Reblogging Johnson St. Bridge conversation

June 27, 2009 at 4:37 pm | In heritage, johnson street bridge, local_not_global, politics, victoria | 6 Comments

The conversation on Vibrant Victoria’s forum about the Johnson Street Bridge continues, brilliantly. See pages 22 and 23.

This morning, forumer DesignStyles wrote the following:

After reading the outrageous comments on here, I thought I would put my two cents in. I really don’t understand why some of you latch on to saving this beast.

It’s ugly. So what it’s designed by the same guy who designed the Golden Gate. Not all designers do their best 100% of the time. Many residents of Victoria think it’s garbage. Sure, it looks great in those night photos but anything looks good in low light.

It’s unsafe going through that stupid chicane on the West side, and it’s terribly unsafe to ride the bridge on your bicycle. I’m looking forward to a new bridge that is safe to cross and feel like I’m not taking my life in my own hands every day.

It’s not a landmark, you’re trying to make it one. I do not recall anyone, anytime saying the blue bridge is an attraction before this whole controversy started. Sorry, you can’t just create it now. People come to Victoria for oh 1000 reasons other than the blue bridge.

If heritage people had their way, we’d still be living in caves. Lighten up, it’s not some controversy over partisan politics, or some other self-serving thing. I’ll take the new bridge and Millions of dollars saved from a retrofit so that money can go into social programs and the like. People won’t come for the blue bridge if they have to wade through all the homeless that sit around it.

Ok, that last comment is a bit of a stretch but I think you get my drift.

It’s a passage that aastra refuted within the span of hours:

The weakest point in this whole debate is the one that goes “you weren’t defending it before it was threatened, so therefore it must not be valuable”. It’s an incredibly bogus argument because:

1) people take things for granted, like the famous bridge that (in the city’s words) would “always be there”, or historic buildings at the Jubilee Hospital, or the Coho, or fine old trees in the park right in your own neighbourhood (or the Campbell Building, or the Permanent Loan Building, etc. etc. etc.)

2) nobody was going on about how the bridge was a notorious wreck and an esthetic eyesore that should be dismantled immediately EITHER. I can show you countless pictures of the bridge taken by residents and tourists, I can show you products named after it, I can show you blurbs in tourism guides and books. So how come a sudden decision to trash something is perfectly valid and requires no context whatsoever whereas there’s this impossible burden of proof put upon the folks who want to protect it?

I do not recall anyone, anytime saying the blue bridge is an attraction before this whole controversy started.

This is incorrect and has been demonstrated as such many times on this very thread. Just because you don’t recall it doesn’t mean it never happened.

Some people seem to want to reduce this issue to liking/disliking the bridge. Folks, history (the non-Wikipedia variety) doesn’t come down to a popular vote. The bridge is what it is. The equivalent bridge is a prized piece of history in San Francisco, Toronto, Ohio, Tennessee, Connecticut, etc. Nobody has yet offered any explanation as to why it’s not a prized piece of history in Victoria. Are we suggesting that we know more than those saps in those other places? Or are we merely ignorant and unwilling to admit it?

Heritage preservation in Victoria has been politically compromised beyond all recognition. Most of us were well aware of that fact many years before this bridge issue came up. The bridge issue is just the most extreme example that we’ve encountered so far.

People who are rooting for replacing the bridge because they think it serves as some sort of challenge to the stuck-in-the-mud crowd should make note of the fact that the stuck-in-the-mud crowd is BEHIND this. It’s their project. The folks who oppose everything and who made everything so darned difficult during the little 21st-century building boom that we’ve just enjoyed are the very same folks who want to ditch the bridge.

So you aren’t challenging them by rooting for the bridge’s demise. You’re arm in arm with them. Will you be arm in arm with them when they scream about a midrise condo proposal on a parking lot? Or when they flip about modifications to the interior of the Rogers’ Chocolates store? Or when they oppose a downtown art gallery or performing arts centre?

Also, the turn on the Vic West side is a lazy turn by any standard. Can we please drop that lemon? Crikey, on the one hand we’re claiming we’re progressive hipsters boldly rolling forward over our collective past, and on the other hand we’re fretting because our unsteady hands can’t negotiate any road that isn’t absolutely straight?

That just about sums it up, it seems to me.

There’s another interesting aspect here, too, which relates to “the silence of the heritage lambs” on the matter of the bridge.  As forumer jklymak pointed out, we’re proceeding on potentially skewed assumptions – skewed by a professional group bent on replacement:

^ Of course Victoria will build down. Aside from red herrings like the turn at the bottom of the hill (which has nothing to do with the bridge) the cost comparison made by tear-down proponents is between restoration of a beautiful bridge and building a new generic bridge. Lets see an actual quote on refurbishing the bridge, rather than a back-of-the-envelope estimate, and lets see the design and a real quote for the new bridge. Until then, we are just trusting the word of a single engineering study, which Ms B. has pointed out was undertaken by a company likely to bid on building a new bridge.

So why don’t we hear the heritage lambs on this one? My theory is that the bridge question is utterly beyond their scope. All they’ve ever saved to date were houses and relatively small buildings – and it’s on record that they’ve lost large buildings like the Permanent Loan and the Campbell Buildings, both on Douglas Street, and the market buildings/ old firehall (now Centennial Square). Admittedly, these structures were lost before heritage advocates were sufficiently organized here, but I can’t help wondering why it is that the only objects they’ve concentrated on have been relatively small buildings. (There are some exceptions that prove the rule, notably St. Ann’s Academy, but overall their focus has been mostly on single-family homes or relatively small buildings.)

Maybe it’s because it’s easy enough to do – Martha Stewart can show you how. And it’s easy enough to understand, too – because we all live in buildings or houses, so we have a sense of what’s entailed.

But a bridge! And an old one with old technology! This isn’t cottage-style anymore…

So what has the city done? They’ve solicited expert advice, in the first instance their own engineering department. The department doesn’t come across as a hotbed of innovation, though. It doesn’t seem like a department that’s interested in new approaches …or in saving things. It seems to like building new stuff, and that’s naturally how they’re going to slant the advice they give city council. Furthermore, the department has compounded the bias against restoration by hiring a consultancy (Delcan) that’s in the business of building only new bridges, not fixing old ones.

So, big d’uh that their advice is “the sky is falling, we must replace the bridge now.” The problem is that as far as anyone knows, that’s the only advice the city has actually solicited.

The city can’t get advice from the self-identified heritage advocates because something like the Johnson Street Bridge is totally and utterly beyond their ken.

Heck, the thing scares me to death, and I’m in favor of keeping it. The thought of actually tackling a restoration is scary. Yet of course it can be done.

So imagine if the city got one or two of the right people – engineers with the right background and experience – on the job to consult and advise and help? The conversation might be entirely different.

Keeping the Johnson Street Bridge

June 27, 2009 at 12:25 am | In heritage, leadership, local_not_global, politics, scandal, victoria | 20 Comments

Reading and watching the Vibrant Victoria forum thread on Victoria’s famous Johnson Street Bridge – also known as The Blue Bridge – is keeping me up at night.

It wrenches my heart (and my head) to know that our city leaders, “incentivized” by engineers and the possibility of getting some Federal infrastructure grants, are benighted enough to plan tearing down a bridge that people around the world recognize as a heritage-worthy and unique signifier in Victoria’s urban landscape.

Take a look at these photos, and marvel at the “ugly” bridge that’s supposed to be replaced by a slab of concrete:
Johnson Street Bridge, taken by

Vibrant Victoria forumer “gumgum” took this photo while approaching the bridge in his canoe.

Here are two more:
Johnson Street Bridge by VV forumer


Johnson Street Bridge, in

(See the rest here.)

I wrote about the bridge in the current June issue of Focus (read the article, Blue Bridge Blues) and I’ve blogged about the impending disaster of tearing the bridge down (here, here, and here). And now I just joined two Facebook groups, formed to Save and Keep the Blue Bridge.

The whole issue is complicated by the fact that the usual spokespeople for heritage preservation (often enough a NIMBY and anti-development crowd to boot) are NDP stalwarts (even at the Federal level – ex-Victoria City Councilor), and since plans to tear this bridge down were proposed by our reigning NDP mayor, who has an NDP majority on council (including the alleged heritage advocate, Councilor Pam Madoff), the partisans have all closed ranks and decided to just not say anything at all …which is very curious indeed.

The only explanation that comes to my mind is that it’s all about partisanship, which infects and clouds local politics in the worst way. I would like to say to the partisans: for once, forget about party affiliation and just do the right thing already. If the BC Liberals had proposed tearing the bridge down – no matter how good the reasons – the heritage preservation crowd and every NDP-inflected City Councilor would be on the barricades.

Instead, we get this:

Victoria City Councilors (allegorically)
But this (the image ^ above) shouldn’t be a civic leader’s inspiration.

It also creeps me out that our leaders are listening quite hard to the City’s engineering department, which (from what I gleaned at an April committee of the whole meeting) seems intent on building a new bridge (boys will be boys, and these boys want to build something new). City engineering furthermore hired a consultant (to assess the condition of the old bridge), but this consultancy is in the business of building only new bridges, so why wouldn’t they furnish the City with a report that recommends building a new bridge?

Add to all this the galling fact that most Victorians are blissfully unaware that the bridge is even in danger – and that worst of all, they have no idea what they, what we, stand to lose here.

Here’s where Vibrant Victoria’s forumers are keeping me up at night… Forumer “aastra” has diligently compiled the numerous examples of other North American cities – some much smaller and poorer than allegedly “quainte” and oh-so-cash-strapped Victoria – that not only celebrate the value of trunnion or bascule bridges from this era, but that actually spend significant piles of dough in refurbishing them and then in addition have the audacity to express civic pride in their preservation.

Incroyable, you say? Well, it’s not unbelievable. Take a gander at these, courtesy of “aastra”:
3rd Street Bridge, San Francisco
This is a photo of an almost identical Strauss-built bridge in San Francisco – restored and preserved. (See source.)

Next, there’s this image, of the same bridge:Third Street/ Lefty O'Doul Bridge, San Francisco

Same bridge, different photographer (source).

Toronto also has a Joseph Strauss designed trunnion bridge, and they restored theirs and are keeping it, while we plan to nuke ours. aastra wrote:

So did we all know about the Cherry Street Trunnion Bridge in Toronto? Built in 1931 by some bozo named Strauss.

…designated under the Ontario Heritage Act by the City of Toronto in 1992 as Architectural Historical.

That’s the problem with Toronto. It’s such an impersonal big city that’s lost all connection with its past.

(The bridge is green. Good call by Torontonians. If it were another colour it would probably be gone by now.)

The sarcasm and his last sentence expresses frustration over earlier banter about whether our bridge was always blue and whether it was always famous, or famously blue. His point was that the color hardly matters. It’s like saying it matters whether ivy or roses clamber up the Empress Hotel on Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

aastra finds another bascule bridge – preserved, not torn down (and it’s even blue!):

The Ashtabula lift bridge (also known as the West Fifth Street bridge) is a Strauss bascule bridge that spans the Ashtabula River in the harbor of Ashtabula, Ohio. Built in 1925, it is one of only two of its type that remain in service in the state of Ohio. In 1985 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was restored in 1986, and was also closed from March to December 2008 for repairs and repainting.

In Ohio it’s history. Something to be proud of. In Victoria it’s junk. Hallmark Society, where are you?

The really amazing thing is that it’s blue and yet they still decided not to replace it.

And there’s more… Chattanooga, Tennessee has one (slightly different design):

Market Street Bridge in Chattanooga, TN:

The Market Street Bridge construction began in 1914. It is a bascular-type draw span bridge and is owned by the State of Tennessee. Because of its current condition, the bridge is currently undergoing a major structural renovation which will cost $13,060,428.85.
Once construction is complete, travelers will enjoy sidewalks measuring three feet wider on either side of the thoroughfare making walking safe and easy. The bridge design will also provide architectural attributes and lighting in keeping with the historical significance of the Market Street Bridge. The renovated bridge will look much like the original – only stronger, safer, and ready to be put into use for another 90 years!

…As does Mystic, Connecticut:

Mystic, Connecticut:

River Road – Running beside the Mystic River, this scenic road offers terrific water views of the ships of Mystic Seaport and Mystic’s famous Bascule Bridge.

Not to be confused with Olde Mystic Village, this is the “real” downtown of Mystic – it includes the Mystic River Bascule Bridge, one of few operational bascule bridges in the country. For those of us who are unfamiliar with bascule bridges, this is a fancy drawbridge. Feel free to gawk either at the bridge itself or at the tourists gawking at the bridge.

Historic 1922 marvel delights bridge fans — its mechanical parts are all out in the open.

Mystic River Bascule Bridge (1922)

Meanwhile, Rob Randall, Chair of the Downtown Residents Association, added this comment:

I want to mention the importance of the bridge in relation to the time in which it was built–the 1920s–and the fact that this time coincided with the dawn of what some call “the Precisionist Movement” in American painting.

Some of America’s most famous artists like Georgia O’Keefe and Charles Sheeler tackled the subject of the industrial landscape, painting stunningly detailed pictures of factories, skyscrapers and yes, bridges–even ones designed by none other than JSB designer Joseph Strauss.

It would be fair to say they have influenced modern artists as well.

Our bridge is a real link to this vanishing historical age of engineering and artistic genius.

Elsie Driggs (1898 – 1992) Queensborough Bridge, 1927
Oil on Canvas, 401/2 x 30 ¼ inches
MAM Purchase: Lang Acquisition Fund 1969.4

So there you go, city leaders. But are they listening? According to forumer CharlieFoxtrot, they’re not and it’s already too late:

Word on the street is that various contracts have been awarded within the past few days – the replacement moves forward. Expect grunts in high-vis vests to be hanging around the JSB and starting the preliminary work soon, most likely ASAP.

Sadly, looming federal infrastructure funding dependant on fixed deadlines for completion (and these other things called “fish windows” with regards to construction) are Serious Things that wait for no one, or (apparently) little or no opposition…

I could go on to disparage Ken Kelly of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA), which apparently supports replacing the bridge because replacement will be less disruptive to traffic. Yes, you read that right. But I won’t right now, because this post is already too long and it’s getting quite lugubrious.

Just one last thing: if you’re a heritage/ history/ bridge/ industrial design buff, consider writing a letter to The Honourable James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, House of Commons Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6. There are Federal funds to preserve heritage like this bridge – the city should have applied for this, and applied for infrastructure grants to replace the Bay Street Bridge, not the Johnson Street Bridge.

Fantasy, failure, and faux: that’s Victoria!

November 20, 2008 at 8:28 pm | In authenticity, heritage, local_not_global, NIMBYism, urbanism, victoria | 2 Comments

There are plenty of important things to write about (like Canada’s miserable inability to defend net neutrality), but I just realized something important about fantasy, failure, and the city of Victoria’s self-deceiving love affair with faux heritage. It’s a mind-set espoused by way too many people, and likely to contribute to our upcoming stagnation.

A man I know quite well wrote a letter to our weekly “alt” <kof> paper, Monday Magazine, and it was published in the current edition, here. He tries to construct some sort of metaphor based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, with urban development functioning as the evil towers of bad ol’ Saruman/ Sauron. In a misplaced effort to invest himself with authority, he references the fact that his great-grandfather was the Bishop of BC, as if that contributed anything to the issue at hand.  (And incidentally: In his letter, he writes that his grandfather was Bishop, yet that’s completely untrue. Fantasy worlds do tend to warp the time-space continuum a bit, I suppose…)

He then mentions me by name, and references an article I wrote last April for Focus magazine (and which is available online via Scribd, here).  He writes: “Yule Heibel in Focus magazine talks about having View Towers declared a heritage site. Has Ms. Heibel actually been in View Towers?”

Well, let me answer that last question first: yes, I have. Admittedly, it was a long time ago (the early 70s), but one of my good friends from high school lived in View Towers with her family. There were nice people living in the building, believe it or not, despite the fact that today many (myself included) think it looks like typical “commie block” architecture.

As to the letter writer’s first assertion, I didn’t talk about “having View Towers declared a heritage site.” I was writing about our attitude toward blight, and how we too easily get caught up in aesthetics, instead of focusing on real human needs and usages.  View Towers, importantly, continues to fulfill a crucial role in Victoria by providing much-needed affordable housing to many people.

Here’s what I actually wrote:

Centennial Square replaced an area labeled “blight” by 60s-era planners.  Its decrepit buildings looked awful.  The area was economically depressed, aspersion cast on its social networks and human uses associated with them.  Because they looked “slummy” and undesirable, the assumption was that anyone associated with those spaces was probably undesirable, too.  Whatever embodied energy those spaces contained was deemed less meaningful than a clean slate.

I’m reminded again of the BC Historical Federation symposium last May, “Heritage & Tourism – Compatibility or Conflict?”  A woman in the audience spoke up to say that defining heritage only as “valuable” architecture is far too limiting, since this elides what buildings actually embody.  Stripped of embodied heritage energy, buildings are just containers; but if we consider how they’re used, another real dimension snaps into focus.

The woman’s husband had grown up in Eastern Europe, in a building we’d probably dismiss as a “Commie block” tower.  Yet for him, that “ugly” building was his history and personal heritage.   He’s hardly alone.  In Berlin, there’s a nostalgic and carefully cultivated revival of  “Commie block” style, indulged by middle-aged people for whom those buildings represent their pre-1989 youth: the bars and eateries, the apartments, the cheap concrete — all of it literally embodies their coming of age, before the Wall came down.

And so, consider View Towers.  I’d argue it has a richer history of use than Centennial Square: its embodied energy is tremendous, particularly compared to the square’s suburban one-dimensionality.

Would we endorse knocking View Towers down just because we don’t like its looks?  Or because we (mistakenly) believe it might house dodgy people?  I wouldn’t.  If anything, I’d encourage increasing the density around View Towers with equally imposing (if differently styled) multi-use buildings, to balance its sometimes oppressive and lonely formal energy.

What might this perspective mean for “real” (read: historically and aesthetically more significant) urban heritage?  It again comes back to uses, and the energies embodied in them.  Heritage buildings need to live, which means they need to be used.

In cities, buildings can’t afford to be museum pieces unless they actually are museums – in which case they need to be paid for and maintained by some foundation with really deep pockets.  Otherwise, they have to earn their keep.  This means that buildings have to be adaptable to other uses over time.

In other words, I don’t say anywhere that this building should be declared a “heritage site.”

The author of the letter gives kudos to one of Monday‘s writers whose hobby-horse is development-bashing. This staff writer likes to cloak himself in a green and socially-conscious mantle, all the while espousing the “values” of suburban sprawl: the single-family home with a lawn out front and a nice picket fence, set in low-density zoning.

Folks, that’s not a city.

And it’s not environmentally responsible, either.

But here’s the crux. This letter-writer, who has already given himself a false lineage to claim an authority that escapes him, exposes himself further as a lover of fakery:

My grandfather [sic, see above] was Bishop of B.C. and oversaw the construction of Christ Church Cathedral and I never fail to marvel at those sere towers and magnificent flying buttresses. I suggest City Council are flying, that this mania is akin to the worst of manic highs and that we are going to regret this period of growth when the distinct seven villages in town are no more. One only has to view the gaping hole where the Oak Bay Beach Hotel was to experience an ineffable sense of loss and now I hear that Anne Hathaway’s cottage is slated for demolition. (more)

Note the bolded part: after castigating View Towers, which at least and to its credit is an honest building, built in an age when concrete slab apartment towers were all the rage in Soviet lands as well as their meteorological kin (i.e., the colder parts of Canada), expressing nothing but their own truth (utility and the belief that you could safely warehouse people – which of course you can’t), he exalts two structures that embody all the fakery of “olde Englande” heritage, often known as mock Tudorbethan.

Admittedly, after enough time has passed even Tudorbethan might become “authentic,” providing it can be maintained (which requires deep pockets and a sense of economics).

But authenticity will forever elude people who live only in the past, rely on false authority, create fantasy worlds that don’t even function as thoughtful prototypes for imaginative action – in short,  people who really should move out of the city.

Hugeasscity has me thinking about Victoria’s Centennial Square (again)

June 1, 2008 at 1:18 pm | In heritage, land_use, street_life, victoria | 3 Comments

(Note: might add some links/ photos later, but no time now — written on the fly…)

Dan Bertolet of Hugeasscity hits all the right points in his discussion of what makes a good urban plaza.  He includes a “wow!” photo of Seattle’s Garden of Remembrance, which, with its relatively steep grade, allows for steps oriented in such a way that they provide “natural” seating for people who want to “watch the action on 2nd Ave.”

This got me thinking about Victoria’s own piece of urban misery, Centennial Square: it’s very rarely used, and it’s really badly designed.  There’s no reason to be in Centennial Square, which was built by deleting a street, but didn’t replace the street with any reasons for people actually to cross the square.

What follows are my ruminations on Centennial Square, which won’t be of much interest to anyone not familiar with Victoria or the Square, but here goes.

If you’ve ever put on an event at the Square, you’ll know that a big chunk of it lies in the shadow of the old 3-story City Hall, a protected heritage building.  This is the “south-east” part of the Square.  Shadowing from City Hall makes being in that section of the square really uncomfortable, particularly since dank shade isn’t especially welcome anyway in a climate which never gets very hot, even in summer.  What this suggests to me is that this particular plot would be ideal for another building — although I can hear the howls of outrage should any section of City Hall’s north facade be covered up by a new building.  But there might be ways to work that problem, perhaps by incorporating the facade into the interior of an open-to-the-public glassy building.  At any rate, my hypothetical structure would have to be really low-rise, so that the sun could penetrate to the north of it.  A structure built on the edge of Douglas Street would, however, be able to draw more pedestrian traffic, and therefore bring people into the Square itself.

The Square’s north-east section gets full sun (when it’s out), but that section is taken up by one privately-owned lot, plus a string of ugly (and mostly empty) “arcaded” venues (offices, dead shops, dead restaurants) facing into the Square, which are also part of an increasingly decrepit city-owned parkade from the sixties.  The parkade is on the list of structures slated for removal/ replacement.  Douglas Street to the Square’s east is for the most part a thoroughfare, with lots of bus stops, but few reasons for pedestrians to linger on that strip of the block.  To the west, there’s the Royal McPherson Theatre, and the north-west has the new CRD Headquarters building, which isn’t set snug to the north-west corner, but unfortunately is set back quite a ways, with yet another large-ish and hugely underused “plaza” at the corner of Fisgard and Government Streets.

Thinking of Bertolet’s observation, that the Garden of Remembrance provides a vantage point for people- and action-watching, I started to wonder where you could sit in Centennial Square to do anything similar.  The answer?  You can’t.

The Square is resolutely and stubbornly inward-turning: it presents a slightly walled and therefore slightly elevated patch of truly useless lawn with one big tree in the middle on the east edge (Douglas Street).  (For a great aerial shot, see this flickr photo by thebugs.  South is at the top of the photo, north at bottom, east on the left, west on the right. The pink building near the center is City Hall; to the right you can make out the Square’s fountain; directly to the north of City Hall, you can recognize the grassy patch with its lone tree.)

There’s nothing to see from the open grass patch, as it opens up on a part of the block that people hurry along since there’s absolutely nothing to stop for except the bus stop.  And I don’t know about you, but watching people wait for the bus is really seriously depressing.  Vistas to every other street are blocked off, with only two small “enticements” to glimpse some street action on the south-west and the north-west sections.  They’re not bad, but neither are they enough.
Consider, however, that the parkade on the north edge is supposed to come down (in the bottom part of thebugs’s photo), and that perhaps the city could acquire the privately-owned lot on the north-east corner.  There has been talk of replacing those buildings with some kind of new central library and civic auditorium, but let’s think about how that corner might also be worked to create a view cone on to the Hudson project now under renovation (not visible in thebugs’s photo; it would be in the lower left hand portion: part of the roof is visible).  Once it’s fully built out (a conversion of the Hudson Bay department store into condos, plus 2 high-rise towers also for condos and shops), this project, which is a truly large undertaking, should inject a tremendous amount of life into this northern edge of downtown.

It’s just a thought, but:

  • if a glassy “civic” structure were built next to City Hall on its north (because no one wants to be in that dank spot anyway, so you may as well put a building there instead),
  • and the parkade on the Square’s north were replaced with something much better (a library, a civic auditorium),
  • and the private lot on its north-east were acquired, too, then:

It might be an opportunity to reconfigure the Square so that the Douglas Street frontage finally gets some “built interest,” while a clever view cone is opened toward the north-east, which opens onto the Hudson.  The Hudson is in itself a magnificent structure from The Bay’s grand old department store days that literally deserves a view point.  And furthermore, the Hudson will be a potential river of interest-producing activity worth watching once it’s finished and its ground-floor shops are open.  Plus, seen from Centennial Square, the new view would be of a corner, not of a stretch of interest-bereft Douglas Street.  Where things come together (corners) one  usually finds more interesting to see.

Daily Diigo Public Link 03/27/2008

March 26, 2008 at 5:40 pm | In architecture, heritage, links, urbanism | 1 Comment

Seattle’s historic contradictions – Crosscut Seattle – Annotated

tags: architecture, crosscut, heritage, historic_preservation, knute_berger, seattle

Sparked in part by the designation of a “googie” (a Denny’s diner) as a heritage landmark structure (a designation that the deep-pocketed owner, the Benaroya company, is going to fight in court), Berger reports on subsequent repercussions and discussions among “representatives from the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Historic Seattle, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and others.” The comments thread is pretty interesting, too, and there are parallels to what Victoria is facing in its considerations around “landmarking” modern buildings.

Hume on heritage, cities, suburbs

March 22, 2008 at 8:41 pm | In cities, heritage, urbanism | Comments Off on Hume on heritage, cities, suburbs

Christopher Hume is on a roll with three articles in today’s Toronto Star.

In Urban tragedy unfolding as highrise to erase history, he offers a few (troubling) questions about the impending demolition of some 19th-century Toronto rowhouses slated for demolition so that a new condo tower can take their place. I’m not anti-development (nor is Hume, for that matter), but in a country that has a relatively thin historical fabric, you have to wonder about the merits of shredding it further. When a block of buildings went up in flames on Queen West toward the end of February, many people anguished over the destruction of built heritage. There’s no public concern over these rowhouses, however, so Hume asks, “Given the outcry unleashed by the recent burning of a row of buildings on Queen St. W., you’d think that there’d be hell to pay for the deliberate destruction of five houses, all of them beautiful redbrick structures, for something as ordinary, as predictable, even mundane, as another condo.

Perhaps no one cares, Hume speculates, because these are “just” houses (residential), without any commercial history?

Hume closes with these words:

No doubt the developer will tell us that the houses are in terrible shape. How convenient. But if they are, fix them up. Build the tower somewhere else.

It’s time we understood that heritage represents a rare resource, a civic asset, not simply an obstacle on the way to a developer’s bottom line. Our willingness to sacrifice our history at every opportunity reveals a worrisome lack of self-confidence and sophistication.

Regardless of what will replace these houses, the neighbourhood – and with it the city – will be diminished by their disappearance.

It’s a tricky position. Here in Victoria, we can still put most new downtown developments on surface parking lots and other “infill” situations. But that could change here, too. (Perhaps more on that later.)

(On the same page as the above article, readers can also find Hume’s “The Condo Critic,” with a review of One St. Thomas, where he writes, “…it belongs with that small handful of buildings designed to be part of something larger, namely a city.” That’s a good place to belong to.)

The other two articles by Hume are immediately related: Countries die. The city is eternal and The suburbs’ grim future. The first is a sort of commentary on Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sujdic’s The Endless City, with an especial focus on how municipal infrastructure funding and autonomy issues play out in Western cities, including Canada:

Though the megacities of the West don’t face troubles as dire as these, the question of inclusion clearly underlines all others problems. Cities have always belonged to those who can afford them, but that will no longer suffice when cities must accommodate an ever-growing proportion of the world’s poorest inhabitants.

Even in prosperous Canada, affordability and availability of housing have emerged as major issues, along with those of traffic and transit (see The suburbs’ grim future, ID4).

As contributors to The Endless City make clear, in many urban centres, car use has grown exponentially. What was a two-lane road in Shanghai just a decade ago is now an eight-lane highway. Even in Mexico City, where car-ownership is restricted to relatively few, the city recently constructed an elevated freeway that serves a tiny fraction of the city’s population.

London has famously introduced a congestion zone, which though controversial, has been an acknowledged success, reducing gridlock by 20 per cent.

But the urban equivalent of a unified field theory remains every bit as elusive. It is obvious, however, that one issue shared by all civic jurisdictions is that of governance. Although there are European cities empowered to levy their own income tax, federal, national, provincial and regional governments almost universally view municipalities as junior partners.

Yet around the globe the story is the same: Cities deliver 80 per cent of the services people expect in their daily lives on 25 per cent of tax revenues. As a result, public infrastructure is crumbling at every turn.

Canada’s no exception; the latest estimate of the infrastructure deficit in Ontario alone stands at $143 billion. While Toronto frantically tries to avoid bankruptcy, Ottawa has just come through a series of budget surpluses that peaked last year at $13 billion. This national/local imbalance reveals much about where the planet is headed in the decades ahead.

If cities don’t have the taxing powers they need, neither do they have the political power. How interesting that residents of London, a city that dates back millennia, long before Great Britain, didn’t directly elect their mayor until 2000. Since then, London has set an example for the rest of the world in its willingness to tackle problems such as congestion, air pollution, and affordable housing head on. At this point, it’s quite likely more people have heard the name of London’s Lord Mayor, Ken Livingstone, than British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

That’s shouldn’t be surprising. In the grand scheme of things, Livingstone has greater impact on the daily lives of more Britons than does Brown. Certainly the same could be said of Toronto Mayor David Miller when compared with that of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

If nothing else, the present urban age will bring all this closer to home than ever.

Countries come and go, but cities are here to stay.

Ok, if you don’t live “back east,” you might not know who David Miller is either — but maybe the name Sam Sullivan will register more vividly. Yet Hume’s point still stands: mayors of major cities oversee powerhouses, and all-too-often it’s not recognized by “higher levels” of government, at least not officially as policy. The policy still identifies cities (municipalities) as subaltern.

Hume’s third article, The suburbs’ grim future, is a brief commentary on why the suburbs are really screwed in times of economic downturn:

Poverty is one thing in the city, quite another in the suburbs.

Historically, cities enabled the poor to work their way up the socio-economic ladder. But what happens when low-income families are concentrated in post-war suburban communities where they are isolated and kept apart?

The prospects don’t look good.


Paramount among the lessons to be learned is the importance of urban flexibility. Hulchanski quotes an earlier study done in the 1970s called, “Metro’s Suburbs in Transition.”

“The post-war suburb,” it states, “assumed one set of family conditions for child-rearing and the physical environment incorporated these assumptions.”

But, as the report went on, “The prototype suburban family – father in the labour force, mother at home full time, ownership of a ground-level home with private open space, two to four children, homogeneous neighbours – is no longer the dominant reality of suburban life.”

Though this phenomenon has yet to be fully played out, it’s clear that traditional city virtues of proximity, connectedness and diversity, not to mention public transit, lead to better living conditions and opportunities for the poor than the archetypal suburban qualities of separation by use and distance.

The successful city, varied and adaptable, can be reinvented and recycled over and over again by successive generations. But can the same be said of an environment designed for homogeneity?

So once again, the message is clear: the monoculture is bad news. Flexibility, heterogeneity, adaptability: hallmarks of cities and of people living together in proximity.

Daily Diigo Public Link 02/18/2008

February 17, 2008 at 5:39 pm | In cities, comments, creativity, heritage, links | Comments Off on Daily Diigo Public Link 02/18/2008

We’re afraid of everything, for crying out loud, by Christopher Hume (Toronto Star) Annotated

tags: change, christopher_hume, fear, toronto, urbanization

Hume is on a rant against the Chicken Littles here. I can relate only too well… His description of the fear of change and how this is different from the 60s & 70s relates, I think, also to what I wrote for toward the end of last month (January) for the March issue of FOCUS Magazine. See also my blog entry, Concrete Plans.

Great cities recycle buildings, by Christopher Hume (Toronto Star) Annotated

tags: christopher_hume, cities, toronto, urban_renewal

This echoes very much what I’ve said elsewhere, eg., in response to Spacing Reads: Consolation regarding the use of natural light. Adaptability and re-use of buildings is crucial. See also my blog entry, Concrete Plans.

Concrete plans

February 4, 2008 at 4:52 pm | In architecture, brutalism, cities, heritage, urbanism, writing | 4 Comments

Spacing Toronto published an interesting entry back in November, which I just stumbled across when I read Shawn Micallef‘s entry today, Concrete Toronto: Looking at our city. Today’s entry announces a panel discussion about concrete and Brutalism, taking place tomorrow evening in Toronto. It’s organized around the book, Concrete Toronto, published last fall.

I started to write a lengthy comment in response, and then thought I’d better just post it to my blog instead.


There is, I think, an interesting (and unspoken) relationship between concrete architecture (which is often “car-centric”) and what it replaced (“heritage”). I just finished writing an article for the March issue of FOCUS Magazine, where I look at our city’s Centennial Square once again. This 1960s-era plaza, which everyone agrees is a pretty big failure as far as creating urban vibrancy is concerned, is officially hailed on UVic’s Maltwood Museum website as “the beginning of a vast scheme to preserve, restore and revive downtown Victoria.”

What it actually accomplished was the demolition of an old public market and the deletion of an entire block of street (in favour of an overlong, car-friendly street block). Centennial Square was plunked into that sundered fabric, and it’s still just a big concrete plaza that no one seems to use or love. The Maltwood Museum website goes on to enthuse that Centennial Square’s civic impetus was based on “the Norwich plan.”

And that’s where one really has to look if one wants to understand the questions around energy & funding, as well as ideology, behind the sort of urban renewals which Centennial Square (and probably many “renewal” projects in Toronto and other Canadian cities) depended on. The “City of Norwich Plan 1945″ was finalized by 1938, and had more to do with a hatred of urban density and Victorian architecture than German bombers (the usual excuse given for the make-over of many British cities, countered by Gavin Stamp’s 2007 book, Britain’s Lost Cities, and a great review by Stephen McClarence in the Times Online.

Meanwhile, in the fight(s) to preserve 19th and early 20th century heritage architecture, it seems all the blame for its destruction and/or its being threatened is put on the shoulders of “evil” developers. But what Centennial Square and researchers like Gavin Stamp actually prove is that the mind-set for destroying “heritage” was hatched and nurtured by civic planners for reasons of urban renewal.

My own sense is that this is a peculiarly English phenomenon, a sort of psychic hangover, if you will, of traumas experienced by the British during the UK’s rapid (and socially corrosive) industrialization. That process, let’s not forget, produced urban crowding and density of an altogether different order than had ever been experienced before, and I’m convinced that in the British imagination, this history fused the concepts of “slum” and “density” into a single (and consequently frightening) idea — even though “density” no longer equals “slum” in Western cities today.

Hence, the notion of car-centric architecture — and let’s face it, many examples of the 50s-through-70s concrete building type are first and foremost car-centric, with loss of detail and richness at the pedestrian level — fuses in Anglo-Saxon cultures with both a love of the (low density) suburbs and the concomitant attempts actually to decrease the density of cities. Density is at some deep psychological level reviled and feared, and 50s or 60s era rat experiments only served to deepen that revulsion. No one seemed to ask whether it was indeed a “natural” revulsion (because then you’d have to wonder why southerners or Asians manage to live in density without cracking up) or whether it was a lingering social hangover, aided by the strenuous reactions of planners against the “evils” of density as manifested in Industrial Revolution era slums.

As for the concrete or brutalist architecture that either replaced denser, older buildings or that in-filled urban space: what (many) people intuitively reject in those concrete utopias is their sterility. If my argument is right, one could say that concrete renewal was done to “innoculate” against urban density, against slums, against diseases — because in the historical imagination of anyone associated with Britain’s progress through the Industrial Revolution, “slum” and “density” became linked. Through its style, Brutalism tends to banish, minimize, or erase the pedestrian through

  • monumentalism (you are insignificant and matter not);
  • erasure of the kind of detail experienced at 5 mph (walking speed) in favour of more massive form/shape impressions experienced at 35 mph (car speed), for nothing isolates you from (or “inoculates against”?) rubbing up against other people like cars do;
  • and a tendency to be interventionist in the street-scape (what people mean when they talk about its refusal to “fit in” or be “in scale”) — think of someone scouring the kitchen: that’s intervention if you’re mere “dirt”

All of these style factors, I’d argue, point to something programmatic: the desire to embrace the kind of sterility that “cleans up” the germ-laden, densely-populated immigrant or slum areas, typically festooned with “old” and “dirty” buildings. Cleanliness is progress toward godliness and all that, and some want their godliness to be low density…

We’re only now coming away from that and accepting density as a good (urban) thing, which furthermore doesn’t equate to dirt and disease.

Heritage preservation works on the flip side, perhaps: heritage is still approached at times as something that should be kept pristine or separate or pure (apart) from other influences (like encroaching density, development), which seems to me to repeat the attempt to avert contagion or pollution. We’re still treating style as a kind of mental hygiene, even while changing our minds about what’s clean and what’s dirty.

What’s “clean,” what’s “dirty”?  Photo of postwar urban buildings in Norwich, England:

Disney comment on Victoria: “you would swear you were in England”

October 3, 2007 at 11:14 am | In architecture, authenticity, canada, cities, heritage, innovation, media, public_relations, victoria | Comments Off on Disney comment on Victoria: “you would swear you were in England”

It seems the Canadian Pavilion at the Epcot Center (in Orlando, Fla.’s Disney World) has a new version of “O Canada,” the promotional film for this country. According to an article in today’s paper (Ottawa feeling underexposed in Disney’s new Epcot film), Ottawa is ticked off that it rates barely a mention.

But how would you like to be Victoria, narrated along the lines of “you would swear you were in England”?

There are two YouTube clips available to view the “First Official Screening” of the new & improved version of “O Canada”:

Part One (nearly 10 minutes, with the first 5 1/2 minutes taken up by an intro; at around 6 minutes the actual film starts, with Martin Short): this link to view
Part Two (another 10 minutes, this time all film, except for a few seconds at the end): this link to view

What I find interesting is that Martin Short starts by explaining the origin of the name, Canada, as deriving from the native word for “village” or “settlement,” but then the film spends at least 5 minutes going on about how Canadians practically live outdoors, in the wilder wilds of nature. Did you know, for example, that ice skating is apparently our national mode of winter transportation…? No? It was news to me, too.

Aha, but then, after many views of bear & caribou & so on, Short adds this: “Most Canadians live in cities.”

What follows is a quick cross-country city tour, with each locale highlighted for something or other. Victoria is cited for its architecture — incidentally the only city to be distinguished for that aspect. Yet only our relatively slim pickings of wow! buildings (the Empress and the Legislature, both designed by Francis Rattenbury) are part of that highlight. We are not commended for anything new and recent.

And I say “relatively slim” not to disparage the magnificence of the buildings exposed in the film, but to point out that once you’re in the downtown neighbourhoods of Rock Bay or Harris Green or North Park, those buildings will mean little to you, because what you’re dealing with instead are the rather uninspired uglinesses on either side of the street…

So, in context, the “you would swear you were in England” remark is actually part of this statement: “The architecture of this charming city is so inspired by its British heritage that you would swear you were in England.”

I guess the question might then be, “How long can we continue to live off inspiration alone?” Even Disney gives it up to innovation, often and repeatedly…

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