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  • Losing a city, one bad building at a time

    Gene Miller

    Why don’t developers, at their own initiative and without civic coercion, gift the city with beautiful buildings?


    FRIEND DOUG CURRAN recently sent me a link to a mid-1950’s promotional video (or whatever they called videos back then) highlighting the new line of GM cars. Produced in Hollywood musical style, it featured a song-and-dance number:

    Tomorrow, tomorrow

    Our dreams will come true.

    Together, together

    We’ll make the world new.

    The hope-filled conflation of new-car ownership and happiness is rendered without a shred of marketer’s cynicism, and what makes it jaw-dropping is not its silly consumerism, but its unrestrained and genuine optimism and idealism, even: possibility itself—the “world made new”—as a statement of hope pushed all the way to the horizon; practically a guarantee of happy outcomes and reason for that smile never to leave your face. That was the promise—it hits you that the promise itself was society’s emotional chassis—delivered with every Chevy, as certain as the new-car shine on the hood. 

    I swear, you cannot watch the promo without being clawed by wist, by a rush of longing for so much joy, for so much…upswing.

    The new car, of course, sat in the driveway of a suburban rancher. The whole package pointed away from the miseries and frictions of city-dwelling and social (and racial) churn and toward a frontier without constraints, without a minus symbol at its prow. The whole picture was painted in shades of white. Dad worked. Mom cooked. Billy and Little Suzie behaved themselves. Everyone knew the rules. There were rules back then, not like today’s free-for-all, goddammit!

    All of this followed the wails of a war- and depression-weary generation, an immigrant generation, or the children of immigrants. Life to that point was a battle, every single thing was a battle. Nothing was easy, lubricated. Nothing flowed. 

    You can imagine the joys of something featuring dynaflow—Buick, if my memory holds.

    That ‘fifties promise of flow and future lasted no longer than one of history’s heartbeats and, by steps and lurches too familiar and dispiriting to note here, deposited us in front of the likes of this headline in the October 5 New York Times: “Talk of ‘Civil War’ Is Flaring, Ignited by Mar-a-Lago Search”: 

    “Soon after the F.B.I. searched Donald J. Trump’s home in Florida for classified documents, online researchers zeroed in on a worrying trend.

    “Posts on social media that mentioned 'civil war’ had soared nearly 3,000 percent in just a few hours as Mr. Trump’s supporters blasted the action as a provocation.

    “Polling and studies suggest that a growing number of Americans are anticipating, or even welcoming, the possibility of sustained political violence.”

    Elsewhere, the Times observes: “According to Gallup, 56 percent of Americans disapprove of the job President Biden is doing. Around 80 percent say the country is on the wrong track.”

    It’s not my purpose here to dwell on US todays or tomorrows, or even the milder challenges and dangers here in Canada, but to make the connection between social mood and cultural production and outcomes.

    This is to say that hope is culture and works its way not just into political and economic forms of social practice, but also finds unmistakable expression in the arts, and architecture and urban design in particular. Literature, visual art, dance are somewhat ephemeral; buildings, however, tend to stick around conspicuously, and long after the social barometer has shifted.

    Let me give all of this a local spin. A column ago, I wrote how I wish Victoria mayor Lisa Helps had stood up in front of real estate developers (with a strong echo to architects) and said something like: “You want height and density? Then give the city distinctive and beautiful buildings.” 

    There’s a question lurking inside this: Why should the mayor have had to? Why don’t developers, at their own initiative and without civic coercion, gift the city with beautiful buildings? Why isn’t it a reflex behaviour? Leaving room for the possibility that most developers simply have shitty taste, why aren’t they flooded with idealism and ego: “I’m going to put up something so beautiful that it makes me proud and shames everything else in town!” That kind of thing.

    Speaking practically, part of the answer is that there is no School of Developology with required courses in “building citizenship”—buildings as civic investment. Our society doesn’t ask developers or property owners where are we headed or who we want to be (or it does, and the answer is underwhelming) How, for example, might every new building convey a quality of welcome? How, through our buildings, do we extend social harmony and optimism? How might every new building leave passersby feeling hopeful and good about life? Why doesn’t every new building say: “You’re home, you’re safe here”? These concerns are not really the abstractions they seem. We all pretty much share the same visual instincts; and besides, Victoria is a city filled with architecture critics.

    The Jawls, in an extraordinary and durable collaboration with architect Franc D’Ambrosio (Victoria’s Santiago Calatrava), have, almost by reflex, created distinctive and superior buildings and ex-industrial communities all over Victoria. Ditto Chris LeFevre (LeFevre and Company—Railyards, several Old Town redevelopments). Don Charity and Fraser McColl, partners of Mosaic Properties, have added architectural value and beauty with each project they have undertaken. The list is longer than those few names, but they are the standouts. Their project vision extends beyond the development pro forma and seems, somehow, to embody the understanding that every new building impacts—enriches or impoverishes—the story of this place, the story of us.

    I have a nasty and ungenerous theory about Victoria. The reason there is so much backslapping and eager noise around instances of community is that there is so little community here. Community is not simply adjacency or lifestyle protection, but shared wider purpose and action; sacrifice, sometimes. If there was more of that, we’d clap less. I don’t blame us locals; common purpose is suffering everywhere.

    What is the most regular response, as people comment about Downtown’s new emerging highrise identity? “Now Victoria looks just like every other city.”

    With that comment, no one is longing for the return of “a little bit of Olde England.” Nobody is calling for everything to be half-timbered. No, what people are disturbed about is a loss of character and singularity, and the loss of a connection between person and building.

    I state again, that if developers cannot internalize these values on their own, then the City needs design guidelines that will do it for them. Trust me (and look around you): in spite of municipal conceits, these do not currently exist.

    Where might such guidelines come from? Where might the City find the principles, ideas, poetics, lexicon and phraseology for such brand new design controls?

    Why look farther than the endless writing and presentations of locals like architect/urban designer Chris Gower and architectural historian Martin Segger, both of whom (among others) have for long years been pleading for built-form quality, humanity and originality.

    They may never have been asked how you lose a city, but they would likely answer: “One bad building at a time.”

    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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    Developers are always trying to construct beautiful buildings in Victoria but City Hall never fails to interfere. For instance, Telus wanted to build an attractive building but our former Mayor and Council insisted that it "Have less glass and more wood". Now it looks like the inside of a 1970s era mobile home.

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