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  • Golden Girl


    Gene Miller
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    The Jukebox on View Street is a rare example of a downtown residential building that shows good urban design choices can happen, even here.

     

    ON I WHINE, column after column, about these life-hating slabs springing up around Downtown, residential high-rise monstrosities devoid of warmth, welcome, visual appeal, singularity, esthetic citizenship, urbanity or commitment to improving the human project.  Buildings conceived by the committed and purposeful corporate mind: risk managers/money-makers, full stop. 

    You hear it said, with some reason, that it makes no sense to fault a developer when civic society, through its various policy and regulatory structures, can’t or won’t enforce a higher design standard. It’s a developer’s best defence: “If the city wanted a better or different design, it would impose some new terms in the development approval process; but the city approves my buildings as they are, so don’t blame me.”

    Look, real estate development is not a credentialed profession. You don’t have to study urban design or the cultural impacts of architecture or social history, or the meaning of life to be a developer. The profession demands the same skills and talents required to operate a lemonade stand. That’s not an insult, just a fact.

    Another part of the problem is capital. Capital doesn’t have a home. It wanders, it sniffs out opportunities and it avoids or disregards moral entanglements, steers around complexity or ambiguity, all of which it reads as added risk. This, too, feeds the roots of development culture. 

    Also, no developer ever went broke underestimating market taste. I’ve never figured out whether the average citizen lacks understanding, sensitivity or interest when it comes to matters of urban design, or whether, in fact, the average citizen has plenty of understanding and concern, but that a strong public culture and effective social protocols for communicating taste are missing. Consider: a house going up in Oak Bay would likely have greater design refinement, less because of municipal design guidelines than because of unwritten, but powerful, public culture.

    As if to reinforce such contentions, the protocol for design review in Victoria is almost unbearably process-laden. What do I mean here? Well, if there is a health, safety or other emergency that requires action, all you have to do to summon a response is dial 911. You don’t hold a workshop or fill out endless forms to put out a fire. You comprehend and respect its urgencies. So, where’s the urban design 911, the urban design emergency? That’s what I mean.

    And if you see images of coherent, beautiful, heart-stirring streets and urban communities from other places and wonder why, if they can do it, we can’t, well, that’s just elsewhere or elsewhen. You like Italian hill towns? You like Lisbon? Move there. 

    Cornered and out of arguments, you think: if only there was one new downtown building with exemplary design, one building that repudiated all of the ugliness, or exposed it for what it was: developers blinded by the belief that they are exclusively in the risk-management business and that their buildings occupy some social or spatial void, rather than downtown Victoria, a place that will have to live with bad urban design choices and negative social impacts for a century.

    There is one such building? Amazing! Which one?

    The Jukebox, a nine-storey low/high-rise with over 200 dwelling units, occupies several city lots on the south side of View Street, between Vancouver and Cook. It’s an imposing building, a one-off, not because it can’t be equalled for style (it can, of course), but because of something more abstract but un-missable: developer ego and sense of accomplishment, the need to take pride in your public acts, to stand behind your work, to “show ‘em.”

     

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    The Jukebox on View Street, Victoria

     

    Before tackling the Jukebox, developers Don Charity and Fraser McColl redeveloped the Mosaic, that nearby lollipop of a building on Fort Street, and the adjacent Jigsaw. The Mosaic’s and Jigsaw’s eccentricities may have given them license to think more freely about design of the Jukebox. Say the developers about themselves:

    Mosaic Properties Inc strives to create and deliver unique spaces filled with visual interest, quality and creativity. The company combines a profound understanding of the art and science of building with a mission to create unique, playful, colourful and cool condominium spaces that stand out visually and architecturally to the public.

    It’s not my intention here to produce a detailed architectural study of the Jukebox. I lack the expertise to explain exactly how the building achieves its effects and simply note that somehow, through its massing, design choices and the singularity of its vision, it adds social capital to Downtown, rather than being a testament to missed opportunity. Such a building makes you wish the developers had the franchise on new Downtown projects.

    I encourage you to visit the building, give it a once (or twice)-around, see if you can summon the language that captures its difference, its distinction—what particular things the developers and architect have done to produce so singular an outcome. 

     

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    A rearview of the Jukebox

     

    In his recent study, A World After Liberalism, Matthew Rose writes: “Conservatism appears to be a simple inversion of classical liberalism. It sees humans as naturally tribal, not autonomous; individuals as inherently unequal, not equal; politics as grounded in authority, not consent; societies as properly closed, not open; and history as cyclical, not progressive.” 

    So, what does the emergent city centre say about us? No imagination. No originality. No vocabulary. Just another effing place. We have no idea how to create an appealing city centre, a centre that says good and promising things about us. We have no idea how to renew ourselves.

    Social capital? We’re near-bankrupt.

    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, writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.

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    Thank you Gene:

     

    She is truly the Golden Girl.

    Perhaps others, especially city council, will be shamed into respecting our city.  The advisory design panel is a joke.  And, now the mayor says that design guidelines for Missing Middle Housing will "ensure" that the new towering six-plexes will "fit".  Good luck with that!

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