“We don’t want to be another Vancouver”: Some thoughts on the Victoria mindset…

by Yule Heibel on August 27, 2007

My scribble today is more in line with thinking out loud than with any kind of sustained effort toward an essay, but Joan Wickersham’s article, Bricks & Politics — What gets built at Harvard, what doesn’t, and why, in the latest (Sept./Oct. 2007) issue of Harvard Magazine really provoked my thinking — including thinking out loud.

Who knew such parallels existed between Bostonians and Victorians? (And I include Canterbridgians as Bostonians here.)

I actually always suspected the parallels, knowing full well that Boston, with its long history of indigenous (made in Boston, home-grown) “solutions” and its prudish, old-fashioned and often anti-modernist ways, has a chip on its shoulder compared to New York, just as Victoria does compared to Vancouver. The parallel extends to moralisms, in the sense that NYC is seen as a money-grubbing and shockingly flashy capitalist heartland, while frugal (and somehow “more authentic”) Bostonians wear last year’s — nay, last decade’s! — frumpy fashions because they, of course, are above the sort of superficiality that passes for meaning in “the big city”… But I’ll save the pop psychology for another day — suffice to say, the observation of parallels has its valid points.

Wickersham makes several arguments that set my heart racing, the key ones being: first, the story of neighbourhood opposition to Harvard’s plans for development — an opposition that dates back to the 60s when Harvard built the Peabody Terraces (which sort of parallels Roberts & Orchard House in the James Bay neighbourhood of Victoria, a catalyst for anti-modernist opposition to “skyscrapers” and densification); second, the contentious process of neighbourhood consultation, which sometimes goes against intended outcomes, leaving the proponents with mediocre designs; and third, the question of “branding.”

Branding was perhaps the most electrifying point, but it’s better understood if you understand the history of neighbourhood consultation (in some cases interference) first.

Peabody Terraces created mistrust of the university, a culture which in turn was groomed by the neighbourhood. (See page two of the article for details: Peabody Terraces is comprised of three 22-storey modernist towers on Harvard land, abutting a residential SFH neighbourhood.)

Approximately 35 years after Peabody, James Cuno (Harvard Art Museums director at the time, and himself a Harvard-trained art history PhD) proposed developing a Harvard-owned strip of land next to Peabody Terraces along the River Charles, on the non-riverbank side of the road. At the time, the site was leased to a nursery and garden shop. Harvard hired Renzo Piano — arguably a “starchitect” — who designed an ultra-low-key, wood-frame, two-storey building to accomodate two new museums. One was for contemporary art, and the other was supposed to contain ancient, Islamic, and Asian art. The building was effectively hidden by a screen of trees, so that driving West along Memorial Drive, you’d see the bike and walkways along the Charles to your left, while on your right, the new art museum would discreetly hide behind a wall of greenery. Very bucolic indeed.

The neighbours flipped. They were “concerned about traffic” and suggested that the University simply turn the land into a public park.

In a sense, the neighbours were nursing a 35-year old grudge (about Peabody Terraces) on the one hand, and on the other they were spinning with anxiety over Harvard’s new developments on the other side of the river in the neighbourhood of Allston. So in a sense, it was a classic case of misdirecting concerns away from what actually was on the table (the Piano proposal), using it to leverage other concerns instead.

We don’t have anything even approaching the kind of scale that Harvard builds with, but I can’t help seeing some similarities in dynamics.

Wickersham writes:

Eventually, a compromise was announced. Harvard decided not to build a museum, and new zoning was put in place that would allow housing between three and six stories tall on the site. As a concession to the neighborhood, Harvard agreed to build approximately 40 units of affordable community housing nearby, and to donate $50,000 to neighborhood groups.

The neighbors had done what they’d been powerless to achieve 40 years before with Peabody Terrace: they had stopped Harvard from building what Harvard wanted to build. (…)

“Exhilarating,” one Riverside activist told the Globe in 2003, after the compromise was announced. But had the neighborhood really benefited? Instead of a two-story museum in a park-like setting, they ended up with taller student dorms and a small public park adjacent to heavily traveled Memorial Drive. (source)

Wickersham astutely continues (page 3) to discuss perceptions of “the public good.” Neighbourhood and university disagreed about what was “a public good.” Kathleen Leahy Born, an architect who was a Cambridge councillor when the Renzo Piano/ Harvard Art Museums proposal came forward, gives an example I can recall:

“When I became a city councilor, there was controversy about a supermarket chain wanting to build along the river. I thought the idea was appalling, but you couldn’t argue for the beauty of the river without sounding elitist. The Riverside group saw this supermarket as food for poor people. So for them, defeating a museum and getting some units of affordable housing is a victory of their definition of civic good.” (source)

If she’s referencing the supermarket I’m thinking of, I can only concur: it’s a stupid use of space. At the same time I could automatically recapitulate the populist arguments for putting the market there.

As Wickersham continues, with observations that sound only too familiar:

In the opinion of Pebble Gifford, a longtime Cambridge activist, “Those people don’t care about Renzo Piano, they don’t give a damn who designs a museum down there. It’s not about architectural taste. It’s about ‘You already destroyed half our neighborhood, and now you want to destroy the other half?’” For his part, Northeastern’s George Thrush—himself a Cambridge resident—points out that Harvard’s neighbors often fail to acknowledge the benefits of living near a large and thriving university: “Never have people whose property values have risen so much complained so loudly.” (source)

But now let’s move into the other really juicy issues around contextuality and branding the city. These start to unfold more fully with the failed project for Mount Auburn Street, a center designed by Hans Hollein.

(A note: the intersection of Brattle and Mt. Auburn Streets represents the communal commercial heart of Harvard Square, which in turn is in the heart of Cambridge, which in turn is Boston’s literal & metaphorical left flank. You can’t get closer to contested territory than this. If Harvard Square is the university’s territory — a kind of “university-only, hands-off” symbol — then Brattle & Mt. Auburn is the people’s linear agora. Mt. Auburn continues from Harvard Square, past Brattle and on to the Charles. It’s a key street.)

So: what happened on Mount Auburn? Wickersham explains:

The story began in 1999, when Harvard Planning and Real Estate announced it was going to tear down a couple of old buildings on Mount Auburn Street between J. Press and the Fox Club. The retail tenants—the Harvard Provision Co., Skewers restaurant, and University Typewriter—left cordially, but they were the kind of quirky small retailers whose passing dismays Cambridge residents (and Harvard alumni) who’ve lamented the gradual loss of the “old” Harvard Square to glossy chain stores and banks.

Because one of the buildings on the site, an undistinguished clapboard triple-decker, dated from 1895, the University could not demolish it without permission from the Cambridge Historical Commission. Furthermore, the site was within a conservation district, so any new design would have to navigate a narrow Scylla-and-Charybdis set of requirements encouraging “creative modern architecture” that must also “complement and contribute to its immediate neighbors and the character of the District.”

Harvard hired Austrian architect Hans Hollein to design an office building for the University libraries. Nazneen Cooper, assistant dean for campus design and planning for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, was involved with architect selection. “The University wanted something visionary,” she says. “This was a building with no pressing criteria. The scope was small and the risk was small, so we thought, ‘Great! Let’s get someone we otherwise wouldn’t get.’” (source)

As Nazneen Cooper elaborates, of the three internationally known architects Harvard considered (Rafael Vinoly, Toyo Ito, and Hollein), Hollein was the most conservative.”

One would think this would fly, right? What could the neighbours object to here?

Well, what did happen sounds like something straight out of one of Victoria’s Advisory Design Panel meetings or some community Land Use Committee meeting, only taken to the Nth factor:

For the Mount Auburn Street site, Hollein designed a five-story building whose façade was a sloping, undulating metal mesh screen overhanging recessed ground-floor shop fronts. He presented his design at a hearing before the historical commission in April 2001.

Lee Cott, whose firm Bruner/Cott was affiliated with Hollein on the project, remembers the evening as “awful.” Cooper calls it “embarrassing.” The commissioners grilled Hollein on basic issues of aesthetics and functionality. Why did the building curve? What was the “goal or intent” of the sloping façade? Had he thought about the snow that would collect in the screen? Did he understand what Cambridge winters were like? Hollein, visibly tired and jet-lagged, replied that he had considered all these issues, that he’d made many models and used his judgment in the design process, that he had designed buildings in the mountains of Europe where there was far more snow.

When the meeting was opened to public comment, a Cambridge resident stood up and gave a lengthy lecture and slideshow about contextual architecture. “Hans Hollein is one of the world’s leading experts on contextual architecture,” Cooper says. “He doesn’t need someone to explain to him what ‘contextual’ means.”

In a memo to the commissioners several days earlier, the commission’s executive director, Charles Sullivan, had called the building “inappropriately scaled” and “incongruous because of its aggressive indifference to its surroundings.” At the hearing, after a brief discussion, the commission voted 7-0 to reject Hollein’s design because it did not “complement and contribute to” its urban context in Harvard Square. (source)

In Victoria, too, design advisory panels or community activists have scuttled what were relatively innovative or daring designs, forcing the architect either to tone down outstanding elements or questioning their legitimacy outright. Most recently, I witnessed this myself at a meeting having to do with the artist Xane St. Philips’s “living wall” design for a new office tower.

As for the demand (which some Victorians also often voice) that “contextuality” should mean simply replicating existing building materials, Nazneen Cooper has an apt retort. Recalling that Harvard Square’s historical buildings are all done in red brick, she asks, “Is context in Harvard Square a big parking garage which has no architectural merit but is red brick? Is that context?”

Here in Victoria, certain community advocates would recommend cladding everything in faux “Tudor” half-timbering, just because that’s the way they built ’em back in 1920. Failing that, we can always slap on some fake “river rock” for that “genuine authentic” feel…


But if — horrors! — a new building is glass and steel, it’s alleged to be a “Vancouver building,” and this brings out all the local anxieties. It also brings us to …branding.

I guess Vancouver has, in these parts, cornered the “steel & glass brand,” so to speak, and when people here say they don’t “want to be just like Vancouver,” what they’re really saying is “Vancouver has that brand game all sown up — how can we compete??”

Only they think that’s not what they’re saying, because they can’t admit to themselves that this is what it’s really all about: how can Victoria (sort of like Boston vis-a-vis the much more significant NYC) assert its brand, when — let’s face it — it hasn’t had an update or makeover in almost a century?

In fact, I’d almost argue that we’re in the throes of an update right now, which is why the issue is so pressing.

Boston/ Cambridge/ even Harvard: they struggle mightily with this question, too (even if it’s less of an issue for them at the end of the day because they have more than the tourism industry egg in their more commodious basket). As Wickersham puts it:

There is also the question of a building’s symbolic and visual importance within the larger urban scene. Kathy Born says, “In a place like Harvard Square, you need buildings that fit in, but you also need punctuation. Some of Harvard’s greatest buildings are the oddballs: Memorial Hall, the Lampoon.” How does one decide whether a certain site needs an attention-getting “object” building, or a well-mannered backdrop? (source)

Here in Victoria, we can’t seem to want to decide, and yet at the same time, if someone decides for us, there’s hell to pay.

Writes Wickersham:

Ultimately, arguments about context boil down to taste. For everyone who says, “Yes, it’s contextual,” there’s someone else who says, “No, it isn’t.” In the case of the Hollein building, the power to decide rested solely in the hands of the Cambridge Historical Commission, which originated in 1963 partly in response to Harvard’s modern building projects (notably the Holyoke Center, whose “harsh exterior contrasted sharply with the comfortable brick vernacular of Harvard Square,” according to the commission’s website). Again, a public regulatory process trumped Harvard’s ability to build on its own land—and again, the public process had grown up partly in reaction to what and how Harvard built in the 1960s, the University’s single most explosive period of growth. (source)

And a designer adds, “There’s now so much community review that it’s hard to build a building that hasn’t been pushed and massaged and changed.”

Design by committee

Now, down to cases: can “brand” be a committee project?

This is an interesting question since the person on Harvard’s team who argues for a “Harvard brand” is arguably (my argue) building stuff I’d rather not see getting built — neo-Georgian replicas. For the record, I adore Georgian architecture, I really do: a huge part of New England architecture’s ability to compel and enthrall derives from a vernacular interpretation, from the late 18th century and well into the 19th, of Georgian style. But I’m not impressed by neo-Georgian when it’s really neo, i.e., designed and built in the 1990s or later.

It seems to me that part of the problem in Victoria stems from an inability to think honestly (flexibly) about brand and think about how far or deep brand’s reach should be allowed to go; and, following from this, to tackle the question of whether or not committee work can in any way fix a problem that hasn’t even been articulated (namely, see the first point: how far or deep should branding go).

(When I write “hasn’t been articulated,” I mean intelligently articulated. I’m not interested in the hand-wringing by silly people who worry that the tourists will stop coming if they don’t find what essentially boils down to a Potemkin Village upon arriving in Victoria. Those “arguments” are beyond idiotic — real brand thinking has nothing to do with fake whimsy. Tourists want to go someplace vibrant — a Potemkin Village is not vibrant. Sure, every tourist may be his or her own czar and all that, but eventually the lustre tarnishes if there’s nothing but a rotting corpse underneath.)

Wickersham’s last section, “The politics of branding: Who gets to define a ‘Harvard building’?,” focuses on The Spangler Center, which is part of Harvard Business School. It looks for all intents and purposes like something built during Longfellow’s tenure in Cambridge: all neo-Georgian brick and white columns, and of course — looking like that — it fits right in (back to the “contextuality” issue). It was designed by Robert A.M. Stern, one of whose fat tomes (the last volume) on New York City I own and admire. But my dear Mr. Stern, you are the scourge of modern architects with your perfected anachronisms, regardless of their efficacy in terms of establishing brand identity.

Writes Wickersham, with a directive from Stern that sounds like an amalgamation of our local heritage, community, and tourism industry advocates:

In his speech at the Spangler’s dedication in January 2001, Stern argued that a university needs to have its own brand, just as a corporation or product does; and that in an era when competition for students and resources is fierce, Harvard’s venerable red-brick-Georgian look is an important marketing asset which the University ought to be perpetuating. In other words, the brand already exists and it ain’t broke, so don’t try to fix it. (Interestingly, Stern’s speech fudged the issue of whether he was advocating for the future of brick neo-Georgian branding at Harvard as a whole, or just at the business school. Stern is currently working on the new building at the northwest corner of the Law School—a modern Beaux-Arts-influenced design whose façade calls for pale limestone.) (source)

Joan Wickersham wisely lets Larry Summers (past president of Harvard) follow with an observation of his own, which points to the foolishness of one-track-pony branding:

“With the exception of the business school, Harvard architecture has tended very much towards eclecticism, with many different styles juxtaposed in close proximity. Reasonable people differ, but I think Harvard has in general erred more on the side of variety than on the side of coherence in its architectural choices.” (source)

That, dear Victoria, is exactly right and it’s why we should have an honest conversation about branding, tourism, economic nuts-and-bolts, architecture (by committee and otherwise), and the need to move ahead (vs treading water or moving backwards).

“We don’t want to be another Vancouver” is a lame cop-out. Tell me instead what you think Victoria’s brand is — and then tell me why and how Victoria can move past the alleged historical brand of faux Tudor half-timbering (or “Tudorbethan,” as we also sometimes call it). Let’s instead talk honestly about how eclectic Victoria is.

And while we’re at it, can we tell those community advocates who are nursing decades-old grudges over towers built in their neighbourhoods ages ago — towers no one today would consider replicating — to stop confusing issues from then with issues of now?

Finally, just like Boston will never ever be New York, there’s no reason to fret in such a silly manner that we’ll ever be Vancouver. Just as Boston is dyed in the wool Boston, so Victoria is Victoria. It’s a question, as Larry Summers might agree, of leveraging our eclecticism. Our “brand” is variety — and it even includes modernism and modernity, right up to the vibrant present.


melanie September 3, 2007 at 4:36 am

Ha ha! I live in the Australian Vancouver to Melbourne’s Victoria. Coincidentally Melbourne, which has loads of grand Victorian era and early 20th century architecture because it was once the capitalist capital but is no longer, has just set up a Commission. They are, they say, looking for Ideas. This smells like disaster. Sydney has no planning (just a sort of corruption), and often builds things that produce architectural as well as popular outrage. But it got the “fast” accolade. (You should read the Melbourne entry on Fastcompany – it basically says nothing except “we’re better than Sydney”!!!)

yulelog September 3, 2007 at 11:10 am

Because of a Vancouver-based blog I read (PriceTags), I’ve come across CityALLIANCE: Brisbane, Auckland, Vancouver, Perth, which has no mention of either Sidney or Melbourne in its title.

So I looked at the 4 Australian cities listed on FastCompany’s “fast cities” pages (with Sidney, as you point out, being the only FastCompany-designated one), and read the blurbs.

Indeed, as you said, Melbourne is sort of frothing, with a claim of being better than Sidney in the very first sentence!

That’s silly — a city should be able to talk about what it does, without making the comparison instantly dependent on another place. (To their credit, Boston doesn’t toot its horn by saying “we’re better than NYC.” Only in its darkest moments — when, for example, the NYC art scene in the fifties clearly took global leadership over everyone else — does Boston resort to a sniffed rebuttal that sounds as though its saying, “thank god we’re NOT New York,” in the art case by incubating a specific “tame” Boston art scene in opposition to NYC’s wild Abstract Expressionism. Similarly, when 60s LA gained a significant national reputation for the kind of “cool” art represented by Edward Rusche, or the “hot” and in-your-face stuff of Edward Kienholz — note how both artists absolutely depended on an iconography only to be found in mid- to late-twentieth century car culture — San Francisco “retreated” into a figurative style that clearly championed far more traditional iconographies — like people, still lifes, and landscapes unencumbered by the “pop” modernity that artists in both NYC and LA — albeit in very different ways — were having their way with … Oh, but now I’m really going off on a tangent here, and the San Francisco art scene was sooo complex, with the Beats and de Feo and all that …so where was I?)

Oh right! The Australian blurbs! So Melbourne has a hissy fit about being better than Sidney, while Sidney more matter-of-factly just says, “we’re at the top, get used to it.”

But I liked how the “underdogs” (Perth and Brisbane) positioned themselves. Very terse, no words lost. Perth effectively says, Look, we used to be a mess — resource exploitation — but watch out, we’re redesigning ourselves, and while it might still all be hype, I have a real weak spot for design (and redesign), so I like that.

It just occured to me that design & redesign isn’t “planning,” in the sense of city planners or neighbourhood advocates who want a cast-in-iron, carved-in-stone, bylaw-enforceable “Master Plan.” Design and redesign is far more flexible and responsive. So: yea to design, nay to “master plan.”

The person who submitted Brisbane didn’t bother with a description at all, and instead, there’s just a comment, which is gold: “Leading capital city growth in Australia with an abundance of high-rise approvals are sure to attract many more people to this area.” Bingo! That’s your raw material: more people (greater density), and to curb sprawl at least somewhat and to make the city more efficient, “an abundance” of highrises, not least because an abundance of hedge-hog “ground dwellings” isn’t going to allow for the kind of density all great cities thrive on.

n.b.: I can’t seem to make the links for the Fast Cities pages work w/out generating errors. So, best to find the interactive readers’ map and zoom in on the mentioned cities (click on their names to be taken to the respective pages).

melanie September 7, 2007 at 9:37 pm

I did read the Brisbane and Perth entries too. I found the Brisbane comment rather pathetic. They could have done a lot more with it. For example, the Southbank area along the river, which has an arts complex, some university campus buildings, high rise flats, and lots of cafes and restaurants – an area that nurtures things like BrisScience, a “Socratic forum” and other public talks and debates. Also a ‘river festival’ which sounds lovely. I’ve only been to Brisbane twice. At first I thought it was pretty dead from the neck up, but on my last visit earlier this year I really changed my mind. But the mention of high rise on its own really smacked of ‘developer mentality’ – something that has plagued Australian cities for too long. It’s a bit like the Chinese attitude of “old=bad; new=good” which has led to the absolute destruction of inner urban precincts in some Chinese cities (Beijing, Kunming). (Or the GDR architecture that you blogged about earlier)

I don’t know enough about Perth to know whether their blurb is hype or not. My last impressions (over a decade ago now) were of suburban sprawl.

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