Originally published in the Vancouver Review, Fall 1997.

The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-1963

by Rhodri Windsor Liscombe

Canadian Centre for Architecture / Douglas & McIntyre, 1997. 208 pp, $45.00.

Reviewed by Michael Brockington

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, so the saying goes. By this logic, writing about architecture is equally futile. Even writing about writing is suspect. And writing about writing about architecture? It’s enough to make me wish I was illiterate.

 

A press release describes The New Spirit as “A comprehensive overview of the acclaimed Vancouver Modernist style…” Indeed. Comprehensive is too mild an adjective. ‘Exhaustive’ might be more accurate. ‘Obsessive’, even better.

 

The amount of research that has gone into this book is daunting. End-notes hint at interviews conducted, families consulted, diaries tracked down, archives investigated, annual reports of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation viewed and reviewed. The result is the single most boring collection of type that I’ve ever encountered. Slightly less compelling than obsolete computer documentation. A subjective judgment to be sure; I’m sure people exist who find these things fascinating. I just wouldn’t want to be seated beside them on an airplane.

 

I wonder about the intended readership. The lack of any introduction to, or overview of Modernism suggests it’s not aimed at those like myself whose knowledge of architecture is sketchy at best. Although its appendices list people and buildings of importance in the local modernist movement, along with a historical timeline, the lack of an index renders it a questionable reference resource. The New Spirit is co-published with the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, in conjunction with an exhibit of the same name that arrives at the Vancouver Art Gallery in November ’97. Perhaps the exquisite dryness of the text can be justified by viewing it as an overgrown exhibition catalog, where readability is considered an unforgivable vice.

 

***

 

Goethe called architecture “frozen music.” The question to ask is what sort of music? Schubert or the Sex Pistols? John Cage seems like a good match for Modernist architecture. Spare and angular, minimalist, unornamented. Repetitious. Notes de-emphasized in favour of the spaces between them.

 

Modernism was inspired by industrialization, codependent on new technologies. It rejected historical architectural styles with the aim of creating buildings that were designed for present uses, built with up-to-date technologies and materials. Appearance was subordinated to function, structure foregrounded as an abstract aesthetic free of symbolic references. Its best-known practitioners were Le Corbusier, MiĎs van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Local proponents included Arthur Erickson, Fred Lasserre, Ned Pratt, Ron Thom, and many others.

 

Stylistic features included flat roofs, post-and-beam construction, the extensive use of glass to open up interiors, geometric abstraction and repetition, open-plan designs eliminating rigid room divisions and the extensive use of pre-fabricated components. Key Vancouver examples are the old main branch of the Vancouver Public Library, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and the UBC War Memorial Gym.

 

It’s only fair to admit that I find the style unappealing in execution, less interesting than its supporting rhetoric. Institutional structures like libraries, schools, community centres are less troublesome, perhaps because I expect them to look – how shall I put it? – institutional. Industrial structures like power substations are positively acceptable – well matched to the underlying aesthetic of mechanization. The aesthetic seems most repellent in the design of housing. While the interiors of private houses sometimes look quite livable, I find the exteriors almost uniformly unattractive: anonymous and uncomfortable - like factories, or worse yet, department store displays. The promiscuous use of windows suggest an environment designed to facilitate a scientific study of the inhabitants, something like an ant farm.

 

Most objectionable are the larger housing projects in the Downtown Eastside. A basic tenet of Modernism was that intelligent design could promote social goals. Though almost unthinkable now, one such goal was the provision of low-cost, functional housing. Most of the private homes described in the book seem to be in North and West Vancouver, constructed for upper-income professionals. Obviously these wouldn’t fit the bill for social housing, but the Modernists also had a fairly comprehensive plan for “slum clearance” in Strathcona after the war. Tied in to the downtown freeway extension, the proposal was scuttled by one of the more dramatic examples of citizen activism in Vancouver history, something which barely rates a sentence in The New Spirit.

 

Only a few developments were actually completed. McLean Park, just east of Chinatown proper looks like a textbook example of modernist design. It appears well-built and well maintained, but is overwhelmingly anonymous and lacking in stimuli. It’s like a huge Skinner box. One of the ideas of Modernism was that the harsh and perfect abstraction of the architecture would be balanced by the more organic natural forms and landscaping surrounding it. This might even be plausible on a bluff in West Van. But the sheer scale of McLean Park overwhelms any natural counterpoint – the foliage and even the inhabitants seem like interlopers, blemishes on the geometry.

 

Raymur Place, just south of the Hastings viaduct/railway overpass, gives the impression of an auto court that’s been inflated to the size of a housing project. Now, the only thing that keeps motels from being terminally depressing is the knowledge that any stay is temporary. Raymur Place is something like a Motel California. Nobody’s leaving any time soon. You couldn’t call it a slum anymore, not exactly. More a sensory deprivation environment. I hate to imagine what the rest of Strathcona would now be like if the Modernist plan had been more successful.

 

I’m reminded of a comic book: Mr. X. Mr. X is an architect, the designer of a metropolis called Radiant City. Obviously a reference to the planned city, the Ville Radieuse envisioned by Le Corbusier.

 

The city is a reification of the mind of its architect. And because Mr. X. is not quite sane, the city is likewise deranged. Its inhabitants are deformed, distorted by the subtle madness that surrounds them. The point? I can’t imagine living for any length of time in Raymur Place and remaining entirely sane.

 

One of the disappointments of The New Spirit is the almost complete lack of any social analysis or critique of Modernism. Given the social aspirations of the movement, this absence seems particularly remiss. Thank goodness for comic books.

 

***

 

The ubiquity of architecture in urban life forces it out of consciousness, but there’s nothing inherently dull about the subject. The architect is unique among artists -- supremely relevant and effective. His work doesn’t sit meekly on a shelf, in a gallery, a theatre, outside of everyday life. It surrounds us, imposes itself in public space. Even in this time of anemic public discourse it has the ability to energize passionate debate, seen recently in Vancouver with the skyline study, or the new Lion’s Gate Bridge proposals. One such – for a 12-lane replacement bridge – appears in Liscombe’s book. It dates from 1960 – making that debate at least 37 years old and still provocative.

 

What The New Spirit lacks more than anything is this sense of passion. The same names recur constantly, but we get no sense of these architects as characters, no inkling of life or motivation. They are nothing but distillations of fact. Perhaps passion is too much to expect from a movement founded on rationalism and technophilia, but I think not. It shines through in brief quotations from Le Corbusier and other seminal Modernists, in a longer passage quoted from one of Arthur Erickson’s letters. But the only hint of fire I can detect in 200 pages of Liscombe’s own prose is when he describes the Vancouver Public Library main branch being “not so much conserved as bastardized for commercial tenants.”

 

Of course the architect is unique among artists in this way also, in having his work periodically and deliberately demolished. This is something we understand intuitively in Vancouver, where redevelopment notices are plentiful as stop signs. And it seems appropriate to ask: is not a love of destruction intrinsic to the profession of architecture? In Europe, modernism was jump-started by the necessity of rebuilding bombed out cities. Obviously, Vancouver didn’t require reconstruction of that nature. But here too, the building boom was a product of the war - in this case a housing shortage made acute by a flood of returning veterans.

 

Le Corbusier described a house as “a machine for living in.” The Modernist aesthetic positioned beauty as synonymous with economy of design and fitness of purpose. It’s a mechanistic aesthetic that explicitly admires the grace of the automobile, the airplane, the steamship. One feels that it cannot help but embrace the sleek efficiency of the war machines of WWII. In 1955 Arthur Erickson drew up a proposal for a comprehensive Modernist redevelopment of the West End of Vancouver. Judging from the drawing reproduced in the book, this would have required the demolition of every structure west of Burrard. It’s a sobering proposal; the scale of implied destruction could surely withstand comparison with Berlin in 1945.

 

It takes a war, or massive natural disaster to enable radical redevelopment. For my generation, Expo ’86 was as close as we got to either category. But even now, I’m sure, there’s a developer praying for the big one, the earthquake that will level Vancouver and facilitate the next massive building boom.

 

Vancouver, being such a young city, was ripe for rebuilding after WWII. “The establishment of a 20th century style raised no sentimental problems,” was the way Nikolaus Pevsner expressed it in the October, 1959 Architectural Review. The spirit of Vancouver remains that of a lumber town. It favours clearcuts and monocultures. We resemble a real city the way a tree-farm approximates a forest. Politicians, whores and ugly buildings all get respect if they last long enough. But in Vancouver, they rarely do last. Architectural amnesia is economically convenient, and perhaps psychologically appropriate in a city of perpetual immigrants.

 

Liscombe regrets the destruction of almost all the major Modernist buildings in the downtown core, but it seems a simple continuation of the process that enabled the construction of these buildings in the first place. It could even be argued as consistent with Modernist doctrine: buildings are designed according to function. When function changes, tear down the buildings. The only Vancouver structures likely to last are the parking garages. Woodwards may be undergoing a slow demolition, but its parkade lives on. And this, too, is consistent with Modernist admiration of the automobile. Car dealerships and gas stations were among the first local businesses to embrace the Modernist style.

 

***

 

More than any other, architecture is an art horrendously expensive to realize, hopelessly tangled in finance and politics. The Modernist impulse to reconfigure the architect as social conscience, social planner, and, unfortunately, social engineer sucked the profession deeper still into the occult art of politics and its obscure mechanisms of power. Well, this should be fascinating stuff. Backroom deals, class politics, corruption, civic propaganda, bags of money in the night. Not, unfortunately, to be found in The New Spirit. The foreword to the book mentions it’s the third in series intended to explore “the social and cultural factors that form the towns and cities we live in…noting how a good built environment is dependent on a changing complex of economic forces and civic will.” Which actually sounds pretty interesting. Too bad it doesn’t deliver. At best there are factual asides - barely enough to tease, never followed up. We learn, for instance, that in 1956 the 6-story height restriction was removed in the West End, leading to the explosion of high-rise apartments. You can guess that the details behind that instance of civic will must be pretty juicy, but nothing more is revealed.

 

What we get instead is an endless compendium of straight-ahead facts. Descriptions and construction details of every significant Modernist building erected in Vancouver. Resumes of architects: where they studied, where they worked, what they built. Liscombe’s text focuses almost exclusively on Vancouver, while the introduction by Adele Freedman, one-time architectural columnist for the Globe and Mail, sketches the scene in the rest of Canada.

 

The New Spirit prompted me to seriously contemplate the clichés of boredom. “Bored silly” – I quite like that one. It could almost be a subversive strategy. Not applicable in this case, sadly. “Bored my pants off” – now that sounds entirely too exciting to apply here. “Bored senseless.” This one conveys the coma-inducing properties of the book. It’s slow going when each paragraph has its own narcoleptic power. Ten pages an hour was the top pace I could manage without a machete.

 

I don’t believe that reading this book did me any demonstrable harm. Nothing actionable anyway. But as I hover on the edge of death and my life flashes before my eyes, I’m willing to wager I’ll still feel damn bitter about the sunny weekend I spent slogging through The New Spirit.

 

Not that the experience was entirely malign. The book offered glimpses now and again, of a time before my time that is worth imagining. A magazine called “Plywood World”. An article by Fred Lasserre titled: “Modern Architecture: the New Aesthetics and Cement”. The recurrence of the word ‘sanitary’ in describing architectural objectives. Glimpses and flavours of the 50’s. It was almost startling to realize that post-war Vancouver was considered the architectural cynosure of Canada, respected throughout North America. The book even managed to give me a rudimentary appreciation of modernist design, albeit in the most fragmentary way.

 

More than anything else, it prompted me to take a more careful look at the cityscape around me, the things I look at every day without really seeing. It pushed me to wander through a part of Strathcona I’ve never looked at closely. In fact, The New Spirit might make a better map than book. It just won’t fit in your glove compartment.



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