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  • Building design reflects cultural health

    Gene Miller

    June 30, 2020

    The ideas embedded in our civic architecture say a lot about the state of our civic citizenship.


    WITH INCREASING FREQUENCY THESE DAYS, I start watching a movie online or crack open a book only to be prodded, ten minutes or ten pages in, by the realization that it’s the second time around: I’ve seen it or read it before. “Huh, will you think of that!” I say to myself and then walk into the bathroom to make myself a sandwich.

    But enough about you.

    The occasional mutter from readers reaches me about how this column is so negative and pessimistic, and how I can’t seem to find anything to celebrate. Well, duh. Maybe that’s because we’re all gonna die by 2040, but hey, don’t let that take the shine off your weekend plans.

    Academics and other finger-templers love to contend that civilization is in a “transition phase” when in fact culture, context, story and purpose have been subordinated in favour of the dehumanizing values and murky agendas of global finance, borderless corporations, and ever-more-invasive AI which itself is readying a post-human future.

    Some transition.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly accelerated and intensified, but is not itself the author of, widespread social dislocation. Why do you think so many countries are now led, or soon will be led, by the Donald Trumps of the world—merciless, narcissistic, empathy-devoid sociopaths who increasingly set global terms and mood, and make groundless national promises to a culturally rootless, economically insecure and reactive, frantic populace about the return of everything that’s been lost? How else do you explain the surfacing in more and more places of “the dark lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings, especially when we suffer from collective humiliation,” as journalist and theologian Chris Hedges puts it? (A bit more of Hedges later.)

    In my view, Americans, confusing personality and presidency, selected the most conspicuously lonely, needy, empty man to lead them: Mr Please Look At Me, Mr Pay Attention To Me, Me, Me. This horribly indicts the man and the electorate in equal measure.

    I have US friends and colleagues who anticipate some near-future civil war in their country. They notice the capacity to productively negotiate and operate within social bounds—to run a society, to see common cause, to honour the principle of mutual benefit—is steadily diminishing, drowning further in the cult of The Leader, the country’s purpose reduced to a game-show slogan.

    Trouble’s on a boil everywhere and I worry with all my heart for this city, so la-la when it should be alert and responsive to history’s current and emergent risks. Instead, almost by reflex, when the going gets tough, Victoria holds a workshop.

    When I go on, as I do in this column, about the importance of and need for beautiful and distinctive architecture and urban design, I’m not principally mounting an argument for beauty; though it is that, too. It’s really a plea about sustaining cultural identity and individuality, consciousness and selfhood…a kind of civic competence and character; the continuation of the Victoria story; and grounds for social connection instead of the sleepwalker’s inability to read nuance or form judgment.

    In his recent book, America: The Farewell Tour, Hedges cites Natasha Dow Schüll’s book about casinos, Addicted By Design: “Pleasure. To get what you want. What you want is to escape into a flow, to be taken away. We see this in the political domain a lot—in the rallies, in the surging of feelings, the distraction; the same design logic of disorientation and trying to sweep people away from themselves, away from rationality, away from a position where they have clear lines of sight and can act as decision-making subjects. You see that on the floors of casinos. You see it in political rhetoric today.”

    Canada to-date, and Victoria specifically, have resisted the more overt and destructive expressions of these trends (and their alarming political directions). But please, don’t for a moment imagine that such cultural sensibilities are absent here. Victoria’s “oh, we’re nothing like that” is no more than puffery, a dangerous conceit, a willing blindness to the fragility of the cultural story that supports this wonderful, remarkable place. Trends and their causes—how they develop, why they endure—must be understood, must (ideally) be part of the civic conversation, an intentional feature of citizenship. Citizen and resident are not the same thing. Citizen is your credentialed behaviour in a civic society; resident is your postal code; and the latter doesn’t ensure belonging, only taxpaying.

    What do you imagine: that the “homeless problem” is the problem of the homeless? I could be wrong, but I doubt they’re troubled by sociological abstractions. The homeless problem is not a visibility problem or a cosmetic problem. It’s a social problem. Social, by the way, doesn’t mean “somebody should do something about it;” social means “us.”

    Oh, you’re too busy for all that? Really? Doing what? Let’s acknowledge that we often fail at solving our own problems (not limited to Victoria) because culturally, like casino gamblers, we’re trapped in the Age of Distraction. We’re at risk of misplacing the story and the social syntax of community, this community. And if we lose that, guess what? There’s a heavy price to pay.

    Some part of that price can be seen in the physical expression of the rapidly proliferating fortress towers rising throughout Downtown. Give yourself time for a thoughtful, open-eyed walk-around so you can feel the buildings, take in their existential message, as conveyed by their skin and materiality, the meaning of their shape, what their atmospheric and emotional contribution is to the adjacent public realm, and what all of that says about life, community, social connection, you.

    I mean, you see or visit an Italian hill-town and your heart breaks. That’s the stuff I’m getting at here.

    Are attractive buildings and public works by themselves the antidote to or protection against any of this? Of course not. But they are in some small way grounds for reversal, and also some daily visible reminder that distinctive civic identity—an us—is sustained only by continuous social re-investment and consciousness.

    Happily, Victoria still has “good bones,” as they say, a fairly healthy inventory of such features; it’s just that there’s no such thing as too much of it. Here are a few buildings and public spaces—either new, new/old hybrids, or reinventions—that seem to me to be standouts, exemplary proof that we can renew our city and add to its quality (sorry about my crappy photography). All below—some modest, some grand—share originality and design thinking....

    More, many more, please.

    Miller’s Standouts:

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