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  • On making bad choices

    Gene Miller

    As the cold-faced high-rises multiply around the city centre, we are opening the door to alienation and disruption.


    If happy little bluebirds fly

    beyond the rainbow… 

    Why oh why can’t I?


    I’M LOSING TRACK OF HISTORY, but didn’t we, back in the dim past, 20 years ago, look forward to a soon-arriving age when all work would be done by smart machines and robots, liberating humanity from drudgery and tedium? 

    Yes, “liberated” was the word, and I’m trying to remember what, freed from labour, we imagined we were going to do every day, all day long. Think great thoughts, listen to a lot of Mozart and play sets of tennis is my recollection. A just and sanitized world, with a generous share of health and happiness for everyone who deserved it. 

    Arguably, the only downside in such a world would be the loss of headlines like this from a recent Huffington Post: “When I Was Outed For My Porn Past, Pole Dancing Helped Me Heal”—such loss a cultural tragedy, but maybe not too great a price to pay for tennis and Mozart. 

    All cultural progress, as you know, begins with fanfare, advances to apology, and ends as footnote.

    Talk about footnote, a group of highly credentialed scientists and academics recently published a 5,000-word declaration entitled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.” Explaining that through human action, likely irreversible damage has been (and continues to be) done to the web of life—biodiversity decline, climate disruption, and continued human population and consumption growth—they show that the almost universal conceit that we have lots of time left and room to move to correct ecological stresses is utterly flawed, and that we are staring ecospheric apocalypse, and our own finish, straight in the eye. In other words, the planet has delivered the memo to human appetite.

    Wow, scary! Want anything from Costco?


    “WILL YA LOOK AT THAT!” “Seventh wonder of the world!”

    I’m kinda short and I’m standing at the back of the crowd; can’t see what all the fuss is about. Then, shoulders shift and I get a first glimpse. Are they from outer space? What keeps them standing, with their narrow-ankled bases? Wouldn’t the first strong breeze…? Maybe they’re some living form, something fungal, housing that’s grown.

    Maybe it’s…it’s…The Future!!!

    The news media carried this late-January image of a West End two-tower proposal pirouetting through Vancouver’s development approval process:



    Rendering of upcoming development at 1728 Alberni Street and 735 Bidwell Street. Credit: Heatherwick Studio


    “So, are they just landing, or just taking off? Har-har!” “Which one’s the dad and which one’s the mom?” “Complimentary parachute with every sale!” “Betcha they got roots in the ground and they grow an extra penthouse floor every spring!”


    Goes the accompanying story: 

    “Two new towers proposed for Alberni and Bidwell streets in the West End are designed to mimic large undulating cedars to lend a Vancouver character and identity to the project, according to the design architects, Heatherwick Studio from the UK.

    “‘The design uses the ‘tree as our inspiration,’ with the ‘idea of gentle curving vertical structures that connect the public on the ground floor to the top of the towers,’ the architects say.” They wanted to counter the “generic glass and steel towers which look and feel the same no matter where you are in the world.”

    “They called that style ‘boring and sterile’ and ‘lacking in character and identity. It’s difficult to have a positive emotional connection with a huge, flat building,’ the architects said.” 

    It’s impossible to resist noting how, given wind and other natural forces, any tree that grew like that would have a short life; but that cavil aside, let’s say “Amen!” to the architects’ critique of generic glass and steel towers “lacking in character and identity.” 

    But no, even this raises grounds for argument. It’s more than a semantic quibble to point out that such generic glass and steel towers have plenty of character and identity: they’re emotionally cold, off-putting, alienating. I mean, they’re designed by people, for God’s sake! Of course, they have character and intention.

    I walk a lot in Beacon Hill Park, and say “Good morning” or “Hello” to most of the people I pass. Some respond in kind; others walk past with a stony, defensive, look-away silence suggesting they take any contact as tantamount to assault. 

    People, buildings…it’s all the same. 

    Such a realization is crucial because it places on municipalities, developers, architects and communities great responsibility to make conscious choices, morally and emotionally informed choices, about the physical presentation, the design—the “character and identity,” the message—of buildings.

    What kept the Vancouver project architects from reaching beyond stunt to conceive buildings loaded with welcome and embrace, able to produce a “positive emotional connection,” and sufficiently inspiring to warrant professional envy and widespread emulation—something transformative, in other words? 

    Instead, assuming approval, Vancouver gets architecture to feed an adolescent’s hunger for novelty; roughly, the architectural equivalent of dying your hair pink. 

    Meanwhile, here in Victoria, the daily newspaper frets in end-of-the-world, 96-point headlines: “Councillor’s multi-tasking during meeting causes friction!”

    I love this place.

    There’s such a strong case to be made for Victoria as The Capital of Hope, with its microscopic and never-finished quest for manners and propriety. Victoria: a little bit of a little bit. Honestly, who would argue that in a world where “never enough” defines humanity’s murderous (and suicidal), planet-destroying appetite (the bill’s rapidly coming due, as you know), there’s great courage in modesty? Here in Victoria, we maintain a public life that by accident or design turns away from hyperbole and toward modest clarity around what things mean.

    What we absorb every day here, and what visitors take in while marching up Government Street or parading past the flowers at Butchart’s, is our city’s rare commitment to social agreement: cooperation. This is the essence of the vaunted “little bit of Olde England” Victoria, not, or not just, the houses tricked out in half-timber and lathered in thick stucco, but the idea of restraint and social agreement projected, communicated, unambiguously by our architecture. It sets us (I’ll resist the worried temptation to slip into past tense) apart from other places. People visiting, eager for redemption from the deep frights of the current age, have an instinctive attraction to our qualities and urban design assets. 

    Lately, though, we seem to be discounting the social potency of our buildings and the public realm. As the cold-faced high-rises multiply around the city centre, our civic voice is being altered. Through our design choices, we are choking mutuality and social embrace, and opening the door to alienating silence.

    Another quality that makes Victoria so appealing is its innocence. By and large, the rules of social conduct still work here. In an increasing percentage of the world, they don’t. Straightforward, voluntary social practice is at risk in most places and the worry we all share is that this is a prelude to breakdown. These conditions shout at us to be more aware, more intentional, about civic choices and values and, pointedly, about the buildings we put up. Translation: threatening conditions place enormous moral and social responsibility on architects and urban designers, developers and political leaders. (In the setting of such concerns, can you now appreciate the profundity, importance and urgency of the city’s bike mobility improvements?)

    Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Chris Hedges, in his 2009 Empire of Illusion, writes: 

    “I spent two years traveling the country to write a book on the Christian Right called American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I visited former manufacturing towns where for many the end of the world is no longer an abstraction. They have lost hope. Fear and instability have plunged the working classes into profound personal and economic despair, and not surprisingly, into the arms of the demagogues and charlatans of the radical Christian Right who offer a belief in magic, miracles and the fiction of a utopian Christian nation. And unless we rapidly re-enfranchise our dispossessed workers into the economy, unless we give them hope, our democracy is doomed.”

    Prescient, anticipatory writing years before the Trump takeover. I cite Hedges to capture the conditions and mood of risk that surround us, and to counter the illusion that these are relaxed or “normal” times. Social preparation, always a challenge, is critical…now

    I’m not sure how a society, civic or national, shifts toward intellectual and psychological preparedness for change. One might wish it were a rational process, but it seems mostly to require some jarring and threatening prod.

    Maybe balance is an illusion altogether or at best a brief, becalming condition we pass through—a moment on the way to the next disruption. Understandably, we struggle to make it last more than a moment in either a city’s or civilization’s lifetime. 

    In the setting of such thoughts, I note that bad buildings aren’t like mis-applied lipstick. They’re not “gestures,” and they last a hundred years.

    My closing point is that in these times of hope and risk, every bad choice and misstep, every ill-considered, un-contributing bit of architecture in our city decreases our social riches and hobbles this important city’s future.

    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.

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    Very much enjoyed this perspective - found myself nodding in agreement about the responsibility placed on municipalities, architects, planners and others to make "conscious choices, morally and emotionally informed choices, about the physical presentation, the design - the character and identity, the message - of buildings". Right now, we are getting largely cold, alienating, remote structures with little to enliven them or soften their transition at street level. We can do better - we just need to get back to letting it matter what shapes, forms (and messages) are being proposed for the next 100 years.

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    Heritage House and New House share the same block. Although about equal in height they have vastly different personalities. They stand uneasily side by side. You can feel them trying to turn their backs on each other, stiff and suspicious. Although silent, except for creaks and rattles and minute sways in a windstorm, they convey a mutual disapproval.

    When it was built New House swaggered up to the public sidewalk, square frontage rising to a metallic roof. It is sharp-angled and blank-faced while Heritage House, freshly painted, sank demurely backwards into its place, glimpsed from a gap through a hedge.

    When first built over a century ago, Heritage House was surrounded by fields. The space which New House now occupies had been an orchard. Heritage House still has a back yard, and a couple of gnarled old apple trees still cling to life there. On a bright day Heritage House looks relaxed beside its life-long companions – Cedar Hedge, Giant Rhodo and Mature Oak – but in the rain it shows a sad aspect, when drops fall from its eaves like tears. The shrubs weep with it and the soil absorbs the distress sliding off leaves and branches.

    Around New House there is no soil. Strips of grey pavement glint wetly beside it after rainfall, and no robin goes there in search of worms. Gulls tried to nest on the roof but spikes were placed there to keep them off. At night, a digital blue light hovers around window blinds and an almost imperceptible hum, more felt than heard, emanates from inside. Heritage House hums too, but in a different language. These neighbours have nothing to say to each other, one feeling shouldered aside, and the other offended by the odour of nostalgia. 

    One day there will be a funeral. Human neighbours will attend. The body of the house that perishes will be briefly on display for viewing: a dusty heap of rubble, roof tiles, stair railings, drywall, hearth stones.  A hole will be dug by earth movers, but the shattered body won't be placed within it. This hole will be for new foundations, and from them the twin brother of New House will arise, equally swaggering, hard-edged, sharp-angled and blank-faced, shouldering aside the cedar hedge and the gnarled old apple trees.

    Its human neighbours will mourn the death of Heritage House and will miss its graceful proportions and friendly aspect – for a while. As time passes though, they will forget exactly how it looked. They will recall however its splendid chestnut tree when on hot days, walking along the sidewalk's baking concrete, they'll wish it was still there to bestow the gift of shade.

    S.B. Julian 


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    Loved some of your metaphors- architectural equivalent of dyeing one's hair pink- will stick with me for a long time.

    I am not opposed to buildings which chart new architectural territory, but agree with some of your points here and in another article on demolitions that we are far too quick to discard housing and aesthetic treatments which are "old".  But more crucially, some of the newer starchitect buildings have no connection to the street, and add little that is positive to the walking experience for people passing by.  We seem to be favouring architecture over good urban design, which is a tragedy. 

    Thanks for some thoughtful commentary.

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    This kind of 'Californication' of architecture here in Victoria, even with its Mediterranean climate (summer only) ignores the fact of our more northern location where colder weather, higher humidity, and dampness, encourages the growth of mold and bacteria in other seasons, bringing more shade and respiratory disease, and loss of oxygen-supplying plants. We are sterilizing not only our environment, but ourselves, physically, physiologically, and culturally. It's high time that our leaders wake up and stop encouraging this mad densification with sterile high rises. Victoria's priceless and unique feature, its charm, is at stake, and in danger of being irretrievably lost forever.

    Considerations of quality should override quantity: more bigger is not better. Let us examine what Nature teaches us about the built environment, and design accordingly. 


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