The call for The Wall asked for artists or curators to respond to the idea of the built form of the city. The invitation by the CBC Archives to use their material to inspire Wall exhibitions is the starting point for the work that I created. Rather than mining the archive for an image that responded to the notion of the built form, I wanted to activate the archives somewhat and shift them from source to source and subject.
My original proposal was a simple one. I wanted to create a composite image of every single building that has disappeared from downtown Vancouver between 1954 and 2004, using the CBC Archives as the sole source for visual referent. Why 1954? I set the opening salvo in 1954 because that is when CBC’s precursor, CBUT, began televisual broadcasting, Although they actually began on December 16, 1953, 1954 ostensibly marks the beginning of the CBC Archives and more significantly, the start of televisual news from and about the region. The initially proposed end date of 2004 was my attempt to create a nice half-century bracket. This quickly proved untenable, and I changed the date to 2015 or the general idea of “now”.
The municipality defines downtown Vancouver it as west of Main, east of Burrard from False Creek to the Burrard Inlet, with the Coal Harbour spit (being north of Georgia) included in the downtown proper. I chose these as my parameters as well.
My initial hope was that somebody had already researched the number of buildings that had been destroyed in downtown Vancouver and had arrived at a concrete number. Lots of work has been done in this area of urban development, rate of change in built form, by various people. professional and otherwise – people have written books, blogs, theses, made careers out of this, but I was unable to find anywhere that said “x number of buildings have disappeared” doesn’t mean that this doesn’t exist, I just didn’t come across it. – So, I put my nose to the grindstone.
The research began with a trip to the city archives. It was there that I discovered that embarked on an impossible task. The records of demolition and construction in the archives were split over a dizzying array of fonds, were not necessarily up to date, and seemed likely to involve a freedom of information request. After days of quasi-ineffectual research, an unplanned conversation with an Archivist led him to plunk down before me the Insurance Plan of the City of Vancouver 1954. Within the pages of this book were block by block accounts of what buildings were standing in Vancouver in that year.
I then discovered an incredible online resource called Vanmap. Vanmap allows the user to activate layers of information that are digitally attached to a map of the city and the map itself is searchable for municipally significant information. For this research, the orthophoto layer and an earlier 1912 Fire Atlas of Vancouver were used extensively, to provide both a corrected bird’s eye view of the downtown core and base historical information for older buildings. What was of utmost use was information as to the year when each building was actually built. Using these two references – the Fire Insurance Map of 1954 and the 2015 vanmap I was able to discern what changes had happened on each block between these years. To account for the very real possibility and, as it turned out, the actuality of more than one building going up and coming down between these two dates, I cross-referenced the information sourced from these two resources, with two series of online photographs in the City of Vancouver archives. One series, created by the City’s Transportation Division, photographed numerous significant downtown intersections on a north-south-east-west axis. The images seem to come from the early 1980s. The other series, from the early 1970s, was created by the Planning Department. This series were straight on images of both sides of each downtown block from the vantage point of the beginning, middle and end of the block. Coupled with google maps and actual walking about the downtown, I was able to get a fairly comprehensive idea as to what buildings and how many of them have come down in downtown Vancouver.
Once I had this information the idea was that I would turn to the CBC Archives to discover what they had in their holdings. My original belief was that buildings coming down were newsworthy events and therefore would have been recorded by CBC news cameras. By newsworthy I mean buildings do not come down quietly. Demolitions, implosions, explosions, fires and protest over significant architecture or questionable real estate transactions are not without their noise. However, even before initiating the research, I was aware that there would probably be some need to address the concept of absence or “the missing” in the final piece – having a sense that not all of these buildings coming down would have been recorded by news cameras.
Nonetheless, the numbers – the ratios – were beyond my reckoning. The number of buildings that have come down in the downtown corridor of Vancouver between 1954 and August 2015, by my count, is one thousand seven hundred and fifty three. The CBC archives, in both film and video format offered up multiple records of architectural destruction, that when pulled apart, added up to footage of 47 discrete buildings, or city lots, in the process of being dismantled. And I specifically draw attention to the “city lot” as there are numerous occurrences of there being more than one building per lot. Initially I counted these as separate instances of demolition, but decided in the end, that the urban variation on the “outbuilding” theme skewed my findings too radically. 1753 in comparison to 47 – this becomes a televisual record of approximately 2.7% of the change in the downtown built form landscape. That’s not a lot. And there are a number of reasons why it isn’t. The televisual news format, very similar to most Western visual story structures (i.e. cinema, television sitcoms and dramas) is about tension, about aberrance, about crisis and climax – conflict. When this is compounded with the prevailing winds of the post-war decades in relation to urban development – with it’s largely uncontested idea that new and better were in fact new and better, you can see why the camera’s eye might not have registered that the rate of architectural change was of any real significance. Things begin to shift in the 60s. Possible seeds of which were planted at the All Season’s Park in Coal Harbour – a purposeful squat/year-round campground whose intention was to halt development in that area. And so on. I hate to give short shrift to these important movements to protect open space, architecturally significant buildings, the access to affordable housing that older buildings often provide, or even history itself. Vancouverites have tried and still do try to change what has been decided by the market, planning protocols and the sway of the developer class – The Georgia Medical Dental Building, the Devonshire, Birks, Woodwards, Pantages. All of these had the news cameras present because none of them went down quietly or without conflict. The great majority silently slid from us – in that “if a trees falls” way. Which implies to me that the idea of new is better is still firmly ingrained in our latent and blatant infrastructures. But, what gives me hope is that if and when citizens turn their attention to a building’s continued existence, the cameras do show up. As of late, they have been more and more – both in the hands of news professionals and the person on the street.
Things noticed during the research into this project:
The poorer the built-up neighbourhood the better the chance a building has of surviving. It’s probably fairly obvious why this might be, but it was interesting to see this played out in block after block. The luckiest of the buildings sit quietly unnoticed – often near the middle of the block – surviving through their blight years and then emerge to hopefully become protected through various heritage ordinances. This seems to be the best chance a building has beyond being built by a well-known architect.
The grittiness of working class history has essentially been wiped completely off the map of downtown Vancouver. What began with Expo has effectively ended. There were hundreds of working class buildings on our peninsula that have fallen – boat works, mechanical shops, machine shops, garages, sawmills, freight sheds, marine stores, foundries, canneries, shipyards, brickworks, and the restaurants that served them. The warehouses that survived did so because of conversion and the Roundhouse did so because of community activism.
At some point during this research these blocks started to become living breathing entities to me. A block that – not unlike a human body – has constituent parts that perform functions. Here, simply holding up the middle and holding up the ends.
Linked to a point I made earlier as to the poorer the built-up neighbourhood, the better the chance a building has of surviving. The blocks that are on geographical rises had more of a chance of being noticed and seemed to be more prone to destruction. The big exception to this are the buildings on the waterfront.
Once one building went down there is a tendency for the others to follow. Again, with this idea of block as living entity, the incursion is almost akin to a wound.
It tends to start on one end and move like wildfire. Or, the exact opposite – the middle building is removed first. Once the middle is taken out the others slouch along to their destruction.
There is also, like so much in Vancouver, an all or nothing approach. No half measures. A significant part of the block comes out, the rest quickly succumbs.
I know I am presenting this as embodiment. The market is the primary mover, of course. But there is something real about buildings relying on each other to be propped up and to prop up in turn.
180 blocks in Vancouver. It’s a lot. Or, a lot to research.
Of these 19 are intact representing 9.5% of the block stock (so to speak).
Half of those are concentrated in Gastown.
Blocks entirely demolished equals 70 or 39% of the block stock. Of the 70 entirely demolished blocks 20 are not on the perimeter of the downtown – meaning not the industrial districts of False Creek, Coal Harbour, the Burrard Inlet and the CPR Lands. I am not suggesting here outright class war on the working parts of the city. But, we all know that towers trump corrugated warehouses in relation to financial return and the pursuit of densification.
These are the things that were noticed by me. Others have noticed other things and have written about them on-line in very accessible ways. I might suggest checking out the work of Eve Lazarus, someone named laniwurm, and John Atkin who take different entry points into the discussion of building history and building loss in downtown Vancouver. They continue the work started and still contining by others including Michael Kluckner and Harold Kalman. I’d also like to nod to Donald Gutstein’s fabulous book called Vancouver Ltd. which looks at the power structures behind the decision-making in Vancouver in the 60s and 70s.
My original proposal was to represent the ratio of lost buildings to filmed destruction in a way as to hold true to the conceit of the proposal – not only in terms of numbers but also in finding a way to represent what was “missing” from the televisual record in some sort of visually compelling manner. After watching numerous films and videos of buildings giving up their ghosts, the constant visual throughline were clouds, clouds of debris, clouds of smoke, and clouds of dust – whether through sledge hammer, wrecking ball, the claw, implosion, explosion, or fire. These clouds are evidence of destruction without the actual evidence and therefore completely apropos. This is meant to work on a few levels. The actual absence of the buildings and the absence of the image in the archive moving towards the notion of absence of these particular objects from our collective memory.
Now as to representing the numbers – the ratio. They were too large and too disparate. I could not imagine a way to highlight the archived stills of 47 buildings – essentially the core of the piece – in a sea of 1,753 units of “nothingness.” I chose instead to interpret these numbers. So what you see outside is a grid, meant to represent the downtown core. In the image the grid contains 169 separate squares, which is a rough approximation of the actual 180 blocks in downtown Vancouver. There are 49 central images of buildings in the process of being ruined – again meant to numerically represent the 47 that are held in the CBC Archives.
The central 49 images are super-saturated and colour shifted for a number of reasons. Only a few came out of the archive like this and not only remained saturated and true to colour, but also tinged the whole direction of the project. The rest of the images were altered to meet the levels of saturation of these few. In partial homage to notions of the beautiful, In part to create formal cohesion, in part to draw the eye inward to the centre of the storm so to speak. In part because I knew the image would be hung on a wall above peoples’ heads and therefore I felt I needed something to bridge the distance. In part because the work was hanging on a grey wall in a half-the-year grey town. But mostly it was about the notion of the aesthetic lure – which ties back into the singular notion of the beautiful. The aesthetic lure is a term I ran across years ago in relation to the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
This work is about the destruction of buildings in Vancouver. For all intents and purposes, a highly contentious one. People have lined up on sides – pro-development – pro-conservation. The aesthetic lure is intended to play out thusly in this work. Colourful, liminally abstract, a shiny surface, not immediately knowable – all are meant to draw pause from people, all are meant as a request to come closer to look at it for it to make “more sense”. There is meant to be a reveal – oh – these are images of destruction. This is a colourful and silent ripping apart. It is meant to engage your senses before your mind.
While much of the story surrounding the destruction of buildings plays out in one of two ways, good or bad – what remains constant is that, confronted with these large structures and the large sums of money that are exchanged, the body politic is often frozen out of the discourse and reduced to a spectatorship based on constructs of inevitability, the goodness of growth. My original hope was that if and when the news cameras were present at the event of a building’s destruction, they also gathered footage of the people who were there to watch the spectacle. I wanted to incorporate the crowd, the bystander and, by extension, the historical and contemporary citizen into the final work. However, the spectacle of destruction was the thing that, as I should have guessed, captured the camera’s attention. There were some crowd reaction shots – specifically at the implosion of the Devonshire Hotel – but reaction shots are just that – movement – or best understood in a filmic instead of a static context. As such, the whole of bystanding citizenry is embodied in the piece by one man who is present in one frame of the composite image.
What is included instead are images of the workers – the people whose job it is to carry out the demolitions – often the people with the same skills as those who enacted the construction – so the idea of from beginning to end – the whole circle. They were all over this footage,- to be expected. They were close to the destruction and therefore included by the cameras. They are a reminder that none of this is happening without people, they are also a reminder of the now lost working class history of the downtown peninsula.
These images largely come from analogue sources. They were super-saturated, colour shifted and cleaned up, but only liminally. In honour of the archive, I wanted to keep the evidence of their frailty, of their singular imperfections or what are called the artifacts of their materiality. Retired CBC archivist Colin Preston and I worked for days on researching and transferring the imagery from analogue to digital format with a homespun system created by film-maker and friend Alex Mackenzie. The process of transferring this imagery (somewhat by hand) created another layer of artifact – the digital hard-edged glitch. At first I was horrified to see such large glitches, but as I tried to erase them, it became apparent that they needed to stay. Not only as a reminder of the handmade process we used to transfer the stills and the refuting of the possibility that digital provides us with of achieving perfection, but also because it works thematically – the chaos or imperfection of destruction (smoke, debris, dust) AND a reinforcement of the fact that the majority of the images that compose this work are of the moment – the moment when the fire becomes known, the moment when a wrecking ball smashes through a wall, the moment when the smoke from an impending implosion billows out from the lower floor windows – and back again to the moment of when these singular images were created, then borrowed and isolated from the thousands of feet of film footage, from the thousands of hours of filmed moments, to rest upon a wall in a composite frame so that passersby might wonder – about the piece (of course) and about what we do, have done and will do in relation to all of the things we have built, are building and will build in our town and in our world.