My “yes, minister” moment…?

by Yule Heibel on June 11, 2007

So many interesting things I should be commenting on, if only to have some trace for my own overburdened memory… Things I’ve been reading, in books and online; events I’ve been able to attend, spoken words, conversations: all ephemera. And yet themes emerge.

If there’s a metaphor, maybe it’s that I’m skating not on thin ice, but cutting my teeth on the impossible flatness of this webbed, instant, accessible, occulted, interlinked, informed world. Were I skating, I’d be upright, horizontal, eyes straight ahead, staring out from my silo. And wouldn’t I know where I was then! Barrel-chested and armoured. Instead, it feels more like I’m flat on my belly, face pressed against a transparency that won’t congeal.

Of course, many folks around me are upright pillars of probity. They know what’s what. It’s all rather funny, though.

Let me tell a little story. In the current (June) issue of FOCUS Magazine, I discuss a possible downtown redevelopment proposal. It’s proposed by Westbank Projects Corporation, and entails building a circa 20 story condominium tower in conjunction with a badly-needed downtown satellite facility for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The Art Gallery would also get an onsite outdoor sculpture park. The property, in downtown Victoria, is currently a small motel, with a floor-space-ratio of 1:1, which means it’s a totally underused space in the city centre. The property’s streetscape is plain and offers very little to the pedestrian. Putting a sculpture park and art gallery in its place would enliven the block, which is also part of the downtown “tourist district” (the Royal BC Museum is across the street, the Victoria Convention Centre is diagonally opposite, and the Empress Hotel — Victoria’s famous Rattenbury-designed pile — is half a block away, directly behind the Convention Centre).

Perhaps closer to my heart than the logical proximity of these other “star” locations, which suggests that another attraction both in terms of architecture and amenity (in this case venue) would be appropriate, is the fact that James Cheng, the architect who would design the residential tower and art gallery, is probably the best person for this job. He has proven himself at the SFH level as well as at building towers. Not to be unkind, but I can’t think of a single local architect I’d trust with the task of building a stylish highrise in such a sensitive downtown area, or with rising to the challenge of building something as important as an art gallery — our contemporary equivalent of what amounts to a religious building. (In the 80s, that would have been the mall — at least its interior: cathedral, anyone? — but in the naughts, it has to be the art gallery and other buildings associated with culture.)

In addition, I also admire the way Cheng pays attention to the roofline — by now we all know that how the building meets the street is a critical factor in successful urbanism (not least because no one in their right mind walks around with their neck craned, looking up at buildings, but rather with their senses engaged as to what’s happening on the sidewalk: hence, pay attention to how your building meets the street if you want good design).

But that doesn’t mean that individual buildings don’t “congregate,” as it were, to create a “community,” which in turn creates an urban identity. And for this, their rooflines are critical: it is how we identify them, name them, and bring associations to them. It is their rooflines that let our hearts sing when we glimpse the skyline from a distance. Our cities are an assembly, and our buildings should show some care for that. There are too many architects who just don’t get that and think that a slavish adherence to modernism (think flat-top) is sufficient, or who think that some dragged-out tired post-modern “hat trick” is ok. Oh-no-no-no-no, mes amis! The roof is as important as the base. In high school (Oak Bay High, right here in Victoria) I had a very interesting art teacher who worked with pottery at the time (she’s now a jewelry designer in Seattle). She taught me that the most important thing about a “pot” (a vase or other thrown clay object) is its base — mess that up, and you may as well punch it down again. The base, of course, in architectural terms, is how the building meets the street. But the second most important thing is the rim or lip. You can get away with messing that up a bit — just a bit — if the base if right. But it’s best if you get them both right. The rim or lip is of course the roofline. We notice the base first, without even knowing it. But inevitably, we will look at the rim. Same with buildings. Get it right.

Ok, enough background. So here’s my story:

Yesterday a woman phoned me, at home, in response to my above-mentioned article “about the architect Chang [sic].” She’s not the first person to phone me at home after something of mine appeared in print locally. I’m usually intrigued by these calls, but this one was immediately different.

My caller demanded to know whether “he” (the architect) “knew” that there had been “a duck creek” on the site.

Excuse me?, I asked. She spoke with a slight English accent — the kind that’s either a left-over from an emigration that took place four or more decades ago, …or was acquired around the same time by select Canadian natives who wanted to show their general superiority in North America’s hugger-mugger western frontier. It’s the sort of somewhat braying, yet “proper,” tone meant to impress the servants and other lower orders. Naturally, it’s all a bunch of sodding rot, but there you have it.

“Duck creek!” she repeated, or at least that’s what it sounded like.

I finally figured out that she was actually referring to the well-documented, but oft conveniently-forgotten fact that this area used to be part of the tidal flats, which were dammed, drained, dredged, and infilled over a century ago. In fact, the Empress (which is a seriously weighty building), the Conference Centre, and the Crystal Garden (across the street from the proposed art gallery site) are all built on what used to be a bog. People forget that this was the sort of mega-engineering project that today would be disallowed for its ecological impacts, not to mention what must have been its probably obscene costs. But now it’s done, and it looks great.

My caller seemed to think that she was the only person who had remembered or thought of this structural weakness in the ground’s underlying make-up, and demanded to know whether the architect was aware of the “problem.” I replied that this was an engineering problem, and that most certainly the architect and the developer were aware of the soil conditions. I tried to tell her that the Empress sits on what used to be a marsh, and that it has so far escaped the horrible fate of sinking into the muck. I explained that this is an engineering problem that the architects and engineers were well capable of dealing with, and that if it comes to building a highrise on the Crystal Court Motel site, the structural condition of the ground will be taken into account and dealt with. But she kept at it, as if I could “do something about it.”

What really annoyed me, though, was that she had my name, had successfully looked me up in the phone book to get my number, and had no qualms about calling me at home — but when I asked what her name was, she refused to tell me.

“I’m a citizen!” she spluttered, as if that said it all. Yes, well, I suppose if you watch enough BBC and keep up the accent, you would expect the servants to consider this sufficient. But it made me wonder what she thought I was. A public servant? The Bloody Building Czar of Victoria? Or perhaps the willing tool of evil developers?

I have a suggestion for the “citizen”: learn to throw a pot.


melanie June 11, 2007 at 3:29 am

Amusing story. In relation to the bog, I followed your link to the Empress and found an invitation to “Dine & Discover the Titanic Exhibition.” Maybe it’s going to sink into the Duck Creek after all!

I know next to nothing about architecture and urban design, so thanks for the tip about the base and the lip. I live in a rather high density area with more than a few tower blocks of both residential and office varieties (mixed in with everything ranging from Victorian terraces to small apartment blocks built in the ’20s-’60s. There’s a lot of work going on lately, improving the ‘meeting the street’ aspect of some of the older towers. I’m not sure how they’re going to improve the rooflines though 🙁

yulelog June 15, 2007 at 2:17 am

Sorry about the long lag in commenting back, Melanie, but I’ve been really busy…

You’re Down Under, aren’t you? There’s an interesting blog I found through Gordon Price’s Vancouver-based blog Pricetags called City Alliance: Brisbane, Auckland, Vancouver, Perth. Lots of Vancouver stuff in there, but obviously much from Australia, which you might find useful, in case you want to immerse yourself more in these “built environment” issues. No Sidney focus, though… I guess they figure that city gets enough attention already!

Good point re. improving the rooflines of existing buildings that aren’t interesting. Maybe the best thing to do is to build something better nearby, to at least draw the eye away from boring, unimaginative roofs?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: