Victoria’s story of stability and charm is now challenged by thoughtless development, mediocre architecture, and ill-considered land use policies.
I admit, I enjoyed their visits and found the theatrical admiration entertaining. They always started with a ritual query about what I was working on, but in a minute we were talking about what they were working on. They wanted validation, not critique, and a chance, later, to say to others: “Bell loved it.”
Yeah, Bell loved it.
I conceived the programme for DoorBell to provide a tool for improved social connection and community-wide consideration of local concerns. It used Lingo, which I had designed a few years earlier to facilitate direct neural interaction, using SmartCap, between people who, in negotiation, were at risk of misunderstanding because emotional fealty to a value or viewpoint automatically produces oppositional brain chemistry.
DoorBell permitted deeper intuitive capacity—we called it “thinking popcorn” because of its screen appearance—that facilitated sympathetic understanding in the hypersecond before oppositional chemistry flooded the brain.
With high hopes, I sold the entire package to Vertical Cheese and it seemed to take no more than a season before DoorBell gave birth to NokNok/TSM (Total Social Management); which is to say that a tool originally designed to foster mutuality had now been modified to increase social surveillance….
I don’t write fiction, I write first pages, premises, and run out of story after 200 words.
So let’s turn to something else.
For weeks, I’ve been listening obsessively to Rachmaninoff’s moody piano Etude-Tableaux op. 33 no. 3 in C minor (try Vladimir Ashkenazy on YouTube) which begins (please note the visual complexity of musical information below):
and also studying online images of architect Antoni Gaudi’s iconic Casa Milà (La Pedrera), an eight-storey principally residential building in Barcelona, Spain:
Rachmaninoff composed the Etudes-Tableaux in 1911; Gaudi’s Casa Mila was constructed between 1906 and 1912. Both the filigreed music and the architecture took form on history’s hinge connecting two major (Western) cultural chapters: the soon-to-pass but still gorgeously ornamental Romantic Era to one side, and the clean and streamlined Modern to the other—each era using different expressive vocabularies and projecting profoundly different social visions.
I lack study credentials in this field, but from limited reading I understand that the Romantic idea was structured around “the aesthetic”—that which concerns beauty and art—promoted as a quality (or a hopeless ideal) that should, where possible, shape and permeate human culture and experience.
Such ideas and language seem mannered and curlicued to us now—aristocracy and powdered wigs, to stretch a point—and blind to social imperatives; but these were the views of serious and intellectually sophisticated 19th century thinkers, and were strong markers within cultural thought. Small wonder if the 20th Century seemed jarring and threatening to such sensibilities.
Since those more-than-century-ago times of cultural change from Romantic to Modern, humanity has passed through sub-eras, one in particular likely well known to you: the Sixties, a widespread pro-social justice, anti-war reaction to the conformities and moral deficiencies of the era that came before. (Forgive my careless handling of the 20th Century, offered with the dilettante’s flaccid encouragement to re-watch Chaplin’s Modern Times on YouTube and to dust off your Beatles LPs.)
THIS COLUMN BEGAN WITH SOME AWKWARD FICTION intended to suggest that we, the generations now alive, are crossing another bridge, our prospects dominated, defined even, by three current conditions.
First, in a frenzy of appetite, the global “we” are committing ecocide, using up the world and damaging its natural systems, and now triggering the late stages of an environmental climax very likely to produce planet-wide ecological disjunction and complete risk to the human future.
Tied to this, and an interesting side-note, is ever-mounting world debt, another name for which is borrowing from the future. You remember the future, the bank of our hopes, ever-expanding and never-imploding, yes?
Second, in an unacknowledged failure at social architecture, we are pouring our experience, skills and intelligence, along with our consciousness and essence, into thinking systems and “machine life”—so-called AI. It’s hard not to read evolutionary metaphor into that.
Third, we are in the American twilight, after seven decades of worldwide ideological, economic and cultural US hegemony. The conditions required to energize and renew the American social promise have disappeared or been very badly damaged, and the country’s pledge, however stirring the rhetoric, is becoming a near-fiction. Consider the Biden presidency a respite, not redemption. Trump himself may be a one-and-done, but ultra-right-wingers are now screaming for civil war.
Notes social critic James Kunstler in a recent installment of his patented weekly outing, Clusterfuck Nation, “If you think we’re headed into a transhuman nirvana of continuous tech-assisted orgasm, social equity, and guaranteed basic income, you are going to be disappointed. Our actual destination is a neo-medieval time-out from all the techno-dazzle of recent decades.”
As to all of the above: how, and how quickly? I don’t know, but I think it would be a mistake to miss the urgency. History does happen. Such conditions invite us to consider the idea of inevitability as a force within the rhythms of nature, a mysterious form of natural governance that pushes conditions toward some resolution, some “next.” Small wonder that we often seem unsure if we’re turning the page or closing the book.
SUCH CONCERNS, SUCH A STATE OF TRANSITION AND RISK, in my view, must more fully inform the Victoria “conversation” about what this place is; what strategy, what plan, is appropriate to sustain this city in so parlous a near-future; and also how it might successfully promote the key features of community, very much including community’s physical expression.
These concerns form a vital civic project. Civilization, whatever its future (assuming a future), needs even now, and will increasingly need, new capitals, places that are exemplars of sustainable ecological practice, showcases of successful social cooperation, physical models that energize and facilitate community renewal. In other words, we’re again on history’s hinge: new mindset, entirely new rules.
Interestingly, the most difficult part is designing the architecture of authentic public conversation, very different from the social engineer’s “community engagement strategy.” “Community” sounds great, but if needs, intentions, values, social experience and even threats are not shared, culturally and viscerally, then what does community mean—a postal code? How then does a city ‘invent’ community? How do you get 85,792 people together to define and establish common interest? Let’s face it: a notice from the city in your mailbox is not community.
All the squabbling over bike lanes is a perfect example. Bless bike mobility champion Mayor Helps who has an extraordinary and important talent for reading the future; but nowhere have I heard anyone explain, or raise for discussion, the idea that in 20 short years, owing to restrictive energy dieting and prohibitive costs, nobody will own or drive a car; which might motivate all of us to say “Oh! Let’s plan for that.”
In other words, community is difficult if the “Why?” is missing. I here borrow Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Peter Turchin’s idea of a “society that is capable of perceiving, if dimly, the deep structural forces pushing us to the brink.”
I try in these columns to address such matters through the lens of architecture, land use and urban design; and in that context I believe the city needs to ask itself what kinds of building types, character and appearance, and public realm designs and amenities best foster mutuality and human connection—that is, community.
Excluding small pockets, this city is no longer tethered to yesteryear’s proprieties, but its DNA still contains a rare and special genius for inertia, a kind of strategic modesty, a disposition toward the small and manageable. In this age of the ever-agglomerating, this by itself makes the city a social hero—a hero with a job to do.
Victoria, plodding far behind Vancouver, still converting goat paths into sidewalks while Vancouver discovers three new sexual genders, remains instinctively unconvinced that change automatically brings improvement. Change also means discontinuity, and this rubs the city’s fur the wrong way. Memory, particularly memory of its physical identity, and of times when there was more “we” and less “me,” is a quality that defines Victoria and remains a cornerstone of its narrative.
Victoria, through some nearly subliminal visual alchemy, has managed to sustain a potent social identity, a sense of intention, an answer of sorts in a tilting world. To visitors and newcomers from various elsewheres, Victoria communicates a degree of stand-still certainty and stability, dressed as charm. These are precious civic assets, not handicaps.
But Victoria’s story is now in trouble, challenged in part by thoughtless development, mediocre architecture, ill-considered land use policies and an absence of new public realm design triumphs. These factors threaten legibility, coherence and promise.
This city’s palpable potential makes current self-damage heartbreaking and hobbles the city just when the world needs it to perform an important role in destiny: the exemplar’s task of community for which the city, along with sister-places, was conceived and sustained.
Please, Victoria, let’s talk about this.
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.