Sunday, 2 March 2008

caesarean architecture

Donald luxton, a local heritage preservationist, has referred to the facadist gutting of historical buildings as "taxidermy" while art historian John Stuart warns that if we destroy everything but the exterior not only is there a disconnection between it and the new interior, we also lose any link to or further insight into the past. While a case can be made for the value of authenticity and the need for prudence when guiding the financial whimsy of profiteering developers and bland revitalization schemes there is a need to explore what exactly is meant by "the past". Vancouver, it would seem, has always had a soft spot for facadism and it's moral twin, deception. From it's nascent years as a frontier outpost the city has embraced the dream of perpetuated prosperity while striving to establish a sense of permanence, to have an identity that reaches beyond the picaresque mill town to civilized respectability. And so, not unlike any other city asserting itself in the colonial shadow of the western empire we have banks dressed as Greek temples flanked by Corinthian columns, hip roofed houses kneeling behind false storefronts and an endless array of apartments tarted up as artist's lofts. The preservation of the facade, which in the case of historic temple style banks represents the nexus of classicism and financial power, is equally suited to enclosing galleries, cafes, social housing and safe injection sites as it is to reinforcing the illusion that banks are invulnerable shrines. By extension the street is not merely a space that is inhabited but a deeply saturated site of theatrical potential. As I walked past city hall the other day I imagined rooms filled with industrious puppets and circus animals. The politicians, you see, had been moved to the PNE where they were holding office at Playland; and the snakeoil salesmen and roller coaster mechanics were now living in top floor of the Shangri-La where they were planning a new attraction and native chiefs had moved back to the west-end, each clan residing in a totem faced hi-rise. And what impressed me most was how perfectly the gleaming glass reflected the whites of the creatures eyes as they looked skyward above the mid-day traffic jam below. It was apparent that these were not merely stuffed heads, but playful reminders that the real face of urban revitalization embraces overlapping and often contradictory narratives. (rb)

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