May 13, 2020
The Jawls provide us with examples of how buildings can reflect and build a rational, respectful social vision.
I HAVE THIS WAKING FANTASY…Mayor Lisa Helps, just after the start of her first term, back in 2014, is invited by UDI, the property developers’ organization, to be the luncheon speaker. Understandably, the membership wants to get a sense of the priorities, policy directions and “body English” of this new mayor.
There are about a 140 attendees, seated at round tables, munching rubber chicken. Finally, lunch eaten and announcements announced, it’s showtime. The mayor is introduced, steps to the rostrum to warm applause, utters the usual pleased to’s and thank you’s, then says:
With niceties out of the way, let’s get to the meat: If you have any intention of undertaking development in or near Downtown, and especially if you are considering a high-rise, do not—I repeat, do not—show up at the planning counter with anything less than a beautiful building design.
You want to do a Vancouver building? Go to Vancouver.
You want to put up some soulless piece of crap that’s going to reduce the special and unique character, the true value, of Downtown and the city? You want to do cold and inelegant, when Victoria needs warm, appealing, detailed? Uh-uh. Not here. Goodbye.
You now have a mayor who will do everything possible to stymie such buildings and frustrate their approval at least until Oblivion.
You don’t know what beautiful and graceful and distinguished and character-filled means? You don’t understand those words? “Like, what does she mean, beautiful and graceful?” Maybe you should choose another profession. Or maybe you’re professionally under-educated.
Margins are thin and the market won’t support what I’m asking for? You can’t make money if you do a beautiful building? Please, before you utter those words, warn me and give me time to step away, so I don’t get hit by lightning when God strikes you dead for lying. Guys, I know how to read a development pro forma, I know market conditions, and I know you’re doing just fine.
Your responsibility is to your bottom line, your lender, your investors? My responsibility is to the character, history, singular identity, destiny—the social, cultural and even spiritual future—of this city.
You think your proposal really is beautiful and maybe I just can’t see it because our ideas of beautiful are different? Are you that debased? Look, this is Victoria, named for a powerful queen, not Dystopia, named for the end of the world.
But I tell you what: you bring us a beautiful building, and the City will process your application at light speed.
Any questions? Well, thank you so much for this speaking opportunity!
Now, back to the real Downtown, overtaken, mid-makeover, by an increasing number of ice-cold towers. The city is about to wake up from this Downtown “facial,” when the building boom ends in five or so years, take one look in the mirror, and start screaming. It is being ruined by developers who operate in a moral vacuum that excludes any interest in, or awareness or understanding of, Victoria’s singularity, and by a City that doesn’t have the courage to announce: “We will only survive this hard age if we keep our soul intact.” History, in case you hadn’t noticed, is manufacturing great risks to social order and is producing everywhere a collapsing public realm.
Victoria’s mission to redeem the future has never faced challenges like those now materializing.
The problem is either caused or aggravated (maybe both) by ever-spreading cultural bankruptcy: a loss of civic story. If Mayor Helps told developers that their real project client was the city’s soul and future, they would think she was out on a day-pass.
In a potent December, 2019 essay, “The 2010’s Were the End of Normal,” former NY Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Apocalypse is not yet upon our world as the 2010s draw to an end, but there are portents of disorder. The hopes nourished during the opening years of the decade—hopes that [the world] was on a progressive path toward growing equality and freedom, hopes that technology held answers to some of our most pressing problems—have given way, with what feels like head-swiveling speed, to a dark and divisive new era.”
If any of this mood-painting carries meaning for you and stirs your own worries, I urge you, for reasons of counterpoint and the restoration of emotional equilibrium, to journey out to Selkirk Waterfront Project, the Jawl family-owned and managed development on the Gorge.
Other Jawl projects—Mattick’s Farm, Sayward Hill, the emerging Capital Park in James Bay, 1515 Douglas/750 Pandora, across the street from city hall, the Atrium at Yates and Blanshard—all share with the 25-acre Selkirk Waterfront Project a “signature,” a subtle but recognizable message about proportion and “enough-ness”; and none presents a sociopathic, chin-first challenge to destiny. Given the emergent crop of Trump Towers in Downtown Victoria, this is saying something.
The Selkirk Waterfront Project as seen from the trestle across Selkirk Water (click to enlarge)
Your mind registers the nomenclature: waterfront, farm, hill, park, atrium—the suggestion that by intention, where possible, buildings and projects are named as objects in a familiar experiential landscape and, even in their naming, take on responsibility to promote connection and continuity. (Interestingly, “1515 Douglas” is their least successful essay.)
Walk, bike or drive around the Selkirk Project’s curving boulevards, study its buildings, their architectural variety, range and intermix of purpose, their respect for each other as objects or sites of human endeavour, their restraint and rationality. It’s this rationality, the elusive presence of design thinking, that I wish most to consider.
I want you to imagine the Jawl family, to flow in and occupy and study the Jawl mind, a mind that seems by intention to promote composure about land use planning and architecture and, by extension, a framework of composed thought about how the world-at-large should be ordered, at least in the ways that land use speaks to human arrangements and possibilities.
Remember: every idea and decision about form and architectural character, about shape, massing and height, colour and texture, building proximity, juxtaposition of uses and location/choice of external amenities, adjacencies—building citizenship, in other words—is informed by a social vision. Sure, by economics, but more essentially by a vision of how the human project should be shaped and should unfold, what consequences it should produce.
In many developments around town you can read self-absorption, a trivial love of trend or novelty, synthetic drama, risk-taking, and the not-so-hidden violence of opportunity capture—fragile, adolescent ego, children playing grownups, in other words. And in many other projects it’s easy to detect a passionless actuarial sensibility in which physical results express only an economic calculus and communicate complete aesthetic, moral and cultural abdication.
However, you can read in the Jawl property portfolio a rare and important calm, a long or at least longer view, a rationality and patience, an investment in something—some outcome—beyond the real estate.
I’m suggesting that Jawl Properties somehow projects, through a set of architectural behaviours and choices, or design problem resolutions, a profound belief in rational human governance and social equilibrium.
Jawl's various projects, in an almost mystical process, embody and advance the purpose and essential social promise of Victoria itself: Safety.
You understand, of course, Victoria was conceived to be Heaven on Earth. Can’t you read that in its DNA, in its various parts and pieces? Did you think “a little bit of Old England” was just or only a joke? Victoria ever strives to meet its promise. You must have some sense of the stakes, the risks, facing any transcendental social experiment, especially in crippled human chapters like our own: the challenge of keeping chaos from ruining what we have built.
This is why every architectural miscall, every bad building, diminishes the place, reduces its value. There is some quality of human blueprint, of a larger, longer purpose, still (if waningly) evident in our current Victoria—a sense of mission, and clear proof that cities are ideas about, and expressions of, human intention.
In a world now catching fire this is a calm place, “fixt like a beacon-tower above the waves of Tempest,” as Tennyson wrote. Victoria’s job was to project the message, and its art form remains to deepen the protocols, of successful social collaboration in a world of fraying partnerships.
Darran Anderson, in his remarkable Imaginary Cities, notes that the Egyptian hieroglyph for city also means “mother.” He considers this a rare and significant historical admission “that cities were founded according to nurturing and social environs and not the heroism of mythic individuals, often enshrined to justify dynastic rulers.” Safety, not danger.
As civilization readies the terms of some next vast spasm, consider the contribution the Jawls, as social artists, have made to defining Victoria as a world capital of safety.
It’s a big job and they can’t have too much company.
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.