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

by Yule Heibel on November 20, 2008

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.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Randall November 20, 2008 at 10:25 pm

I suppose Tudorbethan could become genuine heritage. Our Italianate buildings are, and they are derived from Renaissance forms which in turn of course, are inspired by classical sources.

The best Downtown example of Tudorbethan is probably the antique store (name escapes me) that has the bike shop next door in the 1000 block Fort. There’s a mid-century photo of it on the BC Archives site. It’s unusually well-crafted.

Yule November 21, 2008 at 10:30 pm

Sure, it could. Much depends on whether it’s as well-crafted as David Robinson’s antique shop (I think that’s the building you’re thinking of), and on whether the economic base is in place to keep these buildings maintained.
I absolutely don’t have any quibbles with that. What drives me crazy, though, is this infantile attachment to a Beatrix Potter world that’s supposed to run itself, with nary a concern for economic realities, or for real people, a world in which everything is based strictly on aesthetics: on whether it’s quaint, charming, attractive in a superficial sort of way.
That’s what gets me about the Victorian attachment to fantasy. At some point, it’s just not good enough anymore to dither around like Peter Rabbit – or perhaps we’re talking about The Wind in the Willows, with make-believe Toads of Toad Hall, or Rattys of the Riverbank?
When some people here (the letter writer and his blogger friend) espouse the virtues of heritage, they’re not talking about working heritage, or heritage that’s productive for the future. They’re talking about an infantile attachment to a childish fantasy from “back in the day” where they were all-powerful conquerors …as opposed to the sadder reality of their present.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: