Will new Downtown buildings help our resiliency and community in the face of social upheaval?
LEONARD BERNSTEIN announced his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990, and five days later died of a heart attack at his Manhattan apartment in The Dakota. At his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved, calling out “Goodbye, Lenny.” A city family big enough to have heroes and small enough to weep at their passing. A place, not an anywhere.
Cities, communities of people, need identity and are bound by story; they need to be a who, and need as an urban culture to share that story, to feel like participants in its abstractions, its history and practices—things that can be seen and felt. I’m so glad I live in “a little bit of old England,” a city where everywhere you turn, you’re presented with remind—what, that’s gone, too?!
The Jukebox under construction on View Street
Victoria’s current Empire State Building frenzy of Downtown highrise development should abate in the early 2020s, the market (temporarily) exhausted, the last cement truck off to its Bay Street home. Then, we may witness our works. It is certain that Downtown’s visual identity, personality and place-mood—its qualities, to use that old-fashioned word—will have been transformed; and clear that the city missed (or forewent) the opportunity to try to understand the why, the secret sauce, of this (fadingly) singular place, to figure out how to re-fashion Downtown’s best qualities within some new urban and social design expression.
Ever visited someone who lives on the upper floors of one of Victoria’s Downtown-area highrises or, for that matter, driven or walked to the top of Beacon Hill? It’s the breathtaking views, baby! The vista! At even a modest elevation, our surrounding land- and waterscape become legible. You part the living room curtains, you crest the park hill, your eye takes it in, your spirit lights up. The panorama offers perspective, permits context and clarity; you know where you are. Lucky you!
As an upper-storey highrise resident, even if you have not yourself become a god, you mingle with the gods. View confers both social and spiritual status. View delivers something humanly important. You need only consult the imagery and symbolism of Medieval and Renaissance religious art to be fully exposed to the meaning and value of such elevation. Higher is liberating. Higher implies supervisory status. In a symbolic act whose meanings can hardly be missed, royalty sits on a throne: authority, author, self-maker, creator. Higher magnifies and places one closer to the energetic source—at a guess, the timeless, essential influence of the sun working on human consciousness, rituals, social protocols…and real estate pricing!
The human roil is, by contrast, in the opposite direction, grounded. Hell is the hard game of the sidewalk. Consider that Christ was down with the people, a real mingler, before God bumped him upstairs. (Miracle explained! You’re welcome.)
Enough exegesis; it’s my point that highrise and lowrise embody different webs of meaning, different human expressions—the one individuating, self-spotlighting, isolating; the other democratic, compromissory, socially binding, messy.
It isn’t that Victoria skipped on the opportunity to stand athwart the Highway to The Future, stern arms held out straight to reject the furies of the highrises as they marched into town. Rather, it skipped on the opportunity to initiate strategies to neutralize and even convert their fortifying and privatizing tendencies and impacts.
The defensive materiality of each new building, palpably projecting a guarded, gated, securitized response to unspecified forms of stranger danger, the impermeability—glass, metal, concrete, gating—of these buildings tells you much: not architectural welcome or community, but defense, privacy, protection, isolation.
And the visual poverty, the shab and physical disrepair, the indifference and lack of aesthetic programming, of the adjacent public realm wordlessly articulates a perverse and unhealthy public/private partnership: public dangerous/private safe, the very opposite of a blueprint for human connection and successful city-making.
In some small way, I cite the absence of social literacy amongst developers. This is not a crowd that sits up nights reading history and philosophy. They don’t teach Utopian Urbanism 101 at the School of Developology.
The largest responsibility, though, falls to civic leadership, both elected and managerial, and equally with us so-called citizens who, increasingly bemused by public life and alienated from its meanings, find interaction much beyond the coffee shop patio unsanitary and risky.
I understand: cultures lose sensibility or, to be generous, swap old aptitudes (and attitudes) for new, voluntarily discarding and forgetting the old, in the relentless push for currency. But novelty, which we reflexively celebrate, also disguises or embodies cultural dislocation—a turn too sharp to navigate, a gap too wide to comfortably jump. It takes time (if time’s even the cure) for a culture to make meaning of and to integrate various forms and expressions of novelty, to test them for truth and utility…and consequences—the “oracular and critical potencies of the commonplace,” as Mike Davis puts it in his book of essays, Dead Cities.
Nothing will substitute for a community-wide dialogue, however faltering and argumentative at the start, about the idea of urbanity here, and the various possibilities of its physical expression in buildings and the public realm. If a community, through its municipal structure, can’t or won’t tell public realm designers and city budgeters about its values and priorities, and tell Downtown newcomer buildings how to behave, nothing else will.
Developers are risk managers, not social rhapsodists. The gleam in their eye is profit and return on investment, not some vision of a better world. Actually, I correct myself: I can think of at least four industry philosophers and/or visual poets in Victoria. First, Max Tomaszewski and partner David Price, (Essencia Verde in Cook Street Village, and the former Medical Arts Building, Cook and Pandora, now re-branded The Wade). Next, mad artist Don Charity (Mosaic, Jukebox). Third, Chris LeFevre (Railyards, and numerous Downtown heritage renewals). Last, Bijan and Faramir Neyestani, responsible for the Aria, the Paul Merrick-designed masterpiece on Humboldt Street.
Glimpse, imaginatively, a more empowering and citizen-esque Downtown Victoria furnished with useful or whimsical public realm features (including soapboxes), and buildings that meet the street generously in an aesthetic and social partnership; people (including yourself) acting more publicly connected, more owners of the public realm, their behaviour more extroverted, engaging, less wary, estranged and carapace-like.
In his intermittently wise book Twelve Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson observes: “Before the Twin Towers fell—that was order. Chaos manifested itself afterward. Everyone felt it. The very air became uncertain. What exactly was it that fell? Wrong question. What exactly remained standing?”
Peterson’s clever phrasing begs for local application: “There are compelling economic and land use arguments in support of all the new Downtown residential highrises. Are the buildings generating a new story about Victoria? Wrong question. What’s the message?”
Please, don’t leave this column thinking I’m just being fussy about “frosting” or decorative trivialities Downtown. There are other, deeper reasons to foster powerful public community Downtown.
Cities concentrate human potential in all its physical and cultural expressions. But remember: with grace comes gravity. Inherent in this, in any, urban concentration, however rich in promise, is an anarchic, explosive, counter-social impulse (people who don’t want to play) whose mildest expressions are inertia, social disaffection and petty crime, and most powerful, widespread anomie and serious damage to the urban fabric. (“Violence is a quest for identity. The less identity, the more violence,” noted Marshall McLuhan.) Believing these are normal times, we take normal steps to define and patrol social boundaries and identity, and in so doing we take as faith the durability of an invisible, shared public code that transmits and stabilizes the personality and the culture of the city. But social codes wane, lose their potency and relevance, and no amount of authority—or repressive propriety—will compensate for their decline.
It’s hardly alarmist to describe these times as a corner-point, a civilizational moment. National politics is in many places shattered and, concurrently, life’s becoming a risky technological tomorrowland. Ever the crucible, the US is home to increasing social absenteeism. In American social critic James Kunstler’s words: “we can’t construct a coherent consensus about what is happening to us, and therefore we can’t make any coherent plans about what to do.”
Can we in Victoria remain or re-become an identifiable and coherent urban community, not simply a crowd of people to whom the future happens? Healthy urban culture must be authored and constantly renewed. And land use, urban form and urban design—what goes where, and why, and with what consequences—is central to that process. Such concerns address social resilience and the almost painterly conditions required to sustain it. (A powerfully enhanced advisory design process couldn’t hurt.)
History’s knocking hard everywhere, right now—a moment astutely decoded by architecture critic and writer Nathaniel Popkin: “Ours is an age of loss disguised as plenty.”
Despite all urgency, in this vast fog-state of paradox we’re lost and immobilized, amorphous, not focused, stupid about history, stupid about the future.
Time to be smart, fellow citizens...before the page turns.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.