Festival of Lights

The theme of light has come full circle for me this year. I began 2013 with a poem for the new year, a poem of light, and I have ended the year surrounded by over a million twinkling lights in the beautiful city of Vancouver that I moved to in May.

Here are some images from the Festival of Lights at VanDusen Botanical Garden, which you may recognize from this post on the Touch Wood sculpture exhibition that I went to in September. It was great to see the Gardens in a completely different season, or, if I may use the à propos pun, in a whole new light.

Thanks for journeying with me through another year on this blog. Wishing you much light, love, and learning in the New Year. See you back here in 2014!

Finding the Human Form

I finished an excellent book this weekend, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. There is so much I want to say about it because it made me think deeply and differently about architecture. What I appreciated is that the author actually attempts to explain the psychology behind why we find certain buildings beautiful and how beauty is linked to goodness and, ultimately, happiness. More on that another week.

One of the chapters entitled “Talking Buildings” discusses how abstract sculptures convey meaning. Understanding how simple steel, concrete, or wood objects speak can help us understand how larger-scale objects (like houses and buildings) convey meaning through the arrangement of 3-D materials into form.

de Botton argues that everyday objects speak to us—whether it be a chair, a window, an arch, a lamp—because even though inanimate, these objects tell us something about being human. These objects have human forms hidden in their wood, concrete, glass, metal, etc.

To feel that a building is unappealing may simply be to dislike the temperament of a creature of human we dimly recognise in its elevation—just as to call another edifice beautiful is to sense the presence of a character we would like if it took on living form. What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.

We recognize the human form in the slightest hint of an abstract object. We take slender legs of an antique table for a feminine, elegant character, and a wide, solid armchair as a stout, stubbornly old man.

an elegant, refined soul with a propensity for heels

old and set in his ways

Since reading the book, I’m having fun analyzing the objects in my apartment. What does my couch/reading chair/coffee table/lamp/bookcase say about what/whom I find attractive? Which of my friends would represent these objects?

So when walking around VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver today, I had my eye out for the human forms portrayed in the abstract art exhibit Touch Wood scattered throughout the 50 acres of gardens. The 20+ pieces were built by BC artists and made of salvaged, recycled, or scavenged wood to reflect the garden’s environmental mandate (you can read all about the award-winning architecture of the new petal-shaped visitor centre here.)

VanDusen Botanical Gardens’ Visitor Centre

It wasn’t difficult to find the human form in these sculptures, since many are explicitly made to look like humans.

I initially read “Confidence” to mean “someone who’s confident” but I couldn’t really find signs of this attribute in the figures. Then when I looked at it again when going over my photos, I interpreted it more as meaning “In confidence.” The two forms leaning in towards one another slightly—woman on the left with a curvy profile; taller man on the right with a rectangular profile.

The man and woman are given the same weight though. When I say weight, I mean mass or presence. Both hold their own, sharing a secret tryst in the woods as equals. In this way, maybe they also embody “confidence” whilst sharing something in confidence.

“Nine Sentinels” was one of my favourites. Sentinel: “a soldier or guard whose job is to stand and keep watch.”

I couldn’t help but recall the Council of Elrond in Lord of the Rings, a circular gathering to decide the fate of the ring where tall and slender, distinguished characters like Elrond collide with bulbous balls of stocky energy like Gimli.

Elrond in the foreground; Gimli behind




Speaking of councils, this next one displayed on the Great Lawn is called “Council of Elders,” although I still think the LOTR connection is more pronounced in “Nine Sentinels.” These elders look older, wiser, more distinguished, more uniform, like they’d have less disagreements. I picture some of them with capes.

“Archetype” reminds me of the mannequins you see in clothing stores, waiting to be dressed; a blank slate from which to start the creative process. Archetype: “a very typical example of a certain person or thing” or to go Jungian on you because I think it might apply here: “a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.” Even the gender isn’t as apparent in this work. We look at this piece and we immediately recognize the human form, even without the head. It shows we don’t need all the parts to make a comprehensive whole. We read symbols all the time and draw conclusions.

IMG_6115 IMG_6116

There were many more sculptures but unfortunately my camera battery died on me halfway through my walk, but I think the examples above give you an idea of how the human form exists in “non-human” materials like wood. de Botton paraphrases from psychoanalytic critic Adrian Stokes who offered an interpretation of Barbara Hepworth’s Two Segments and a Sphere. Stokes’ conclusion, de Botton writes, is that

if a sculpture touches us . . . it may be because we unconsciously understand it as a family portrait. The mobility and chubby fullness of the sphere subtly suggest to us a wriggling fat-cheeked baby, while the rocking ample forms of the segment have echoes of a calm, indulgent, broad-hipped mother. We dimply appreciate in the whole a central theme of our lives. We sense a parable in stone about motherly love.

Two Segments and a Sphere by Barbara Hepworth. 1936.

What parables do the objects around you speak about?

Places with Character

A week ago, I looked at a Vancouver apartment. You know you like a place when you see it in Vancouver rain and you still want to call it home. A week later, I’m sitting in the apartment writing a blog post about my first weekend in this city that I have long been writing about but never actually lived in (for those of you not familiar with the Lower Mainland, I previously lived an hour away in a suburb that we only refer to as “Vancouver” when talking to people on the other side of the world).

Now I can legitimately say I live in Vancouver, and oh how I am excited to fall more in love with this city. I feel like it’s a meeting that’s long overdue.

Ready to see Vancouver through a new frame

All this to say, it’s fitting that I went on Heritage Vancouver’s Top 10 Endangered Sites Bus Tour yesterday to inaugurate my big move through something I love — architecture!

The tour spanned four hours and travelled through many Vancouver neighbourhoods including Kitsilano, the West End, Downtown South, Downtown Eastside, East Van, Mount Pleasant, Gastown, Chinatown, Strathcona, and Shaughnessy – not necessarily in that order. I thought I knew Vancouver pretty well but there were so many hidden gems I had never encountered before that I want to return to soon.

The purpose of the tour was to raise public awareness and conversation of the plethora of heritage buildings in danger of getting demolished in the name of a high-density development. I tend to favour medium to high density projects, especially mixed-used ones because I think they create a better sense of community, and yet I also see the concern in doing this at the cost of destroying residential character homes.

On this year’s Top 10 list is a mixture of individual buildings and entire neighbourhoods that aren’t on the City’s radar to protect in future community plans. Buildings have to be listed on the Heritage Register in order to be taken into account, but many factors have stalled the updating of this list. Interestingly, a building’s exterior might be protected on this list but not the interior (interiors could be protected post-1994, but hardly any are). This is the case with the Orpheum, which is ironic because it’s the inside that’s so gorgeous.

Our knowledgeable tour guide spouted dates, architects, construction details, and historic tidbits about the buildings like he was reciting his phone number. He remained hopeful that a lot of the sites on their Top 10 Endangered List have a future, even if a re-purposed one, although he’s fairly certain École Bilingue (formerly Cecil Rhodes Public School) will be demolished because of seismic upgrading.

École Bilingue scheduled to be torn down. Photo by Dan Toulgoet.

I’ll touch on the two sites we actually got out of the bus to inspect (and hence have better photos of than when clicking frantically through the window of a moving bus).

The Waldorf Hotel

This building opened as a beer parlour/hotel in 1948 – the hotel part was only required so the owners could get licensed for a beer parlour, but it wasn’t a huge concern if the rooms were full or not. This East Van landmark is a cultural hot spot known for its live music & dancing in the Polynesian Cabaret Room and Tiki Bar – a little taste of Hawaii right in Vancouver, which would have been even more shocking and “other”-looking when it was added in the 50s.

The kitschy yet unmistakable hotel sign

The Polynesian-inspired Tiki Bar. Yes, it really is that dark.

I normally don’t take pictures of washroom sinks but this one is practically identical to the one in my apartment from the 1950s. It delights me to know I live in a place with character like the Waldorf, at last!

A frenzy of media activity and protests, particularly among Vancouver’s cultural and artistic communities, sprang up earlier this year when it was announced the owners had sold the building to a developer. Even Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson intervened to stop demolition. On the tour, we went inside and saw people having lunch in the café. As the sign says, the hotel is still open for business as it awaits its fate. Yet because of all the attention this site garnered and the number of community groups fighting to keep it, it will likely get saved in some form or another. As our tour guide astutely commented, it’s not so much that people are resistant to change as they are to loss. Especially when the City of Vancouver has already lost a number of heritage sites with its construction boom, one more loss can feel like a thousand losses.

Forest Education Centre in VanDusen Garden

This tucked-away building at the back of VanDusen Botanical Garden was first named MacMillan-Bloedel Place because of its donor, the largest forestry company in British Columbia. This “green” building is so camouflaged in the landscape you might not even notice it’s there. Architect Paul Merrick designed this modernist building with echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the classic residential example where building and nature seamlessly merge.

Can you see the building through the trees? Look closely.

Architecture doesn’t get much more “West Coast” than this. Where does nature end and building begin?

This space was once filled with educational forestry displays called “A Walk in the Forest.” There are still remnants of the displays as you walk through the “forest” path on the inside. Tree-like columns branch towards the ceiling to add to the outdoors effect, yet there is also office equipment as volunteer organizations and some Van Dusen staff currently operate out of the space. What an inspiring place to work!! The groups will have to vacate soon though as the Park Board doesn’t want to keep maintaining the building. Heritage Vancouver is keen on seeing a creative re-use of this site, with possible alternatives as an environmental education centre or artists’ space. As a writer, I would want to come here for a weekend retreat. Light + wood + nature = an idyllic oasis in the city.

Here’s the full Top 10 List from Heritage Vancouver Society with more details about each place and how to get involved if you call Vancouver home and want to help preserve its historic character for the future.