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Gene Miller

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  1. Corporatism has invaded land use, producing a loss of authenticity and a failure of architectural expression, which in turn, weakens the basis for community and social connection. A MEDIA SOURCE generally not given to hysteria informs us that “a survey published in May, 2021 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 15 percent of Americans—roughly, one out of seven—subscribe to the central QAnon belief that the US government is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles,” and that 20 percent—one in five (essentially, the Christian right)—believes that “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.” And from andrewturner.medium.com we learn: “The results of recent polls by Bright Line Watch have provided the first hard and frighteningly conclusive evidence that Americans are moving fast down the road towards a national divorce.” The accompanying map makes this assertion scarily real: Bright Line Watch polling results by region. Question: “Would you support or oppose [your state] seceding from the United States to join a new union with [list of states in a new union]?” And the gherkin resting on top of this crap sandwich is a recent headline in Huffpost: “Vaccine Or This Marriage: Conspiracy Theories Are Tearing Couples Apart. ‘He said if I take the vaccine I could pack my bags and leave his kids here.’” Confusion, spreading disappointment and hopelessness, and incendiary levels of public anger all point to lost, or misplaced, national purpose, with a diminishing ability to see a common future; and this invites deep worry about American social, emotional and even geographic prospects. Yes, it’s tempting to wave it away as just the most recent chapter in a long, fractious, democracy-is-messy US tradition, or to blame it on COVID-19 and the stresses of global warming; but whatever the causes, give thought to the potential local (Victoria) impacts of such spreading “mood” south of us. As you measure risk, consider Soufan Group security policy director Colin Clarke’s January 22, 2021 New York Times comment citing Trump-encouraged far-right violence in recent years as “missed opportunities to take the threat seriously.” I will guess that the threat runs much deeper and more to the heart of things than Trump himself, and that the election of Trump should itself be seen as a reflection of broad-based social anger and desperation. Let me guess…you believe: “That’s all US stuff, and nobody up here thinks like that anyway. Canada, remember? Peace, order and good government. So all of this US craziness has zero cross-border implications.” Now, can I sell you a cheeseburger that plays the accordion? I’ve opened this column with such unsettling thoughts to bring substance to the perception that we’re in one of history’s big chapters, and that Victoria might do well to initiate broad public conversation on the subject and lay the foundation for a contingent response. Actually, since it’s axiomatic that when the going gets tough, Victoria holds a workshop, maybe let’s skip the conversation and go straight to content. No, not wall-building or pop-guns, but strengthening social and community bonds—the sense of connection, of an us—via our civic structures, protocols and physical identity—what in its totality might be called social architecture. Within this column’s themes of urban design, architecture, land use and development, I have a special interest in the relationship between the social cues, the messaging, of buildings and public spaces—what feelings and human possibilities they encourage or dampen—and public pride in and identification with the civic project…matters of community identity and coherence, really. We don’t (or shouldn’t) need the threat of US social eruption to motivate us to make our buildings and public realm more inviting, more rich in social messaging, more animated and humane. But it may take such a prospect to remind us of the risk to our valuable but always vulnerable singularity. We are in the age of corporatism—a corporate way of seeing the world. It appears to have many of the attributes of ideology, and its sensibilities, its internal logic, invades the field of real estate development and land use as it influences many other areas of social practice. Among other effects, it produces a kind of smoothing, a dis-engagement, a loss of authenticity, a failure (or the death) of architectural expression; and this, in turn, weakens the basis for community and social connection, an us. And I pose this question: why is it so easy to get uninspired, mediocre buildings approved? Why is the city’s inner voice so still? There are, of course, many answers, but one is that such concerns need—but do not have—a political champion. To my way of thinking, the best reason for City Hall to be aggressively uncompromising and demanding of developers and of itself to deliver superlative buildings and public environments—friendly, warm, welcoming, stimulating—is that right now, every new building and civic project needs to remind people that this place is different from other places in substance and character; has to enlist or re-enlist us as citizens; strengthen our ability to define and recognize community identity and character...not to protect us if and when History’s big wave rolls our way, of course, but to give social definition, meaning and reason for pride to everyday life right now. None of this asks the City to take on a novel role, or to overreach in social prescription, to “tell us what to do.” The City, in our behalf, does it now. The entire zoning code, all those land use rules and regs, didn’t come from nowhere, but from the sensibilities and values and preferences of us the public. For example, our treasured and nearly sacrosanct R-1 single-family zone wasn’t heaven-sent, but came from people asserting (for better and worse) “family residential” as an important value not to be compromised by other co-permitted immediate land uses. The city, in other words, has always been deep in the job of arranging and sustaining social values and matters of taste via the tools of urban planning and design. Community, for various reasons, is very hard work right now. Community doesn’t just happen, or run forever. And hidden from platitudes about human interdependency and collaboration is the emergent fact of unprecedented personal autonomy which, in turn, is re-shaping and in some ways challenging the very need for social connection. It’s in the setting of such thoughts that I express concern about architecture and urban design. To put my beliefs most simply, good urban design and good architecture improve the grounds for social trust which, in turn, fosters greater social connection and greater subscription to the civic story—both its social facts and, equally important, the romantic idea of the place. “In non-places,” writes Darran Anderson, “history, identity, and human relation are not on offer. Non-places used to be relegated to the fringes of cities in retail parks or airports, or contained inside shopping malls. But they have spread. Everywhere looks like everywhere else and, as a result, anywhere feels like nowhere in particular.” David Denby, in a film review of Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, writes: “you can’t have love without fable—every love affair is an improbable narrative wrung from non-being and loneliness…as true of the collection of individual souls that makes up a city as it is of a single person.” That is, it takes story, and you don’t get citizenship without story; you get only urban strangerhood and anomie: a loss of faith in the civic project. 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.
  2. Isn't that proposed new building a soul-crushing piece of shit? WHY CAN’T I SING LIKE MARVIN GAYE? I won’t say that’s the only gift I’ve ever asked for, but it’s the most elusive. Listen to Marvin on YouTube singing Wholy, Holy: Jesus left a long time ago, Said He would return… He left us a book to believe in, In it we’ve got a lot to learn. Love, love, love, love If I had Marvin’s gift, that’s the very song I would sing at a local UDI (Urban Development Institute) luncheon. Room full of developers, money-men, architects, real estate insiders. I could be the warm-up for the transfixing keynote presentation, Real Estate Differential Income and Cost Calculation for Tax Profile Management. “Yes,” I’d start, “this song’s for you, so stop munching your breaded veal cutlets and swapping lies for just a minute and listen up: Jesus wants you to put a lot more love, love, love in your buildings. And if you won’t, or don’t, then you’re going to spend eternity in Hell: 320 square feet, third floor, north-facing.” And protests would rise from the audience: “What’s the matter with our buildings the way they are? What’s the problem? And even if there is some problem, isn’t that what the City’s design planners and advisory design panel and City council are for? Because they keep approving our plans and telling us ‘good to go.’ We’re just following the City’s rules and design guidelines, and if the buildings are okay with them, why come carping and moaning to us? Besides, we must be giving the market what it wants because people vote with their wallets….” Love, love, love, love. Generally, we don’t think of our sweet town as a battlefield (apart from the tussle over road space and bike lanes), but the battles of history and culture are being played out here as much as anywhere, the stakes are sizeable and the outcomes, which are taking on definition as I write, are not promising. How does it happen that developers are allowed to undertake projects capable of transforming the entire appearance, mood, social identity and character of a city—that is, the story of place that a city tells to the people who live there—with no expertise, training in or understanding of urbanism or urban design, no understanding of social history, impacts and consequences, no considered ideas about how physical architecture strongly influences social expression and possibility, but with only the business skills bearing on opportunity capture and risk management? Answer: “It’s the free market. Plus, I got an architect looks after design.” The day an architect looks his/her developer client in the eye and says: “This proposal is a soul-crushing piece of shit,” I’ll believe in architects again. Highly educated, open-minded and widely read are among the attributes developers need to produce beautiful, appropriately scaled buildings that add visual appeal and character to the city and amplify, rather than damage and diminish, its identity. This topic doesn’t receive a lot of public thought. It’s hard stuff to get your head around, and the malevolent, un-budging potency of how-we-do-things-is-how-things-should-be-done creates a high wall for attitude and value change. The public (affected individuals or small clusters, really) grumbles over this or that but seems generally unwilling to invest much social capital or outrage at the level of principle—a shame, because this is exactly where the battle for Victoria’s future is being fought. “The world is changing,” we say—a toss-away phrase with monumental import. The terms and the basic conditions of social identity everywhere are shifting; becoming in the moment more virtual, more externally managed. In Victoria, the city’s physical and social gifts—not just their numerical presence, but also the potency and reach of their messaging—are losing both amplitude and dominance. Our city’s distinguishing story—its identity, its why/because tied to place and to a shared life—seems in this mutable age less determining, less culture-shaping. Significant counter-forces—technological, social and environmental—are atomizing us and threatening our traditional city-making instincts and skills. In this setting, the meaning of “citizen,” a city stakeholder, turns ambiguous. Victoria offered home, place, a life together. The “little bit of Olde England” stuff was always just by-play, fluff, “patriotic mythology,” to borrow George Packer’s phrase—decorative icing on the cornerstone qualities of protection, identity, definition, security. Yes, times have changed, but urban design choices are also a factor. The city now operates with less of those qualities and increasingly leaves its people homeless at home. The tragedy and irony is that most North American cities, built up on some variant of the Calgary model and now a scary social chapter or two ahead of us, would kill to have more Victoria, while we seem not to know how to preserve and reinforce our remarkably successful urban design signature to serve us now and in the near-future. It’s as if we misplaced the recipe. Starlight's proposed mega-development for the Harris Green/Yates and Vancouver area Marc Bloch in his 1940 Strange Defeat explains France’s implosion in the face of German aggression, noting that leadership “worked with the tools which were put into their hands by the nation at large. They could be only what the totality of the social fact, as it existed in France, permitted them to be.” It’s rare for a civic culture to emphasize not just its gifts, but also a citizen’s responsibility to sustain the gifts. It needs a vision of a shared identity or future, and social tools—political, policy and otherwise—to perpetuate and to bring renewed health and energy to such a vision. Most of Victoria’s recent multifamily efforts are socially, morally unsure. They read less as homes than as contraptions that confusedly ask: how, and for what purposes, are people supposed to live together? What are we supposed to accomplish and create together? In other words, there is moral failure in architecture—failure of a building to celebrate and enrich its surroundings, to enrich the possibilities of shared social identity, of purpose. Failure to understand. Every moment carries its own urgencies, and maybe a city can be excused for failing the future, failing to articulate ideas and impose policies of urban design and place-making that ensure its citizens wake up next to the same city every day, to put it really inelegantly. Still, through the leadership and agency of the city, the present times require that developers be scholars, philosophers. And not because an answerless God is going to pat them on the head and say: “Good child!” They have to do this out of the realization that being a developer is not just opportunity-spotting, risk-managing and all the sub-arts of “putting up stuff,” but also a moral practice. The high-rises going up in Victoria? Sterile, mechanistic, loveless. Certainly not feminine or maternal, and not even masculine, but strangely post-gender and free of human juice. Conceived by developers, articulated by architects, advanced by bureaucrats and approved by politicians—insufficiently mindful of the city’s story, or the way in which buildings—their form and character—bind people to this city’s story. Might be time for a city name-change: Victoria to Vista 30, maybe. 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.
  3. Hi Uddhi, I agree with so much of what you write. The prose is mellifluous and privileged; the comparison between the homeless impact on Beacon Hill Park and the First Nations child deaths or Nazi genocide is, on its surface, preposterous; the column reeks of ‘colonial’ sensibility. But you over-credit and mis-read the purpose, or purposes, of the column. I’m not trying to solve the world’s problems here. I’m not calling people to the fight. I’m simply projecting melancholy over a slight but noticeable increase in the quality of social risk here. It’s a scary world; social safety is not such a trivial condition, but one to be treasured. My father, born in America, changed his name from Pfau to Miller. When I was young and asked why all of our wider family socializing was on my mom’s side (she had four sisters, and everyone lived in New York), he explained to me that the majority of his family, all Jews (like me), had remained in Germany and been caught. I cite the First Nations deaths and the Holocaust not to compare them to a park mess, but simply to illustrate my belief that loss is ruinous, loss diminishes. Victoria’s physical beauty and safety aren’t only colonial. They are also social facts. Also, they exist alongside a tremendous amount of social activism in this city and I ask: doesn’t social activism exist, in part, to more widely spread the gifts of social safety and beauty? I’d like to know what you’re up to and would be pleased to have good conversation with you; if you wish, get in touch (gene@newlandmarks.com) …so we can hook for coffee, or a walk in the park. Gene Miller
  4. The fight for ecological limits is really the fight for cultural maturity; and that fight is never won for long. IT’S A CLOUDY THURSDAY, JUNE 3rd, and gusty in Beacon Hill Park. The onshore winds are having their way with the place; paper litter takes off on eccentric sailing voyages, and empty beverage cups invite you to chase them along the paved park drive. The peacocks are already in full strut at dawn, squirrels busy doing squirrel work, noisy crows making life miserable for the prehistorically large herons that nest in high branches near the bandshell. The number of tents is down to a dozen or so, one’s and two’s still boldly pegged on various lawns, a few cleverly hidden in the park’s forested sections. All of these will soon be gone if the City sticks to its intention to rid the park of daytime and overnight residents. The stated objective is to give the park two years to regenerate and free itself of the physical “scars” of intensive camping. What remains unknown is whether two years is enough to wipe the memory of the social occupation of the park from the public’s mind. The park, after all, is not just landscape, but mood, as well. The camping has altered the public’s perception of Beacon Hill Park. It’s not the same place it was; and now, if no longer a landscape filled with threat, still not safe, either; a psychologically contested ground, maybe; and whether the previous image and character of the park regenerates in park users’ minds, or long-term grooves are left upon the public memory, making users just a bit tentative—walk here, don’t go there—is hard to know at the moment. Tents on Beacon Hill Park playing field in 2020 There is extensive professional and popular literature about loss and (sometimes impossible) recovery from loss. Still, loss in this, rather than the profit-and-loss sense of the word, is an under-considered subject. There’s diminution, but also disruption and vacuum, something taken away, a hole where one didn’t exist. “Sorry about your loss,” we say from our hearts, if parents lose a child, or a spouse a partner, or a family home taken by fire. The discovery of the skeletal remains of 215 First Nations children in Kamloops defines loss. The 80-year-ago extirpation by the Nazis of European gypsies, Jews and others defines loss. Such loss represents something diminished and not restored, taken away and not returned. When a person’s loss is neither fatuous nor self-absorbed, we don’t say, “Oh, get over it.” We resonate and understand they may not get over it and we place them under no moral or emotional obligation to do so. In the case of the park, what was damaged was a social assumption about behavioural boundaries, freedom of use, safety; an assumption that not one square inch of the park required you to think twice about, or bring the skills of caution to, your footsteps. How did you receive those messages of safety? Atmospherically. Through your skin: itself a cognitive organ. Writes Lydia Millet in her extraordinary story, Thylacine: “Skin, he thought, was the organ that met the world. Everywhere on you, soft and porous and bristling with nerves. Easy to set afire.” By casual visual inspection, the park has returned nearly to its previous state. The tents are gone, more or less. The extraordinary quantity and spread of litter is gone. The sense of loss, though, has diminished, not vanished. He stands on a mowed area shouldering Heywood/Park Boulevard and screams: “FUCK YOU!” And a moment later: “FUCK!” And a moment later: “FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKIN’ CUNT!” No filter, nothing that says: “You don’t behave like that here.” He kneels, picks up a stone at the curb and heaves it at some cars parked beside the cricket field. Do I intervene, say something? What if he has bad brains? What if he has a knife? Look on the bright side: if all his circuitry melts, this isn’t the US and he’s not packing. As you’ve likely noted, the US these days is a powder-keg—and a reminder that social conditions everywhere are tectonic and that people can be moody, crazy, driven and dangerous. Yes, some of this is COVID-induced, or -intensified. Some of everything is, right now. Most of us have never had this experience, an almost wartime loss of normalcy, the disconcerting loss of facial reading and recognition. We’re all masked men and women, banditos, now, in this unusual state of proscription, prohibition and lockdown accompanied, contradictorily, by a comfortless holiday from routine. It’s weird, spooky, a dry run for End Times. No wonder alien sightings are up. VICTORIA, RECENTLY EAGER TO ACHIEVE, to accomplish something, to declare itself a fully-invested stakeholder in the 21st century, has severed its narrative, parted with its memory, abandoned its story, and is now busy transforming Downtown. Talk about alien sightings: a bad crop of 15-25-storey towers springing from holes in the ground. Character and singularity gone, the place feels more like every other city and ever-more-divorced from the civic identity that gave resident and visitor alike some redemption from the world’s despair. Sorry to deliver such a cold thesis but, as someone writes in a letter to the Times-Colonist, Victoria is being transformed into a “mini Toronto,” adding: “Victoria is getting uglier by the day.” How modern of us. This new class of towers Downtown is stealing something from us and reinforcing a deep set of worries. I borrow an idea from Greg Jackson’s Prayer for a Just War, that we are suffering an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation in North America, and that our urban design guidelines, zoning code and architectural requirements need more than anything to address despair. What else did you imagine Langford and Colwood as existential human acts were clumsily (and unsuccessfully) attempting to address? Why else do you imagine your heart breaks here in Victoria when you travel along a street of beautiful traditional homes or filigreed commercial frontages? Did you think it was to shop with the Government Street crap merchants that a zillion admiring visitors walked our streets? This city breaks hearts because it still, if diminishingly, holds promise in a world falling apart. It offers the gift of memory, connection, social compass. And what does the City do? It permits, if not outright encourages, developers and architects to create ice-cold buildings that steal the remaining warmth and emotional messaging, the embrace and maternal protection from the city and reinforce the same grounds for urban isolation perfected in a hundred other places. A worldwide mobilization will (presumably) eliminate the global pandemic health threat in another year, three years overall. But how difficult it seems to be to confront and counter the somewhat more ambiguous social health threats, matters more susceptible to opinion than verdict or vaccine. It is a tragedy that such threats present in the abstract, and not as specific acts or conditions with measurable consequences. But some trends and social threats—loss, pain and harm—won’t quantify, lack quantifiable features. I’d love, in Victoria’s behalf, to make something clever of the fact that “harm” is made invisible by “charm,” but I lack the wit. We seem to be caught in a time that feels heavy with metaphor. We, all of us, have been busy making our doom, manufacturing an ecological crisis; and to borrow a remark I’ve made before, catastrophe is ecological. It seeps into everything. That is, catastrophe is not just consequences, but purpose, too, not just what happens, but also what’s intended. The Great Fire of London, Lieve Verschuier (1627–1686) Victoria stood—residually, stands—athwart catastrophe. Catastrophe, at least in its gathering stages, as with global warming, is a caution designed to signal some pending greater damage or intolerable imbalance, and to stimulate conditions that make further damage more difficult or impossible. That is, catastrophe, within limits, buys time…until it can’t. Victoria said, and still in places says to all who would listen: “No, no, no, don’t go that way! Don’t do that, do this!” (Rachel Carson, remember, wrote Silent Spring in 1962.) Why Victoria’s fit of civic amnesia, when Europe’s best cities with their ancient roots show that it’s possible to achieve greater density without jettisoning history or losing identity? A fair question. It’s in the setting of history that you can begin to divine if not purpose or plan, at least pattern. And from its ability and willingness to embrace history, to be history, Victoria made and still, fadingly, makes one dizzy with excitement and hope for social possibility. This is a place where you are surrounded by dream, both human-made and natural, and where you can exhale, let the poison go…if right now through a mask. After all, don’t you carry a feeling, flickering just at the edge of intuition, that some epochal page is turning? Our changing relationship to nature; all the environmental damage; socially, culturally, the sense that we have hit the limits of freedom, despite the nagging hunger for more freedom—that is, altogether, some new and possibly concluding human chapter. The fight for ecological limits is really the fight for cultural maturity; and that fight is never won for long. I’m so sorry for your loss. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Photo: First Church of Christ, Scientist in Victoria Messages from the beyond (and architecture), at the top of Harris Green. Go to story...
  7. Messages from the beyond (and architecture), at the top of Harris Green. I HAD A HORRIBLE SLEEP last week and spent the whole night dreaming contemporary architecture: a hellscape of raw concrete, metal, glass. Manicured carpets of lawn patrolled by concrete edging. Rectangles of trapped water. Not a smidge of sexy ornamentation or decorative relief. Not a curlicue. No architectural whimsy, nothing stray, no accidents. Caprice banished to other neighbourhoods. Proof, again, of grotesque results when cold-lit rationality is permitted to argue for hope, and also an oblique architectural re-phrase of the axiom: Those whom the gods wish to punish are fitted with shoes a size too small. I’m interested in that wonderful white cake that commands the top of Harris Green, east of Cook and adjacent to Pandora Avenue as that road spills downhill (no message there, of course) from edenic, suburban Shelbourne toward the busy hell of the city centre. In an effort to eliminate any ambiguity about the purpose of the building or the meaning of life, large black capital letters proclaim: FIRST CHURCH OF CHRIST, SCIENTIST. When we were younger and cleverer, it was “First Church of Christ, Taxi Driver” or “First Church of Christ, Hairstylist.” Har-har. Daring adolescent wit. The church is a neoclassical architectural pile, built in 1920. Viewed from the lower Cook Street end of sloping Harris Green, the church is not just visual arrival, but—deposited at the heavenward apex of the tree-flanked Harris Green—celestial arrival, too. Both the name and the presence of the church suggest intention. This is noble architecture: broad, welcoming stairs, the domed roof, the entire church volume confected in white, white, white. I don’t know my columns—Doric? Ionic? Prolific? Manic?—but six of them carry the dentilled roof on their shoulders with their feet rooted on a broad, staired front entry porch. Meaning, meaning! All this religious symbology and locational presence mean something. Suddenly in my mind are Katherine Battle, soprano, and Frederika von Stade, mezzo-soprano, as Hansel and Gretel, singing the Evening Prayer (“Abendsegen”) in Humperdinck’s eponymous opera: Evenings, when I go to sleep, Fourteen angels with me keep, Two stand at my head, Two at the foot of my bed, Two are at my right hand, Two are at my left hand, Two in covers tuck me, Two at morning wake me, Two that point the way to rise To heaven’s paradise. Not fifteen. Not “a bunch.” Fourteen. That kind of intention and certainty. My imagination tells me to keep the idea of certainty (and the world’s lack thereof) in mind as I study the church’s architectural identity and its name. So, what are the meanings of “,” and “.” branded like declarations across the church façade? I wish I had been secreted behind the curtain, listening as founder Mary Baker Eddy and other church originals, a century-and-a-half ago, announced that disease was illusion, and how faith in Christ the Healer was the correct path; how the comma by design was a message to the congregant to subordinate self-regard to informed faith, considered faith, and to a higher, more cosmic grammar than our own; and the period after “Scientist,” like the gavel hitting the block, is intended to reject any ambiguity about moral direction, divine plan or human purpose. In other words: “Sold! This is true.” I type “First Church of Christ, Scientist.” into Google, hoping to fill a gap in my knowledge. But instead of a river of information, a message slowly writes itself across the computer screen in flaming letters: “Safari will not open this page for you, you irreligious, over-clever, sarcastic un-believer. Judgment Day is coming. Change your ways now, you little shit.” Wow! Talk about being seen to the depths of your shabby soul! It’s pretty clear I don’t have a starring role in the Divine Plan. I made some of that up, just in case you were wondering. Wikipedia explains that Christian Science “...is a set of beliefs and practices developed in 19th-century New England by Mary Baker Eddy, who argued in her 1875 book, Science and Health, that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by faith alone.” It further explains that Eddy and 26 followers were granted a charter in 1879 to found the Church of Christ, Scientist, and in 1894 the Mother Church, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, was built in Boston, Massachusetts. Eddy described Christian Science as a return to “primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” According to Wikipedia, “Adherents subscribe to a radical form of philosophical idealism, believing that reality is purely spiritual and the material world an illusion. This includes the view that disease is a mental error rather than physical disorder, and that the sick should be treated not by medicine but by a form of prayer that seeks to correct the beliefs responsible for the illusion of ill health.” Ah, the illusion of ill health—an illusion that has reduced entire societies—those infected and the rest of us who are merely constrained by new rules of everyday social conduct—to, as my friend Howard suggests, “the walking wounded, everywhere.” We can write popular little anthems to hope and best sellers with “The Courage To…” in the title, but even the organs and skin have cognitive powers and they get the changeable weather right now in a skittering range from faint hope through worry to outright terror. Between COVID 19 and the lurking threat of a renewed Trump autocracy, underwritten by an ever-more-crazy public, these are not the best of times. Both COVID and Trump, as I see it, are expressions of the deep ecological “adjustment” to come, and the message from the current moment and the next is: “Bundle up, hunker down!” What primitive times…murderous, suspicious, distrustful, awash in conflict, mad on a grand scale, and shot with anger so fundamental, so organic, that ideology can’t even touch it! THE DAZZLING CHURCH, white as the days are dark, manages to hide other quiet riches. If you are driving or walking, give yourself time for a slow, appreciative tour of beautiful Rudlin Street flanking the church, a humble, residential island between busy uphill Johnson and city-bound Pandora. A short street, Rudlin terminates at Fernwood Road, and while it may be short, it throws out lovely arms: Rebecca and Camosun Streets, and the not-so-distant Yukon Street, a hidden gem which runs off Chambers, two blocks north of Pandora, uphill of Cook. All of these are more or less intact residential streets, still studded with smaller, century-old homes, like these on Rudlin; though in some cases, large, fairly upscale and well-maintained family homes contend in an eye-popping beauty pageant. Bela Tarr, director of the film Werckmeister Harmonies, states: “I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another…All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that’s still genuine—time itself; the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds.” But “mislead” implies that people could be led elsewhere. If you take story away from people, the whole thing, civilization and existential identity, collapses. People are story and history: explanation, interpretation, purpose, direction, re-examination, misstep. History written and being written, as adjacencies collide, then resolve, then re-collide. We’re hungry for pattern and meaning, which may explain both the comma and the period across the church facade—that is, the use of the comma to produce a sense of hierarchy, and the period a defense against abstraction; finality; a guarantee of order. Order: faith’s promise that conduct and discipline are possible. You thought there were no guarantees in this life? Please, you just need to be more scientific. Period. 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.
  8. Image: Artist's rendering of a development proposal in Vancouver designed by the British architecture firm Heatherwick Studio. As the cold-faced high-rises multiply around the city centre, we are opening the door to alienation and disruption. Go to story
  9. 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!” Betcha. 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.
  10. Photo: One of several new residential highrises under construction in Victoria's downtown area. The tower trash on Downtown’s east and north shoulders adds urgency to understanding the relationship between community values and urban design. Go to story
  11. The tower trash on Downtown’s east and north shoulders adds urgency to understanding the relationship between community values and urban design. I RECENTLY SAW A SWEATSHIRT for sale bearing the message: “I’m not arguing. I’m explaining why I’m right.” Considering the prevailing political weather south of us, the durable social chaos surrounding the US presidential transition, and the now-deep-stirring threats to American democracy, such graffiti seems overly polite. Wade Davis, in a penetrating August, 2020 Rolling Stone essay, wrote: “Fluidity of memory and a capacity to forget is perhaps the most haunting trait of our species. As history confirms, it allows us to come to terms with any degree of social, moral, or environmental degradation.” Against the background of a murderous pandemic (globally, two million dead and counting), I introduce such a quote in a straightforward effort to remind any reader within reach of this column that we are currently in the grip of Big History: plagues, floods, class and racial violence, ecological destruction, social revolution, technological risk—that magnitude of thing—and that there is no normal, no as usual, no return when and if any of this appears to subside or fade, only some ominous different. Social critic Chris Hedges explains why we may be witnessing the crackup of the global hegemon next door: “The terminal decline of the United States will not be solved by elections. The political rot and depravity will continue to eat away at the soul of the nation, spawning what anthropologists call crisis cults—movements led by demagogues that prey on an unbearable psychological and financial distress. These crisis cults, already well established among followers of the Christian Right, peddle magical thinking and an infantilism that promises prosperity, a return to a mythical past, order and security. The dark yearnings among [certain social cohorts] for vengeance and moral renewal through violence, is part of the twisted pathology that infects all civilizations sputtering towards oblivion.” Would that be enough History for you? The impact of such conditions on us Canadians—I don’t mean some possible messiness at the border, but wider cultural impact throughout Canada—is essential to consider. And do not for a moment delude yourself that Canada countrywide fully shares Victoria’s uncommon progressive social conceits and tolerances or its political dispositions. In a recent New York Times essay reflecting on the remarkable susceptibility of millions of citizens to Trump’s fictions and cultural reductions, Yale historian Timothy Snyder noted that social philosopher Hannah Arendt believed “big lies work only in lonely minds; their coherence substitutes for experience and companionship.” Companionship. Community. Suddenly revealed by the brewing threat of social/political chaos next door is a crucial but buried meaning of “a little bit of Olde England”—not Government Street toffee and trinket shops but a local society coherent and calm enough, connected enough, sufficiently self-aware, productive, confident and socially mature. A community, in other words, with deep reserves of public trust and collective spirit—able to experience government as the expression, the fulfillment, not the enemy, of public values and intentions; not an obstacle to community aspiration, but a means. It is these ideas that entirely frame this column’s repeated argument that there is a connection between social architecture—a community’s values, style and self-image, its “social ecology”—and its physical architecture/land use/urban design; in other words, between what we permit and encourage to be built and the power embedded in our practice of community. I’m attempting to describe the nuanced difference, the millimetre of charged space, between permission and opportunity. All the tower trash (buildings, not people) on Downtown’s east and north shoulders adds urgency to my interest in the relationship between community values and urban design. It’s an easy idea: successful buildings manage to combine their individuality with a feeling of welcome both for occupants and passersby, to convey something about, and to reinforce, our capacity for social connection. File cabinet buildings with little or no sense of social context do none of this. Reader: What do you think of the new buildings sprouting upwards in Victoria's Downtown area? This column encourages you to see physical architecture—buildings, public spaces, and also the zoning and land use policies that foster, permit and sustain them—in the larger setting of our social practices: trust, cooperation, aspiration, tolerance, openness, peace-ability, public intelligence, sense of visual delight, and connection, connection, connection. I anticipate that emergent and spreading war-zone politics, technology-induced employment/income dislocations (read: joblessness), and ever-more-disruptive ecological interventions like the current COVID-19 are going to challenge and test the limits of social integrity of cities everywhere, including Victoria. Based on my readings of history, this is not stuff you want to react to. If possible, it’s stuff you want to recognize and prepare for. Look up Leath Tonino’s December, 2020 Sun interview of Eileen Crist, noted ecologist and author of Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. At the start, Tonino asks: “What are we talking about when we refer to the ‘global ecological crisis?’” Crist bluntly responds: “What’s happening is the collapse of the web of life.” It’s hard for a community, a city, to have a serious talk with itself. Couples, families and small groups with a common interest can have such conversations; the conversational and decision-making tools, the protocols for talk and action, exist. It’s highly problematic at the community and city level. You don’t get 75,000 people around the table to discuss and plan the next move. Different perspectives and agendas get in the way and quickly render the process abstract. Enter local political leadership, a mayor and council who, hopefully, never stop depth-sounding on local issues, values, worries and hopes. Still, I’ve yet to meet the political leader who could convince the public that we need to meet and commit resources to emergent social threats in the same way that we meet the accepted risk and threat of fire with a well-funded and -equipped fire department—Victoria’s bike lane struggle a local case in point. Consider how an ugly or flawed building, a building that doesn’t add to or reinforce Downtown’s character or our city’s social message, is a visual and social offense, a scar, every day of its long life, the mistake that keeps on giving with an almost curse-like malevolence and obduracy. View Towers, east of Quadra, is our classic local example, but these days it has plenty of company, existing and arriving. At a minimum, then, this essay invites you to sharpen your vision as you move around Victoria studying how buildings behave, and examining the city’s need for architectural beauty, visual interest and “citizenship,” for which Downtown is the traditional epicentre. The rest is commonsense: the more the physical setting conveys conscious social investment, the stronger the sense of us and the more motivation (and community backbone) to fight risk and threat to character and identity…what we might call “social treasure.” With conspicuous results to-date, the City of Victoria is pursuing a blueprint of Downtown residential intensification—a “warm bodies” strategy intended to keep the Downtown populous, business and culture viable, and the public realm safe. Laudable intentions, but, regrettably, the architectural results have been almost exclusively hard, cold, disengaged, and move-along-unwelcoming, rather than detailed, cushioned, complex, rich in filigree, urban, appealing, inviting, attracting. The German language has a word for all those adjectives: gemutlich. Current building technologies and business systems may themselves be unwittingly posing a question we never thought to ask before now: does our Downtown even know how to welcome? Do we currently possess the design culture and the building technology—the kit of parts—to produce cushioned, inviting buildings and public settings? Is Downtown shifting from a place you go to meet/work/shop/absorb culture/see and be seen/socialize, to a place where…well, what? Ever hear of the “still face paradigm?” Wrote Michael Bader in Psychology Today in 2016: “The experimental design was simple: A mother was asked to play naturally [empathetically] with her 6-month-old infant. The mother was then instructed to suddenly make her facial expression flat and neutral—completely “still,” in other words—and to do so for three minutes, regardless of her baby’s activity. Mothers were then told to resume normal play. When mothers stopped their facial responses to their babies, when their faces were ‘still,’ babies first anxiously strove to reconnect with their mothers. When the mothers’ faces remained neutral and still, the babies quickly showed ever-greater signs of confusion and distress, followed by a turning away from the mother, finally appearing sad and hopeless. When the mothers in the experiment were then permitted to re-engage normally, their babies, after some initial protest, regained their positive affective tone and resumed their relational and imitative playfulness.” I invite you to imagine our society as one in which, to a significant degree, a sustained still face culture is practiced across a wide range of social and institutional settings, including still-face buildings in and around our Downtown. Are Victoria’s interests best met that way, or does this city somehow stand apart? Does it wish to stand apart? You wonder: mightn’t something resembling a citywide conversation on the subject—all 75,000 of us—be useful? Please start below, in our comment section. 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.
  12. Posted January 10, 2021 Image: High Point Community Church in Victoria West Why don’t we still make communities and cities that give us a feeling of identity and heart’s ease? Go to story
  13. Why don’t we still make communities and cities that give us a feeling of identity and heart’s ease? “BALANCE IN ALL THINGS” we say, wisely. The embrace of such wisdom makes us hopeful, and even near-certain, like well-behaved children, that God, always conning for signs of decency and right thought, is taking note, keeping score. And while we’re here, compare the expressive calm of the Latin equilibrium with buh-heavy balance—buh, as in but, bother, bellow, the double-b bomb and, in spite of beauty and bliss, sounding less like balance itself and more like forces grimly tethered and long sick of each other. An early witness to equilibrium, I remember my dad would poise a yellow pencil on the edge of a sheet of shirt cardboard to amuse and impress me when I was a kid. It was a wondrous, jaw-dropping accomplishment, magic, and I must have understood, as we all understand, instinctively, the taming of great forces embodied in such a performance (especially by dads). We call something a high point because surrounding places have agreed, however self-sacrificingly and resignedly, to cooperate, to be, well, lower. Ask yourself: ever heard any trumpeted acknowledgment of Douglas Valley or Tolmie Valley? Me neither. We invest hope in high points; it’s one of humanity’s reflexes. Some human counting or scoring instinct is connected to apex positions, ideas, accomplishments, status. Life’s chess: protect the king. Greater clarity of vision “up there.” Better meal- or threat-spotting. Power. Proximity to heaven. Accomplishment and self-delivery. “Take me to the top,” we say, because even if it’s lonely at the top, it’s still worth it. There is a Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, based in Chicago, whose cleverly stated mission is: “Advancing Sustainable Vertical Urbanism.” To the best of my knowledge, there is no Council on Short Buildings: “Advancing, Uh, Like, You Know, Urban Lowness.” Of course, the pandemic, a friend of all heights, has made something of a mockery of cities altogether and, specifically, their at least temporarily shrunken work, business or culture-centric downtowns. Many commercial streets are gap (and even Gap)-toothed with noticeable and apparently irreversible retail/service business closures. Meanwhile, online culture—shopping, business, personal and professional communication, learning, training—is the new order of the day. And all of that triggering a range of new human/AI relationships like something out of science fiction. Writing about James Bridle’s New Dark Age—Technology and the End of the Future, Will Self comments in a 2018 Guardian piece: “At the core of our thinking about new technology there lies, Bridle suggests, a dangerous fallacy: we both model our own minds on our understanding of computers, and believe they can solve all of our problems—our simple-minded acceptance of technology as a value-neutral tool, one to be freely employed for our own betterment. He argues that in failing to adequately understand these emergent technologies, we are in fact opening ourselves to a new dark age.” Oh, well. Tomorrow’s problem. As we take these dangerous, headlong steps deeper into the void, it’s no surprise that habit and custom—memory, really, exerting a tug not backwards, but centrewards—show strong social influence; not foolish cultural nostalgia, but a means, however tenuous, to let us stand again on the shores of comfort. And who can consider such ideas without wondering if this isn’t exactly why The Creator made this remarkable city, Victoria. So there it sits, an apex in spirit if not altitude, at the corner of Fullerton and Raynor, in Vic West: the Salvation Army’s High Point Church—the opposite of overreach, an unpretentious, more than century-old house of worship originally named Wesley Methodist Church (long surplus, presumably, to a waning population of Methodical Wesleys), with a nice neighbourhood vibe and a lovely coffee-and-cream skin. Its structurally problematic steeple, I learn, was removed 50 years ago, and now it presents itself as a masterpiece of rooted modesty, and shares the appealing, down-to-earth humanity of the surrounding traditional Vic West neighbourhood. High Point Community Church in Victoria West This Vic West locale is an eye-opener, and if you’ve never visited or only zipped through, or ventured no deeper than the Fry’s Bakery salted pretzel emporium on Craigflower, please treat yourself to a more studied tour. Around the church is a maze of beckoning residential streets and alley-like dead ends—Walker, Evans, McCaskill, Griffiths, Pine, Powderly—streets still fronted with a generous number of dignified homes—less the is than the was of Victoria: a-trudging-or-trolleying-home-to-dinner-after-a-day’s-work-downtown kind of neighbourhood. It ain’t Fairfield (mind, Fairfield ain’t Fairfield any more), but it has a settled, honest, ecologically scaled beauty all its own. And such honest beauty comes off the High Point Community Church in waves. Online, you can find this from the Salvation Army about the High Point Church: Ever wonder what the little red box in front of our Church is for? This is our “Blessing Box” & we hope that this little box can be used to bless many in our community. Here’s how it works: 1) Leave what you can: Do you have extra food items? Do you have a little spare change that you can use to buy some canned goods or hygiene items? Bring these items and place them in the box. (Non-Perishable food & hygiene items only please.) 2) Take what you need: Do you see something in the box that you could use? It’s yours! Take it home and be blessed. Simple as that.” High Point Church’s Blessing Box Some locales are imbued with history, rich in suggestion and memory. They feel generational, evocative, story-esque, allowing you to think: “right, I/we came from this,” or “this was us.” And suddenly, briefly, the compass stops spinning madly and relaxes and points. Comfort is restored and you’re anchored, aligned, not adrift or lost. You wonder, “Why don’t we still make communities and cities like this—places that give me this feeling of…legibility and heart’s ease?” What an excellent question! We would, if we could, I suppose. It’s the intention of this monthly column (I’m a one-theme plodder) to capture and reveal the social messaging in our buildings and our built physical settings. After all, every one of them communicates as to materiality, land use and architecture—purpose, really—via a highly expressive emotional language. The central question within this rangy subject is: why do so many of the choices associated with contemporary city-building leave us feeling so trapped in abstraction and lost as to identity and purpose—the who we are and what we’re here for stuff. And also this hopeful speculation: is it possible to conceive a set of land use ideas and an architectural design vocabulary that, without slavish and dishonest theft from the past, can convey in new ways the social comforts we all wish for? When I was a kid, I imagined that church steeples were rockets aimed at paradise and that when God yelled “Now,” steeples and the churches below them, pews filled with the strapped-in faithful, would take off to some heavenly Club Med beyond the clouds. Now, I speculate that steeples are aspirational, pointy to communicate the limits of human dominion, and to remind us that nothing lasts forever. A last observation about high points and matters of hierarchy: for long years, Victoria understood and accepted—well, had little grounds to fight—its own subordination to Vancouver, that universally envied Oz across the water. Vancouver got the live Pavarotti concert; Victoria got the CD. Vancouver got the cool, urban highrises filled with young, gallery-hopping sophisticates who knew how to order in Japanese restaurants; Victoria got four-storey shit-boxes filled with sunsetting retirees in cardigans, twitchily counting their pension cash and gumming their bran flakes right out of the box. Vancouver was visibly crafting the future; pokey Victoria sat slumped on the side-rail watching life pass by. Victoria’s only function was to house bureaucrats and project some changeless Dickensian simulacrum in the aftermath of Empire. And now, as the city embraces sustainable vertical urbanism, as we create numerous new downtown high points, is Victoria intending to me-too Vancouver, 30 years late? “Derivative,” let’s remember, is never a cultural compliment. How’s about let’s meet soon for more discussion at the little red box in front of the High Point Church. Bring some canned tuna and we’ll arm-wrestle this subject to a resolution. I promise: I’ll leave the pencil and shirt cardboard at home. 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.
  14. Posted December 20, 2020 Image: An artist's rendering of the Starlight proposal for Harris Green. Starlight Developments' mega-plan for a block in Harris Green suggests we’re not all in this together. Go to story
  15. Starlight Developments' mega-plan for a block in Harris Green suggests we’re not all in this together. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance JOIN ME: we’re going on a tunnelled journey deep into a corporate psyche; probably, actually, the psyche—the structure and joinery of ideas and values—of an individual corporate executive, since it seems so often to come down to that. But I promise, when we emerge, you will recognize that the whole time it has been a rollercoaster ride around your own sensibilities and values—that is, a mirror-view of a world that is surprisingly familiar. Maybe you’ll wonder: “Have I been sleepwalking?” The answer is: “You have to ask?” Andrew Duffy, business writer for the Times-Colonist, penned a May 30, 2019 piece, “Toronto developer plans to remake two blocks of downtown Victoria.” The blocks in question are Yates to View, Cook to Quadra. The developer has recently (November, 2020) submitted to the City this concept for rezoning: An artist’s rendering of Starlight’s proposal for the Harris Green neighbourhood Noted Duffy in that original 2019 piece: “A major swath of downtown Victoria is on the cusp of being redeveloped. Toronto-based Starlight Investments, which over the last three years has pieced together land parcels in the 900- and 1000-blocks of the Harris Green neighbourhood, is asking the public for input on what a redeveloped site between Yates and View streets could look like. Mark Chemij, Starlight’s senior development manager, said the company is excited at the prospect of reimagining the land—4.9 acres over the two sites—and open to all possibilities as the redevelopment process begins.” Don’t know about you, but the needle on my crap-alert meter just swung past “overfull.” The company, of course, is not open to all possibilities, but only those that align with its business mission and practices, its sense of how to manage risk and ensure handsome profits; and this accompanied by a transient’s disinterest in the particular identity and trajectory of this community and city. The entire development initiative, from the moment of acquisition of the first piece of property, was fore-visioned. In that 2019 piece, Duffy continues: “‘It’s a little early to provide any specifics,’ Chemij said when asked what Starlight has in mind. ‘We are still in the early days of the consultation process.’ The goal is to learn what the community likes and dislikes about the site, what it would like preserved and what it wants improved.” Starlight has, between Duffy’s article and the present, undertaken a public consultation process during which, no doubt, the company referenced as a kind of “new normal” the ever-proliferating residential towers rising in Harris Green and the adjacent north, and may have received little public counter-view to its proposal. And in its defense, the developer harbours the honest belief that no community, including this one, could conceivably have grounds—rational, aesthetic or moral—for repudiating the planning ideology, the urban and social ideas, or the vertical suburbs embodied in the illustration. Duffy finishes: “Commercial real estate expert Randy Holt of Devencore Realty Victoria said Starlight is sitting on a wealth of potential. ‘All that potential density in the air, good for them for looking to take advantage of that. It’s a fantastic opportunity.’” Holt, enraptured by the vision of 30 storeys and big bucks, at least gets A+ for honesty. Here’s to air and “fantastic opportunities.” I wonder if the community—that’s another name for Victoria, by the way—had the self-awareness, the moral literacy, the social gyroscopy, the informed self-understanding to show up during the consultation process and ask: “Mark, are you—not personal but corporate you—insane? Do you really think the inhuman monstrosity you’re proposing does anything to advance the singular aims of the people of this city, or the potential for improved and increased citizen identity, not to mention Victoria’s distinctive physical signature? Have you spent any time figuring this place out, or is this just another dirt play for Starlight?” If, reader, you imagine the density, the amount of stuff, that Starlight is proposing, or the number of residential units (1,500), troubles me, it doesn’t. I have a problem only with the package, the lazy, city-destroying form and design. I have a problem with buildings that reinforce the cultural message that we’re not all in it together, and that are blind to Victoria’s extraordinary (but fragile) localness. Cruising around its website, I learn that Starlight is a North America-wide real estate development company—homeless, in other words—with loyalty to nothing but return on investment. The company’s an income play for institutional investors and has no commitment to place, to story, to the conditions or physical choices that make people feel connected. For Starlight, such things are complexities and constraints, “noise” around the edges of business, distractions, irrelevancies. Buildings like the ones proposed are disconnected from the city’s experiential plane and both produce and add to an atomization of residents who are divorced physically and energetically from the life of the streets and the city. This is the symbolic code of such development: to reinforce and intensify physical and social isolation, to disconnect and weaken human community, to de-citizenize. Real estate development is not a credentialed profession. If you want to be a real estate developer, you have only to spin around three times, clap your hands, and say: “I’m a real estate developer.” (A career in politics offers roughly the same freedom from prerequisites.) Apart from having a nose for opportunity and managing conventional business risks, there is no specified cultural learning for developers, nothing that obliges them to contextualize their work in any social framework of land use or design; no requirement to show awareness of the relationship between building form/design and some wider social ideology or aspiration, or civic culture; no obligation (or incentive) for a developer to perform as a citizen, to show, in New York Times journalist Tim Wu’s words, “civic virtue.” (Victoria is blessed with a handful of exceptions: Chris LeFevre, Don Charity and Luke Mari come to mind, and there are others.) And this is tragic, because developers have such important agency bearing on site use, massing, scale, architectural presentation, building amenities, building complexity and visual interest, building warmth, welcome and participation in the public realm, and so on. I’ve read the speculation that we are in a late point in a sweeping evolutionary arc that may well end with the complete merger of human and machine consciousness (humechity?) mid-this century; and that in some adjacent future, human community as we have conventionally practiced it may have to struggle to prove its utility and purpose. But such a grotesque prospect doesn’t remove the challenges of here and now, or erase the demands of, to use an old-fashioned word, citizenship. Citizenship, like volunteering, is a stakeholder’s declaration. It’s both a state of mind and a set of actions through which you declare your connection to and emotional investment in a community and your willingness to make the effort, be part of the larger, shared effort, to sustain its health and integrity. And no, owning a home and paying property taxes do not by themselves qualify as or ensure citizenship. I sense that citizenship in previous generations was more an automatic feature of the cultural package, mother’s milk. These days, urban community management seems to have become more administrative and professionalized, and less one of the participatory “eager arts.” This abdication is a worrying trend that leads to other dangers, and it creates a daunting requirement for local government to over-explain: endless citywide public conversation about why’s and how’s, plans, impacts, alternatives, consequences, and so on. Exhausting, huh? Well, use it or lose it (Starlight’s proposal a case in point). In his disturbing new book, The Tyranny of Merit, the philosopher Michael Sandel writes: “Not only has technocratic merit failed as a mode of governance; it has also narrowed the civic project. Today, the common good is understood mainly in economic terms. It is less about cultivating solidarity or deepening the bonds of citizenship than about satisfying consumer preferences. This makes for an impoverished public discourse.” It’s just a hop to apply Sandel’s formulations to current land use and built form thinking whose practices now have ever less to do with reinvigorating the common realm or protecting the virtues and social expression of mutuality. This, in turn, impoverishes community and diminishes its ability to sustain its story of place or purpose, its us. For counterpoint, consider for example the energetic and protective reactivity of Friends of Beacon Hill Park to even a tree’s-worth of park compromise, or the Hallmark Society to the threat to or loss of Victoria’s inventory of history-rich buildings and settings. What are they fighting for? The answer, I think, is memory, social memory. These days there are powerful trends and forces set against public memory, designed, however unwittingly, to obliterate memory, which is to say a community’s cultural compass, its map to navigate the future. When you remove memory, you obscure rooted values and create an anchorless society much more susceptible to whatever the most persuasive ideologue of the day is selling. For proof, you have only to consider the spread of autocracy worldwide and the terrifying recent (and, ominously, continuing) US political insanity. In the face of such trends, does it really make sense to give up on community self-authorship? Do you, in a decade, want to wake up in anywhere...or in Victoria? As always, the answer to that question is very local: Yates to View, Cook to Quadra. 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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