A modern reminder in the City of Glass

0 Posted by - January 19, 2011 - Design, Features

The City of Glass

Vancouver, globally speaking, is barely more than a teenager. A young city nestled at the very Western corner of the nation, flung far from the battles and outposts and trade routes on which our shared myths rest. As such, it’s often thought of as part of an entirely different era, aesthetic, and mindset. Vancouver is not of Old World sensibilities. With the possible exception of Gastown, one isn’t likely to find the snaking, dead-ending avenues and cobbles of London, nor the broad, sweeping boulevards and gut-wrenching (to Canadian tastes) roundabouts of Paris. In Vancouver, we find instead mere traces and fragments of these worlds nestled into tidy New World grids.

Vancouver was once described to me as a lumberjack in a suit — a wilderness town shoehorned into a yoga-chic West Coast mentality. In kind, our city sometimes seems unburdened by architectural and aesthetic backstories. On the contrary, Vancouver looks oddly ahistorical: a forest of skeletal steel high-rises sheathed in glass; shoji screens hardened against the persistent rain. Here and there, echoes of Art Deco, Neoclassical, or Colonial can be found, but for the most part, the notion of Vancouver as a singularly contemporary “City of Glass” is tough to refute.

Vancouver was once described to me as a lumberjack in a suit.

In the center of downtown, for example, the classical Vancouver Art Gallery sits between the lavish Hotel Vancouver and the recently refurbished Hotel Georgia, forming a cluster curiously at odds with its surroundings. On one side rises the austere smoked glass of the TD tower, to the west we find the bustling neon of Burrard Street, the high modern sensibility of the Law Courts bounds the area from the south, and the decidedly plain but always imposing HSBC tower on the north side looms large over this little island.

In the great cities of Europe, it’s easy to lose yourself in a maze of frescoes, statues, and flourishes. Old walls sag and the doors creak, laden with history, greasy with the memory of a thousand hands. Our city denies this kind of architectural indulgence, and in some measure, denies itself. To draw on the words of Fredric Jameson, we don’t really see the buildings themselves, but their distorted reflections. Swaddled in glass, polished and scrubbed by the rain, sometimes it seems like you can look right through Vancouver.

This apparent newness, however, belies the existence of a very serious dialogue between Vancouver’s urban landscape and history that’s easy to overlook. In particular, the transition from the modern to the postmodern, and the politics and ambitions tied to both, are patently manifest on our rainy streets. The supposedly ahistorical City of Glass is also a city of welded steel, stone, conveyors, and HVAC piping, a city where “the machine for living” retains a blocky, muscular presence and constantly reminds us of political dreams and follies, past and present.

Vancouver General Post Office

There is perhaps no better example of this conversation than the cluster of buildings that take up residence on the cusp of Yaletown, False Creek, and Downtown, anchored by the central Post Office and the Central Library. Embodied in these two buildings, we see a shifting landscape of historical moments; eras exploded, wrinkles pulled taut, grand theoretical ambitions placed at odd angles to the realities of the street. The Post Office, for its part, is perhaps Vancouver’s most stunning example of high modern architecture. Bounded by West Georgia, Hamilton, Dunsmuir, and Homer Streets, the Post Office occupies a solid city block, with little wiggle room on any side. A squat, imposing rectangular prism, its façade is distinguished only by a small parking lot, an entry way set back slightly from the curb, and enormous aluminum lettering, reading “Canada Post,” flanked on either side by huge, intricate coats of arms.

Completed in 1958 by McCarter Nairne architects, the building remains one of the world’s largest welded steel structures and testifies with authority to a mid-century celebration of the means of construction themselves; architecture as a flexing of industrial muscle. It is a kind of shrine to the possibilities of rationality, efficiency, planning, and mechanism. Whirring conveyors, churning motors and whizzing fan belts roar out loud the dream of a rational liberal democracy, where communicative freedom is guaranteed by logic and coordination. The Vancouver Heritage society calls it “Instrumental Monumentalism” at its best (or worst).” It isn’t just a vessel that houses the machinery of a new technical order, but a metonymic distillation of the dreams of the whiz-bang 20th Century; community as reason, government as maker.

The Dal Gaurer Substation's original design

The Dal Gaurer Substation as it is today To peel back its outer skin, one used to be able to walk to Burrard and Smithe to take in the now much-maligned Dal Grauer Substation, better known as “that dead spot on Burrard.” Once outfitted with a towering glass façade that exposed the metallic nervous system of the building’s interior, Grauer has since been “refurbished” with milky plexiglass panels that fog out its ambitions.

Despite these updates, the architectural gesture of the station remains salient. To poach from media studies literature, the medium is the message. The point is not to obscure the mechanics of the building, the bolts that hold it together, but to showcase them as the highest achievements of the industrial age. Dal Grauer and the Post Office, then are steadfast reminders of a time when ideology, political idealism, and the project of development were inextricably and unabashedly linked; a time when buildings had the potential to shape who we were, and more importantly, who we could be.

This is not, however, an uncritical celebration of modernity and modern architecture. A later strain of the movement was rightly deemed “brutalism” for its imposing, dour, offspring, which were ambitious to the point of oppressive. In the push to rationalize and perfect human life, many modernists were quick to forget that humans are never perfect, and rarely rational. What resulted was the explosion of an aesthetic that shoehorned our mushy human identities into monuments to industry; a literal realization of Weber’s notion that modernity gave rise to an “iron cage of instrumental rationality.” These (very legitimate) critiques aside, though, there is one thing that we cannot deny of Vancouver’s forgotten modern landscape: that it makes visible that which the glass tower renders transparent- we build for deeply political reasons.

When we stand the Post Office against its neighbor, the Central Library, this becomes tremendously apparent. The Library looms over downtown in its own way. Flanked on the Georgia-Hamilton corner by a crisp government tower, it swirls inward in multiple layers, lassoing knowledge away from the street into its own centre in an obvious nod to the Greek tradition of the academy as a place of unfettered contemplation.

The theoretical and practical disconnect here is, of course, apparent. Despite mirroring this classical ethos, the Library deviates from it by inviting into the “Library Square” facility coffee merchants, news stands, flower shops, pubs, and professional offices, not to mention citizens of all stripes. What the Library becomes, then, is less a coherent historical reinvigoration than an appropriation. It nabs the aesthetic of Greek Classicalism, the community service and public education mandate of the modern library system, and the postmodern phenomenon of omnipresent commerce and exchange, and wraps them into a single imposing entity; historical in its implosion of all moments into one, political for the same reason that all postmodern art and societies and economies are- because it denies politics. That is, it embraces the neoliberal, Late Capitalist myth that our new information society is post-industrial, post-political, post-oppression. It is the supreme triumph of capitalist liberal democracies and their persistent valorization of neutral aesthetic preoccupations. Its politics become dissipative, as amorphous and fluid as its walls.

The invisibility of political concerns in our moment is a critical political development.

Evaluated against the Post Office, though, the Library is thrust back into the political sphere. The radical aesthetic divergence between the two speaks to a parallel shift in ideological concerns: we move from an era of Government interventionism, North American industrial strength, and New Deal social politics to our current moment where government is in retreat, the messiness of manufacturing has been offshored, and where policy is leveraged in the interest of consumption. Fitting, then, that the tower that stands guard over the Library is home to Industry Canada, a ministry committed to fostering “a growing, competitive, knowledge-based Canadian economy.” A more perfect description for the Late Capitalist liberal democracy is unlikely.

The seemingly ahistorical nature of Vancouver architecture, then, wears paper thin in light of our modernist legacy. The glass and steel condominium high rise is invisible because of and in response to politics, not because politics don’t exist. The invisibility of political concerns in our moment is a critical political development. When we peel back the glass, we find an important reminder that even in a city where walls seem to evaporate, ideology is still locked into welded joints, political change bolted to street corners. Vancouver’s high modern monsters, if we care enough to look, shout at us to remember that what we build, and how we talk about what we build, will always be political, even if you can see through it. Walls, concrete or glass, always talk.

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