) False Creek-style ‘Vancouverism’ represents a supposedly “post-ideological political space” as a “collaboration between enlightened technocrats.” Embodied in this supposed depoliticization is a shift away from “multiculturalism” and a politics of difference to a tacit planning-for-gentrification marked by “liberated pragmatism” and “ideas that work.” “We can think of Vancouverism as a manifestation of post-political collaboration between Left and Right” - a kind of ‘Third Way Urbanism’ that has transcended, for now, the tensions between city centres and suburbs.” Soule missed the link here between this form of pedestrian-based urbanization and economic growth in the information and creative sectors that requires and fosters a particularly adaptable and mobile middle class often engaged in hyper-consumerism. Instead, Soule invoked Slavoj Z?iz?ek’s critique of The Third Way and noted that, “What is de-emphasized in ‘Vancouverism’ is the fact that the city is increasingly less affordable.” Soule then began to explore an alternative to the so-called liveable city that would not require obfuscation of history or the obliteration of entire communities, such as those destroyed in the mid-1980s for Expo ‘86.

The points made by Glen Lowry and Henry Tsang in the presentation that followed, on their ongoing project exploring similarities with and differences between Vancouver’s False Creek with the Dubai Marina in the United Arab Emirates, embodied less of a critique of Vancouverism and more a rambling discourse on “global mobilities”[vi] (particularly their own through a large Canada Council grant). Lowry acknowledged how public space and institutions are undermined to build these new (Vancouveristic) locales of hyper-globalization. In these processes Tsang noted, “The relationship between artists, architects, and urban planning are becoming indistinguishable.” Both Lowry and Tsang acknowledged the difficulties that plague arts projects that address the “specular and spectacular city” especially “the new city for an urban elite,” for “new economies of leisure,” and “the new pedestrian class.” Perhaps the most nuanced research that this project has highlighted so far is about how in the last 1980s and early 1990s, Vancouver-based developer Stanley Kwok forged new ways for his employer, Concord Pacific, to work with, and effectively dominate, the Planning Department of the City of Vancouver under incoming Director, Larry Beasley.

Problematically, none of the theorizing and tentative analyses provided by Soule, Lowry and Tsang addressed squarely the removal and erasure of Squamish and Musqueam communities in False Creek, in little more than the half century before the years that first saw Concord Pacific and the growing links to Hong Kong and then Chinese capital. In contrast, Candice Hopkins did speak on erasure and the obliteration of communities but her example was far afield. Hopkins spoke on the removal of aboriginal communities and memory from the Canadian Prairies. Within a Western Canadian-wide analysis that has implications for False Creek, she linked the Métis rebellions to the 1938 Metis Betterment Act and the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy as an encampment that functioned “as an alternative public space.” What was so powerful about her thinking was the succinct linking of obliteration and erasure of prairie communities to contemporary forms of resistance extending to the West Coast. In all of the oppositional discussions around Vancouverism and the Winter Olympics, few presentations were as forward thinking that hers.

In the panel discussion that followed, Soule reflected that, “Vancouver may be less an innovator of urban form and more a signifier.” He further noted that, “Vancouver has a function for cleaning up the image [of intensive redevelopment under the aegis of global capital] as a good free signifier.” In other words, Vancouverism is more of a mode of masking, a set of tactics for camouflage and subterfuge of maintenance requirements for international capital, rather than a set of urban characteristics let alone planning and design principles.

Representation of the Woodward’s Building project, as viewed from the west, from the website of Henriquez Partners

Deficits: Vision | Consistency | Logic

The most intriguing aspect of this Winter of Vancouverism was the multiple positions taken by critic Trevor Boddy. In his essay, “Vision Deficit,”[vii] Boddy attempted to conflate and then distance himself from a number of retrogressive City of Vancouver planning policies, and offices of city planning dominated by a small group of tower developers. Boddy attempted to align himself with the early vision of recently deceased, architect Arthur Erickson and a far less visionary group of the eminent designer’s friends nearly all of whom were associated with the Trudeau-era Liberal Party and many of whom had some gain in the Government of Canada redevelopment of Granville Island (which tellingly is not mentioned in the Vancouveristic vision). “Vision Deficit” as a rant embodies an important argument that paradoxically turns on and calls into question the implicit arguments made just a year before when Boddy opened the Vancouverism exhibition in London. Within Boddy’s bibliography, “Vision Deficit” has an important function in distancing himself from both the major funders of the dominant formation in the city’s municipal politics, Vision Vancouver: the developers and purveyors of poorly constructed and over-priced condo real estate. These large developers have so much municipal influence that, regardless of the next city elections, this group are bound to lose some sway over the urban fabric. Another way to look at Boddy’s distancing exercise in “Vision Deficit” is that there are now so many boring, expensive-to-maintain towers in central Vancouver that a new kind of developer is in ascendance, and backer in municipal politics. This new group of developers must adapt to smaller development sites (as those are the only ones still available) will foster smaller-scaled and more innovative designs, that in contrast to the massive-scale ‘Vancouverism’ developers will aspire to LEED certifications. At the same time, the donation landscape in municipal elections is shifting as Concord Pacific and Millennium move their capital to other cities with greater vulnerability and that provide higher returns. Boddy can anticipate this abrupt shift in urban design culture better than anyone. So with the nostalgia of Vancouverism, the exhibit, and the anticipation embodied in “Vision Deficit,” Boddy has hedged his bets.

Trevor Boddy speaking about this essay, ‘Vision Deficit’ that was published in issue 24 of the Vancouver Review that he is showing to the audience, the opening of the Woodward’s Building, 15th of January, 2010. The person sitting behind Boddy is Jim Green a former mayoral candidate and one of the community activists who supported the Henriquez design for the Woodward’s redevelopment. Community activist and former politician, Jim Green, who died in 2012, is behind Boddy on the right.

“Vision Deficit” is a historic piece of design criticism for the West Coast where, historically, architects desperate for work and developers starving for investment have often been too cosy. “Vision Deficit” is far more cogent than Boddy’s il-fated critique, a few years back, of the architecture of the Paul Merrick group.[viii] And “Vision Deficit” is a long ways away from the fog in his 2007 essay that was love-fest for four dubious towers designed and built by Concord Pacific. In that essay with Boddy mashed notions of low-income and high-maintenance towers with ‘eco-density’ and sustainability that gives new credence to the term ‘green-washing’.[ix]

“Vision Deficit” is a beautiful rant – almost believable if Boddy had not started backpedalling as soon as it was in print. And regardless of which day it is and whether Boddy wants to confirm or deny that he believed what he wrote, there is poetry.

“[T]he 2010 Olympic Winter Games will forever be over-praised by the naïve and over-governed – those who buy into the cant of economic multiplier effects and multiplier effects upon the multiplier effects…this group will not doubt mis-credit the Games for ending the Great Recession, solidifying our [Vancouver's] destiny as a high-end resort of convenience for anxious global money, even for fixing potholes and smoothing out the lines of our city’s visage.”[x]

“Tragically, we have confused a real-estate boom with an economic boom[.]“[xi]

“[T]his province has become a passive state run by and for real-estate developers[.]“[xii]

VANOC [the local organization for the 2010 Winter Olympics] was utterly dominated by real estate interests (from the inception of Vancouver’s bid for the Olympics).[xiii]

There is a feigned kind of lost innocence when Boddy, who two years before gushed over Concord Pacific Corporation the ‘architect, suggests, indirectly, that developers do not always think about the best interests of communities.

“Welcome to the ‘Developocracy’ (or perhaps more mellifluous to the ears is ‘Hustlervannia’)…The Developocracy has coalesced over the past two decades to dominate this city[.]“[xiv]

And Boddy’s pique with the “developocracy” goes back nearly two decades to his disappointment with then Mayor Gordon Campbell’s “design buffoonery” around the selection of Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie to design the downtown Vancouver Public Library building. Boddy’s naiveté around the chequered legacy of the late planner, Peter Oberlander[xv], is curious. The mythologizing of figures such as Oberlander, without acknowledging decades of low levels of public consultation in many of his project suggests that Boddy is opting for nostalgia over precedents relevant for a very different era. A powerful concept that is not mentioned in Vancouverism the exhibit that is outlined in “Vision Deficit” is that of Vancouver’s “unreal estate” where an extraordinarily high 18% of the recent housing dollar has gone into marketing costs while only 6% has gone into design (as defined in terms of architecture, engineering, landscape design – and related studies).[xvi] These lower levels of overall research and design contrast with the pressures on tower developers in much of the world today who are often scrambling for approvals through innovative designs emphasizing sustainability.

Ken Lum from shangri-la to shangri-la, 2010 site-specific installation, Vancouver, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

Conclusions: Vancouverism the brand gets stale quickly

“The problem of our inability to truly understand the city can be summed up in a sole name: Vancouver. A peaceful Canadian city, which has become the model, in the absence of others, of the more or less correct city, more or less friendly…” Rem Koolhaas 2009[xvii]

How “more or less friendly” has Vancouver and Vancouverism been to site-based and other forms of public art, and production of contemporary culture in general, in the months leading up to and during the Winter Olympics? The architecture and the neoliberal designs have tended to dwarf the more innovative and community-centred art. Lucy Pullen’s installation at Artspeak Gallery spoke of contemporary art in the city besieged and paralyzed; waiting out both the Winter Olympics and the latest West Coast wave of under-funding. But that Artspeak’s major statement for the Olympics was hardly engagement in a city built by marginalized arts communities that have more often have thrived.[xviii] In contrast, Centre A’s presentation of Brian Mulvihill’s World Tea Party,[xix] a now two-decade long series of performances, created a supple space for inclusion nearly entirely absent from a spectacle of bodies and sports that championed a relatively privileged and mythologized notion of Canadian experience. And with such dire news about funding cuts in the arts, the Light Bar, of Jinhan Ko and his collaborators, was the place to dance away the last of the arts funding and to forget what few opportunities for contemporary cultural production in Vancouver the near future may well bring.

Much of the outside world’s notion of ‘Vancouverism’ is based on the Concord Pacific towers in Yaletown that was produced by a unique confluence, in the late 1980s, of British Columbia’s high-handed provincial government, Hong-Kong-gone-to-Beijing capital, and a city planning department better able to serve large developers than to civic politicians and neighbourhood organizations. But the frenzied construction of bland towers in Yaletown, over the 1990s and the following decade, functioned almost as much to marginalise local architects such as Erickson and early sustainability initiatives as it did to generate handsome profits that soon enough were invested in the obliteration of the older neighbourhoods of China in the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics. And compared to these overseas conundrums that have provided the profit and motive for ‘Vancouverism’, the programming concepts of Gregory Henriquez and even the “shameful process”[xx] of dismantling a heritage district might even be argued as ‘ethical’.

Perhaps the stable ideological core of ‘Vancouverism’ could be those conversations between Boddy and Erickson with the associated principles yet to be fully articulated. Rather than ‘Vancouverism’, a better label could be termed, ‘Boddyism’. When Boddy is pressed on what makes ‘Vancouverism’ so distinct, he has stated that, ‘We have density, but it’s not just ‘how high does it go.’ [xxi] But how different is ‘Vancouverism’ or how better is it from other forms of urbanism far more engaged in site, history, culture, and sustainability still remains, after a month of his blitz, an unanswered question. Given the ideological roots of the much touted Yaletown towers, and their economic and demographic functions in the onslaught of neoliberalism in the 1980s, today’s ‘Vancouverism’ may just be the PR for a developer movement that has lost momentum since the 2008 economic crisis and the more recent tightening of mortgage lending in Canada.

As for ‘Vancouverism’ as a movement, why have a stable set of principles for a set of architectural practices serving highly mobile capital? Perhaps ‘Vancouverism’ is more effective (for developers) as a contradictory jumble of ideas, practices, and shadows of capital flows, is a surrogate for understandings of, in deed modes of inquiry into, the 21st Century city. Certainly the doubt feeds into a broader project of fragmenting urban planning and design into projects dominated by architects – and developers. Part heavy handed masterplanning, part quiet social and cultural erasure, a trope of avoidance of sustainable design practices, and tactics for well controlled public space, Vancouverism is more a reassurance to investors and a strata of the upper middle class, a sort of glossy prospectus, than a set of design principles. ‘Vancouverism’ largely side-steps philosophy and de-emphasizes political economy aside from what is absolutely necessary to make and sell condominium units. Rather than being a singular movement based on unifying principles, ‘Vancouverism’ represents an array of late modernist impulses, producing higher densities than exurbs, applied in proximity to a set of sites, landscapes, and communities the respective histories, cultures, demographics, and trajectories of which remain under-researched and eclipsed by residual forms of neo-colonialism, provincialism and hubris.

The most pernicious use for Vancouverism in the coming years is to conflate the designs for high density, heavy ecological footprint, energy guzzling, and excessive maintenance buildings with so-called ‘eco-density’ and with sustainability. Given that few of the developers of this Vancouveristic towers have ever bothered to engage in broadly accepted international criteria for sustainable architecture, most notable LEED standards, the conflation of towers, eco-density, and sustainability is just another developers’ ruse, a scam to sell real estate while cutting corners. The fact that ‘Vancouverism’ as was articulated in January and February of 2010 could not distance itself from fraudulent assertions about eco-density such as those in the Shape Vancouver 2050 website[xxii], that is clearly a front for developers who have no intention of engaging in site-based forms sustainability, confirms that regardless of the vague and contradictory ideals Vancouverism the concept can be used to give credence where none is due.

The marginal role of public art in Vancouveristic Vancouver was illustrated by the very quiet installation, and relative lack of public engagement, around the February installation of Ken Lum’s from shangri-la to shangri-la site-specific installation.[xxiii] The squatter shack architecture that Lum invokes was a truly ‘Vancouveristic’ architecture adapted to local conditions and often fusing native and settler (both European and Asian) technologies, aesthetics, and sensibilities. And since those nineteenth century innovations has come over a century of quiet, sensitive and ethical design, often linked to comparable centres such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Toronto through democratic social movements rather than by capital. Through the last two decades of especially cozy relationships between large developers working with global capital and the City of Vancouver Planning Department, these localized design processes, often relegated today to terms such as ‘ecological design’, have been largely erased. Small and truly local design and planning groups constitute the real intellectual basis for an authentic ‘Vancouverism’ that was sufficiently influential to force a kinder, gentler form of neoliberal brutalism. But while the name ‘Vancouver’ may have been hijacked and the principles largely denatured and made stale by the relentlessness of the condo industry, design principles truly for the West Coast and an authentic Vancouverism, continues to be explored and tested and outside of the unsustainable campuses of False Creek.

And as for public art, what are the new parameters, the operational rules and possibilities, in Vancouveristic Vancouver? How has Vancouver been transformed by an array of recent interventions such as those by the Toronto-Vancouver art collective, Instant Coffee? The limits of Lum’s piece, from shangri-la to shangri-la, are telling. The locale entitled ‘Offsite’ is managed by the Vancouver Art Gallery and is located between the two Shangri-La towers: one a hotel and the other built and, with low levels of sales, still largely owned by Woodward’s developer, Ian Gillespie. Offsite was part of planning negotiation between the developers and the City of Vancouver giving the former more freedom to building higher in exchange for ceding a small, temporary space for art at ground level. Lum’s squatters shacks aptly represent art, especially site-based art, under Vancouverism – dwarfed into decorum to distract from the power of developers. And like the public art pieces erected with the Olympics cultural money, few disrupt, let alone transform, public space and associated social relationships.

Public art under Vancouverism has been relegated back to early modernist decorum and away from linking contentious culture and social memory to specific places. Vancouver’s opportunities of a decade back to use public art to correct erasures have largely been squandered.[xxiv] Perhaps a more powerful way to experience and decipher site-based art that engages with public space in Vancouver after the 2010 Olympics is through what critic Lisa Rochon has proposed as the current status of the most stable of the city’s institutions of visual art the Vancouver Art Gallery. In the wake of massive funding cuts to the arts, bringing support to artist-run centres back to levels as low as more than two decades ago, Rochon has described the most secure contemporary arts organization in Vancouver as being in a state of “psychological homelessness.”[xxv] After the Olympics, all of Vancouver’s artists and designers who engage in questions of site, history, erasure, and multiple publics, some of which are still relatively autonomous from international capital, are all either squatters or truly homeless now. As for the remarkable fluidity of the ideas of the West Coast’s major architecture critic, Trevor Boddy, the high costs of living in The Terminal City have generated a theoretical nomadism that has effectively robbed most critical thinkers of even the possibilities of ideological homes.


[i] Coming Soon Public Symposium 23 January, 2010, Audain Gallery, SFU@Woodward’s.

[ii] Monument for East Vancouver. See Amanda Growe. 2010. What the heck is that? East Van cross. Georgia Straight (January 18, 2010).

[iii] “Transportable Models for Shared Space” (’The Architecture Panel’), Saturday 30th of January, 2010, 4 - 6 p.m., Monika Szewczyk, Moderator. Presenters: Matthew Soules, Henry Tsang, Glen Lowry, and Candice Hopkins. Respondent: Clint Burnham. in the Learning from Vancouver Symposium at The Western Front in Vancouver, 29 - 31 January, 2010.

[iv] Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. 1972 (revised 1977). Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[vi] While the level of engagement in the notion of ‘mobilities’ in the Lowry and Tsang was introductory, there is a growing body on the links between global capital and design and development practices. See Eugene J. McCann. forthcoming. Urban policy mobilities and global circuits of knowledge: Toward a research agenda. Annals of the Association of American Geographers.

[vii] Trevor Boddy. 2009/10. Vision deficit. Vancouver Review 24: 8 – 13.

[viii] Trevor Boddy. 2007. DWELLING: CONDOMINIUMS: DESIGN - A condo on the rocks. Globe and Mail (June 15, 2007).

[ix] Trevor Boddy. 2007. Dwelling of the Year. A challenging site brings out the best: Concord Pacific’s four tower Spectrum took a chunk of derelict land and created a model for Vancouver’s eco-dense future. Globe and Mail. December 14, 2007.

[x] Trevor Boddy. 2009/10. Vision deficit. page 8.

[xi] Trevor Boddy. 2009/10. Vision deficit. page 8.

[xii] Trevor Boddy. 2009/10. Vision deficit. page 8.

[xiii] Trevor Boddy. 2009/10. Vision deficit.. page 11.

[xiv] Trevor Boddy. 2009/10. Vision deficit. page 12.

[xv] Trevor Boddy. 2009/10. Vision deficit. page 12

[xvi] Trevor Boddy. 2009/10. Vision deficit. page 10.

[xvii] Rem Koolhaas. 2009. ‘All architectures are survivors’. a+t (Madrid) (December 21, 2009)

[xviii] Lucy Pullen, “I Would Prefer Not To,” Installation, Artspeak Gallery, Vancouver, February 12 - March 21, 2010

[xx] Gregory Henriquez interviewed by Wendy Stueck. 2009. Gregory Henriquez: The architecture solution. The Globe and Mail (Feb. 18, 2009).

[xxi] Frances Bula. 2010 Architecture - Vancouver’s architecture under the spotlight - Exhibit celebrates Vancouverism. The Globe and Mail (January 19, 2010).

[xxiii] Ken Lum from shangri-la to shangri-la, 2010 site-specific installation, Vancouver.

[xxiv] Gordon Brent Ingram 2000. Contests over social memory in waterfront Vancouver: Historical editing & obfuscation through public art. on the w@terfront – art for social facilitation (University of Barcelona) 2 (January 2000).

[xxv] Lisa Rochon. 2010. Getting its houses in order. Globe and Mail (Vancouver edition) 27 February, 2010: R4.

Spatial forms are social structures

“Spatial forms are social structures…Space, severed from its social production, is thus fetishized as a physical entity and undergoes, through inversion, a transformation. Represented as an independent object, it appears to exercise control over the very people who produce and use it. The impression of objectivity is real to the extent that the city is alienated from the social life of its inhabitants. The functionalization of the city, which presents space as politically neutral, merely utilitarian, is then filled with politics. For the notion that the city speaks for itself conceals the identity of those who speak through the city.” Rosalyn Deutsche 1996[i]

[i]. Rosalyn Deutsche. 1996. Evictions: Art and spatial politics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. p. 52.

andesite & after: Interview with Annabel Vaughan + Rob Brownie by Gordon Brent Ingram

PDF copy of this article: vaughanbrownie-interviewed-by-ingram-2010-andesite-after-designs-for-the-terminal-city

andesite cladding, south side of the Vancouver Art Gallery photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

Annabel Vaughan and Rob Brownie authored one of the more intriguing essays in the 2008 anthology on local sites, materials, cultures, and designs, Vancouver Matters.[i] Andesite is a hard volcanic rock that on Canada’s West Coast is quarried on Haddington Island,[ii] near Alert Bay, between Malcolm and Vancouver Islands. In the first four decades of the Twentieth Century, andesite was often the preferred material for the exterior of the larger buildings constructed in Vancouver, especially for the centres of wealth and power. Colder and more durable than sandstone, andesite was nearly always placed on a granite base.

Architect Francis Mawson Rattenbury (1867-1935) institutionalized the use of andesite in south-western British Columbia, after rejecting a load of sandstone, during the 1898 construction of the Provincial Legislature Buildings in Victoria. In slowly decolonizing British Columbia with its extreme economic fluctuations and its geopolitical marginality, andesite was used to symbolize the new durability of both the state and corporate capital — national, imperial, and transnational.

Francis Mawson Rattenbury (1867-1935) in 1924 a

quarter century after choosing andesite over sandstone

for the British Columbia Legislature

Curiously, andesite’s loss of desirability coincided with mounting challenges to those same institutions during The Great Depression. Preoccupied with making lighter, less constrained structures as cheaper construction materials were becoming more available after World War II, Vancouver’s modernists had little use for andesite’s texture, colour, and weight. For example, concrete was lighter under the weight of Vancouver’s winter skies. Curiously, the Haddington Quarry was recently reactivated after almost seven decades of far less durable cladding being the norm and as the most extensive era of construction (of repetitive designs) in Vancouver’s history has been coming to a close. If we can understand more about the emergence of the original use of andesite, perhaps we have an entre into the dynamics that formed the texture of Twentieth Century Vancouver with implications for what becomes of the urban space of The Terminal City in the Twenty-First Century.

GBI: How did you both become interested in, could I say passionate about, andesite?

AV+RB: When faculty and students from the UBC School of Architecture put a call out for submissions for the Vancouver Matters book we decided to choose a material that was unique to the built environment of Vancouver and unfamiliar to a conventional reading of the city. As we researched the stone it was clear that there was a good story to be told and with further exploration an interesting pattern in its use emerged.

GBI: How did you first hear about early Twentieth Century Vancouver’s short romance with andesite?

AV+RB: One of the more useful texts we came across was Geology Tours of Vancouver’s Buildings and Monuments. In this guide we were able to track most of the buildings we refer to and map in the article. Annabel also knew a bit of the andesite story because of the work Birmingham and Wood Architects was doing on the Mountain View Cemetery buildings.

GBI: Your chapter on andesite in Vancouver Matters is the only major discussion in the anthology on a building material. Paradoxically, this discussion has been for a city where obtaining cladding that can resist and seal a structure from our high rainfall has often been difficult and expensive. In a city such as Vancouver, better known for tacky rather than permanent facades, why is understanding the historical use of andesite important – as well as its potentials for future architectural movements and waves of construction?

AV+RB: If we take a moment to consider those materials that make up the majority of Vancouver’s modern building inventory we are typically left with the same palette that you find in any other North American city – concrete, glass and steel. One set of elements that distinguish one city from another are the colours and textures of materials that clad the buildings we are naturally drawn to for their unique historical value. These structures are with us today for a good reason. They were well constructed and made of materials that resisted weathering, floods and fire. They were built to last. In an era that is increasingly faced with genuine moral questions regarding waste production and resource depletion, the construction of buildings that are well designed and use appropriate materials intelligently is becoming a real concern.

GBI: What other building stone has been important in the building of The Terminal City and what have been andesite’s particular attractions and limitations?

AV+RB: Throughout Vancouver you can find basalt from the Little Mountain Quarry and Squamish and granite that is used for building foundations and sidewalk curbing. Varieties of sandstone from the interior and the Gulf Islands are also very common. There are also three beautiful marbles from north of Duncan on the island [white, black and blue-gray] some of which you can see in the main lobby of the Marine Building.

GBI: Is correct to say that andesite has been the most durable material, chosen so far, for cladding of buildings in Vancouver? I can run through a list of ’softer’ materials with which the city was built, from wood, bricks, and metal to sandstone, tile, and concrete. And granite, that is so heavy, has often been used for the bases of monumental buildings. But were there any harder materials ever chosen for buildings in Vancouver?

AV+RB: The main types of dimension stone in Vancouver include sandstone, granite, andesite, marble and fieldstone. Terracotta is another cladding material for building exteriors, most notably on the Hudson Bay Building downtown. All of these materials, including the ‘softer’ ones that you list are in fact durable if sound building principles are accounted for in the design, i.e. substantial overhangs and proper rain-screening.

GBI: In reconstructing the thinking behind Rattenbury’s pioneering use of andesite in Victoria, why do you think that he made the choice to reject sandstone for andesite? Was it just that the sandstone that was previously delivered too weak and would have required more maintenance? Or was the hardness of andesite, and the sense of resilience that it invoked, more aesthetically attractive, and potentially iconic, as British Columbia attempted to become a more legitimate government (as First Nations were subdued and their Nineteenth Century court challenges made illegal in those same decades)?

AV+RB: The Koksilah sandstone that arrived on site at the Parliament Buildings was rejected. Who knows what Rattenbury was making this judgement on – colour, brittleness, unexpected striations? It was really serendipity that allowed andesite to be used. The contractor on site had a financial interest in the quarry and ‘sold’ it to Rattenbury – the luminosity [feldspar] and the crisp carving surface were added benefits that most likely made it a popular stone with local builders and masons.

GBI: How different does andesite look from when it is dry and the weather is clear with shadows and when it is wet and the skies are grey and with reduced contrast?

AV+RB: Depending on the cut of the stone, dry andesite is greyish-blue as in the bossage blocks on the legislature buildings in Victoria, or yellowish in tone when honed or saw-cut. When wet andesite darkens in shades of grey.

GBI: What were the first buildings in Vancouver where andesite was extensively used?

AV+RB: Financial institutions [banks, insurance agents].

GBI: What were the buildings in Vancouver where you believe that the use of andesite was the most powerful, evocative, and symbolic?

AV+RB: [You could make an argument for the Dominion Building – the tallest in the Dominion at the time it was built…] The Royal Bank building [1931] at Granville and Hastings is the most symbolic andesite building in Vancouver. Built in the tradition of early skyscrapers the building rises into the sky like a mountain, echoing the formidable natural landscape that surrounds the city. The strength and solidity of the bank is certainly evident in the building as it towers over the rest of the city.

GBI: Just yesterday, on a rainy January day, I marvelled at the Royal Bank Building on the north-east corner of West Hastings and Granville. Eight decades on, that building is far more striking and cleaner that many of the more recent steel and concrete buildings streaked with mould and mildew. How are andesite surfaces maintained? Or do they need to be maintained?

AV+RB: Concrete and stone are completely different materials. Concrete is purely fabricated, is porous and tends to fault with years of exposure- just think of the maintenance required on Arthur Erikson’s Law Courts or the SFU campus on Burnaby Mountain. Stone can and will suffer when exposed to pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, particularly limestone and marble which contain calcium carbonate.

GBI: What use of andesite on a building in Vancouver do you think was most about promising prosperity?

AV+RB: If the promise of prosperity has any relation to the size and volume of a structure the Royal Bank building at Granville and Hastings is without question the most inspiring building in Vancouver that is clad with andesite.

GBI: What is the most sensual use of andesite on a building in Vancouver? Or were these buildings even supposed to be sensual in the early Twentieth Century?

AV+RB: Keeping in mind the relative softness of the stone one is easily drawn to the gargoyles, sculpted friezes and decorative elements that can be seen on both the Hotel Vancouver and the Sun Tower.

GBI: Did you find an examples of andesite used for housing and smaller buildings?

AV+RB: We accidently discovered a small church at Fraser and 15th that has an andesite wall – we did not really seek out smaller buildings in the city.

GBI: In the first three decades of the Twentieth Century, could many builders of smaller structures afford andesite? Was it an expensive building material back then?

AV+RB: This is a good question that we might follow up on if we extend our research.

GBI: There was something of an anti-andesite subtext to Vancouver’s early Twentieth Century architectural narratives. There was some use of sandstone as with the old Vancouver Public Library building, now the Carnegie Centre, at Main and East Hastings. A kilometre west on West Hastings, the 1930 Marine Building, one of the few major Art Deco buildings in the city, is clad in a warm tile and quite a departure from the three decades of dark buildings with wet andesite – as is the old CPR Building, today’s Waterfront Centre. So as more building materials were available in Vancouver, what was the aesthetic or any other basis for the avoidance (and choice) of andesite?

AV+RB: The Carnegie Library at Main and Hastings would have used US architects and building materials [I am not even sure if the sandstone is local] [The sandstone quarried on south-eastern Saturna Island. GBI] The influence of art deco moderne [from the US Southwest] which migrated north [most likely with prospectors] pops up all over the province – I suspect the history of the Marine Building would tie into that. I am not sure that andesite was avoided per se… it was simply displaced by other materials.

GBI: After the current Hotel Vancouver was finally completed in 1940 (over a decade late because of The Great Depression) and with the selection of andesite being in the late 1920s and roughly contemporary with the design of the Marine Building, were there any more large buildings constructed with andesite?

AV+RB: The final two contemporary buildings that used andesite were Vancouver City Hall [1935] and the Royal BC Museum [1968] in Victoria.

GBI: Have there been any uses of andesite in hard-surfaced, public open space in Vancouver? There have been lots of critiques of asphalt, concrete and even granite as paving material. But do you know if andesite was ever used on historic or contemporary landscape designs?

AV+RB: Andesite has been used in the landscape at Mountain View Cemetery – it is a very smooth stone that appears to attract moss – its suitability in the landscape is hard to assess.

GBI: In your essay in Vancouver Matters, you began a map of andesite construction that roughly followed the westward expansion of downtown Vancouver. Or is it that simple? Were there outlying uses of andesite outside of contemporary Downtown?

AV+RB: Andesite was used outside of the financial district – [Heritage Hall, the Left Bank [BMO] condo ‘heritage’ component, banks in Kitsilano also used it [there is a Koolhaus or Club Monaco in one on 4th]. That would seem to indicate that andesite did migrate to the early ‘suburbs’ or rather “street car communities” in the city – but these buildings are not as noticeable as a district as the ones in the financial areas of the city.

GBI: Are there any buildings with andesite in Vancouver, from the early-mid Twentieth Century, that are under threat of demolition? Could the only limited use of andesite be used as one criterion for maintaining at least the facades of those buildings?

AV+RB: Not that we know of.

GBI: But you had some strong feelings about superficial preservation of heritage buildings to which you referred as “facadism.”[iii] Could you restate your concerns and reservations about maintaining the andesite cladding of a building, with limited heritage elements aside from its façade, while gutting its interior?

AV+RB: Facadism is a concern if the integrity of the building interior is diminished. Gudrun Will has described horrendous examples of this practice in his essay in The Vancouver Review.[iv] In other cases however, successful renovations of building interiors have provided us with valuable cultural spaces in Vancouver such as the Wosk Centre for Dialogue and the Scotia Dance Centre. The real question is what is gained from altering or saving a façade and what is lost. Retaining the exterior of a building is important to the streetscape but not if the renovation gives little or nothing back to the community or if that space is taken out of the public realm.

GBI: Now that the Haddington Island quarry is back in operation, what have been the largest projects in Vancouver that have used andesite in recent years? And what are the most exciting ways that andesite is being used in contemporary architecture?

AV+RB: The redevelopment of Mountain View Cemetery is the first contemporary project to use andesite as cladding. The Customer Service Building, the Celebration Hall and elements in the landscape, such as columbaria and memorial walls, all use significant amounts of the stone – a nod to the historic importance of the stone in the civic culture of the city. We have also heard that a contemporary house in Point Grey has used andesite cladding.

GBI: Over the last decade, architecture in Vancouver has been increasingly dominated by social commitments to sustainability and to the attaining LEED certification for larger building projects in particular. As LEED certification increasingly focuses on finding ways to lessen the ecological footprint of construction activities,[v] excessive carbon from trucking from transporting building materials is becoming a growing concern. I am wondering whether a material such as andesite, which is quarried near sea level within a kilometre of a dock and then barged to ports such as Vancouver, does not involve a more modest carbon footprint per building surface are over the long-term? These days, half of the projects in the city are seeing architects scrambling for every last possible LEED point to the extent of working more closely with construction decision-makers around the use and disposal of material. Do you recall any discussions of a return to construction with andesite as part of sustainability transitions?

AV+RB: Although andesite would qualify as a local building product for most of the lower mainland in the LEED scorecard – the cost of quarrying local stone is prohibitive. Most projects end up using stone from China that is cheaper to secure. The ‘insanity’ of the global market - where cheap labour trumps almost all aspects of sustainability is a whole other discussion.

andesite cladding, Hornby Street side of Hotel Vancouver, 7 January 2010, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

GBI: Are there particular architecture office and any municipalities in the region where there is interest in andesite cladding for new buildings and where you think that it could be appropriate?

AV+RB: Not that we know of.

GBI: Annabel, as a professional architect and university teacher, when would you recommend using andesite in a project of yours and when would you recommend its use to your students?

AV+RB: Andesite tends to consistently work well on smaller projects and as a detailing material. What is important is to ensure that designers are aware of the vast range of local materials that are available and to emphasize material choice within a Vancouver context.

GBI: How would you like to see andesite more widely used in contemporary architecture? Could it be a viable export to other parts of the West Coast?

AV+RB: We have to keep in mind that the Haddington Island quarry is relatively small. There is a finite amount of material we have access to. Without question it would be in our favour to see more buildings faced with this material but what is really exciting is the prospect of having all of the local quarries mined for restoration work and some new construction as well. Andesite has unique properties and has historically worked well on public buildings and so if this tradition is carried on we could see an interesting link between historic and modern views of the city.

GBI: Would a revival in the use of andesite in Vancouver have to be just as a cladding or could you see it used for other, more specific functions and aesthetic statements in the designs of concrete and steel buildings?

AV+RB: Stone is a premium building material – it is budget driven. Projects that use stone tend to have larger budgets and specific design agendas. It is a beautiful material but it really comes down to an aesthetic choice of the client.

GBI: But haven’t you also begun to engage in an argument about andesite’s long-term advantages related to durability and maintenance? As Vancouver accumulates more wealth, don’t you think that there could be a loss of interest in the tackier cladding and a movement back to more durable stone surfaces? Don’t architects have ethical obligations to promote more durable materials especially if the use of cladding such as andesite lessens ecological footprints? And how could this beautiful material, that shaped a city so briefly, be better promoted to both with designers and clients? And what about municipal approaches to promoting the use of andesite? Andesite is beautiful, it has a historical resonance for downtown Vancouver, and its quarrying and shipping footprint is lower than for many contemporary materials that are far less durable. So how could municipal politicians and planners contribute to encouraging a renewed use of andesite in Vancouver?

AV+RB: Andesite is one of many types of dimension stone that contribute to the overall texture and colour of built Vancouver. In time, as the cost of transporting imported building materials increases there could be a shift in thinking as we find ourselves forced into thinking more about sustainability. If it is possible to promote the use of indigenous stone into our structures we need to look no further than Heritage Vancouver and people like Bruce McDonald for the work they have done to help preserve historic buildings and educate the public. In 2009 we led a tour of andesite buildings as part of the Jane’s Walks series that was fully attended. Our walk terminated at the Vancouver Art Gallery and one of the participants asked if a film had been made about andesite. To the best of our knowledge nothing has been done yet, but what is obvious is that writers, artists and historians are ready to pick up on questions regarding materials and urban culture and developers are not. We can only hope that a larger discussion has begun and that some energetic and committed citizens will take these types of questions to community planning meetings and talk openly with planners and architects.

andesite cladding, Royal Bank Building, West Hastings Street & Granville Street , Vancouver

photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram


[i] Annabel Vaughan + Rob Brownie. 2008. andesite. in Vancouver Matters. James Eidse, Mari Fujita, Joey Giaimo, Lori Kiessling, and Christa Min (editors). Vancouver: Blueimprint. pages 7 to 17.

[iii] Vaughan + Brownie. 2008. andesite. page 14.

[iv] Gudrun Will. 2004. Façadism: Gudrun Will sees past a heritage false front. Vancouver Review 2.

Bad things in the biosphere: Environmental crises as narrative [Re-casting The Terminal City (part 1)] * Reviews of H2Oil, Home, Island of Dreams, The Age of Stupid, and The Beekeepers

PDF copy available: ingram-11-2009-bad-things-in-the-biosphere1

There have been bad things threatening human communities since people have tried to get along. The line between natural menaces and human hubris is the stuff of culture and stories in particular. There are human threats, sins such as avarice, and then natural threats such as from hungry beasts.  Lately the pantheon of these bad things have recombined and globalized. Environmental crises have become culture. Sorting out where human responsibility, murky synergies, and what is left of nature increasingly involves simplifying complicated knowledge into stories that are transmitted by film and video.

Moving pictures are never just about the places they purport to describe or even document. Instead, moving pictures are narratives, sometimes spun as documentaries and at other times as mythologies, for the places where we live or would like to enjoy. Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics moment, now upon us, is comprised of a tight set of carefully pre-determined and well-manufactured, marketing presentations that will soon be rendered either stale or fraudulent. Sometime in the spring of 2010, as the hype of the Olympics turns into a hangover and then a headache, new ways to make sense of Vancouver, as The Terminal City [1] for the sprawl that is south-western British Columbia, will become necessary. Vancouver’s Mayor, Gregor Robertson, is busy marketing Vancouver as a ‘green city’ [2] like the leaders of half of the cities on the planet. The inference is part rhetorical but also real:  cities that are not ‘green’ will not survive and prosper so well over this century.

As the Canadian dollar garners strength and Hollywood North risks dissipating, Vancouver may soon have to import new mythologies again as we often have in much of modern times. A number of recent films can tell us about possibilities for re-casting the characters and locations for Vancouver The Major Motion Picture. These films can tell us about the new mythologies being spun in this part of the world especially after David Suzuki’s Legacy Lecture (and $1,500 rap party) [3] and as doubts are expressed about the supposed sustainability of the Vancouver(ism) Brand Name. [4]

Environmental problems, and crises of community survival, became part of the modern cultural fabric in the late twentieth century. But disasters, which might have been averted with more forethought and political will, have shaped many of the most central stories in many cultures. The Book of Daniel linked attention to dreams and angelic advice to surviving a series of disasters that befell Babylon. And there are many stories of transformation, even mutation, where indifferent nature becomes malevolent through human folly.  And there has been an apocalyptic, survivalist streak [5] in North American settler culture, often linked back to that book of the New Testament, as well as some indigenous narratives. But the scale of potential self-destruction changed after World War II and heightened the centrality of stories of worry, foresight and the heeding of what amounts to communion with divine forces.

The ambiguity of the contemporary environmental narrative, especially around the naming of the bearer of responsibility, was first inscribed in modernism through such work as Brecht’s Gallileo. It was after the horrors of World War II that the old stories linking threat, insight, and survival were reworked. The formation of the modern environmental narrative, the inherently vagueness of the responsibility, can be illustrated through the shifts in the three versions of Brecht’s Gallileo. The first Gallileo was written in German, completed in Denmark in 1938, and performed in Zurich in 1943. [6] In that original Gallileo, survival for humanity was rooted in empirical investigations (science) linked to class struggle and collective challenges to (papal) domination. But something happened to Bertolt Brecht in his short exile in California. In the American version of Gallileo, completed in the months after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and performed in Los Angeles in 1947, [7] the central role of the individual, as with Daniel’s foresight, became central again. The nuclear age was so scary that somehow the prospects of collective solutions were almost too daunting with survival stripped down again to primarily an individual responsibility.[8] A third version of Gallileo, the so-called “German Version,” was completed just before Brecht’s death and performed months later in 1955 in Cologne[9] and codified the ambiguity of the survival story (for both Gallileo and humanity) as a mash-up of individual and collective responsibility. And thus the modern environmental narrative became famously contradictory and increasingly substantiated, as a surrogate for angelic interpretation, through film and video. Today both environmental crises and solutions are primarily framed and described, effectively spawned as stories, through film, video, television, and internet clips.

The origins of the narratives of The Terminal City are Musqueam, Squamish and StóLô stories jumbled with mythologies of British maritime imperialism and Canadian rail-based settlement more recently fused with an increasingly wide array of migration accounts from refugees to business ventures. Few stories, other than those of indigenous communities along with the scant mentions of the Spanish influenza pandemic and the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge, perceive Vancouver as a place of possible disaster, of disregard of signs of natural constraints and human folly, let alone a space where survival might become precarious. Even most of the narratives of the personal disasters in Downtown Eastside work to distance the isthmus from the rest of the city. Disasters, most notably the collapse of the salmon fishery, have been quietly paved over in the ‘World-Class’ narrative. There has been little room for foreboding. Even the short, often made-for-television narratives of David Suzuki have avoided direct suggestions that places like The Terminal City are potentially part and parcel of new environmental crises. So what can some recent films about crises and solutions tell us about the new stories that could be or are already emerging in Vancouver as the Olympic PR begins to wear thin and is apt to fly off in the next, exceptionally violent storm? Five films from the 2009 Vancouver International Film Festival give us clues to how cultural production in Vancouver will respond to and provide stories to help us adapt to life where there are poorly understood threats to our often placid part of the biosphere.

Tsuta Tetsuichiro’s Island of Dreams, Yume no Shima,[10] is a homage to the black-and-white queasiness of post-war Japanese cinema combining elements of the noir genre with a whiff of horror. There is no giant, radioactive octopus this time. Rather the real monster is indifference as air pollution weakens and garbage accumulates. The underlying question in this tale of a immigrant garbage worker (another ‘the other’), working on one of Tokyo’s artificial islands called Island of Dream, and who by night bombs illegally polluting factories, is who, exactly, is the terrorist?  A police detective tries to find out. Consistent with the DIY edge is the loving revival of the black-and-white film technology, from the 1950s and early 1960s, where the director had to wash the film footage himself as part of minimizing his own ecological footprint. Island of Dreams reminds us that whatever ethical decisions we may want to make about big problems are grounded in the murkiness of whatever aspects of our origins with which we care to become preoccupied. In this case, the noir thriller, the malevolent city of Tokyo’s post-war reconstruction, is revisited as a toxic wasteland where the whodunit becomes a question of responsibility.

It would be easy to recast Island of Dreams in the Vancouver area with the dump site at even a more dubious location at Burns Bog and the bombing and sleuthing in the more toxic corners of the industrial corridor along the Fraser. But the naiveté of the Tokyo detective would be difficult to come by in the Lower Mainland. The hint of a suggestion that the landfill at Burns Bog, still used in 2009 by supposedly ‘green’ municipalities, was an act of terrorism could engender all sorts of reprisals. And, of course, in Vancouver, youth contemplating lives overshadowed by progressive environmental crises believing that an effective alternative to violence is standing on streets asking for donations says as more about our dreams and innocence, and complacency, than about any sort of West Coast sophistication. Our own noir island of paralysis and complacency may be closer than many of us think – but let’s forget about that until after the Olympics are over.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Home[11] is an adaptation of his celebrated coffee-table book of a decade back. Home combines enchanting views of the Earth from helicopters to illustrate how extensively life support on the planet has been damaged in little more than a century. The consolation is the dreamy imagery that at first tells the story of life’s origins and the formation of the biosphere, through plants transforming the atmosphere through fixing carbon and producing oxygen. Halfway through Home, the focus shift to relentless destruction. The use of distance is used aptly in Home with the overviews at great distance giving way to uncomfortably close portrayals of ecological devastation. The final minutes of Home are a bit jumbled shifting, uncomfortably, from a voice-over, that becomes more urgent, to a great deal of text flashed quickly on the screen. Disconcerting, the finale of Home can be likened to oral texts being crammed into a rushed PowerPoint presentation.

Home could be used as a powerful beginning to an introductory course in environmental science. But there is no whodunit here. In Home, all human beings are guilty, well almost. At times preoccupied with still growing human numbers, Home does tell us that people do not impair the biosphere by our populations alone but rather by the unsustainable consumption patterns of a minority. But the specifics, and the route to get home as in a finding a new balance with the biosphere, are all up in the air. The most powerful moment in Home is flying above the shoreline of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) with narrator Glenn Close ruminating on why the people of the island were not able to recognize and reverse the ecological degradation that lead to their impoverishment and near extinction. Could this reckoning one day be repeated for The Terminal City’s Hornby or Galiano Islands after a prolonged drought? But the disasters portrayed in Home have not yet been obvious in Vancouver. Most of our excessive garbage, including much e-waste, is stuff into green spots such as Burns Bog where the extent of the long-term damage is effectively hidden.  The exhaustion of marine ecosystems is not obvious except in prices in fish markets. The rising sea levels have not surged into the streets but so far just seeped into the basements of the low-lying parts of Gastown. Forest fires have yet to scar large areas that are visible from the city. And the inevitable environmental refugees have yet to flood into the city. So Home The Terminal City version might still allow the city to live up to the 2010 marketing, from the distance of aerial views – for a while.

If the bottom-line of Home is to enchant adolescent sensibilities, UK filmmaker Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid[12] blends angst and remorse in more intricate ways to mess with any remaining innocence. The pathos, the ’stupid’ in ‘the age of’, is not just about poor decisions about lands, seas and natural resources but also the clinging to denial in the face of overwhelming evidence (such as what is still witnessing in Australia). In The Age of Stupid the characters are compelling and the arguments powerful while being illustrated through quirky cartoons. Unfortunately, the emphasis, on preparation for the December 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, dates the film now that there are no plans for completing or signing a global treaty (which does confirm the film’s argument that we are, in deed, living in The Age of Stupid).

The Age of Stupid is a milestone in films on climate change and environmental crises more generally. A sort of Unconvenient Truth [13] on Red Bull, The Age of Stupid breaks with the Thoreauvian (as in the 1854, Walden; or, Life in the Woods) preoccupation with personal conscience in solving environmental problems and moves to a more interesting set of characters (than Al Gore) trying to survive, get and stay affluent, and, sometimes, to do right. In moving from individual to collective stories in The Age of Stupid, there are lots of interesting contradictions such as windfarm developer Piers Guy whose other car is biodiesel but who drives a newish BMW station wagon, a decidedly gas-guzzling artefact of peak oil, as he fights the forces of ’stupid’ blocking development of a windfarm in Deptford in rural England. The coverage of Guy’s struggles is at the core of the most important but most debatable logic of The Age of Stupid. Some of the (’stupid’ author’s useage) individuals fighting Guy’s projects go as far as to admit that it is necessary to take action to counter climate change as where anti-windfarm campaigner, Victoria Reeves, states, “Of course we’re worried about global warming. That’s got to be something that we’re all concerned about. I mean we’re all doing our bit to conserve and looking at renewable energy, absolutely.” Reeves argues that a windfarm on the site would be another kind of environmental disaster but makes no specific commitments to support development of other forms of renewable energy generation in the area. Perhaps she was cut-off by the filmmakers. More likely, she was thinking there is still time to find and support a carbon neutral alternative to windfarms for southern England. Guys, the windfarm advocate, reflects that, “It’s an emotional campaign, it’s about fear and mostly based on complete bollocks frankly, but never mind, facts are not a problem.” and later asks, “How the heck are we meant to persuade people in India and China to develop in a more sustainable way when we’re not even prepared to accept the odd windfarm in the landscape?” The Age of Stupid wisely understates that the following year saw extraordinary flooding in that same area (exacerbated, at lease somewhat, by stronger storms from higher temperatures).

The questionable level of sincerity of the commitment expressed by anti-windfarm campaigner, Reeves to ‘conserve’ is the core to the story of our current age of stupidity. Thus the beauty, the core narrative of The Age of Stupid is to show the monstrosity of the lapse in responsibility without turning the anti-windfarm campaigner, Reeves, into a monster. She is an every woman, rather than a bad thing for the biosphere, who still thinks that she has time to complete her sentence. The problem, and it is a minor flaw that can be easily fixed in the sequel, The Age of Stupid II: Death and Mayhem, is that Victoria Reeves could be putting her resource in other kinds of conservation, traded her luxury vehicle for a bicycle perhaps, and just might have been cut-off mid-sentence. So the deeper stupidity of the age is that neither Guy, the nice developer and capitalist, and Reeves the horsey, gentry speculating on land are sufficiently competent (at least from what we saw on screen) to have the primary ’say’ on which conservation and renewable energy projects go where and to become true heroes or villains. Instead, this battle of old and new money in rural Britain, in responding to the biggest crisis humankind has ever faced, becomes distracting and unsatisfying. Thankfully The Age of Stupid is compensated by characters such as an elderly mountain guide reflecting on retreating glaciers and increasing traffic in the Alps, a man who rescued 100 people after Hurricane Katrina and still believes in his gas-guzzling employer, Shell, and a young woman surviving horrific pollution and repression of activists in Nigeria’s oil region.

Perhaps the deepest flaw, in this important film, is that these symbolic individuals are portrayed within communities that are already under stress and disintegrating in the face of peak oil. The Age of Stupid does not show us how to build resilient communities that can quickly build carbon neutral alternatives but rather how distressed individuals are making difficult decisions, grounded in their personalized ethics, to the solving of problems that are so huge as to require far more collectivist responses. As for directions in environmental politics in The Terminal City, The Age of Stupid says a great deal. I can re-imagine the windfarm - rural Deptford - NIMBY debates in the horse zone of Vancouver’s Southlands in this the last decade before rise level will start to threaten some properties. And the self-righteousness of the windfarm advocates, though largely correct, can be used in our region by far more dubious enterprises such as those hoping to dam rivers for ’small’ hydro-electric projects that effectively privatize entire watersheds.

Of the major films on environmental crisis over the last few years, Shannon Walsh’s H2Oil [14] is one of the most powerful in the sense of providing a cogent story that both illuminates and motivates. Whereas The Age of Stupid weaves narratives of denial, coping and activism through a preoccupation with individuals and networks, H2Oil is a more cogent set of tales about communities struggling as two massive watersheds are drained and poisoned. The tar sands are devastating both the Peace- Athabasca watershed, which flows through two huge lakes to the Mackenzie and the Arctic Oceanm and the North Saskatchewan that flows into Lake Winnipeg and then on to Hudson Bay. Where The Age of Stupid ably describes global climate change as a crisis of a thousand forms of reliance and waste of fossil fuel, along with a myriad of denial and repression, H2Oil better links three major disasters: the devastation of the excavation and processing of the tar sands; the pollution poisoning communities downstream; and the subsequent warming which is melting glaciers that in turn reduces the amount of water available for human communities as well as the huge amounts of input necessary to process the bitumen into fuel. While there are many ‘Age of Stupid’ narratives, the story of the Tar Sands is perhaps the most wasteful, perilous (for two entire regions of Canada as well as for the planet), and ’stupid’ as in Pure Canadian Hubris. But H2Oil is too lean to have time for vague judgements. There is a meta-ethic afoot that makes for a powerful discomfort.

The strongest portrayals in H2Oil are of the aboriginal communities of Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca who have been organizing around extraordinary rates of cancer increasingly linked to heavy metals, arsenic and naphthalenic acids seeping from the upriver processing of the tar sands by Suncor Corporation. But the troubles of a bottled water business in the eastern foothills of the Rockies, from oil exploration and declines in the water table, are not so compelling and an Iraqi brother and sister displaced in Amman are collateral damage to the extent that their inclusion in the film is almost gratuitous. H2Oil  is most powerful in its careful linking of the tar sands development with three global conundrums: the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq (that inflated oil prices); NAFTA’s Proportionality Clause that puts ever increasing pressure on Canadian energy reserves; and the survival of the Cree and Métis communities of northern Alberta. Especially powerful was the portrayal of the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations confronting Suncor about its pollution and subsequent intervening in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2008 to highlight the growing threat of the tar sands projects.

H2Oil has implications for re-casting Vancouver after 2010. Much of H2Oil is the story of Edmonton as the regional centre that offsets the costs of its own affluence on to less powerful frontier communities up and down river. And like Edmonton, Victoria (and Vancouver) control sizable pockets of remaining fossil fuels in the Peace-Athabasca watershed – the further development of which would unleash disasters both in those isolated communities and through contributing to rise in global temperature.  Like Edmonton and the river systems of Alberta, the future of the greater Vancouver region is linked to how well communities acknowledge and solve the crisis of the Fraser – and the extent to which the damage can be reversed. Like the toxic seepage that is killing Fort Chipewyan, there are many towns and neighbourhoods in our region being poisoned – often with native communities who may well be forced to seek help at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

As new kinds of bad things in the biosphere seep into the lexicon of contemporary culture, Richard Knox Robinson’s The Beekeepers [15] is a 28 minute descent into the unknowns of Colony Collapse Disorder. Entire hives are dying, agricultural production is being increasingly impaired especially for certain fruit and nut crops, and the price of honey continues to climb.  And The Beekeepers is as much about unknowns and the limits to scientific certainties in fathoming environmental synergies as it is about the disappearance of honeybees. There are a myriad of theories and possible synergies at work in Colony Collapse Disorder but ‘understanding’ what has been killing a large portion of the world’s honeybees is a relative thing. The Beekeepers also illustrates how environmental catastrophes threaten human cultures with long lines of ancient knowledge such as apiculture.

The cinematography The Beekeepers employs a neo-psychedelic visual style that, while a bit maddening in being chaotic and disorienting, reflects the lack of scientific consensus on the roots of and solutions for the devastation of bee hives. Perhaps the most disturbing thing described surrealistically in The Beekeepers is ecological absence: sudden death and the unexplainable loss of something small, lovely and beneficial that has been taken for granted. In this way, The Beekeepers encrypts a new and brooding cultural relationship with science where acknowledging the full implications of the ecological losses becomes more important than logical understandings of the factors behind the disappearances that are quite possibly permanent. The loss, the death, is so overwhelming, and in some cases complete, that fully acknowledging the extent of the absence becomes more important than the explanation. In other words, the damage is already done.

These five films illuminate some of the archetypes and ’sites’ that will shape much of the culture, in deed the stories, of the twenty-first century both in Vancouver and throughout the world. There are few new monsters and demons – perhaps because there are enough already. There is an absence of heroes and more of the heroism is about surviving combined vaguely with making a few altruistic choices. The nice advocate of windfarms in The Age of Stupid, Piers Guy, is, at best, an enlightened capitalist. His political opponent, who may one day soon be demonized, comes off as just narcissistic – like a lot of people. So these new characters, less champions or fiends than wisely self-interested or fuck-ups will come to populate the pantheon of loss, of what could-have-should-have-but-didn’t-happen. And much of the new cast of The Terminal City will be shell-shocked, poorly informed migrants and refugees such as the Iraqi brother and sister trying to survive in Amman (and probably not able to afford to apply to live in Canada). The bad things in the biosphere can be linked, only in part, to ethical failures: the Suncor official expressing personal hurt at not being trusted about pollution levels when the cancer levels of ‘Fort Chip’ are already horrendous; the anti-windfarm campaigner who could have been organizing for diversification of renewable energy projects but most probably did not; the Tokyo police officer focused on apprehending a supposed terrorist while ignoring the clues leading to the illegal emissions (with perhaps his lapse a kind of terrorism). And the stage is no longer the world of individual actions in isolated spots such as Waldon Pond, that marked the comparatively ineffective responses to environmental crisis in the twentieth century, but ethical choices that are often uncomfortably collective.

Is Vancouver a good backdrop for a generic version of The Terminal City for what may well be a century of mayhem? Our mountains, too, are losing glacier and water. Local estuaries are increasingly paved and contaminated with little pause in sight. Frontier communities are threatened with survival and the overly quiet places are seeing more and more absences of things that we once took for granted. And there are the detectives struggling to identify the perpetrators lost in increasingly toxic nether worlds that bear resemblance to parts of and the suburbs swirling around Vancouver.

Gordon Brent Ingram is a Vancouver-based environmental planner and designer, well-educated in landscape ecology, who often writes and teaches about ecological knowledge and contemporary culture.

[1] The origin of the label, “The Terminal City,” for the cluster of towns that today constitutes the metropolitan region that includes Vancouver, goes back to the time of the city’s incorporation in 1886. A rather dubious poem using the “The Terminal City,” as a label for the Greater Vancouver region, was published in 1887. (Patricia E. Roy. 1976. The preservation of peace in Vancouver: The aftermath of the anti-Chinese riots of 1887. BC Studies 31: 44 - 59. See page 44.)

[2] Wendy Stueck. 2009. Mayor rolls out Vancouver’s new green strategy. Globe and Mail (October 1, 2009).


[4] Trevor Boddy. 2009. Vancouver, Vancouverize, Vancouverism: Building An Idea.

[5] For one review of the recent surge in the cultural preoccupation with Apocalypse, see Charles Foran. 2009. The slow apocalypse: The arts show how global warming makes us feel more helpless than nuclear weapons ever did. Globe and Mail (November 7, 2009).

[6] Ehrhard Bahr. 2007. Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. See page 106.

[7] Ehrhard Bahr. 2007. Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.  See pages 106 and 107.

[8] “Brecht’s Galileo of 1947 was one of the earliest and most thought-provoking literary protests against the nuclear age…Although Galileo raises many arguments in favor of class warfare against the autocratic society of the seventeenth century that smack of a Marxism before its time, this emphasis shifts toward the end of the play. The play’s final indictment and conclusion address the welfare of all mankind, not that of a particular class…Most remarkable is his [Brecht's] valorization of individual decision making…Because of its appeal to the ethics of the individual scientist, Brecht’s Galileo of 1947 must be characterized as belonging to the ‘modernism of social responsibility’…” (Ehrhard Bahr. 2007. Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.  See page 126.)

[9] Ehrhard Bahr. 2007. Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. See page 107.

[10] Island of Dreams, Yume no Shima
(Japan, 2009, 83 mins, DVCAM (NTSC))
In Japanese with English subtitles
Directed By: Tsuta Tetsuichiro
distribution: 2525films, Tokyo

[11] Home
The Way of Nature
(France, 2009, 120 mins, 35mm)
In English with partial English subtitles
Directed By: Yann-Arthus Bertrand
The movie was released simultaneously on June 5, 2009 in cinemas across the globe, on DVD, Blu-ray, television, and on YouTube.
web-based distribution:

[12] The Age of Stupid
(UK, 2009, 89 mins, DigiBeta)
In English
Directed By: Franny Armstrong

[13]Inconvenient Truth, 2006, in English, USA, directed by Davis Guggenheim, Produced by Lawrence Bender, Scott Z. Burns, and Laurie David, written by Al Gore (teleplay), starring Al Gore, budget: US$+1,000,000, gross revenue: US$49,047,567. ( 16 November, 2009 )

[14] H2Oil
(Canada, 2009, 81 mins, HDCAM)
In English
Directed By: Shannon Walsh
distribution: Loaded Pictures

[15] The Beekeepers
(USA, 2008, 28 mins, HDCAM)
In English
Directed By: Richard Knox Robinson
distribution: Ekphratic Productions

False Creek: Public Art and / versus Real Estate Marketing | Collective Memory and / versus historical editing | Cultural production and / versus heritage markers

Since the first cities, public space has been a mash-up of art and advertising, fun and high culture, and remembering and forgetting. Many of the cultural (and political) stories and messages of communities, especially their elites, are transmitted through how public art and memorial works fits into and transforms adjacent urban space. So the environmental, designed and cultural textures of public sites tell us a great deal about unresolved social contests in particular neighbourhoods: between community versus private and corporate interests; between different kinds of and strategies for multiculturalism; and between a host of agendas for remembering (and forgetting) various episodes of local history and bits of heritage.

The network of outdoor spaces around False Creek constitutes a kind a matrix of public life into which the entire western side of the city connects and, while often lovely, embodies a set of ongoing debates and dilemmas around the roles of politicians, developers, artists, historians, planners, and designers in neighbourhood life. So the public art and space along the inlet tells us a great deal about Vancouver’s ambiguous and contradictory relationships to public space, collective memory, and contemporary culture.

The north side of False Creek has the densest set of permanent outdoor art works, constituting a sort of linear sculpture park, both within Vancouver and in the entire country. But the south side of False Creek does not have very much outdoor (or indoor) art, at all. And few people enjoying these spaces have noticed the disparity. Unlike Seattle, with its celebrated Olympic Sculpture Park, the closest Vancouver has to a dedicated space for outdoor art is along False Creek. So what happens on both sides of the inlet in the coming years should be of concern for activists and professionals of both for contemporary art and democratic urban space.

Ever since I was a young boy and my father took me on a walk on the east side of the Burrard Street Bridge to show me the industrial operations being dismantled around Granville Island telling me how ‘clean’ it would eventually all be, the False Creeks has invoked scepticism for me. Even back then, I had a feeling that the clean-up process would be too thorough and get rid of a lot of people and memories. Of course, a lot had already been destroyed and forgotten around False Creek especially the Musqueam and Squamish village of Snaaq, any signs of which were carefully obliterated in the creation of the berms at Vanier Park. And Expo 86 was the excuse to destroy a neighbourhood of workers living in residential hotels now occupied by Yaletown towers. Yet after all of the processes of community obliteration, the last two decades have seen the funding and construction of public art (along with apartment units) dealing with themes of local history, on the northern side of False Creek, at rates and densities never before seen in Vancouver and rarely in other parts of world.

A decade ago, an arc of very uneven public memory emerged in the public art on the north side of False Creek from the AIDS Memorial in the west to the Marker for Change, the only large-scale memorial to the victims of the 1989 massacre at Montréal’s École Polytechnique, to the east. In 1999 while I was one of the urban designers working in the City of Vancouver public art advisory group, I wrote a paper on this space or ‘trail’ of historical memory and presented a discussion at the University of Barcelona.*  A few years later, Irwin Ostindie, at the time working at the Gallery Gauchet and who today is involved with development of the W2 media site at the Woodward’s Building, explored the implications of my work on the almost spontaneous emergence of this arc of public memory for the future of Vancouver.

The public art along the north side of False Creek is quite an achievement in Canadian cultural life. At times, a relatively effective but poorly funded municipal public art programme has been remarkably successful at supporting both the careers of contemporary artists and coordinating the installation of public art works as beautiful and thought-provoking points of neighbourhood engagement. But nearby, formulaic and now dated public art has been used by developers, sometimes cynically, to market otherwise bland condos. Some of the public art and memorials (with the lines between the two categories of public ‘interventions’ increasingly blurred) along False Creek celebrate aspects of history and heritage that has almost been forgotten in much of the rest of the city. Yet nearby, other markers effectively sanitize or obliterate controversial and unresolved of pasts communities, events, and experiences. There are the beginnings of conversations, etched in public space, around both the importance of individualistic artistic production and works, on one hand, and marking more collective and historical experiences, on the other hand.

All this dissonance in public space, even if historical memory is used and scrambled a bit, can be fun and is often a pleasant backdrop for a walk or bicycle ride. For me, there are spots along False Creek that make me feel at home but there other stretches that make me queasy, a bit anxious. Like the enigma of so much public art on the north side and so little across the inlet, public art in False Creek embodies a series of over-lapping tensions and dialectics: sites for truly public art and versus contemporary-looking decorum for marketing real estate; sites of collective remembering versus historical editing that contributes to forgetting; and installations the result of individualized artistic production versus markers of history and heritage that have typically been the results of complicated, collective projects. My central argument about the outdoor art around False Creek is that rather than a resolvable set of tensions, this landscape of doubt embodying questions of a cultural “and / versus ” is what makes the assortment of predictable, already boring architecture interesting and for those unlucky enough to have over-invested in those neighbourhoods, liveable.

What makes the art and markers from the 90s and 00s around False Creek so important to any new policies for public space and art in Vancouver is that they run counter to a century of obliterating public memory. But a string of interesting, site-based art works, no matter how fun, well-researched, and even historically engaged cannot make up for those community deeper losses. While public art is increasingly useful for marketing the so-called ‘World-Class City’ it can never be used, at least not for more than a decade or two, as a substitute for a deeper acknowledgement of obliteration of communities and cultural spaces. And as the mould darkens the lustre of so-called ‘Vancouverism’ any uniqueness of and achievements about the communities along False Creek will be much more about how we develop local dialogues for truth and reconciliation that are played out in public spaces, rather than about repetitive and already dated towers.

While enjoying the new art work around False Creek, I have been exploring some larger questions about how public art can contribute to community memory, on one hand, and edit, re-invent and even obliterate the historical knowledge and experience of ‘public-ness’ of a neighbourhood on the other hand. I have been working with a second set of questions of how outdoor art can contribute to both the public-ness and democratization of some sites, on one hand, and conversely can be part of the effective privatization of formerly public places. Two other sets of questions begin to emerge in a broader examination of the spaces of outdoor art around the inlet. What obligations, if any, should artists, who produce site-based outdoor works, have for acknowledging and engaging with local history – especially of the actual sites they are effectively transforming? A fourth question is around the ethics of the effective use of public art for marketing real estate – especially when few artists can afford high real estate prices the inflation of which the creators of the pieces along False Creek have effectively contributed (while often having effectively subsidized the installation of works in order to get their work seen and acknowledged for the sake of continuing their careers).

Two of the more subtle works of public art along False Creek move me the most. Welcome to the Land of Light, Henry Tsang’s 1997 sculpture is the only piece of public text in the city in Chinook. A century ago when my father was growing up in Kitsilano, he lived in a bilingual world where speaking Chinook was necessary for interacting with both native and settler cultures. When I was very young, my father tried to teach me Chinook but I refused. Now I take great pleasure in visiting Tsang’s work and showing it to friends. A five-minute walk to the east, is Lookout completed in 2000 by Christos Dikeakos and Noel Best. For photo-based Dikeakos, Lookout is his only sculptural work. The work occupies a strip just above the walk and bikeway and provides reminders of the First Nations and early industrial communities that were on False Creek. Dikeakos relates how it was almost a fluke that the piece was constructed and that their historical focus was respected, “Our project was selected after a popular American public art sculptor dropped out. He had a generic maritime theme without any specific historical or heritage angle…Some city officials were adamant about providing ‘Rain Shelters’ and using the entire site. The idea of pure sculpture was compromised by their demand so we made the most basic shelter two walls and a glass roof that makes a response to the style of high rise architecture within the vicinity.”

The art we see today along the inlet is already a relic of the political, economic and cultural dynamics of the (pre-Olympic) 1990s and 00s. The entirety of that public space of conversations about collective remembering and forgetting will soon be another artefact. The coming months will see the installation of a few more outdoor art works along False Creek around the Olympic Village partially guided by a 2007 strategy developed by Seattle-based public artist Buster Simpson**, who more than a decade ago had a work of his own installed on the north side of the inlet. Because of Vancouver’s high level of indebtedness in paying for so much of the 2010 Winter Olympics, along with the ongoing provincial and federal cuts to the arts, and a slowing in condo construction, that for more than any other city has been Vancouver’s major strategy for funding outdoor works, it may be another generation before we see much new public art along False Creek – especially on the south side. And as much of the built environments along False Creek prove to be far less sustainable and resilient than they could have been for the times when they were designed, as stronger storms and higher sea levels require costly retrofits, and as pressures mount for inserting affordable housing, advocating for more social resources for public space and art will be more challenging.  Any more art along False Creek will require new, more engaged and passionate public conversations about art, memory and place.

Gordon Brent Ingram is an environmental planner and designer based in a studio on Vancouver Harbour. Most of his projects and teaching appointments are overseas.

A condensed version of this essay was published in the second issue of Vancouver Public Space Network’s journal, PubliCity as Ingram, G. B. 2009. False Creek dichotomies: Public art, marketing, and memory. PubliCity (Vancouver) 2 (The Art of Space issue): 13 – 15 and is available here as a PDF: ingram-g-b-2009-false-creek-dichotomies-public-art-marketing-and-memory-publicity-vancouver-2-the-art-of-space-issue-13-e28093-154


*  Gordon Brent Ingram 2000. Contests over social memory in waterfront Vancouver: Historical editing & obfuscation through public art. on the w@terfront – art for social facilitation (University of Barcelona) 2 (January 2000). A PDF copy of this article is available here: ingram-2000-contests-over-social-memory-in-waterfront-vancouver

**  See Simpson’s ‘Southeast False Creek 2007′  ‘Masterplan’ is downloadable at

John Greyson returns to the scene of the crime (one more time)

John Greyson’s contribution to the celebrated 2008 film Rex vs. Singh [1] centred on re-imagining the proceedings that took place historic Court House in downtown Vancouver. Today, the building where those repressive trials [2] took place houses the Vancouver Art Gallery.

John met me on a warm summer afternoon and we reflected on how this region centre for contemporary art, and relative tolerance and multiculturalism, had been, not so long ago, a site of state terror with two of the numerous groups victimized were Indo-Canadian males and other males, from a range of backgrounds, who supposedly had sex with them.

While the Vancouver Art Gallery is often a location for revisiting historical legacies and re-imagining public memory, there is no marker to remind or educate visitors to those horrific trials that were part of exclusionary processes that effectively drove many Indo-Canadians away from central Vancouver neighbourhoods.


[1] REX VS. SINGH. 2008. Directed by Ali Kazimi, Richard Fung and John Greyson /Canada /2008 /video /  39 minutes. Produced under the auspices of the Out on Screen Queer History Project of Vancouver. One of the most important reviews and discussions of the film was Mattew Hays’ 2008, Unearthing the ignored and forgotten: Retelling the entrapment case of Rex vs Singh. Xtra! West (14 August, 2008): 25 (plus cover of issue) with a copy available here. matthew-hays-2008-unearthing-the-ignored-and-forgotten-xtra-west-n-391-14-august-2008-p-251

[2] Ingram, G. B. 2003. Returning to the scene of the crime: Uses of trial narratives of consensual male homosexuality for urban research, with examples from Twentieth-Century British Columbia. GLQ (Gay and Lesbian Quarterly) (New York) 10(1): 77 - 110. A PDF copy is available here. ingram-2003-glq-101-77-1101

Retheorizing the So-called ‘Gay Ghetto’ of Vancouver’s West End

Vancouver’s West End in the upper left of this image from Google Earth**

This essay in now in press.* Part of this essay is available in the PDF file that has been posted here. ingram-2009-retheorizing-the-so-called-gay-ghetto-of-vancouvers-west-end


Can interdisciplinary sciences such as landscape ecology, fields of inquiry that fully engage natural and social sciences, be adapted for better understanding the dynamics of networks of sexual minorities, and more broadly the patterns across space and time of participants of various kinds of sex that does not specifically lead to reproduction? If most scientific inquiry in recent centuries in the West has had a “heteronormative” (Warner 1991) bias, of what could queered forms of landscape ecology studies consist?  In this essay, I revisit some early discussions on neighbourhoods of visible sexual minorities sometimes labelled “ghettos” along with literature from past decades on the formation of landscape ecology in order to shed light on these questions. This essay re-examines the environmental context of the formation of one so-called “gay ghetto,” Vancouver’s West End, and explores more nuanced, spatial, and materialist means of describing social processes involving sexual minorities across metropolitan areas.  Through revisiting primarily materialist frameworks, such as landscape ecology’s notions of fragments, edges and matrices, I hope to build a theoretical bridge to better blend biophysical and empirical descriptors in investigations of social networks and physical sites of sexual minorities with critical forms of cultural theory.

The afterlife of the queer theory of the 1990s is shifting to fuller recognition of and engagement with material conditions (Shapiro 2004) that can be termed “queer ecologies.” Broadening the theories and practices that underlay how marginalized groups come to perceive, assess and claim sites, neighbourhoods and social resources has become a project in contemporary sexual cultures and politics (Ingram 1997a). But what do we need to know about our communities and associated physical environments to better defend and expand new-found gains? This essay explores some opportunities provided by and limits to adapting the field of landscape ecology for providing and organizing information on neighbourhoods that in turn can be used in local activism. My focus is on gay male community formation processes that took place in Vancouver’s West End until the onslaught of AIDS in the 1980s, when the neighbourhood’s white gay male demographic began to peak. The West End has been a strategic and mythic locale in Canada’s homosexual male, gay, lesbian, and queer cultures and politics but was particularly important to the formation of notions of gay rights in the 1960s and 1970s. The historical moments that saw the urban changes that created a self-defined gay ghetto (even as long-term resident lesbians were moving away) comprise the focus of this essay.

Until recently, most of the Earth’s ecosystems have been transformed by human cultures that have coupled heterosexuality with reproduction, socialisation, and survival. While exceptions have existed, notions and spaces of sex for pleasure outside of heterosexual reproductive units often remained decidedly marginalized. Well into the 20th century, studies of biological exuberance (Bagemihl 1999), of pleasure in general, were often considered “unscientific,” especially any explorations of the implications of certain human cultures and pursuits of erotic pleasure on ecosystems. Over the last 40 years, the combined movements for women’s reproductive freedom, gay liberation, lesbian feminism, transgendered activism, and queer theory have transformed the formerly heteronormative notions of the biosphere. In the more affluent parts of the world, urban life is being restructured by pursuits for satisfaction, diversifying practices of biological reproduction and modes of families and socialization. The implications of these queer human ecologies on an urbanizing world already degraded by globalization, consumerism, contamination, destruction of habitat, loss of species, and climate change have barely been explored.

In these uncertain times, any utopian anticipation of a planetary lustgarten would be premature and naive. Instead, we are in an era where any space and associated ecosystems and landscapes capable of supporting consensual intimacy are increasingly vulnerable to violence or privatisation or both, and thus becomes a site for contestation. So while there may be a queering of ecological investigations, through at least a tolerance of notions of biological exuberance that includes sexual intimacy between two or more members of the same gender and/or sex, the totality of the habitat (indeed the biosphere) of human sexual expression remains conflicted and “uncomfortable” within the broader contexts of the now lurching globalisation of capital and environmental deterioration.

In this contribution to the debates around Queer Ecologies, I explore an expanded paradigm for understanding the biophysical and cultural environments of networks of public and private sites. In so doing, I hope to contribute to erotic expression, there and elsewhere, that is defined by erotic desire rather than procreation, and that is “queer” at least in the sense of dismantling of the poisonous blend of racism and heteronormativity that was consolidated in the late Victorian period. In particular, I want to queer the vocabulary of landscape ecology in order to better describe and understand the shifting relationships between those physical spaces increasingly influenced by urban design, ecosystem management, and aspects of sites marked in some ways by the rich combination of homoerotic social networks, forms of private and perhaps public erotic expression, and resistances to homophobia.

The central argument of this essay is that landscape ecology holds some theoretical and methodological tools that can be adapted to understanding material aspects of processes of queer urbanization, but that in order to do so it will be necessary to rethink ways to combine the natural and social sciences with a kind of eroticised cultural studies. In particular, it will be necessary to build theoretical bridges linking research methods on cognitive maps to better the defining of erotic subcultures, on one side, and to inventorying uses of particular sites and landscapes by specific groups along with notions of agency, on the other side.  Landscape ecology as a field of inquiry consists of interdisciplinary approaches for studying the interplay of biophysical ecosystems and human communities – including culture. Some European schools of landscape ecology have focused on cultural transformations of ecosystems and physical space. Some associated research methods, that map shifting culture landscapes at various scales over time, can be applied for more nuanced understandings of sexual subcultures (which of course have a material basis), and also for the “queering” of neighbourhoods and even for identifying contemporary policy and design agendas. But queering landscape ecology, as with contesting the cultural biases in any science, will not be easy.

A second argument emerges from applying landscape ecology to understanding community formation for sexual minorities in Vancouver’s West End: in describing material aspects of queer social relationships, there is a basis for identifying important dynamics between the physical environment and economic relations, on one hand, and culture and popular political ideas on the other. Some of these relationships can be dialectical, yet they are only partially mediated by political economy. In other words, environmental contexts and city forms have impacts on sexual cultures while sensibilities and ideas directly influence urban policy, design processes, neighbourhood landscapes, and metropolitan ecosystems. These dynamics between and among physical contexts, political economy, and culture–including erotic cultures–are not symmetrical across space or time. Ideas, including ones that are key ingredients for sexual cultures, lead to the transformation of urban spaces just as biophysical environments can foster certain experiences and ideologies. A kind of queered landscape ecology, as a mode of investigation, could be pillar of a renewed and more empirically based body of activist theory and associated research methods, especially useful for better understanding persistent social inequities that extend to sexual expression.


* This paper was originally presented in May 2007 at the Queer Ecologies Colloquium organized through the Faculty of Environmental Studies of York University and held at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. A version of this essay is in press as part of Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Ed. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

Table of Contents


A Genealogy of Queer Ecologies. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson

Section 1: Against Nature? Queer Sex, Queer Animality

Chapter 1 Eluding Capture: The Science, Culture and Pleasure of “Queer” Animals. Stacy Alaimo

Chapter 2 “Enemies of the Species.” Ladelle McWhorter

Chapter 3 Penguin Family Values: The Nature of Environmental Reproductive Justice. Noël Sturgeon

Chapter 4 Queer nature cultures. David Bell

Section 2: Green, Pink and Public: Queering Environmental Ecopolitics

Chapter 5 Non-white reproduction and same-sex eroticism: Queer acts against nature. Andil Gosine

Chapter 6 The Role of Nature in Lesbian Alternative Environments in the United States: From Jook Joints to Sisterspace. Nancy Unger

Chapter 7 Polluted Politics? Confronting Toxic Discourse, Sex Panic, and Eco-Normativity. Giovanna Di Chiro

Chapter 8 Undoing Nature: Coalition Building as Queer Environmentalism. Katie Hogan

Chapter 9 Retheorizing the Formation of a So-called “Gay Ghetto” through Queering

Landscape Ecology. Gordon Brent Ingram

Section 3: Desiring Nature? Queer Attachments

Chapter 10 “The Place, Promised, that Has Not Yet Been:” The Nature of Dislocation and

Desire in Adrienne Rich’s Your NativeLand/Your Life and Minnie Bruce Pratt’s

Crime Against Nature. Rachel Stein

Chapter 11 “fucking close to water”: Queering the production of the nation Bruce Erickson

Chapter 12 Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands

Chapter 13 Biophilia, Creative Involution, and the Ecological Future of Queer Desire. Dianne Chisholm.

** This is a modified, 2007 composite satellite image of the Vancouver Peninsula. The eastern edge of Stanley Park, including the important past and present, public sex sites, is in the upper left. The West End is adjacent to Stanley Park and extends to the middle of the image where the neighbourhood meets Vancouver’s Downtown business district.

The re-emergence of Vancouver’s wooden streets

After long, wet winters, such as this year’s, Vancouver’s old wooden streets that were built little more than a century ago and that have been barely covered in asphalt, begin to re-emerge. These artifacts of the area’s old growth forests, that are primarily scraps of Douglas fir, were found on Railway Street, just west of North Dunlevy Street in what is now considered the east end of Gastown. When these streets were built more than a century ago, this was the confluence of the Indian Rancherie, that became Skid Road, and Nihonmachi, Vancouver’s Japantown. And down the block at Railway and Gore Streets was Vancouver’s last brothel district that was dismantled in 1917. Just below the surface of these street are more designs for The Terminal City.

Returning to the Scene of the Crime — Again and again: Vancouver’s unresolved legacy of anti-Sikh entrapments & trials for supposed ‘gross indecency’

A copy of this posting is available in a PDF file: returning-to-the-scene-of-the-crime-again-again-designs-for-the-terminal-city-21-august-2008

The following is  compilation of my notes for and contributions to the 39 minute video made in 2008, Rex vs. Singh[1] that was first screened this week in Vancouver as part of the Out on Screen, Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

The convergence of the early Vancouver neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Gastown, and Japantown (Nihonmachi) once referred to as ‘Celestialland’.

Last night’s screening of the 39 minute film, Rex vs. Singh[2], was a landmark in contemporary conversations racism on the West Coast – revisiting Vancouver’s 1907 – 1928 anti-Sikh Gross Indecency trials where the City of Vancouver Police were exceptionally active in entrapping adult males for consensual sex with other men. It was gratifying to contribute to Rex vs. Singh and to see the three directors use some of the research and further explore the implications of my 2003 essay, “Returning to the scene of the crime: Uses of trial narratives of consensual male homosexuality for urban research, with examples from Twentieth-Century British Columbia.”[3]

At the screening, I half-enjoyed seeing the five minutes of their interviews with me but I also felt sad that few local others scholars (and activists) had taken the time to delve into the archived dossiers of those exceptionally racist and vicious trials. In the panel after the screening, I did not have time to thank Indiana Matters who, while working in the British Columbia Archives in the early 1980s, first explored one of the dossiers in terms of British Columbia’s ‘Lavender history’[4]. Over a decade ago and already a decade after her 1985 essay, I visited Matters in her office at the British Columbia Gaming Commission in Victoria to ask about her reference to that trial dossier and we discussed the possibility that there might have been more than one trial and perhaps even an organized campaign against Indo-Canadian males. And in that panel after the screening of Rex vs. Singh, I did not have time to talk about, and perhaps it does not matter now, the shock that I experienced in the BC Archives to realize the extraordinary extent to which both the City of Vancouver Police and the local courts hounded these men through scores of trials over two decades.

The screening left me a bit exhausted. With only 39 minutes, and alluding to as much rich cultural history and sexual politics as such detailed portrayals from the Twentieth Century as Brideshead Revisited, Rex vs. Singh barely had time to construct a space for viewers to glimpse the despair and terror that these young men jailed as sex criminals, and so recently in Canada and away from their communities in India, must have experienced. The party after the screening said it all to me: the local Indo-Canadian men and the mixed group of ‘queer historians’ barely mixed. On one level the racist social project embodied in those prosecutions was a failure. But barriers remain that are exacerbated today by so little historical understanding of the damage wrought by homophobic Canada state in the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century.

This little film could best be used to attract the funding for a ten hour historical drama spanning those two decades and that number of trials (or more) but the current Conservative federal government has been specifically cutting contentious explorations such as this. The follow-up questions posed by Matthew Hays for his discussion of Rex vs. Singh[5] are also important for more careful and comprehensive chronicles of resistance to the further institutionalization of the colonial inequities of race, culture and sexuality that for over a century stained and effectively impoverished this neighbourhood of Downtown Vancouver.

Ali Kazimi at Mainland Transfer Company’s Stables, 112 East Pender Street, Vancouver, 6 April 2008, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram


Returning to the Scene of the Crime (Again)

7 April, 2008 Nihonmachi, Vancouver

Oh the April rains! I have spent the last two afternoons with Toronto-based filmmaker Ali Kazimi returning to the scene of the crime again and again[6]. Ali recently directed a video that was an important contribution to the history of the 1914 Komagata Maru incident. In one of the first operations of the Canadian Navy, hundreds of Punjabi immigrants, many of whom were British subjects, were denied the right to come ashore in Vancouver – with their ship languishing horribly over a tense summer. Ali’s 2004 Continuous Journey[7] cast new light on the terrible affair and situated it more clearly in terms of the broader Indian freedom struggle.

Now Ali is back in Vancouver to investigate the anti-Sikh sodomy arrests that took place in the years immediately before and after the Komagata Maru incident. We walked the streets of what today is often called the Downtown Eastside. But a century ago this was the central precinct of Vancouver that saw racialized contests over urban space with overlapping neighbourhood names such as Chinatown, Gastown to the west(primarily north-western European), and Celestialland (entertainment establishments that included, saloons, opium deans, heterosexual brothels until 1917 and various forms of spontaneous, situational and more purposeful homosexuality).

In the wake of the Oscar Wilde trials (which influenced law in British Columbia) and the codification of the federal Canadian laws against ‘gross indecency’, many of the first arrests for consensual sex between adult males in British Columbia involved one or more individuals who were Sikh and South Asian and to whom Vancouver courts often referred as `Hindoos’. These arrests for consensual homosexuality were nearly always in urban areas of Victoria and Vancouver and by municipal police. In contrast, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were often focused on rural areas and were involved in few arrests for consensual homosexuality between adults. In terms of arrests for gross indecency, the RCMP were more concerned about sex with animals (along with rape) to the extent of organizing complicated barnyard stake-outs.

So in British Columbia, the first legal battles and initial case law around arrests for consensual homosexuality between adult males were in so-called ‘oriental cases’ where Sikh males were followed, hounded, and often entrapped in particularly ‘hands-on’ ways. And along with the legacy of the racism was another of a kind of perverse state interest in South Asian, and in particular Punjabi, male bodies. In addition was the legacy of particularly aggressive entrapment of gay males by City of Vancouver Police that continued well into the nineteen seventies.

On these rainy spring days in a very different era, Ali and I walked the streets of Celestialland beginning to reconstruct of the urban space of two dossiers (with all of their competing fictions). One of the earliest arrests for consensual homosexuality between adult males, and one of the earliest police entrapments of gay men(perhaps for all of Canada), was in Rex versus Nar Singh in 1909.[8] Ali and I ruminated on some the supposed details of Nar Singh’s ill-fated passage in December 1908 in search of a place for sex – as described in the dossier for his arraignment.

“At the said City of Vancouver, on the 12th day of December A.D. 1908, Nar Singh did unlawfully in private attempt to procure the commission by a male person of an act of gross indecency with another male person.”

“Q. You are a detective in the city of Vancouver? - A. I am…

Q. Do you recognise the accused? - A. I do.

Q. Did you see him on or about the 12th December last.

A. Yes on the morning of the 12th.

Q. What time?- A. On or about 2 O’clock.

Q. Where?- A. At the corner of Pender Street East and Columbia Avenue…

A. I was in company of Detective Scott. We were standing on the North West Corner of Pender St. and Columbia Ave. and he was right opposite to us on the other side of the street.

Q. Mr. Kennedy: - I want you to relate to the Court what occurred

In the first place where you?- A. I was in the company of Detective Scott. We were standing on the North West Corner of Pender St. and Columbia Ave. and he was right opposite to us on the other side of the street.

Q. COURT:- That is he was on the South East Corner?-

A. Yes Your Worship. We had seen him there three or four nights previous to that. That is what drew our attention to him this night in particular. I went over across the street to where he was…I asked him what he was doing. He made a motion with his hand and told me to come along with him.”

“Q. Court:- Does he speak English?- A. Yes.”

“I hesitated for a little while. He says come on and caught my by the sleeve of the coat. I followed him. We waded across a vacant lot, a building that has been torn down. He went in behind the Chinese Hospital down a stair way and into a little alley way between two buildings. He took me over to the back of the hospital and across the alley way between False Creek and Pender Street…The Chinese Hospital is back of the Mainland Transfer Company’s Stables…He took me in the stoop of the stables where the Transfer Company keep their horses. He took me in behind a dray. Took off his coat and west and put it on the back of the dray.”

“Then he started to open my clothes. I kind of stopped him a little from opening my clothes. He took down his braces and his pants and went down on his knees on the floor…I was right behind him. We went on his knwees in front of me. Then he tried to reach back with his hands to catch hold of my pants.

Q COURT:- You say he went down on this hands and knees?-

A. Yes. Then he turned around got up off his hands and knees got up on his feet again.”

“He asked me what was the matter. Then he started to try and open my pants again, then he went down on his hand and knees again facing me and he had hold of the edge of my pants, right here.”

“Q. MR. KENNEDY:- That would be the top of the fly?-

A Yes in fact he had two buttons open. I put my hand on his and then he motioned to his mouth. Then I pushed him away made him get and put on his coat. He followed me out of this Chinese Hospital. He had a room there.

Q. Court:- You say he has a room there?- A. Yes five or six of them had a room together.”

“Q. Did he say anything?- A. He started to open my pants up.”

“Q. Was Detective Scott with you when you first saw the accused that night. A. He was right across the street.

Q. He did not did not follow you?- A. He followed us.

Q. When this attempted act of gross indecency took place was he there?-

A. He saw the Hindu pull me away.

Q. But he does not know anything about this attempted act of gross indecency?- A. I do not suppose he would.”


Q. Did you go inside the house w[h]ere the Hindus were?-

A. I did.

Q. Were there others there?- A. Yes.

Q. Do you remember where those others were? A. All lying in bed.”


Q..When we came along to the corner of Pender and Columbia we saw the accused walking up and down the street. The first we saw of him there was a man apparently to me under the influence of liquor came out of the Great Northern Hotel and went east on Pender St.

Q. A white man? A. Yes a white man.

The accused went a few doors up and stopped him and spoke to him. After speaking to him a few minutes he crossed the street.

Q. Who crossed? A. The accused.

It was then that Detective McDonald went across and met him.”

A. I saw them come up from this stable and they came up and met me together then I went up stairs with the accused to his room in the rear of 112 Pender St. East. He took off his shoes when he went into the room which was very dark. He said nothing.”

“Q. I am going to ask you to go over, very carefully, all the movements that occurred after accused took you to his room that would justify a charge of attempted gross indecency.

A. Everything was very qui[e]t[]. There was no light. The lamp was burned down until the wick was just red. After the accused had taken his boots off and laid them on the floor very quietly. He took his coat off. He came up to me and put his hand on my face and down over my chin and his other on my fly.”

“A. I had hold of him and when he jumped in the bunk I flashed the light on him.

There was a window at this back and there was a dim light coming in.

Q. Electric light? A. A very dim light from the outside. The window was very dirty.”

“COURT:- Having heard the evidence do you wish to say anything in answer to this charge? You are not obliged to say anything unless you desire to do so; but whatever you may say will be taken down in writing and may be given in evidence against you at your trial. You must clearly understand that you have nothing to hope from any promise of favour and nothing to fear from any threat which may have been held out to you to induce you to make adminission or confession of guilt, but whatever you now say may be given in evidence against you upon your trial, notwithstanding such promise or threat”.

COURT:- Has he anything to say. A. Nothing to say.

COURT:- Any evidence:- A. No.

COURT:- I order him to be committed to trial.”

Ali and I kept returning in the cold early April rain to those stables on East Pender.

Ali Kazimi, Sun Yat Sen Gardens, Vancouver, 7 April, 2008 [10]

The most complex of the anti-Sikh sodomy trials that we have found so far was around an ill-fated foursome in the winter following Vancouver’s terrible summer of 1914 where both Vancouver’s politicians and racist whites blocked the docking of the ship[9]. In the 1915 Rex versus Nana Singh and Rex versus Dalip Singh, there was a botched entrapment and arrest that saw a rather short, undercover officer, Detective Ricci, having the beginnings of sex (supposedly just for King and Country) with a much taller Punjabi male who soon after had his jaw broken. After Detective Ricci’s partner was arrested, he accused the officer of trying to extort a bribe from him.

“the said City of Vancouver, on the 2nd day of February A. D. 1915 Nana Singh a male person, in public, did unlawfully attempt to commit an act of gross indecency with Joe Ricci, another male person.”

“the said City of Vancouver, on the 2nd day of February A. D. 1915 Dalip Singh a male person, in public, did unlawfully attempt to commit an act of gross indecency with Ralph Pierce, another male person.”


Q. What is your occupation?

A. I am a chauffeur just now…

it was in the afternoon the machine was l[ai]d up and I was down there at the Panama Hotel, and I first met one of these man.

Q. Which one?

A. The one with the white turban. I don’t know his name.”

“A. I first meet him and he wanted to take me up to the room.

Q. Up to whose room?

A. Up to his room, up to the Sunset Rooms. So I went up there with him…there were two detectives come in there, so then when they came in they kind of spoilt the whole thing, and he made an appointment at eleven o’clock at night to meet him at the Panama Hotel to go up - he didn’t mention where to go to but I said alright. And I dropped down in the Panama again that night after I had supper and I met this Hindoo down there again. This was about seven p.m. So he wanted me to go with him then; so I got Detective Ricci there and [Detective] S——r, and he wanted me to get my friend because he had another friend.”

“Q. Who wanted you to?

A. That Hindoo with the white turban on. So I got Ricci and introduced him at the tram station as my friend. So at the tram station he said he would give us seventy-five cents for the two of us and two dollars every Sunday and pay car-fare both ways to Central Park. That is for both of us; and so then he would not give us the seventy-five cents[.]”

“We took our pants down, and he had his penis out and everything, and came up on us, and then Mr. S——r came in a few minutes after that.”

“Q. Where did that happen?

A. That happened just a little the other side of the Georgia-Harris street viaduct on the C.P.R. [Canadian Pacific Railway] tracks.”

“A. When we were talking in the afternoon he was standing beside me and got talking about the Komagata Maru, whatever it was…

In the afternoon he asked me if I would like to fuck. That is just what he said to me, and I said ’sure any old thing’.”

“Q. Ever act as stool pigeon for the police?

A. No, sir, never did.

Q. Do you at the present moment?

A. No.

Q. How did you get in touch with [Detective] Ricci?

A. I didn’t think it was a very just thing that he was trying to do. I thought the matter should be reported..

A. And you reported the matter yourself?

A. Yes.

Q. The fact is you met this man, a perfect stranger, in the Panama Bar[]room?”

“Q. Now I tell you frankly this man doesn’t speak a word of English?

A. He did when I saw him.

Q. He learned English fir the occasion?

A. Perhaps he did.

Q. Well you talked English to him?

A. Yes and he talked English to me.

Q. Now I want you to tell me. You have given me four or five words in English. I want everything he said in English on that occasion and on the evening.

A. We were talking about the Komogata Maru.”

“Q. You tell me all he said in English.

Q. Well at the tram station he said ‘you come out to Central Park there and I will give you seventy-five cents tonight and two dollars every Sunday and pay carfare both ways’

Q. What for?

A. To go out there every Sunday and stay with him.

Q. Did he use the expression ‘to stay with him’?

A. I don’t know whether he used that expression.”

“Q. Did you hit him with a revolver over the head?

A. No, sir.

Q. Who did?

A. I don’t know.

Q. How did this man fracture his jaw?

A. I guess he did that when he jumped in the pool of water.

Q. I am advised that you and [Detective] Ricci held this man up on the street and asked him for money, and that Ricci hit him over the head with the revolver and he fell down and fracture his jaw?

A. I deny that.

Q. I also tell you very fairly that the tall man knows Ricci as well as he knows to see the Magistrate. He has talked to him frequently. Now do I understand you to say that this man came then and didn’t know Ricci as a detective?

A. Yes, sir. We he didn’t say anything about it, but it seems very strange to me that he would try to take down Ricci’s pants and try to go at him.

Q. And you and Ricci were perfectly agreeable that they should begin?

A. Yes.

Q. For seventy-five cents?

A. Yes.”


Q. You know Nana Singh very well don’t you?

A. I don’t. I might have seen him but I cannot say I knew him at all. I never spoke to the man before.

Q. You never spoke to the man before?

A. I don’t think I did.

Q. Do you mean to say you didn’t caution this man several times on the occasion of the Bela Singh murder charge?

A. No.

Q. You were a witness on that case?

A. I was.

Q. And he was too?

A. I don’t know.

Q. He says he knows you very well indeed, that he saw you frequently in the Bela Singh case, and you cautioned him.

A. He didn’t know me that night.”


A. The two accused can speak very nice.

Q. Just confine your evidence first to D—p S—g and give me the words that you describe as ‘nice’.

A. Do you mean Dalip Singh, can he speak English?

Q. I am not asking you if he can speak English, I am asking you to satisfy me.

A. He can speak English.

Q. Tell me what words in English he used.

A. He used in English, ‘you come up South Vancouver Sunday, you savvy Sunday?’ He said ‘you savvy Sunday?’ I said ‘yes’ ‘Me pay you’.

Q. South Vancouver?

A. Central Park.

Q. You said South Vancouver

A. I believe Central Park is in South Vancouver.

Q. You believe Central Park and South Vancouver is the same place.

A. I think so.

Q. Central Park and South Vancouver are two distinct municipalities.

COURT. Oh, no Central park is South Vancouver till it meets Burnaby.

Q. Go on.

A. He said ‘I got a shack’ this man here he pointed him out. Dalip Singh, Nana Singh I mean, ‘he sleep with me, if he don’t want to fuck, I will fuck you, two dollars every Sunday, street car all time, get automobile’ he pointed out automobile ‘only five cents’.”


Q. Are you in the habit of getting men to go tricking these Hindoos into making suggestions of this kind?

A. No, sir.

Q. Why did you do it this time?

A. Because it was necessary.

Q. It wasn’t a case of seventy-five cents each it was a case of seventy-five cents for both?

A. It was seventy-five cents for both.

Q. 37 1/2 cents for apiece?

A. They didn’t have enough money on him, they will give us the money next Sunday and we will go up to their shack. Two dollars for each one and five cents for street car-fare.”


A. I went there to watch what I could see.

Q. And you saw Ricci take down his pants, then you went over to interfere?

A. I went over. I did.”

“NANA SINGH Called and Sworn…

Q. What nationality are you? A. Sikh from India.

Q. What village? A. Kordola…

Q. Do you know Detective Ricci? A. Yes, I know him very well.

Q. When did you first meet Detective Ricci? A. I remember him well in the Bela Singh case…

Q. Where you a witness in the Bela Singh case? A. Yes.

Q. Was Detective Ricci a witness in that case? A. Yes.

Q. Did you have occasion to speak to Detective Ricci during the progress of that case?

A. Very often.

Q. Can you tell us anyone of the conversations that took place?

A. Yes, I can.

Ali Kazimi, Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver, 6 April 2008, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram. In the early 20th Century, this site was a railroad yard on the edge of tidal flats and was the location for one of the more bizarre and violent set of arrests of Sikh men involved in political activism.


[1]  REX VS. SINGH. 2008. Directed by Ali Kazimi, Richard Fung and John Greyson /Canada /2008 /video /  39 minutes. Produced under the auspices of the Out on Screen Queer History Project of Vancouver.

[2] ibid.

[3] Ingram, G. B. 2003. Returning to the scene of the crime: Uses of trial narratives of consensual male homosexuality for urban research, with examples from Twentieth-Century British Columbia. GLQ (Gay and Lesbian Quarterly) (New York) 10(1): 77 - 110. [A PDF version of this article is available here. ingram-2003-glq-101-77-110]

[4]  Indiana Matters. 1985. “Unfit for publication.”: Notes towards a lavender history of British Columbia. Presented at the Sex and the State Conference, Toronto, Ontario, July 3 - 6, 1985. (on file, Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Toronto, Accession 91 - 258, Box 2).

[5]   Mattew Hays. 2008. Unearthing the ignored and forgotten: Retelling the entrapment case of Rex vs Singh. Xtra! West (14 August, 2008): 25 (plus cover of issue). [Two versions of this article are available as PDF files: matthew-hays-2008-rex-vs-singh-discussion-xtra-west, matthew-hays-2008-unearthing-the-ignored-and-forgotten-xtra-west-n-391-14-august-2008-p-25.

[6]  Ingram, G. B. 2003. Returning to the scene of the crime: Uses of trial narratives of consensual male homosexuality for urban research, with examples from Twentieth-Century British Columbia. GLQ (Gay and Lesbian Quarterly) (New York) 10(1): 77 - 110.

[7] Continuous Journey, 2004, Director: Ali Kazimi, 87 minutes, colour video DVD,

[8] Rex versus Nar Singh, 1909, British Columbia Attorney General documents GR 419, V. 134, file 50 (on file British Columbia Archives, Victoria).

[9] Rex versus Nana Singh  & Rex versus Dalip Singh, Vancouver, BC Attorney General documents (GR 419, V. 197, file 31 (1915) (on file British Columbia Archives, Victoria).


Alexander & Columbia Streets, Gastown, Vancouver