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Oh no, another lovely day

January 15th, 2010 · 16 Comments

Damn. A gorgeous afternoon. Blue, blue sky flecked with puffy cream and gray clouds, the container loaders of the port vivid orange against the green mountains with their white tops. The float plane banks in to land and the seagulls are circling over Burrard Inlet.

And Vancouver the city seems beautiful in all its different ways. I had to trek around most of the city today, so I got to marvel again at how this doesn’t seem so much like one city as seventeen completely different ones. No wonder film crews love it here — there’s no sense of unity at all that makes any corner of the city instantly identifiable as Vancouver.

When you’re downtown these days on the grand avenue between the glossy new convention centre and the steel and glass towers of the Shaw Building and the Fairmont, it seems as though this hyper-modern, magazine-ready downtown can’t possibly be part of the same city as the utterly unambitious little stucco bungalows, circa World War Two, of Nanaimo and Grandview or the milling crowds in front of the heavy stone presence of the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings or even the 80s bathtub-tile look of the old Canada Place.

And a sunny, warm winter day makes every one of them look charming or spectacular  in their own way. Damn. All those tourists will be here soon, saying, “Hey, this seems like a cool and gorgeous place place. Maybe we should move here or buy a little pied-a-terre.” Just what we don’t need.

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  • Lewis N. Villegas

    The great architect and urbanist of the late Renaissance, who took the classical name Palladio, wrote one of the first illustrated treatises on architecture (Venice 1570). Less known is his travel guide to Rome, the place he visited several times, notebook and measuring tape in hand, to figure out what it was that the Ancients had got right. The notion of using the ruins of classical Rome as a kind of experimental workshop in urbanism was not exactly original. Alberti and Brunelleschi had travelled to Rome together to measure and learn from that ancient place one hundred year before, and no one doubts that Palladio was well aware of Albert’s treatise.

    I harken back to the “FormShift Evening” when the best minds in architecture and planning in our city assembled at SFU Downtown, and Frances was a member of the speaker panel. That’s the night I tried to introduce in our city the overlooked fact that urban design, architecture, and planning are different areas of specialization. Oh, they are interconnected—along with engineering, real estate and politics—but it is the fact that locally we do not value “urban design” as a stand alone concern that drives me to comment (or take the bait) today.

    I wonder how it was that our blog host “trekked around” on that glorious sunny winter’s day? Was it on foot, in a car, or in “the family limo” [a.k.a. the Canada Line]?

    “… I had to trek around most of the city today, so I got to marvel again at how this doesn’t seem so much like one city as seventeen completely different ones…”

    Shades of “Collage City” by Colin Rowe (1978).

    However, the point that I am driving at is that it is not the city seen as a series of buildings in succession, one after the other, but the city experienced as a series of open public spaces shaped by the buildings, or the built form, that marks the difference between planning and architecture, on one hand, and urbanism or urban design on the other. Doesn’t sound like our blog host had the opportunity to sit down in a sunny outdoor cafe table for a coffee break. Not because she would not, but probably because she could not.

    Open outdoor urban spaces of high quality are, in the words of Rem Koolhas (architect of the Seattle Public Library) “what the city gives us for free”.

    We never built an “Olympic Piazza”, in my mind to be sited fronting the superb Canadian Pacific Railroad station colonnade (Barott, Blackader & Webster, 1914). In the past, when the structures went up across Cordova from the station, there was no municipal urban code mandating that they replicate and extend the colossal colonnade (Price Waterhouse Centre, Tudor & Walters 1984; and take your pick—Spencer’s Department Store 1928, then Eaton’s 1948, then Harbour Center 1970’s, and finally SFU downtown campus 1990—none of these entities or their designers demonstrating any consciousness that the back of their building fronted on a truly important Vancouver public open space).

    Thus, a truly spectacular piece of architecture in our city, precisely because it speaks to an urbanism that has never materialized, is idle while all the other stuff—including a horrible overpass and the street end vista to the east—compete in a race to the bottom that giving us nothing for free.

    “…When you’re downtown these days on the grand avenue between the glossy new convention centre and the steel and glass towers of the Shaw Building and the Fairmont … the utterly unambitious little stucco bungalows, circa World War Two, of Nanaimo and Grandview … even the 80s bathtub-tile look of the old Canada Place…”

    The commodification of architecture, as we can see in Frances sharp observations, marches on. We take notice of it when it’s new, but once the fad passes and the aura fades, it becomes “utterly unambitious”. Only then do we finally appreciate it for what it really is—utterly bathtub-tile.

    I believe that learning to value urbanism, or urban design, provides the only way out. The buildings are every bit a part of our economy and our everyday functioning, but a city is not to be understood in marketing terms.

    “…this hyper-modern, magazine-ready downtown …”

    The buildings, or architecture, are properly background, except for a very small number that occupy spatially important sites—like the Europe Hotel in Gastown (Parr & Fee, 1909), or the Marine Building (McCarter & Nairne, 1930) at the poorly planned termination to the CPR’s Hastings Street (Hamilton for the CPR, 1885-6).

    Once we begin to see the spaces the buildings shape, and experience “urban rooms” more than buildings, even the most beautiful city in the world, Paris, begins to lose ground in comparison to Rome.

    All I have in mind here, along with Palladio, is to give my readers ideas about where to go next on vacation…

    Rome had 2,500 years to get it right. Paris up until 1500 was more or less a “one cathedral town”. Rome—the city that has been home to tyrants, fascists and popes is no “collage”. Still building-on after two and a half millennia, there is a DNA—a culture of urban design—that holds it together. The only missing element, and it forms the very heart of the Eternal City, is the reconstruction of a vast, ruined site of the Roman Forum.

    Because it occupies the very heart of the city, the ruined and cordoned off Forum greatly complicates the task for the tourist visitor in a manner completely opposite to its original function. Every route one wants to take is made immensely longer by the chore of having to circumnavigate the very place that should be a sort cut: the old Roman centre. In the golden age, not only did every road lead to Rome, but once in Rome the shortest distance between two places was more likely than not going to involve a stroll through the Roman Forum.

    In spite of the big hole in the middle, Rome remains the most walkable city in the world. And, the secret to unravelling its mystery is to play a kind of tic-tac-toe or connect-the-dots by walking from one famous public open space (or piazza) to the next. Thus, in 20 minutes we can go from the Trevi Fountain to the Pantheon; to Piazza Navona and Campo de Fiori; to Piazza Farnese and Ponte Sisto; and into the heart of a long-standing quarter known as Trastevere (literally: “across the Tiber”).

    Of course, the walk will be impossible to complete in 20 minutes because there are ice cream shops beckoning at Trevi; the tables come out at night in front of the Pantheon and one can sip a glass in great comfort; the bustle at Navona creates so many decibels that the easiest way to find it is just to follow the growing din of the crowd noise as one approaches, and once there every street on its periphery holds another captivating piece of curiosity; Campo di Fiori literally offers food for free in the from of tapas from the wine bars where wine by the glass comes chilled and at tempting prices; and Trastevere itself is a gem of a “quartier” to discover, with an identity so strong that we are told it has developed and sustained its own dialect to this day.

    I believe Vancouver’s bid to become “a world class city” or simply a place of good urbanism, hinges on our embracing the idea of a city composed as a series of “urban rooms” not built one building at a time. Places that we can instantly recognize and remember, but places that are public and open and free to enter and explore.

    However, we have one massive obstacle standing in our way. Every time the sun shines I am carried away by the beauty and the lushness of this place.

  • Peter G

    I too walked around the city this morning, but my impression was a little different. the amount of trash on the sidewalks is staggering. There should be an environmental tax on pizza take-out plates. Most of the streets seem to be paved with them. What has happened to all the garbage cans in this city? I looked in vain for one. We cannot seem to get rid of the dumpsters, but we can manage to remove the trash cans. Other than that… it was a lovely walk!

  • “I wonder how it was that our blog host “trekked around” on that glorious sunny winter’s day? Was it on foot, in a car, or in “the family limo” [a.k.a. the Canada Line]?”

    There is a fourth option that combines the best of all those modes IMO.

  • gmgw

    You’re right, of course, Chris– anti-gravity chairs would definitely be the best way of getting around for people of *all* ages and physical abilities (you know, the kind of folks– of whom there are a great many– for whom bicycles aren’t a realistic option). Time for some serious work in the lab.

  • Hardly suggesting everyone all the time need bike, I just thought it was interesting that Lewis didn’t even reference the possibility. Clearly my work is not yet done! 🙂

    Also, note the statistic I referenced in a different thread:

    “From a 2000 Industry Canada report:

    Over 40 percent of Canadians participate in bicycling and over 52 percent of
    Canadian households have one or more adult bicycles. Bicycling is ranked
    fourth behind walking, gardening, and swimming as one of Canada’s most popular
    recreational activities.”

    Unless you take issue with the statistics, nearly half the population is capable of cycling to some degree, or else is in the habit of buying things they can’t use.

  • Joe Just Joe

    4th behind swimming you say? That’s great we can return the Burrard bike lane, and the city can instead install a couple of swim lanes across false creek. It will be even more inclusive as you don’t even need to own a bike to take advantage.

  • Frances Bula

    How the blog host trekked around was by family car.

    Part of my day was dedicated to moving my mother, who has Alzheimer’s and uses a walker, from a care home on the west side to one on the east side. That also entailed schlepping a few boxes along with me.

    I haven’t figured out how to do any of those kinds of tasks with a bike or the Canada Line yet, although perhaps the boxes I could manage if I were as ingenious as some people I see cycling around this town.

  • Given what we surmise about future climate conditions and dwindling resources it might be more cost-effective and serve us better in the long run to tear up some asphalt and plant gardens!

    Have you ever noticed that in triathlons the shortest leg is the swimming part of the race? I wonder why?


  • My prev. remark directed toward Joe.

  • Stephanie

    Interesting comment, Lewis. Pity that subsequently this degenerated into another self-aggrandizing lifestyle activism thread.

    And on that note, an Open Left blog post I much enjoyed:

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Frances, thanks for breaking the suspense!

    If the missing piece for building a great city here on Canada’s west coast is understanding urbanist values, then how did we get into such a dilemma?

    It would be difficult to provide a definitive answer here, but we can point out two likely culprits. On the one hand, travelling in our cars alters human sense perception, it changes our values. On the other, letting loose automobiles to dominate the street space—and the public realm—changed the face, feel and function of our cities.

    Check out this video shot at a time when automobiles still did not rule the street. We see the cars, but it is the behaviour of the pedestrians that is truly remarkable.

    The same pedestrian behaviour can be seen in black-and-white photography of Paris at the turn of the last century.

    By 1942 the speed limit in most North American cities was raised from 30 to 50 k.p.h. …and all the bets were off. Cars that were travelling at 6x walking speed were now going almost twice as fast. It was not just the experience of the street for the pedestrian, but the experience of the city for those behind the wheel that changed completely. It is difficult to imagine that this was not the decisive moment. The point in time when the city design professionals stopped experiencing the city on foot, and simply “drove the site”, coincided perfectly with the moment in time when we all simply stopped walking to get from one place to another. If a work of humanist urbanism has no human sentient being to experience it, then what’s the point?

    The first issue to embrace is that the speed at which we experience the city conditions our perception of its urbanism.

    We walk at 5 k.p.h. or ten times slower than driving speed. The area of Rome that I was describing in the earlier post would take 30 minutes to cross on foot. In a car, or on a Vespa, one could conceivably cross it in 3 minutes. That 27-minute-difference of additional contact and exposure to the place make a world of difference for what you can perceive and what you will value in the environment you are traversing. The incomprehensible part is that those who drive through in just 3 minutes—myself included—come away with the feeling that they too saw, and therefore experienced the place.

    Cycling is not going to improve on the sense of place. Just running through Rome I experienced a different place. The space shrunk, and the places kept coming up much faster, one after the other.

    The second issue to embrace is that the presence of fast moving automobiles was destructive to the urban fabric.

    For example, our commercial streets became cluttered with signs. A study conducted by the 3M Company found that in order to remain as visible at 50 k.p.h., as at 30 k.p.h., a sign printed in 24 inch letters would have to be changed for one printed in letters 36 inches tall. Of course, if 36 inches is good, then it stands to reason that 72 inches is better, etc.

    Furthermore, a sense of danger became associated with the street that had not been present before. Cars kill. We heard in the Shifting Gears series from Elyse Parker, Director of the Public Realm Section, Toronto Transportation Services Division, that in her city, “Road traffic is the leading cause of death among children.” Factor in the increase in noise, the pollution belching out from the internal combustion engine, and the soot kicked up by rubber tires wearing on asphalt pavement, and we are nearer an explanation as to why modern buildings turn a back on the street. The unintended consequence of this design fiat—that communities made of buildings that turn away from the street would not be self-policing—was completely missed.

    Demand for vehicle storage has also increased exponentially. Even if you come across a sunny cafe on a Vancouver piazza, the number reason for not stopping is finding a place to “park the tank”. If we are successful in that gambit, then we are assaulted by the necessity of having change on hand to feed the armless bandits, and having it all take place within easy walking distance for someone using a walker. Impossible! Better to drive through the Starbucks instead.

    The conundrum in all of this is that as walking becomes physically challenging we are reminded just what a god-send the automobile really has been. For seniors and others there is no substitute for the convenience of being able to drive up to the Safeway, display a sticker and park in the Handicapped spot right in front of the door, then get help bringing the groceries back to the car.

    When all is said and done, we can have good urbanism and cars, but only if we become much more nuanced in dealing with the issues at hand.

    Thus, if it is the experience of the city on foot that ultimately determines our urban values, then the need for speed—rather than peak oil—is the reason why our cities look brand new one day, and feel old and tired the next. If we are to bemoan the loss of urbanist values in our culture, then we must be prepared to accept that a big reason for that change is that we don’t walk much anymore. Not in the city, anyhow. Not if we can help it.

    Build a walkable city, and I will show you a beautiful city—mountains, rain, or sunshine not withstanding.

  • I like your Rome story, Lewis.

    Do the pretty ladies in short skirts still ride, side-saddle-pillion, on their boy friends Vespers?

    No need, though, to go back to Romulus and Remus.

    Your hometown makes your point.

    Rest for a while under Artigas on his horse then up and walk thru the stone rubble arch to Sarandi and on to Buquebus. I dunno at your pace you could probably do it in an hour.

    But you wouldn’t want to hurry: there are so many little connected rinconadas you’ll be in your . . . errrrr . . . ” walkable city”.

    How come you folks south Rio Bravo get it and we are left, ” letting loose automobiles to dominate the street space? ”

    Ummmmmm . . . Rem Koolhas! I sat thru one of his lectures at Palacio del Bellas Artes on his Lille thingie. I dunno . . . it didn’t do it for me!

    If you can separate “New Urbanism” jargon from real estate marketing I’m cool!

  • “Cycling is not going to improve on the sense of place. Just running through Rome I experienced a different place. The space shrunk, and the places kept coming up much faster, one after the other.”

    I found this a curious assertion Lewis… for two reasons. First, get a room full of folks who use bikes for transportation and ‘place’ is as hot a topic as good rain gear. From best routes to best restaurants, you can’t shut them up.

    Secondly, running and cycling are two very different activities and I would suggest that running might require more focus on the activity and hence the loss of awareness of your surroundings.

    When you suggest cars are a godsend, Hades/Pluto was the deity that came to mind.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    OK Chris, let’s see how fare we can go.

    In urbanism the ‘sense of place’ is a feeling we get when we walk into an outdoor place that feels like a very large room with he roof open to the sky. Something akin to coming into a clearing in the woods. A threshold experience. The outside walls of the fronting buildings become inverted in our sense perception, and they read like the inside walls of a very large, urban room.

    What we are after is built form that resonates with human sense perception at a very slow if not static pace. It turns out that the human perceptual apparatus responds to places that have particular relationships of height, width and length in a manner completely different to how it reacts when we are in a shopping centre parking lot. That’s what got Alberti, Brunelleschi and Palladio off to Rome with measuring sticks in hand in the first place. They wanted to know.

    That’s what is referred to as ‘human scale’. Human scale in urbanism does not mean that the measure of the place corresponds axiomatically to the height of the human figure, or the ratio of the height of the head to the height of the body, or even the so-called Vitruvian man with arms and legs outstretched fitting perfectly within the circumference of a circle. Human scale in urbanism refers to how we drink in the place, how we perceive the environment through the lens of our sense.

    How far away can we see a person; how far we can walk in a reasonable amount of time; and what are the proportions of an open outdoor space that can still feel as an “enclosed space”, or what I term an “urban room”?

    How fast is the average cyclist travelling in the city? Say, on a striped lane? 20 k.p.h.? 30? My thesis is that as human beings accelerate—by whatever means—we alter our state of consciousness. The values that we perceive in the environment around us, for example, change in direct proportion to the speed at which we are moving.

    I will think that I’ve seen the heart of Rome, because I’ve travelled through it eyes wide open. However, it turns out that compared to the experience had on foot, or better yet living in it for multiple seasons, it’s just not the same.

    We live in a multi-valent society. What works in one stage of life may not work in another. When we are not able to simply walk around, automobiles become an indispensable convenience.

    Chairs or walkers, the issue is pretty much the same. Cars give mobility to many folks for whom the steep and romantic streets of the hill towns of the Amalfi (south of Rome) would be hell pure and simple.

  • Higgins

    Great post. I specifically enjoyed your link to that black and white short.
    If I didn’t know that was San Francisco in 1905 I could have swore that between (20′ to 30′)-film time , our Mayor was going to work as he allegedly does everyday , on his bike. And of course as usual he was trying hard to get some attention.

  • Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . great post until you read this:

    A lot has happened since Palladio Lewis . . . we have all the brute force of ancient Rome but none of the grace and beauty . . .

    Read up on Fractional Reserve Banking and the “Closures” . . . and find out why Roman holidays don’t work . . .