Can the social messaging inherent in Victoria’s buildings help us render current reality legible in these destabilized times?
A note to readers of this column:
Founding Editor of Focus, Leslie Campbell (you old-timers will remember that Focus began its life as a “women’s magazine” titled Ironing And Brats), has invited me to centre my future contributions generally on urban design and architecture themes, noting that the recorded readership levels of my recent “meaning of life” columns suggest that nobody reads that shit.
This, of course, is not true. I know for a fact that several of my best friends read the column religiously, often for as little as $20 or unmentionable sexual courtesies.
Also, my wife reads it. But she just takes the cash.
Wrote Leslie: “Your critiques of local architecture or developments generate the most interest, as with ‘Ice Cold towers don’t suit the Heaven on Earth Victoria is.’ Stories that connect what has been and what is being built in Victoria with your sense of what’s going on in the larger world also are well read, as with how building design reflects cultural health. We are hoping you will concentrate on more specific criticism—or appreciation—of Victoria’s built environment.”
She closes: “I hope we can continue our association, but we are all getting older and I will understand (and empathize!) if you aren’t keen to change your ways. We feel very grateful for your wonderfully creative contributions over the past 16 years.”
In other words: “Change or die, Pops!”
I would do anything for Leslie who created and has steered this important community voice, Focus; happily, I’m also ready for the adjustment. It isn’t lost on me that however often I’ve provided prescriptive columns, carefully laying out the steps required for civilizational redemption, things haven’t changed for the better.
That’s okay. I’m not bitter, just very, very disappointed.
“I’VE GIVEN 30 YEARS AND TWO MARRIAGES TO THIS AGENCY. I’ve shovelled shit on four continents. I’m due to retire next year. But if you think I’m going to sit here and let you dangle me with this, you can go to hell.”
God, I miss the Jason Bourne movies.
Remember? Where a gun was a problem-solver, not a problem, and the bad guys just hung around improving their badness skills and never went home to wives or kids, never in their time off did volunteer work with orphans on crutches, never had mortgages they were trying to pay off, or issues needing therapy?
A world where good was good, bad bad? No ambiguity, no counter-view. No feelings, just facts. Moral clarity. Clear purpose. No workshops, no study groups. No psychobabble. No emotional parsing, no equivocation, no “on the other hand.”
Respect for alternative voices and viewpoints? Ka-Blam! That alternative enough for ya?
Everything’s become so vulnerable to nuance, so…shades of.
I learn, from a study entitled Feeling Validated Versus Being Correct: A Meta-Analysis of Selective Exposure to Information, that “according to dissonance theory, after people commit to an attitude, belief, or decision, they gather supportive information and neglect unsupportive information to avoid or eliminate the unpleasant state of post-decisional conflict known as cognitive dissonance.”
Gosh, are people really like that?
And by the way, doesn’t “post-decisional” make you want to hide the study writer’s bedpan?
And then there’s Victoria or, as I like to think of the place, Feelings Vienna; the difference being that instead of “More whipped cream on my sacher torte, please,” we wind up with “No, really, tell me how you really feel, really.”
Honestly, is there another place, now that California’s long over and done with, that so reflexively turns edgeless cultural style into full-out social ideology, and that so persuasively and eloquently delivers the message that every square inch of life should be cuddly and squishy, like fleece-lined slippers?
“He just beat the crap out of somebody in an alley and then robbed a new-immigrant family-owned convenience store at knifepoint? Wow! I mean, the dude really needs a hug and a few counselling sessions to work through his issues, let out some of that bad chi.”
For a while (I caught the tail end of it when I arrived in 1970) Victoria seemed like the grownup in the room, an adult answer to a threatening, roiling world, a supremely successful experiment in social logic and management. Yeah, a little repressed, forbidding and impermissive, but you couldn’t miss the protocol-rich outlines of social order. You would never then call Victoria edgeless. I imagine that similar places have bloomed in all social geographies and eras, lasting as long as they could, subject to history’s wheel-spin. Victoria-as-social metaphor, a human place radiating charm and promise, structure and possibility, was not and is not now a prevailing human settlement, but a rare gem, a treasure, double sevens. Our gravest failure might be to treat this place as a birthright, instead of a gift from heaven.
Was ornamentation—architectural and emotional—always the centrepiece of its identity? Logic tells you that first-line settlers didn’t arrive at Victoria’s shores clasping their hands to their hearts, exclaiming: “Omigod, what a lovely place for Tudor Revival and good manners!”
My friend Denton, interested in and knowledgeable about Victoria’s nautical history, reminds me, on one of our ritual Sunday morning drives around the city, that early explorers were motivated by a cultural imperative to extend and expand the British mercantile empire, and were competing with (at least) the Spanish (Quadra, anyone?) for land, ocean and natural assets.
The niceties, the streets of charming homes, the pricey ocean views came later. The crowd that settled Victoria was can-do, effective and composed, I suspect, less lovers of painterly landscapes or a beautiful public realm than believers in clearly delineated property lines. Victoria—especially Rockland, Oak Bay and, latterly, Uplands—in such a telling, might be considered the social champagne that Victoria poured for itself as a toast to its mercantile, administrative and territorial accomplishments.
“You start to get a sense of who, on any street, got here first, what kinds of families occupied various homes, who lorded it over who, which properties began with far greater land claims and then, for one reason or another, snipped off bits and pieces as the city took shape.”
Pick your time early on a weekend morning and cruise through any and, eventually, all of Victoria’s neighbourhoods. Traffic urgencies allowing, drive slowly enough to catch both the architectural conceits and the social messaging.
Let it be the kind of drive, or journey of reconnection, that takes place in a state of, as Lauren Groff wrote recently in Harper’s Magazine, “romanticism, a human collision with place that results, as Baudelaire put it, ‘neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in a way of feeling.’” You start to get a sense of who, on any street, got here first, what kinds of families occupied various homes, who lorded it over who, which properties began with far greater land claims and then, for one reason or another, snipped off bits and pieces as the city took shape.
Your awareness sharpens; you start to get a sense of history and your place in it: “Things came before me; things will go on after me. What’s my story, what’s the ‘right now’ around me? What, exactly, am I part of? What near-future is being etched by current local events? What mark do I hope to leave?”
I’m inviting you to stand outside yourself and look back in, to take your citizenly moment, your presence, altogether seriously.
All of this is in aid of framing Victoria, its identity, in the larger current cultural and social setting; you may have noticed, the world’s jumping. Write Peter N. Limberg and Conor Barnes in “The Memetic Tribes Of Culture War 2.0”: “Political arguments have become indistinguishable from moral arguments, and one cannot now challenge political positions without implicitly possessing suspect morals. This makes politics an exhausting and unproductive game to play.”
We may, once again, have hit the civilizing limit. It always feels different, the result of some distinct narrative, some particular set of claims, or personalities, but it’s always the same: a civilization, an empire, reaches a stage at which communication fails and the arguments, the “why” of a culture, become ambiguous, self-contradictory, less-shared or share-able. Still, the cultural enthusiasms underlying the idea of social improvement make objectivity or thoughtful pause difficult (and modesty nearly impossible); make us reluctant to understand things as operating in cycles…even though cycles in nature surround and shout at us; not least that you don’t get better, just older.
Worried, de-stabilized, concerned about COVID and real estate values, you ask for an explanation, some framing thought, that may render current reality legible….
It’s time for renewal based on ecological limits. How exciting! It won’t be missed on you that there are a lot of bad social ideas posing as good ideas—a lot of it the bigger is better/more is better stuff. Modesty is an art form and a set of practices; this is Victoria’s current leadership role in destiny.
By reputation, Victoria was a place of social order. As a visitor, that’s really what you came to see and experience: a still-sane place in a world decreasingly capable of social self-management. An urban place that had found a way to express limits as an art form. Limited visual noise, a kind of urban clarity, stability. You could end your visit believing that the human community called Victoria actually understood something important about life and practiced those understandings.
Cultural critic Thomas Ferraro, surveying the current social crisis, invokes Christopher Lasch: “a drastic disorganization of all our institutions.” This is the field of thought and concern upon which Victoria plays.
This is the broad intellectual setting in which, in future columns, I would like to study the opacity and transparency of buildings, their purposes and intentions, their coherence, their message as social acts, social citizens.
By the way, have you lived here long enough to catch the big city of Vancouver’s lovely judgment of Victoria: boring?
What a compliment! Who knew?
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.