The Library as Colosseum

Vancouver is often critiqued for its boring architecture. As a young city born in 1886, it doesn’t have the same rich architectural history, as say, places like London or Rome. Much of Vancouver’s skyline is homogenous: seafoam green and glass office buildings. Hence, the title of Douglas Coupland‘s ode to Vancouver, City of Glass.

The Vancouver Public Library is an exception to this rule.

For the city’s most important cultural building, architect Moshe Safdie takes you back to 1st century Rome, to the days of the Colosseum. The Vancouver Public Library is an oval- shaped building adjoined to a federal office tower with retail and service facilities on the ground floor. (It was mentioned here as one of the top 8 beautiful libraries in Canada). Windows flood the space with light. “Drawbridges” or walkways connect the book stacks with study carrels that line the oval perimeter, offering each seat a spacious window, much better than the library I talked about here.

Ironically, the Vancouver Public Library alludes to the past and yet its form is decidedly postmodern. Built in 1995, it plays with history divorced from context, as postmodernist architecture often does. What does a Colosseum and a public library have in common?

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy answers “shameless populism” in the book Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City.

Yet is populism so bad, especially for a civic institution designed to serve the public? And considering the public library was the result of a rare competition where the public had a say in the winner, this building was democratic from the start.

Regular public events and art installations happen in and around the building, contributing to an engaged civic and cultural space. The human installation, “Sometimes I think, I can see you” was presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival earlier this year. Writers were set up in the atrium of the library with laptops connected to a large projection screen where passersby could read the spontaneous fictions the writers created about their surroundings – fictions that might include you or I or whoever happened to be in that space at that particular time. Public spaces like library atriums are great places for people watching as it is. Argentinian artist Mariano Pensotti amplifies their voyeuristic quality by recording the thoughts of strangers as public text for all to see. I spy with my little eye . . .

Here’s a sample of what this poetry/prose in motion looks like, performed in a Buenos Aires subway station:

Given the 21st century context where traditional publishing companies battle with e-books, closing prominent presses (most recently Douglas & McIntyre in Canada) and threatening the future of libraries, the Colosseum reference is not so out of context. The printed word is struggling to survive, to find a place to call home. Maybe Moshe Safdie’s vision for the building was more prescient than he knew: futuristic more than historical. Maybe the texts do fit the context. Maybe the words do fit the picture.

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A New Face on Terry

In between visiting some friends from out-of-town in Vancouver this weekend, I hopped over to BC Place to see the new Terry Fox monument (new as in September 2011).

New Terry Fox memorial designed by Douglas Coupland. 2011.

“Monument” seems like the wrong word to describe these Terry Fox statues. Yes, there are statues plural — four of them actually, each showing a separate stage of Terry’s distinct step-hop gait. The figures become progressively larger as he runs westward (his final destination was to be Stanley Park), indicating Terry’s growing legacy since 1980, when he started his Marathon of Hope run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.

The old Vancouver monument for Terry Fox more accurately reflects the characteristics I associate with a monument: weighty, grand, symbolic, a structure of heroic proportions. The old classical triumphal arch designed by Franklin Allen surely is all that. I never saw this monument in real life (I tried once but it was covered up with a big white tarp while construction was being done on BC Place’s new roof), but apparently it received a lot of criticism and many people considered it an eyesore, which is not hard to see why.

Old Terry Fox monument designed by Franklin Allen. 1984.

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy marks the old Terry Fox monument as the beginning of the postmodern era in Vancouver architecture in his essay “Plastic Lion’s Gate: A Short History of the Post Modern in Vancouver Architecture.”

Franklin Allen’s 1980s postmodern monument has all the signature moves of its time – a polychromed structure in the latest colours as well as a poly-textured structure with tile, brick, and steel. Four fibreglass lions sit atop the arch, symbolizing Terry’s heroism. All these elements combine to make this modern pastiche of a classical triumphal arch.

Pastiche is one characteristic of the postmodern architectural style — another is the irony of attempting to set in stone and make permanent something that is not permanent. How do you monumentalize a fleeting, short life such as Terry’s?

Trevor Boddy writes, “This sense of monumentalising the pungently ephemeral, of reconciling emotions with visuals, of rendering permanent a patter in the social electron flow of a few months duration, was crucial to the winning scheme’s selection by a jury not otherwise committed to postmodernism as theory or style” (Allen’s monument was the winner of a design competition).

How do we attempt to remember a significant person or event in history? Monuments surely are one way. Yet why did the old statue get so much criticism? Boddy explains because it didn’t include any visual representation of Terry, the person it attempted to remember. Boddy goes on to say that in order to appease the public outcry over this monument, etched steel plates bearing larger-than-lifesize photographs of Terry were placed inside the arch, much to the architect’s chagrin. I guess the symbolic fibreglass lions weren’t enough — we like to see images that resemble the person we are remembering.

Coupland's memorial from the back

So it’s interesting that over two decades later, a new memorial (I hesitate to say “monument” for the above reasons) of Terry Fox has replaced the old one, and the differences couldn’t be more obvious. In Douglas Coupland’s Terry Fox sculptures, the public doesn’t just get one, but four images or motions of Terry, broken down into a four-frame cycle. They are open, life-like. You can walk around them. You might not even notice them from a distance because on a busy day around BC Place, Terry blends right into the crowd.

Can you see the statues?

Allen’s arch was ostentatious, noticeable, built to match a national hero; Coupland’s statues are subtle, built to commemorate a national hero but also to remember an individual whose single act of determination inspired hope, rallied the country, and changed lives — a determination meant to inspire and challenge us us on a personal level. It is this humanness and point of connection between Terry and ourselves that I come away with from the new memorial.

Coupland leaves us with these words:

Pencil in the Past

There’s a condo tower in Vancouver’s West End that stands out from the other high-rises – that is, once you look up. I’m talking about Eugenia Place on 1919 Beach Avenue, next door to the Sylvia Hotel that I wrote about here.

How many buildings feature a live, rooftop tree cropping out from a central column?

Vancouverites like to tout their city as “natural” – you know, a city by the sea – and this condo tower by Richard Henriquez physically incorporates nature into an urban residence. The tree, however, isn’t just for visual appeal, although it does nicely mirror the trees along English Bay below it.

Henriquez talks about the necessity of “fictional history” to inform architectural design in a city as young as Vancouver that is prone to forgetting its past. His son, also an architect – Gregory Henriquez – picks up on this idea in his practice, saying, “[Vancouver’s] history is more about the stories than the buildings.”

Eugenia Place – and its rooftop tree – tells a story. You can read this building like a text.

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy states that the tree at the top recalls the old-growth forests of Vancouver before they were converted into houses. Chris Macdonald adds to this reading by saying the rooftop tree’s height equals the height of the forest when Europeans first arrived on this coast. Concrete replicas of tree stumps can be found at the base of the building.

If you look at the base, you’ll notice another interesting feature: the central column (where the living room windows are) tapers into a pencil-like point, designating the entrance. Boddy calls this a self-conscious, postmodern expression of the architectural practice and offers a number of symbolic interpretations:

1) “The pencil of the draughtsman/builder of those original houses on the site;

2) that of the logging contractor who removed the trees;

3) that of Captain George Vancouver making the first sketches of that very bay;

4) that of the hero-architect, drawing instrument inflated to the size of design ego?

5) Or is it a screw; as the project evolved from first drawing to final realisation, the form took on the look of a tapered screw…”

The fourth option there is rather clever, but Boddy seems to have also missed another interpretation. The pencil highlights the similarity between the architectural craft and the writing craft. Both artists use a pencil to sketch out ideas, and a pencil, more than a pen, connotes a “draft” – something in its preliminary form, to be written or built over, like Vancouver’s old growth forests and the Victorian houses that previously occupied this West End neighbourhood. Even “draft” and “draughtsman” share the same homonymic root. A draft building evokes the idea that even physical structures are not finished once they are built. They continually to evolve and take shape in other ways – like through stories and the way in which people view/use/remember a given space.

Literature and architecture are often both in the “remembering” business – with literature, particularly historical fiction, and with architecture, especially in buildings like Henriquez’s that give a nod to the city’s history. With words or with concrete, books and buildings construct stories of former times, places, and/or people.

Considering that Eugenia Place tells or remembers a story from Vancouver’s past, it participates in the city’s architextural imagination. As Macdonald’s concludes, “Million dollar views wrapped up in a timely history lesson.”