Category Archives: Architecture & Urbanism

The University in Runes: Decoding the Privatized Campus

Approaching the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia one has a sense of leaving the city behind. The long, winding University Boulevard passes through a golf course and stretches of forest before skirting a clear cut in the woods. Over this field of scarred earth the first campus buildings come into view. A satellite city emerges from the trees, announced by a cluster of shops: a low-slung strip mall; a pizza joint; a liquor store; photocopies. It isn’t until you pass the large sign for UBC, however, that you will run a genuine gauntlet of commerce: each side of the thoroughfare is lined with businesses that cater to students’ needs and their appetite for amusement. The blurring of lines between a customer’s real necessities and passing whims is, of course, a rich seam of profit in consumer economies. Here, that blurring of boundaries – call it ‘confusion’ – goes a great deal further, rendering indistinct the line between education and entertainment, reflection and distraction. For the gauntlet of commerce at the end of University Boulevard is on the academic campus itself.

During the past decade this area has been a perennial construction site. It is now nearing completion. As students returned to UBC this term they were greeted with a wholly revamped gateway to campus whose array of shops, cafés, restaurants, bars, mini-markets and rental apartments serve as a kind of open-air advertisement, a life-size scale model for the school’s makeover as a privatized neoliberal university. We might say that in raising this infrastructure, the university has engineered a new student body; as they enter this fully commodified space, students are hailed on all sides as customers.

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In this glossy image of higher education one piece of the picture is still missing. A large empty lot stands at the head of the gleaming processional thoroughfare. The vacant space was formerly occupied by an imposing concrete structure, the Brutalist-style General Administration Building. Even empty the space is rich in significance, for the demolition of the General Administration Building signals a larger shift in socio-economic values as inscribed in social space. Brutalism’s midcentury aesthetic of massive, enduring structures reflects that period’s broad investment in education, social welfare and progressive values. In contrast, privatization goes hand-in-hand with the provisionality of the built environment. This newer trend corresponds to architecture’s changing role in a more rapacious economic context: the solid, futuristic security of a Brutalist building is replaced by a World’s Fair aesthetic that cheerfully announces its evanescence. New campus buildings reflect the chaos and precarity imposed on the current generation of students by an all-pervading market ethos.

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As if to illustrate this reigning ethos of impermanence, the empty lot where the General Administration Building was turned to rubble is now a stocking area for concrete blocks, a signature design element of the walkways newly installed throughout the UBC campus. Massive as they are, the concrete pavers evoke the solidity of Brutalism’s reinforced concrete while still suggesting the dignity of granite: ersatz cobblestones. It should be pointed out, however, that fake stone is antithetical to the Brutalist aesthetic, which emphasizes the frank, unadorned – one might say ‘honest’ – materiality of exposed concrete. Moreover, since they are installed mortarless on a bed of sand, the new concrete pavers are easily dismantled – a clear asset in a time of constant change. As such, the pavers illustrate a contradiction between the place-bound University and the school’s more abstract function as a conduit for transnational finance. While the university requires the former, it puts up little resistance to the latter; anything too solid is an objection to the flow of capital. And here, in the tension between forces in conflict – the local and the global, community and separation, materiality and fungibility – there still exist tactical chances for resistance and critique. As the student protesters put it in ’68, “under the paving stones, the beach.”

University administrators have slogans of their own. The contradiction between placeless abstraction and site specificity is nicely, if inadvertently, captured by UBC’s new motto, developed at the height of the school’s latest construction boom: “A Place of Mind.” Brainchild of an advertising agency, the motto is no less eloquent for being hopelessly vague. You puzzle at the words, straining for meaning, and invariably give up. “Mind” seems to reach higher than mere ‘learning’ or ‘education,’ but as the word gains loftiness it loses purpose. Indeed, the vocable seems less abstract than evasive; and where purpose is lacking elusiveness works best.

In his prescient study of corporatized education The University in Ruins (1996), Bill Readings demonstrated that hollow bureaucratese is characteristic of neoliberal higher education.* This bears remembering: it took a specialist in literary analysis to decipher the political and economic significance of the emerging language of education branding. The author devotes a good part of his critique to the market logic behind the term “excellence,” a word increasingly used at the time by university administrators and which is now well entrenched in the branding of higher education. For Readings, “excellence” was a term almost devoid of meaning whose vacuousness served the interests of corporatized universities hollowed out by budget cuts, unmoored from social responsibility and increasingly devoted to profitable entrepreneurship.

In the spirit of Readings’ critique, this essay examines the sales and branding language of UBC, a vanguard in privatized, entrepreneurial education. In so doing, we expose the market logic hidden in the transformation of campus space. To invoke ‘runes,’ then, is to credit Readings’ sober analysis while extending semantic inquiry into the analysis of the built environment. The runes of the university speak volumes, allowing us to glimpse under the dreamscapes of the commodified campus the wreckage of public higher education.

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One of the broad objectives of free-market fundamentalism is to make capitalism appear “inevitable” while casting alternatives as “impossible.” As we stand at the head of University Boulevard, we might consider its commercial gauntlet as the spatial inscription of this economic logic. Brands, logos, franchises and rental spaces emphatically declaim the privatization of the commons. Indeed, the distinction between public and private is preempted; every consumer ‘choice’ along University Boulevard enacts a foregone decision to enter the marketplace.

It might seem churlish to fault the consumer options arrayed on University Boulevard, were it not that this foregone decision now shapes every aspect of higher education. The rising cost of learning imposes on students the vital need to quickly secure gainful employment, and for students burdened with debt, this purpose is hardly ‘chosen,’ as one might like to believe, but instead conditions their every option and forecloses unprofitable alternatives as irrational or even dangerous to life chances. Reflex judgments place an embargo on thought; as one undergraduate bitterly observes, to “explore opportunities” is now the sole privilege of the rich. An authoritarian logic thus undergirds every ‘choice’ made in one’s curriculum and ‘free time’; we can say that the university trains students before it educates them.** In this context, it is virtually an act of insurrection to appeal to education’s democratic purpose, or what Adorno succinctly calls “the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves.”***

To clear-eyed critics of neoliberalism’s cost-benefit ledgers, the late-capitalist marketplace is a world in which “decisions escape rational scrutiny.” How to square such an ethos of frivolity with the university’s public mission? One need hardly subscribe to a joyless vision of a wholly logical social order to point out that a fundamental conflict obtains between irrational decision-making and the university’s ethos of informed deliberation. On a larger scale, frivolity reinforces consumerism’s “individuation of responsibility,” and by encouraging consumer behavior the marketized university undermines the collective action needed to address the challenges today’s students are bound to face in an overheated, conflict-riven world.

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University Boulevard terminates at an open pedestrian plaza recently revamped for UBC’s centennial anniversary. An elaborate water feature leads up to the Main Mall. To the left is the university bookstore, sporting a new facelift. To the right are two new buildings, the posh Alumni Centre and directly adjacent, the vast Student Union building, the latter with an enormous porte cochère suggestive of a grand hotel entrance. These architectural features are already prompting social behavior to match. On a recent day, a stretch limousine pulled into the drive, and a young couple in wedding dress piled out. Three valets in red vests stood at the ready, servicing a steady fleet of Mercedes and Land Rovers. A reception was under way in the lobby of the Alumni Center, where a self-playing grand piano entertained the milling guests.

We have arrived at Money Square.

Money Square, in students’ shorthand, was officially named to honor Money and Raymond M.C. Lee, who made a large contribution to UBC’s latest fundraising and alumni outreach campaign. Philanthropic couples are often identified with the husband’s name first; here, Money takes prime position. The loaded word and its bold placement are so blunt and seemingly guileless as to exasperate critique; it is as if by flaunting the word its meaning could be annulled. But such an evacuation of meaning is, of course, the special talent of advertising. The commodity fetish speaks in runes; as one stands in Money Square, at the very heart of the UBC campus, one is conscripted by winking ad men into the marketplace of ideas.

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The square’s name is certainly apt, as the legacy of the recent fundraising campaign is the consecration of private finance in UBC’s future planning. A group of translucent pillars bear the names of donors to a recent campaign with the unlikely moniker “Make an Evolution.” Opaque in meaning, grammatically questionable, the phrase slyly tilts toward counterrevolt; to scan the donors’ names is to incline the soul. One notices familiar giants of industry: Boeing, Google, Coke, Mozilla. Resource and Energy companies are predominant, and there are lots of mining and minerals companies: BCGold Corp; New Gold Inc; Radius Gold; Taku Gold. There is an Angkor Gold Corp, an Independence Gold Corp and a Western Copper and Gold Corporation; a Kirkland Lake Gold, a Kinross Gold Corporation and a Kaminak Gold Corporation. Inevitably, there is a Klondike Gold Corporation; improbably, an Iamgold Corporation. How to make sense of this grab bag of miscellany, this citizen dissembly? Alphabetically, of course; in the absence of social purpose the arbitrary reigns. The brash incoherence of Money Square symbolizes the school’s capture by market forces and a failure on the part of faculty and administrators to save it from privatization.

The market rewards obedience by favoring those who condone the disproportion of wealth. The donor’s monument has implanted this morality of profitable subservience at the heart of the university campus. Dubious in itself within a context of research and critical inquiry, the moral norm of obedience implies more today, however, than a mere aspiration to increase one’s spending power by submitting to a job. In an economic context of ever-growing inequality, disparities of wealth spell widely divergent life chances between those the market values and those it devalues, dispossesses or expels. Complicity in this widening “distribution of pain” implies one’s participation in neoliberalism’s reigning logic, the extraction of profit from the privatization of social wealth. Public institutions like UBC are prime targets of such profit extraction. Given this economic context, the donors’ monument is deeply ironic, to say the least. One might always choose to see the monument as UBC’s grateful nod to philanthropists in trying economic times. But this begs the question. Why celebrate private finance, when a memorial to public support would be more appropriate?

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Across Money Plaza stands the UBC Bookstore, whose striking Brutalist entryway was recently demolished and replaced with an airy glass box. This new design is inarguably more practical for displaying the bookstore’s goods. What kind of goods? If spatial precedence signifies priority, the entryway announces the store’s main intent. On a recent day in 2019, we counted 861 individual items sporting the university’s brand and a grand total of 28 books: a ratio, in other words, of thirty to one.

 

Equally important as this marketing of branded merchandise is the bookstore’s role as visual element in an overall picture. And as with the General Administration Building, this image of the neoliberal University is not merely incompatible with the aesthetics of late Twentieth-Century Brutalism; it demands the ephemeralization of the built environment. If one looks closely, however, one can detect a load-bearing concrete beam at the far end of the bookstore’s glass box entryway; tellingly, it has been faced with gypsum drywall, as if the mere glimpse of a Brutalist design feature were an ocular offense.

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A picture, the saying goes, is one thousand times more valuable than a given word. Grim calculus, discouraging to the bookish. The technocrats who renovated the UBC Bookstore used a similar evaluative measurement in designing the building’s picture windows, where hundreds of disjointed words are etched into the glass. The alphabetical jumble of words implicitly devalues their meaning, as each verbal unit is reduced to a mere pixel in an overall image of language. Moreover, the design premise is mirrored across the plaza, where white stripes are etched in the glass of the Alumni Centre, subtly reinforcing an equivalence between words and meaningless graphic lines. A larger design conceit underscores this divestment from meaning: on selected panes of the bookstore, the word-pixels serve as the graphic background for the university’s initials in large capital letters. Language in this way conveys nothing, and so serves the university’s brand.

The architects, however, claim a loftier inspiration for their design: the words on glass are arranged in specific permutations they credit to the postmodern novelist Italo Calvino. The design’s general effect, though, is a garbling of meaning, an incoherent screen of language, and in this way the technocrats have subtly promoted the administrative logic of obfuscation. Were this their conscious intent, the designers might have done better by citing Calvino’s countryman, Filippo Marinetti, whose sound-poem Zang Tumb Tuuum divorced words from meaning in the service of aesthetic fascism. A missed opportunity; Zang Tumb Tuuum might have served to garble UBC’s civic and democratic motto, the ingenuous phrase “it’s yours” in Latin: Tuum est.

Regents and administrators seldom speak openly of their intent to privatize higher education and deliver it over to the market, so when hired contractors opine about the university’s reasons for being, it’s worth attending to what they say. This is all the more the case when those contractors are Vancouver architects, whose general purpose is to deliver luxury products to the global elite and promote the upward concentration of landed wealth. The project description is posted next to a wall of books in box frames, splayed like butterflies. It seems appropriate that the books can no longer be read, that they are now in a sense dead. One thinks of Nabokov, that maniacal lepidopterist, who describes “the satisfying crackle” of his pin penetrating a butterfly and “the subsiding spasms of its body.”*

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But the designers have a clean conscience. Their breezy explanation of the project is a marvel of inanity. “Reading is, of course, an enjoyable past-time [sic] to many, and writing is an art to be celebrated,” the authors observe. Lame as this may be, they press on: “However, we are struck with the idea of dismantling great pieces of work.” Why, one wonders. Also: what motivates that ominous “however”? A lot hinges on the word, though its warrant is unclear. Perhaps they meant to say ‘regardless,’ since their reference to literacy’s obvious merits (“of course”!) seems not only inane but dismissive. Indeed, one suspects that “dismantling” is actually its own self-justification, and that the designers, maybe dimly grasping their role in the neoliberal university’s larger purpose, have provided an illustration of the entrepreneurial logic of disruption. Applied to books and the words they contain, disruption, it seems, calls for a sabotage of the very idea of communicative language; as the designers sagely observe, “All writing is but a collection of words.”

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All writing is but a collection of words. This sweeping demotion of verbal communication is technocratic at heart; the “idea” that “struck” the designers is Calvino’s premise of a computer sorting texts according to their most frequently-used words. One might call this is a ‘democratic’ approach to language, the eminently civic value of popularity helpfully delivered by a benevolent and impartial machine: an electoral politics of reading, if you will. But as in neoliberal governance, and in modern liberalism more generally, a leveling force underlies the consecration of the atomized individual. This force, nominally equalizing, is amoral and, at the limit, sociopathic to the extent that it replaces qualitative values with the merely quantitative.

It seems no accident, then, that the bookstore’s designers approached their project in a canvassing mode. “We wanted to engage the community in the new Bookstore’s development,” they explain, “by surveying individuals from around the UBC campus,” and they specify that this sample of the “community” included “professors, students, administrators and tourists.” Let’s put aside for a moment the ingenuous conflation of professors and students with administrators. Even more troubling is the inclusion of tourists in this definition of the university “community,” a claim that bears the unmistakable stamp of neoliberalism. By favoring the global flow of capital over local constraints, deregulation in the current era of predatory finance leads quite naturally to the destruction of local communities and values. To include tourists among the university’s members reflects the same logic by which Airbnb fosters the experience of ‘community’: plowing deep into local space, the rental platform allows outsiders to claim residency, all the while displacing local inhabitants. A moral norm follows, as surely as a coffle: where everyone has a right to belong, all are reduced to mere visitors.

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As dusk falls on Money Square, the pillars of the donors’ monument glow from within, pulsing in shades of blue as the color swells, fades and moves like a shadow from post to post. At first glance the patterns and pulsing rhythms appear random. In fact they are generated by motion sensors trained on passersby. The result is a monument that is subtly authoritarian, for in their dubious bid to create an ‘interactive’ and ‘participatory’ monument, the designers have made honoring the donors an involuntary necessity of every passing student. The monument is ‘interactive,’ then, mainly in the sense that it defeats one’s inattention. In a similar way, a student or professor could be said to ‘interact’ with the distracting roar of rich UBC students’ luxury sports cars, increasingly common on the neoliberal campus.

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The cold drives us into the Alumni Centre, proud home of entrepreneurship@ubc. In the lobby, an imposing wall of black steel is inscribed with biographical highlights from the life of the building’s namesake, Robert H. Lee. Former real estate developer become university power broker, Lee’s proudest achievement, the bio pointedly informs us, is his creation of the UBC Properties Trust, “the first in North America to sell market housing on a university campus.” This developer’s feat would presumably illustrate, in Lee’s inspiring words, “the importance of giving back to the community.”

The bio specifically mentions that the university sells buildings on leased land only — a qualification subtly indicative of a qualm, perhaps. And the developer become chancellor might well be cheered for selling only the structures and not the land they stand on. In this way, UBC has avoided the sad fate of some Vancouver public schools which, forced by tax cuts to sell their land, have lately had to rent back the properties their buildings occupy. But this distinction misses the larger point: that turning the university over to the market destabilizes the school in ways more fundamental than the loss of land. The financialization of the school renders it fundamentally exposed to the whims of the market and shackles it to the financial imperative of short-term profit.

Moreover, the sale of buildings to private owners has effects that exacerbate privatizing trends and promote values that are at odds with the public university. Just who exactly are those wealthy strangers walking their dogs on the campus, or jogging in the early hours? On any given day a drive down Chancellor Drive is a tour of active real estate listings for a speculative market in luxury homes: condos with ocean views, the blinds always drawn; apartments that turn over at an alarming rate; tank-like black SUVs, eerily dark “zombie” homes….

A fireplace glows in the lobby’s seating area. Gilded books decorate the surrounding shelves, stacked like gold bricks in some lucky patron’s vault. The effect is perplexing: if the decorative premise is meant to honor the books’ value, they have nonetheless been subtracted from any possible use — an insistent theme, apparently, in this part of campus. We’re tempted to say that gilded, unreadable books illustrate a socio-economic contradiction between the university’s historical purpose and the commodification of knowledge. A designer, though, might say “they look nice.”

 

Oddly, Dean Koontz is well represented here. An author known for lurid mass-market paperbacks, here in UBC’s Alumni Centre he has ascended to the realm of venerable tomes with gilt edging. We note a copy of the book Champion, by Fabio (yes, that Fabio), and a Reader’s Digest Select Edition, which omnibus volume includes Bad Blood by Linda Fairstein, The Long Walk Home by Will North, The Blue Zone by Andrew Gross, and Iris and Ruby by Rosie Thomas — titles you won’t find among the UBC library’s holdings.

 

As in a dream, objects here take on strange and disturbing meanings. As in a nightmare, we can’t help but take them personal. We note a copy of the Koontz novel Relentless, whose plot involves the mortal combat between a “successful” author and a “sociopathic” literary critic. The critic with a “poison pen” is bent on destruction: “he’ll destroy you, your family, and everything you hold dear,” says the book’s blurb. Could this be a shot across the bow to the humanities, those meddlesome critics? Or, more likely — but which is worse? — might there be no intent here, just the random meaninglessness of edutainment?

The intellectually edifying Relentless is accompanied by The One Minute Sales Person, with the subtitle: The Quickest Way to Sell People on Yourself, Your Services, Products, or Ideas, by Spencer Johnson, M.D. We’re brought up short for a moment by the phrase “sell people,” but Dr. Johnson nudges us on: “We are all salesmen,” he helpfully observes, “from the president of the United States to ourselves.” Penned apparently in 1984, the dictum has proved its worth.

A tinkling, meanwhile, echoes in the reception lobby, where a grand piano plays itself. A vaguely disturbing sight: the keys are depressed in shifting patterns by some invisible force to some inscrutable end. Abstracted students are sunk in plush chairs nearby. We listen to the music for a moment, then, like a person losing interest in someone speaking to them, fall to merely hearing it. There may be something beneath this level of inattention. The sounds join the murmur of voices from the cafe next door. We notice that a motto is engraved into a gold plate mounted on the piano. Reckless, we seek some meaning in it. “Where words fail, music speaks,” it declares. Who would argue? Music is fine. But we’re jolted by the idea of the university as a place where words fail.

These runes rattle in the skull as we exit the building. It’s almost a relief to return to the jackhammers and brick and mortar saws outside. The last pavers are being installed around the floor-to-ceiling shop windows of the new market rental complex at the end of University Boulevard.

 


*See Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

**Theodor Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” in The Culture Industry (London: Routledge, 1991), 106.

***On “authoritarian” logic in this context, see Melinda Cooper, “All in the Family Debt: How Neoliberals and Conservatives Came Together to Undo the Welfare State,” Boston Review, May 31, 2017 (link).

 

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Filed under Architecture & Urbanism, Politics of Discourse, Uncategorized

Scene(s) of the Crime

Walter Benjamin memorably observed that Eugène Atget photographed Paris like the scene of a crime.* Atget’s subject-matter was the Paris of the Third Republic, which built much of the city that tourists admire today. But as Benjamin knew, the Third Republic rose from the ashes of a short-lived workers’ utopia, and by continuing the modernization projects of the reactionary Second Empire, the Republic inscribed lasting changes on the French capital’s spatial order and demographics. Atget, nostalgic at heart, trained his lens on a disappearing world: small shops, humble dwellings and narrow medieval streets, the traditional haunts of Paris’ popular classes. In Atget’s photos, these cityscapes are completely deserted, as if the residents had vanished into thin air.

Perhaps all urban photographers are fated to document flux and transformation, even when, like Atget, their artistic mission is to remember and preserve. This irony is especially sharp in the case of Vancouver, where globalization and property speculators have recently upedended the city. A frenzy of home demolitions and large-scale construction projects has created an urban landscape of staggering inequalities: on the one hand, a rentier class of ultra-rich migrants, money-launderers, and property developers, as well as residents and petty landlords who reap unearned income from their spiking real estate values; and on the other, a downwardly-mobile working population displaced, evicted, heavily endebted, and generally downsized by runaway speculation. In such a context any photograph soon turns historical artifact.

A recent exhibition in Vancouver encapsulates these glaring contradictions by pressing art into the service of an oligarch’s vision of urban redevelopment. Titled “Fight for Beauty,” the exhibition claims to promote the arts in civic life, but serves essentially as an advertisement for Westbank, the powerful Vancouver property developer that mounted the show. In spite of withering reviews in the local press, Westbank extended the exhibition and launched a second blitz of self-promoting ads, underscoring in this way the belligerent thrust of the show’s central theme: “the fights that build cities and culture.”

The first exhibit in “Fight for Beauty” is a small color photograph by Fred Herzog, the well-known chronicler of Vancouver’s street life. Herzog’s modernist composition captures the stark symmetry of a dock’s buildings extending into the bay at sunrise, while the Marine Building’s ziggurat looms above, half obscured by haze. Herzog’s photos are typically bustling with activity; here, the image shows no human life. Empty as an Atget cityscape, the photo captures the scene of a crime.

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Elysium? (Fred Herzog, CPR Pier & Marine Building, 1953)

As narrated by Westbank’s founder, Ian Gillespie, Herzog’s photo portrays Vancouver’s Coal Harbor “before the very idea of the neighborhood had been formed.” The claim is peculiar, as it projects into the image a retroactive meaning, as if the developer’s as-yet unborn plans for Coal Harbor lay like a germ in the photo. Strangely, too, the developer’s “idea” of the neighborhood – an ultra-wealthy enclave with luxury hotels – erases the neighborhood’s prior existence, as if rebranding it could abolish the history that stubbornly clings to its name. For the developer, it seems, history presses forward like a force of nature, always benificent, turning coal into diamonds, and helpfully building interest on his investments. We learn from Gillespie that Herzog’s photo is from his own personal collection, and that it was shot on Herzog’s very first roll of film. This valuable rarity is perhaps the only thing the photograph shares with the rest of the exhibition.

Ballet; jewelry; couture fashion; a custom-made Fazioli grand piano: “beauty,” in Westbank’s curatorial vision, is unmistakeably construed as an accessory to wealth. Likewise, the developer’s contribution to urban design is a portfolio of ultra-luxury buildings, including the Shangri-La, “Where the living is easy,” a high-rise hotel and condominium tower planted amidst of a fresh crop of global luxury retail stores and across the street from Vancouver’s gleaming new Trump Tower.

Like these business ventures, Westbank’s notion of “beauty” has a strategic, rather than aesthetic function; it gives cover to class violence and dispossession by elevating the worthy intangibles of value over the mere vulgarity of price. In so doing, though, the company only reinforces its tacit identification with people for whom money is no object. Accordingly, the show’s brochure asks, “Since when have we learned the price of everything yet know the value of nothing?” – a question that somehow manages to be not only inane, but also wounded, plaintive and even vaguely threatening. For all that, however, the query is not entirely a non-sequitur, as it betrays the anger of threatened privilege stirred to righteous self-defense. And as an expression of defensiveness, the timing of “Fight for Beauty” seems no coincidence. The show, after all, was mounted at a time of vocal, organized, and occasionally successful protests against rising rents, displacements and evictions and after a slew of bad press prompted a tightening of regulations for Vancouver’s corruption-riddled real estate industry. “Fight for Beauty” also happens to close two days after the February 2 deadline for property owners to file Empty Home Tax declarations. Recent figures show that in a city with a less than 1% rental vacancy rate, as many as 1,000 houses are demolished every year, and upward of 25,000 homes in the city are currently empty or only temporarily occupied.

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Sociopath: Westbank’s “Vancouver House” project

Westbank’s “Fight for Beauty” may tell us nothing about art, but it speaks volumes about the world-view of plutocrats who, in Chrystia Freeland’s description, see themselves as “the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition” and constitute “a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen.”** The last point clarifies the yawning gap between Westbank and the local arts community, who countered the developer’s notion of civic beauty by pointing out that rising rents are displacing local working artists from the city. It also explains the tone of open contempt with which Gillespie refers to neighborhood anti-gentrification protests. Speaking, for instance, of development plans for the West End’s Lauren building, billed as “a luxury rental like no other in the neighborhood,” Gillespie heaps scorn on “the opposition,” a group of protesters he characterizes as “small, vocal, and sometimes violent,” underscoring the last word with a tone of lofty surprise and injury.

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Be afraid: Westbank scale model

Gillespie counts as a significant victory in his “fight for beauty” the public sculpture commissioned for the Lauren, titled “Triumph of the Technocrat.” Constructed out of reclaimed materials, the sculpture is, in Gillespie’s account, a “self-reflective critique of its own development and process of creation” — from which we can glean that the artist put some thought into it. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the developer’s words as mere verbiage, as they disclose hidden meanings in his account of the sculpture’s broader significance to “the surrounding community,” as he puts it. For Gillespie, the sculpture represents “the unseen mechanical process of development and land speculation impacting the surrounding community, drawing parallels between the role and complicity of all players in the development process.”

An oligarch’s entire social theory is sketched out here. If, on the one hand, the developer concedes that land speculation impacts the surrounding community, with all that the word “impact” implies of a violent strike, on the other, he seems to fold that community — including, presumably, protesters and activists — back into the process of development itself as complicit players. There is, apparently, something more encompassing than the “surrounding” community, something that surrounds and contains them in turn. That thing, of course, is Vancouver itself, a city run by billionaire developers and fueled by unregulated foreign capital. To live in the city is therefore to be complicit with its unchecked, runaway development, whether you agree with it or not.

Surprisingly enough, the oligarch’s social theory of general complicity lends support to Walter Benjamin, who suggested that all who participate in the city of crime are “culprits.” The claim comes in the specific passage where Benjamin speaks of Atget.

It is no accident that Atget’s photographs have been likened to those of a crime scene. But isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit? Isn’t it the task of the photographer … to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures? (“Little History of Photography,” 527).

Benjamin and the developer are only superficially in agreement, of course, as the former intends to prod the conscience of guilty citizens and prompt them to assume their political responsibilities. Gillespie, in contrast, sees all citizens as already inevitably subsumed in an unstoppable force of development, each of them contributing, in their own small way, to the accumulated wealth at the top of Herzog’s distant misty pyramid in the sky.

Gillespie has brashly adopted the term Gesamtkunstwerk as his company’s building ethos, despite the term’s socially-conscious significance in the German Bauhaus. And yet the word is somewhat appropriate to Westbank if translated as “all-embracing art,” for as the developer’s social theory suggests, plutocratic architecture can encompass all of social reality. It may appear contradictory that this architectural totality results in the plutocrats’ increasing distance from us, like the orbiting residents of happy Elysium. But the purpose of Westbank’s Gesamkunstwerk is not, of course, to house everyone — far from it — but instead to include us all in the economic logic that promotes and rewards spiraling inequality.

Public art itself, in Gillespie’s mind, is therefore the materialization of an all-embracing “complicity” that absorbs rival parties within the ineluctable process of gentrification. This can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in his account of Stan Douglas’ famous photograph Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971. The monumental image, a major work of the Vancouver School, portrays the Gastown Riots, during which police brutally attacked and arrested protesting hippies. The composite photograph hangs in the atrium of Westbank’s Woodward’s building, at the very site of the riots themselves.

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Stan Douglas, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971

Completed in 2009, the Woodward’s building was and remains controversial for initiating gentrification in Gastown and the neighboring Downtown Eastside. For Gillespie, though, Stan Douglas’ photo signifies all of the history of the period, from 1971 to the present, indiscriminately. Speaking of the Woodward’s redevelopment project, Gillespie says that Abbott & Cordova “perfectly represents what this project has been all along: a fight in 1971, and a fight all the way to 2009.” Although he refers to the riots as “a pivotal moment,” that moment is construed not as belonging to its own time and context, and with its own political aims, but instead as simply “defining Gastown’s current character,” as if it led ineluctably to the gentrified present. Westbank’s version of Gesamtkunstwerk  performs here its remorselessly totalizing logic: embracing all, yet excluding most everyone, evicting them even from history. We should imagine Douglas’ photograph vacated, empty and desolate, as haunting as an image by Atget.

“Fight for Beauty” closes this weekend.


*Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Selected Writings: 1931-1934, 527.

**Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (London: Penguin, 2012), 5.

 

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Brutalism Revisited

The Sirius building is a social housing complex in the Rocks district of central Sydney. The Lego-like Brutalist structure has been lauded by architects and residents since its opening in 1980, but rising real estate prices have lately put it in the crosshairs of redevelopment. Today only a few tenants remain; the building is slated for demolition.

Over the past year community groups and architects lobbied to protect the Sirius with heritage status, but the New South Wales Government opted to cash in on the land’s high value, citing profits that could be spent on social housing projects elsewhere. In so doing, however, the Government tacitly sanctioned the gentrification process, condemning the Sirius’ low-income residents to banishment from the city center and erasing a monument to social welfare and inclusive urban planning. Born of labor strikes and community organizing in the 1970s, the Sirius embodies an egalitarian ethos in its identical concrete modules and generous common spaces, values casually dismissed by the Finance Minister, who recently tweeted, “if you need a PhD in Architecture to ‘appreciate’ the #Sirius building, then it’s clearly not a building for the people.”

In retrospect, the Sirius’ opening date of 1980 seems fatefully symbolic: the year is commonly seen as the start of the neoliberal era. Its pending demolition is no less significant, as it coincides with what may be that era’s nasty, fitful demise. Similarly, the Finance Minister’s arrogance harks back to Thatcherism, while his faux-populist attack on so-called “elites” echoes a fascist strain in contemporary governance. In the Sirius debacle we can see neoliberalism’s end game, its last-ditch raid on the commons and public wealth. No wonder Brutalism is having a resurgence of interest lately; buildings like the Sirius look increasingly utopian and retro-futurist in our disenchanted glass-and-steel cityscapes.

Before, that is, they fall to the bulldozer.

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Sydney is ranked as the world’s second most unaffordable city; Vancouver, BC comes in a close third on that unfortunate list. Like Sydney, Vancouver has widening social inequality due to skyrocketing land values, and as in Sydney, the real estate trade in luxury homes is causing a loss of heritage structures and a crisis in social housing. Meanwhile, as market force disrupt public education, large-scale campus redevelopment projects mirror the Sirius controversy; privatization at the University of British Columbia is leading to the the demolition and remodeling of Brutalist structures, once a defining feature of the school’s built environment. As a result, a tour of UBC’s Brutalist architecture is like a visit to the fast-receding recent past.

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UBC’s Museum of Anthropology was designed by Arthur Erickson and opened its doors in 1976. The building is as impressive as its setting. Tall windows provide views northward of forested islands and mountains; the landscaped grounds drop off abruptly to the sea. The museum’s grand architectural motif of concrete pillars and cantilevered crossbeams echoes the totem poles and post-and-beam structures of the Northwest Coast First Nations. As the University pursues a master plan of so-called “transparency” in new campus buildings, the MOA stands as a dignified reminder that Brutalist concrete and glass are far from incompatible.

The Museum of Anthropology is built on the site of three WWII battery gun emplacements, one of which is incorporated into a circular gallery. An attentive visitor can make out the concrete foundation of battery gun #3 on the west side of the museum’s main hall. Two searchlight towers still stand on the shore below the museum.

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This convergence of Brutalism and bunker architecture at the Museum of Anthropology is highly suggestive. The same year as the MOA opened to the public, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris mounted an exhibition of photographs of WWII bunkers, which were published with an accompanying theoretical treatise by the photographer, Paul Virilio, as Bunker archéologie.

Virilio, a professor of architecture, saw military bunkers as a testimony to the radical transformation of modern space-time by the threat of “total war.” He claimed that a certain “poetry” inheres in the bunkers’ obsolescent principles of armored defense, deriving as they do from the pre-nuclear age of artillery. By the war’s end those principles would be wholly invalidated, and along with them, any idea of security and protection in the civil sphere, too. “The bunker,” Virilio says, “is the protohistory of an age in which the power of a single weapon is so great that no distance can protect you from it any longer.”*

Looking back at Virilio’s 1976 exhibit, we recognize that similar feelings of fear and regret color our view of Brutalism today: nostalgia for an age of welfare and social security, a world in which public institutions, including universities, could still defend against the market and finance capital. From the perspective of globalization’s discontents, Brutalism can appear almost naïve, its confident structures unwittingly vulnerable. Like the bunkers, then, Brutalism is protohistorical: its heyday already anticipated our age of homogenized, globalized, transnational space.

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These historical contradictions are expressed in Brutalism’s language of design as a play of contrasts: solidity and absence, weightlessness and bulk. At the MOA’s southwest corner, a jutting shape frames a rectangular void, a zen garden among the cedars. The concrete’s bold horizontal levitation contrasts with the forest’s randomly-spaced tree trunks and wayward branches. Massive as it is, however, the concrete wall reminds us that it plays a modest role no different than any other construction material: to host the transitory and contain the intangible. Here, the stark contrast between immateriality and bulk exacerbates the contradiction, challenging the massive material to yield further, to withdraw, to aspire in spite of itself to sheer abstract form.

Across the street at the Peter Wall Institute, a high-ceilinged dining lounge opens onto a secluded garden and a pond bordered by concrete patios. With its long horizontal planes, deep overhanging roofline and seamless articulation of indoor and outdoor space, the lounge and its garden evoke a touchstone of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. UBC’s Brutalist reimagining of the 1929 Pavilion accentuates the Bauhaus building’s cantilevered concept by substituting a massive concrete block for Mies’ long, slender lid.

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The Barcelona Pavilion was inspired by traditional Japanese architecture. A visitor to the Peter Wall lounge can take the measure of the Brutalist building’s Eastern heritage by visiting the nearby Nitobe garden’s simple, elegant tea house, an ethereal structure of wood, straw, bamboo and paper. With the tea house in mind, Brutalist bulk gives way to abstraction, and spatial volume becomes nearly palpable, like a sculpture shedding its mould.

We might even trace the architectural sources of the Peter Wall lounge further back still, and imagine the concrete structure “not so much built as knotted together, plaited, woven, embroidered,” as Lévi-Strauss said of a Bororo village in Brazil. To the visiting anthropologist, the delicate yet monumental Bororo houses seemed more like clothing than edifice. Interestingly, his ethnographic descriptions confirm Virilio’s insight into the fragility of fortifications: the houses, Lévi-Strauss said, were “like a light, flexible suit of armour, closer to Western women’s hats than to Western towns.”** The anthropologist’s descriptions serve to illustrate his larger argument that built space reflects social structure, that is to say, the intangibles of language and community. At the Peter Wall lounge, students can have lunch along with professors and residents on fellowship; but nothing keeps a campus visitor from enjoying the space, too.

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The Peter Wall Institute includes residences for visiting scholars that have large windows and balconies with sweeping views of Howe Sound and the North Shore mountains. This longstanding gesture of hospitality to scholars was recently retracted, however; the Institute has reclaimed the upper floor spaces for administrative offices. Elsewhere at UBC, similar shifting priorities are transforming the role of Brutalist buildings in social and academic life.

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The Walter Gage student residences date from 1972. The Brutalist complex includes three tall towers with grand views of mountains and sea. From lower levels, however, that perspective has become more restricted as UBC has monetized the natural view. An anomaly at a public university, UBC includes an enclave of luxury private houses, townhomes and condominiums within the academic campus core. These expensive properties now stand betwp_20170206_09_39_01_proween the midcentury dormitories and the mountain views. Planted at the heart of the luxury neighborhood is the imposing granite-clad School of Economics, whose ersatz Oxbridge crenellated tower provides a fitting backdrop for the residents, evoking as it does an era of educational class privilege. Moreover, the building’s idea of fortification is so antiquated that, inverting the meaning of Virilio’s bunker archeology, it relegates the idea of danger to the domain of myth.

The contrast is striking: on one side of Walter Gage Road, the Brutalist complex; on the other, picture windows, granite cladding, generous balconies and vast penthouse terraces. UBC touts the revenue it gains from its real estate sales, but a glaring contradiction remains: ownership of a view home on the “public” university campus is the sole privilege of the ultra-wealthy. Meanwhile, UBC is launching a new venture to address student affordability problems: “nano” apartments currently in development will offer 140 square feet of living space — exactly twice the minimum standard size of an American prison cell. These tiny dorms will stand well back from the views next to the university bus exchange on the far side of the Brutalist dormitories.

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Buchanan Tower is perhaps the starkest exemplar of Brutalism on the UBC campus. Inspired by an Arthur Erickson building in downtown Vancouver, Buchanan Tower is commonly judged unattractive, but its uncompromising grid of identical windows is the physical sanction of an egalitarian ideal: no penthouse, no corner offices. We might conjecture, then, that it is not so much Buchanan Tower’s starkness as its outmoded ideals that make the building “an object of disgust,” as Virilio said of the bunkers, in contrast to the pleasure commonly afforded by “transparent and open civilian architecture.” In this light, a negative judgment of the tower could be seen as a moral failing rather than a mere lapse of taste.

The recent film High-Rise displays a similar error of judgment by making an emphatically Brutalist apartment building the virtual protagonist in a social allegory of dystopia and class warfare. With its domineering architect residing atop the tower in a luxury home and social classes ranked below on corresponding floor levels (the working class tellingly omitted, however), the building’s spatial ethos is clearly more representative of globalized neoliberalism’s luxury towers than Brutalism. In an interview, the director of High-Rise claimed that his intention was not to discredit 50’s and 60’s architecture, but in so doing he made a telling aside. “I went to Vancouver for the first time and stayed in a tower block, with me being slightly prejudiced against tower blocks, and this thing was really beautiful,” the director said. “Everyone lives in these tower blocks,” he continued, “and they’re all alright, that kind of condo, and this is seen as the height of luxury.”

Needless to say, the director’s vision of Vancouver is singularly blind to the violent dystopias fostered by such “beautiful luxury.” What better symbol of the social cost of luxury than Vancouver’s Trump International Hotel & Tower, due to open the 28th of this month? In a sorry confirmation of the victory of the oligarchs and the corresponding demise of Brutalism, the glass and steel Trump Tower was designed by none other than Arthur Erickson.

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All Brutalist architecture owes a debt to the visionary apartment design of Le Corbusier, the Unité d’habitation, first constructed in Marseille in 1952. On an architectural tour of that building some years ago, this writer was hosted by a resident who had lived there happily for decades. The old woman firmly expressed the wish that she would never have to leave her pleasant, stark modernist apartment. Was she afraid of eviction? That she might outlive the building — or even Brutalism itself? I didn’t ask. But I remember how she put it: “I hope I die here.”


*Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994), 46.

**Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 215.

 

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Reading the Neoliberal University

In the 1998 film Dark City, a race of aliens in human form control a noir metropolis where the sun never rises. The minds of the city dwellers are constantly manipulated, like the cityscape itself, which is rearranged as they sleep. “The rich get richer,” says the sinister Dr. Schreber, as he injects a sleeping couple with a memory-altering drug; meanwhile, the aliens, pursuing their lab-rat studies of human behavior, quickly transform the couple’s modest tenement: the building morphs, bulges, and changes into a vast luxury home.

Dark City provides a startling vision of urban spaces molded at will. Buildings rise out of nowhere, twisting and groaning into a crowded sky; in one chase scene, the protagonist scales an accordion-like staircase that pulls up and away from him, a shot that cites the dizzying dolly zoom from Vertigo. But the use of Hitchcock’s psychic motif to convey a literal warping of space points to Dark City’s major weakness, what we might call a puppet-master theory of power and politics. Even when the hero defeats the aliens, using their power to “tune” the cityscape, the film promotes the idea that politics is the emanation of power from a single controlling source. Convenient as if may be to think so, politically and plot-wise, something as complex as a modern city can hardly be the plaything of a central malevolent force.

Or so we used to think. In today’s financialized, securitized, hypercapitalist cities, something akin to Dark City’s nightmare vision is taking place. Power is more centralized and money more concentrated in a global oligarchic ruling class. Democracy itself, that old urban invention, is in retreat everywhere, and Foucault’s idea of “micropolitics” seems to lose much of its relevance. New, cruder forms of brutality and demographic control speak to a reversion from the complex modalities of foucaultian discipline to the heavy hand of sovereign punishment. These developments flout the reigning truism of contemporary thought that globalization and free-market economies have rendered power more polycentric and diffuse. Saskia Sassen, the sociologist and urban studies scholar, has suggested that this mutation in the field of politics is most visible in those places where power is most highly centralized, the world’s global centers.

Historically, the oppressed have often risen against their masters. But today the oppressed have mostly been expelled and survive at great distance from their oppressors. Further, the “oppressor” is increasingly a complex system that combines persons, networks, and machines with no obvious center. And yet there are sites where it all comes together, where power becomes concrete and can be engaged, and where the oppressed are part of the social infrastructure for power. Global cities are one such site.*

With its evictions, rising rents, luxury developments and skyrocketing land values, Vancouver, British Columbia exemplifies Sassen’s diagnosis of the contemporary “global city.” And at this Pacific Rim city’s westernmost edge a satellite metropolis is fast emerging at the University of British Columbia. UBC has witnessed a breakneck pace of construction in the past five years; more than a dozen new buildings have been completed in that time along with a half-dozen major renovations and a university-wide landscaping project that has reshaped gardens, plazas, walkways and transit stations throughout the campus core. The sky above UBC bristles with construction cranes; at mud level students and faculty run mazes between building sites and excavations that seem to appear overnight. Meanwhile, apartment and condominium towers rise from the forest on the edge of campus, and adverts at Wesbrook Village promise that “Everyone can live at UBC.” A disturbing thought – surely they mean “anyone”? But the slip is telling, as the University’s growth ambitions seem to have no limit.

Approaching Vancouver’s UBC campus via University Boulevard, visitors are greeted by eight-foot block letters spelling the school’s initials in gleaming stainless steel, a logo more suggestive of a business park than a public university. These three letters present our first interpretive challenge as we visit the campus. How to read them? The sign turns each letter into an imposing object, while at the same time evacuating all interiority in a play of surface reflections. Both vacuous and brash, the sign achieves a kind of linguistic aphonia characteristic of UBC’s marketing language and managerial speak.

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In 2015, UBC announced it would raise international student tuition by a whopping 37%. Six years earlier, in the midst of a budget crisis, UC President Mark Yudof proposed a similarly draconian 32% tuition hike for local California students. Yudof justified his move with the notorious statement that “the shine is off” public education. Does UBC’s gleaming logo mean to suggest otherwise? Or does it, rather, confirm what happens to public universities when student fees are increased? The case of UBC’s southern neighbors is instructive: with rising tuition, the core principles of access and affordability are undermined, and along with them the democratic premise of the “public” university; students, indentured to loans or obliged to work their way through school, are forced to view their education as vocational training; the drift away from state financial support and the taxpaying public separates the school from social accountability; and the use of private funding imposes market logic on the school’s priorities and operations. The university is privatized; it becomes a transnational corporation.

The UBC sign’s outsize dimensions suggest that without such a brash announcement, one might otherwise doubt that one had arrived at the school. And there would be reason to wonder. The school’s corporatization has spawned drastic changes in its look. Until recently, a landmark building stood at this corner: the imposing General Administration Building, whose mid-century concrete Brutalist aesthetic ultimately fell afoul of the University’s glossy new rebranding campaign. An empty lot occupies the site today.

The demolition of the Brutalist-style General Administration Building can be taken as a symbol of the reshaping of public education under neoliberalism. In spite of the word’s negative connotations, Brutalism denotes frankness and honesty in construction, an architectural ethos embodied by raw, exposed concrete. Moreover, the material’s solidity speaks to the will to long-term investment in social infrastructure commonly seen in mid-century government buildings, social welfare projects and public universities. In contrast to Brutalism’s solidity and permanence, new buildings on the UBC campus are characterized by expansive glass walls. Planning documents speak of “emphasizing transparency (e.g. glass) on the ground floors to project a sense of lightness, welcome and optimism,” thereby “allowing interior academic uses to be visible.” This last directive is vaguely unsettling, as if the primary function of classroom activities was to advertise education to random passersby and window shoppers. And indeed, UBC’s new design priorities suggest a general market-oriented transformation of the academic landscape, from slogans and logos to large-scale campus building projects.

In advocating for “transparency,” one might think that the University has only updated Brutalism’s “frankness” with a brighter, glossier synonym. But in a neoliberal business context, “transparency” unmistakably conveys the actuarial priorities of financial accountability, which, in turn, call for stricter and more encompassing surveillance. Educators have lately been fighting skirmishes on this front. In the newly-remodeled Brutalist Buchanan Tower, for instance, faculty have requested frosted glass where builders installed floor-to-ceiling walls around classrooms. But the surveillance of education goes much further than this; as faculty are downsized and students increasingly positioned as customers, a burgeoning administration requires ever more accountability in the delivery of promised “outcomes,” customer satisfaction and proof of educational value in fungible and brandable products. An emphasis on profit yields an unremitting focus on “waste.” The irony of transparency’s supposed openness is that it results in less freedom from the demands of the market.

Further, the idea of “transparency” stands in stark contrast to university bureaucratese, which speaks a hoary language of “community” and “sharing” while delivering the university over to the obscure whims of impersonal global finance. Nothing demonstrates this contradiction better, perhaps, than a newsletter sent out by UBC’s Office of Finance & Operations under the headline “Building Transparency in an Environment of Accelerating Change.” The Vice-President’s managerial language seems to tear a page from Dark City’s script in referring to buildings as “big pieces” moving around on campus, a dystopic impression heightened by his use of an ominously agentless passive voice. “The pace of change at UBC has been accelerating,” he observes. “When a lot of big pieces begin to move, it can be easy to focus on the task at hand and worry about helping everyone understand later.” In this picture of things, consultation with the community has become quite literally an afterthought: “helping everyone understand later.” Moreover, that belated consultation – a contradiction in terms – is not only tardy but at times (when? how often?) infinitely deferred: communication, he admits, happens “sometimes never.” The Vice-President claims to want to remedy this situation, but it’s unclear whether he means to apologize or spread the blame for the lack of communication: “we all know as things get busy the chance to speak with each other sometimes never comes.”

Given this obfuscation and high-handedness, it is small wonder, then, that the Vice President of Finance & Operations equates himself – literally – with the University itself. His web page leads off with a breathtaking dangling modifier, proudly asserting that “As one of the world’s leading universities, it’s important to me [sic] that we provide an open and transparent window to our financial and operational performance.” Is it pointless to note the redundancy of a window that is both open and transparent? But the pleonasm seems to suggest that even for a man in charged with managing the university’s physical infrastructure, transparent windows are only approximate, vague metaphors. We can assume that this is the case for all the new windows on campus; when the Planning Department speaks of “Emphasizing transparency (e.g. glass) … to project a sense of lightness, welcome and optimism, and allowing interior academic uses to be visible,” we should consider those panes of glass to be similarly deficient in reality. These are not windows, they are elements of a general panoptic system that aims to govern the education process with a pitiless demand for efficiency and profit.

This marketing ethos is evident in the rental apartments under construction next to the Administration Building’s rubble. The building is soon to house a range of businesses and restaurants at street level, and as a result, when one passes the UBC sign to enter campus one will run a gauntlet of commerce and entertainment along the last leg of University Boulevard. A “key gateway” to campus, in the administration’s language, and leading directly to what maps designate as the “campus core,” the remodeled University Boulevard is a clear signal of the school’s privatizing trend. And though we are still on the edge of the university, the name of the new apartment building, “Centre,” performs a verbal reorientation of the campus itself. We might say of “Centre” what Jean Baudrillard disparagingly said of the Beaubourg in Paris, that its “fragility” and “world’s fair” aesthetic “overtly proclaims that our time will never again be that of duration, that our only temporality is that of the accelerated cycle and of recycling.”** Ironically, this very denial of permanence can serve to promote the University’s brand when hitched to the school’s “zero-waste” ambitions; at Brock Commons, next to a venerable cluster of mid-century Brutalist dorms, a new dormitory building is nearing completion. UBC proudly bills it as the world’s tallest wooden building. It may be that the building has a smaller carbon footprint, but one cannot help thinking that it will be more easily reduced to pulp.

(End of part 1; to be continued)


*Saskia Sassen, Expulsions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 11.

**Jean Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg Effect,” 61.

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Vancouver Uncoupled

The defacement of the city provided high-cost observatories of concrete from which to observe an extraordinary landscape.

— Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

For thirty years the Twin Towers were dominant features of the New York skyline, unmistakable from afar, rearing up in gaps between buildings or gleaming at the end of 6th avenue at dusk. Their blunt profiles marked their place on lower Manhattan as surely as darts on a map. But because they were a pair, they positioned the viewer, too: remove all else, and their abstract, shifting forms marked your spot on the city grid by their relative positions and the shadows they cast.

You moved, they moved. Driving south on the BQE, the space between the towers widened and narrowed and at a sharp bend in the highway they grew taller and merged; looking back at the city from Red Hook, the two towers appeared as one. Proust relates a similar kinesthetic experience at the end of Combray when he speaks of the two spires of Martinville “appearing to change position with the motion of our carriage and the windings of the road,” then, as he left them behind, seeming to “press against one another, slip behind one another, now forming … no more than a single black shape.”*

Proust’s moving steeples came to mind this month as the new Trump Tower in Vancouver approached its grand opening date. Standing on a promontory with unobstructed views of the sea and the North Shore mountains, the Trump, at 584 feet tall, is a close second to the city’s tallest building, and with its luxury rival located right across the street the two form a distinct pair on the city skyline: the Shangri-La, all glass and stabbing angles, and the Trump, vaguely organic, torqued, tubular, “a new twist on luxury,” as the ads have it.

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Under wraps: the Trump Tower Vancouver

Last December, when the presidential hopeful called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, Vancouver’s mayor asked the developers of the Trump Tower to drop the man’s offending name from the building. “Trump’s name and brand have no more place on Vancouver’s skyline than his ignorant ideas have in the modern world,” the mayor boldly declared. A city planner echoed the mayor’s concerns: “our brand,” he said, “… is almost the diametric opposite to what Mr. Trump is saying.” The city planner’s use of the word “almost” was oddly scrupulous; the audience was left to ponder what it means to “almost” oppose violent bigotry and ignorance. His conflation of “brand” and “values” was confusing too — though his stumbling grammar implied that the former, in fact, was his main concern: “our brand, our values as a city and as a country, is [sic] almost the diametric opposite…”. Even the mayor’s bold statement, on closer inspection, seems to hedge its bets: saying that Trump’s name has “no more place” in Vancouver than elsewhere fudges the simpler, plainer message that it has no place here at all.

The protests came to nothing, predictably enough, and the gold-plated name on the building will stand. Fittingly, the tower is most noticeable from Vancouver’s wealthiest neighborhoods; at sunset, looking back at the city skyline from the beachfronts or headlands of West Vancouver and Point Grey, a long bright gash of reflected light slices across the building, impossible to ignore. But there are places in Vancouver where the Trump Tower can’t offend the eye, where the viewer, like Proust with his steeples, can set one building behind the other, hiding the Trump behind the Shangri-La. In these places, maybe, Vancouver still remains one of the world’s “most beautiful cities” — second only to Paris, according to a recent Forbes rating.  For the happy few of Fairview, Cambie Village and Riley Park, it’s as if the Tower didn’t exist.

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Our tour of these neighborhoods aims south by southeast, following the cone of an umbra, to borrow the language of astronomy, the long shadow cast by an architectural eclipse.

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At 6th and Heather Streets, a four-story apartment building clad in faux-brick tarpaper is a lone reminder of the Fairview neighborhood’s industrial past. The building stands at the western edge of the cone of eclipse. From the front of the building, a narrow sliver of the Trump Tower can be seen to the left of the Shangri-La, but at the back of the building the view is more secure. The bay windows at the northeast corner look out on an alleyway, an empty lot, a defunct railroad spur, and, above the waterfront condominiums, the city skyline, topped by the blue shard of the Shangri-La.

We may have blotted the Trump tower from view, but the picture of the city from 6th and Heather speaks eloquently of Trump’s “brand”: social dishesion, gaping inequality, political cronyism and real estate profiteering. Plainly visible from here, the penthouse atop the Shangri-La was recently listed at $15 million and sold for an undisclosed amount. Meanwhile, one block away is the Olympic Village subway station, and rising above it, the neighborhood of condos bearing the same name, legacies of the 2010 winter games. Protests during the lead-up to the Vancouver games brought attention to the risks of rising rents and social displacement, and what the the protesters feared came true. The Olympic media blitz hyped Vancouver as a global tourist and luxury destination, and realtors and developers reaped a windfall: the cost of rent and real estate spiked dramatically after the games, while City Hall reneged on promises of affordable housing at Olympic Village. The apartment building at 6th and Heather is the kind of structure the City prefers to have replaced with more expensive, high-density condominium towers. But given that the vacancy rate for rentals in Vancouver now stands at 0.6 percent, and the cost of rent has increased twice as fast as incomes in the post-Olympic period, eviction from a place like 6th and Heather often means banishment from the city itself.

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Broadway Plaza, at the corner of Broadway and Ash, is a relic of the age of civic modernism. With its suspended concrete walkways and terraces, its open access from multiple levels, and a spiral staircase that affords wide views of the city and the sea, the Plaza is a kinesthetic playground and an eloquent lesson in spatial democracy. As you climb the outdoor staircase the Shangri-La stands prominently on the skyline, but from either side of the spiral the Trump remains invisible, nor can it be seen from any of the Plaza’s bridges or terraces. This beneficent eclipse seems to confirm the Plaza’s spatial ethos and midcentury optimism.

Broadway Plaza exemplifies the open urban form that has been inverted to such dramatic effect by postmodern malls and hotel atriums the world over, such as Los Angeles’ famed Bonaventure Hotel, whose bunker-like structure encloses a city in miniature within a privatized concrete microcosm. Forty years ago Fredric Jameson scorned the faux populism that masked the Bonaventure’s paranoid sociopathy.** That sociopathic attitude is now incarnated in the man Donald Trump, while the real estate magnate’s architectural populism takes the form of a spectacular edifice nominally open to all, but firmly exclusive in its higher privileges. Broadway Plaza, in contrast, seems almost quaint in its urban generosity; there is even a working public pay phone by the seating area at the foot of the spiral stairs.

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Diagonally across the busy street from Broadway Plaza stands a modest apartment building with wooden plank siding and cedar shingles painted barn red, its false roofline evocative of a western frontier town. One wouldn’t guess it, but the apartments at Broadway and Ash are a mere three blocks from Vancouver City Hall and only two blocks from the city’s all-important Office of Development and Building. Few major cities can boast such jarring contradictions, and the contrast is instructive: the gleaming global city of high-end condos, luxury mansions and Lamborghinis has arrived in Vancouver with whiplash suddenness. But history can be stubborn, too; from the upstairs windows at the corner of Broadway and Ash you can view a cityscape seemingly from the past, because the Trump Tower is nowhere in sight.

Four blocks south of Broadway houses start to appear among the larger buildings. A lone Victorian stands among a group of neglected homes on 16th avenue, a tall Douglas fir like a giant gangly weed at the property line. 16th avenue is zoned for higher-density construction, so the houses here are in real estate limbo. When the time comes, they are unlikely to be renovated or moved elsewhere. The city of Vancouver issues almost 1,000 permits every year for home demolitions, and even in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes, an older house that changes hands is likely to fall to the bulldozer. In the absence of heritage protection, rising land values render houses increasingly disposable, a process documented with grim persistence by the authors of Vancouver Vanishes and the affiliated Facebook group. The current rate of demolitions is so high that at any given time the average residential street in Vancouver has vacant lots between the homes, holes awaiting construction, like gap teeth in a face that is repeatedly punched.

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But the Victorian on 16th has a view unmarred by the Trump Tower, as it lies securely within the cone of eclipse. In a sense the house is doubly fortunate; the view of the Shangri-La itself is obscured by the imposing form of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church across the street, and even if one climbed up to the Victorian’s peaked roof, the view of the city’s tallest building would be blocked by the church’s high golden dome. Residents living on the upper floors of an apartment building on this site may not be so lucky.

*

Our itinerary crosses Cambie Street near 21st Avenue, running at an obtuse angle to Cambie’s North-South axis and tending slightly east on a long southerly diagonal across the city. Due to our eastward creep we are gradually approaching the next major North-South thoroughfare, Main Street, the traditional dividing-line between the wealthier West and poorer East sides of Metro Vancouver. But like an asymptotic line, geometry’s equivalent to frustration, our path won’t intersect with Main Street, neither will we cross it to enter East Van’s more diverse, affordable and bohemian neighborhoods. Instead, our diagonal will make a near tangent to Main before plunging into the Fraser River and leaving the city. This failure to cross Main Street seems symbolic of our quest, as the traditional East/West division, what urban planner Andy Yan calls “the $1 Million Line,” no longer exists today. Pointing to his research that maps the eastward encroachment of high real estate prices over the past 10 years, Yan says that the East-West dividing line has “utterly disappeared,” because neighborhoods of $1 million homes now extend well beyond Main Street, reaching right to the eastern boundary of the city.

Vancouverites will tell you that real estate in the city has always been expensive. Like realtors, they are quick to cite the so-called market “fundamentals,” including limited land area, temperate climate, natural beauty and political stability. But the price of housing has lately come “uncoupled” from the local economy; real estate values no longer reflect local supply and demand but are driven at the upper end by an international market of rich migrants and investors, with costly knock-on effects across the city. In this one word, “uncoupled,” lies a world of hurt for people of average or modest incomes in the Vancouver area. As a measure of the ratio of local wages to cost of housing, Vancouver is second only to Hong Kong on the world’s list of most expensive cities. This situation is neither natural nor unavoidable; favorable tax rates for offshore investment, immigration laws that favor rich migrants, lack of regulation of the real estate industry and weak heritage protections all promote the destabilizing influence of foreign money on land values. But the consensus in Canadian politics favors globalization, while Vancouver City Hall has consistently promoted developers’ and realtors’ interests. The result today is a city hollowed out from within, mansions sprouting next to modest family homes, “zombie” houses that remain empty year-round, and a climate of anxiety, suspicion and fear.

These changes are more than an inconvenience for renters and people of average incomes. The widening gap between labor wages and unearned income from property is reshaping Vancouver’s entire demographic makeup and liberal culture. The main finding of Thomas Piketty’s landmark Capital in the Twenty-First Century is precisely this kind of increasing disparity, and the economist’s prognosis is dispiriting. If current trends continue, Piketty warns, “inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin, and the concentration of capital will attain extremely high levels – levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies.”*** No wonder the population of young people in Vancouver is declining: millennials are leaving the city because wages saved for the future can’t keep pace with the faster rate of profit others will have gained meantime from their past investments; these young people don’t accept a situation in which, as Piketty puts it, “the past devours the future” (571). A new genre has lately emerged in the local media: the “dear John” letter to Vancouver by a young person who has decided to leave the city for good.

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A pair of houses at West 29th Avenue and Yukon Street encapsulates the quiet violence of Vancouver’s “uncoupled” economy. Next to a modest mid-century house stands a new two-storey mansion faced in limestone. The mansion’s grandiose colonnaded entryway contrasts with the simple wooden arbor by the little house’s front door, and the unassuming hospitality of the latter’s unfenced open lawn is negated by the new arrival’s granite wall, iron gate and spiked fence. The mansion appears unrelated to its surroundings, and though it flaunts its bulky materiality it seems airlifted from elsewhere, a symbol of the abstracting, delocalizing force of unfettered capital. But from the mansion and the single-storey home the city view is the same: the Shangri-La completely masks the Trump Tower from sight.

Across the street the sloping lawns of Queen Elizabeth Park rise up toward the summit of Little Mountain, one of Vancouver’s most popular viewpoints. City Hall calls the park the highest point in Vancouver, but at 500 feet above sea level it’s in fact significantly lower than the penthouse and upper-level luxury suites of the Shangri-La. This turns out to be an advantage for the visitors at Little Mountain, though: by an odd coincidence, the summit is fully within the Shangri-La’s zone of eclipse. From here the blue building in the distance seems to stand alone amid the shorter towers of downtown Vancouver.

A city without the Trump Tower: the panoramic view from Little Mountain answers the mayor’s righteous call for a ban on Trump’s name and brand from the city. But that would be to deny what the city of Vancouver amply shares with the ethos of the man Donald Trump, real estate magnate and global luxury brand. Visitors may not know it, but for older residents of the neighborhood, “Little Mountain” can’t fail to evoke the social housing development by that name, formerly located just adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Park and a stone’s throw from the viewpoint. Built in 1954, the complex of 37 buildings housed 7oo lower-income residents until the tenants were evicted and the structures razed to the ground in 2009. Last month, after years of delays and public outcry, City Hall announced the rezoning plan for the former Little Mountain site. The plan calls for a slight increase of social housing units — 282 for the original 224 — but the project, in sum, amounts to a land grab for private capital, as there will be four and a half times as many condominiums as social housing units on the property. The developer of the Little Mountain site is none other than Holborn Holdings Limited, owner of Vancouver’s Trump Tower.

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                                                                      *                                                                      2016 may turn out to be the breaking point for Vancouver real estate. Last spring home prices vaulted an additional 30% over the previous year’s sky-high values before the scandal of “shadow flipping” prompted a tightening of real estate regulations. Then, following years of stonewalling, the province and the city finally lifted their ban on the release of statistics on foreign property ownership, and in the wake of the findings the first modest reforms were made to address the affordability crisis. As of August 2nd, foreigners face a presumably discouraging 15% tax on Vancouver home purchases. But the city and the province may be playing a double game; the new tax was announced in Victoria the day before City Hall approved the developer’s plans for Little Mountain.

As you continue southward down the hill, the summit of Little Mountain rises up behind you. Holborn’s development site can be seen to the left, an L-shaped patch of bare earth awaiting construction. The sky beyond the Fraser River is often more sunny when Vancouver lies under a cloud cover. Today the southern horizon is socked in. No matter. By the time you reach the bottom of the slope the view north is totally blocked by Little Mountain, and with it, not only the offending tower, but the city of Vancouver as a whole.


* Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, Lydia Davis, trans. (New York: Penguin, 2003), pp. 184, 186.

** See Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in The Cultural Turn (London: Verso, 1998), 1-20.

*** Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Arthur Goldhammer, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014), 26.

 

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Re: Place

Place is nothing other than the possibility, chance, or threat of replacement.

— Jacques Derrida

When a realtor’s sign goes up in a residential neighborhood in Vancouver, BC, the sign often reads “Lot for Sale,” as if there were no house on the property. And yet the home is plainly there, contradicting the sign that seems to want to conjure it away. The house may be attractive and habitable, a well-built ‘character home,’ but it is worthless to the prospective buyer or property developer. Land value overrides all other values; the house will be demolished and replaced with something new.

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At other times — more rarely — the house on the lot is not bulldozed but “deconstructed.” The building is stripped and gutted, lifted up in order to add square footage, or displaced to make room for an additional house on the lot. “Deconstruction” is a less violent option, but it still wholly disrupts the house and its setting. As for the built-in cabinets, the leaded glass windows, the door knobs, porcelain sinks and cast-iron fixtures, the modest evidence of the former residents’ habits and choices, they are junked or salvaged, carted away.

Deconstruction. What is the relationship between this dismantling of a home and the critical intervention known by the same name? Is it possible to intervene in a philosophical way on spiking real estate values and runaway gentrification? Can deconstruction undermine property speculation, evictions and rent profiteers?  Can deconstruction deconstruct “deconstruction”?

*

Criticism and the dismantling of buildings are not unrelated, and a deconstructionist would be wrong to accuse a worker in a hard hat of abusing the philosophical term. Derrida once made this point when speaking to an audience of architects, insisting on deconstruction’s literal meaning. In so doing, however, the philosopher emphasized deconstruction’s “affirmative” nature, and as a result, the word’s meaning mutated strangely. While the primary sense of “deconstruction” clearly implies unmaking and undoing, Derrida claimed that the word refers to a creative process of rebuilding. “Between re-building and deconstruction there is no opposition, nor even any difference,” Derrida said.* The two terms, then, are equivalent and interchangeable, so you can take your choice, he claimed: “Deconstruction, or, if you like, re-building” (33).

If the two words are interchangeable, however, the negative prefix “de-” would be equivalent to the positive “re-,” and deconstruction, as a result, would equate not only with rebuilding but with reconstruction — its literal opposite. Barring sheer incoherence, how is that possible?

The key to this puzzle lies in the equivocal meanings of the prefix “re-,” which can signify either repetition, and thus a positive reiteration or addition, or else substitution, and thus a removal or usurpation. This ambiguity is captured by the word “replace,” which Derrida, insisting on the ambiguous prefix, writes as re-place. Like the word reiteration, then, a word often invoked by Derrida, re-placement destabilizes a fundamental distinction on which identity and difference is established. There is no presence and thus no identity without the repeatability of identity; but where there is repetition there is difference, and thus the undoing of presence. More concretely than this fundamental paradox of identity, re-placement however entails a literal foundation: the physical place on which anything built can stand or fall. Rather than providing a secure and solid footing, Derrida’s insight into primary substitutability considers replacement, not place, as the true ground beneath our feet, because “replacement [is] the very possibility of place.”

“Replacement … gives place to place,” Derrida asserts. “There is no placement without replacement or at least without replaceability.” Consequently, “Place is nothing other than the possibility, chance, or threat of replacement” (24). These formulations are worrying in themselves, as they undercut our confidence in space and place as stable, familiar and secure. They are also disturbing in the light of exploitative, disruptive real estate “deconstruction.” After all, if any given place is always replaced and replaceable, does this not disqualify in advance preservationist motives as nostalgic and misguided? Preservationists would be in denial of the “original replaceability” of all sites, and to militate for “non-replacement,” as Derrida puts it, would be to ignore the non-foundational “abyss” at our feet: “non-replacement is always a singular and finite response to the abyss of original replaceability, that is to say, without origin and without end.”

*

“All that is solid melts into air,” Marx famously claimed of the abstracting power of capital. To anyone who has witnessed the recent transformation of Vancouver, where ordinary neighborhoods of middle-class family homes are transformed into speculative financial instruments for foreign investment, Marx’s formula certainly rings true. It would be mistaken, though, to equate high-profit “shadow flipping” with Derrida’s insight into replaceability, or to accuse his philosophy of free-market insouciance. The same can’t be said of real estate “deconstruction.”

Inheritor of Heidegger’s Destruktion, Derrida’s deconstruction takes as its primary target the delusions of metaphysical thinking. As Mark Wigley points out, those lofty metaphysical delusions are often built on architectural metaphors. One can therefore discern the same pattern of abstraction in real estate speculation — its heedless privileging of money over house and home — and philosophy’s dubious sublimating tendencies: “The edifice is constructed to make theory possible, then subordinated as a metaphor to defer to some higher, nonmaterial truth. Architecture is constructed as a material reality to liberate a supposedly higher domain.”**

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When a house is “deconstructed” it is often lifted onto blocks. The uncanny sight of a levitated home conveys both tendencies of metaphysical sublimation identified by Wigley: the liberation of value from the site-bound constraints of material reality, and the concomitant subordination of mere matter by the sublimating process. This twin process is a sacrificial economy, a violent denial of contingency and circumstance to the advantage of immutable presence and self-identical exchange value. In contrast, deconstruction exposes the play of difference that structures all identity, that de-structures any given structure, whose denial may well be profitable but is ultimately bound to failure.


* Jacques Derrida, “Faxitecture,” in Anywhere, Cynthia C. Davidson, ed. (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 24. 

** Mark Wigley, The Architecture of Deconstruction (Cambridge, MA: 1993), 16.

 

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Demolitions

There’s a joke they tell in Vancouver, B.C. about Street View, Google’s ubiquitous map feature: people use it to find out what their neighbor’s house used to look like.

Maybe you had to be there. After all, people living in other places can’t readily picture this strange but all-too common occurrence in Vancouver: a house listed in the millions goes up for sale and is promptly sold; the residents move out or get evicted; and rather than repaint or remodel what is a perfectly livable home, the new owners simply have it demolished. The neighbor has gone out for coffee; he comes back and finds an empty lot next to his house, a mound of rubble and a growling backhoe. And so he checks Google Street View: what did that old house look like, again?

Runaway land prices and a tsunami of foreign money have turned Vancouver into a real estate casino. Mini-mansions replace character heritage homes and the city skyline changes from month to month. At night the glittering condo towers become crossword puzzles; the black gaps, they say, mean absentee investors. Meanwhile in the back alleys you hear a perpetual clinking and clattering as indigents root through the recycling bins. The good citizens of Vancouver pride themselves on recycling, and to discourage needless waste the city recently cut garbage disposal service in half. But records show that 75% of the trash filling local landfills consists of demolished homes.

Every residential street in Vancouver is like Pepys Road as described in John Lanchester’s new novel Capital: an address once home to folks of average means suddenly transformed into an enclave for the privileged: “If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich.”

As the houses had got more expensive, it was as if they had come alive, and had wishes and needs of their own. Vans from Berry Brothers and Rudd brought wine; there were two or DSCN7242_2three different vans of dog-walkers; there were florists, Amazon parcels, personal trainers, cleaners, plumbers, yoga teachers, and all day long, all of them going up to the houses like supplicants and then being swallowed up by them. There was laundry, there was dry cleaning, there were FedEx and UPS, there were dog beds, printer ribbons, garden chairs, vintage film posters, same-day DVD purchases, eBay coups, eBay whims and impulse buys, mail-order bicycles. … The houses were now like people, and rich people at that, imperious, with needs of their own that they were not shy about having serviced (13-14).

Lanchester’s descriptions in this passage slyly echo Das Kapital’s theory of commodity fetishism by showing how, as Marx famously put it, the “social relation between men” appears “in the fantastic form of a relation between things.” Likewise, revolution seems to be brewing in Lanchester’s Capital. The book opens with an ominous scene: a man with a video camera, like Google Street View gone guerilla, is sneaking pictures of every house along Pepys Road. Later, each resident finds an anonymous postcard in the mail showing a picture of his home. On the back is the identical typed message, “We Want What You Have.”

In London as in Vancouver, rising prices spell eviction for writers and artists. Meanwhile, older and established residents who suddenly find themselves residing in a posh enclave are left to square their de facto class status with their social affinities. Vancouver writer Caroline Adderson, appalled at the pace of home demolitions — 1,000 per year, at the current rate — hosts a Facebook page named Vancouver Vanishes that regularly posts images of endangered or demolished houses, from charming cottages to grand estates. Where a good picture can’t be had there’s an obliging screenshot from Google Street View. The site is a sobering record of rampant greed and heartless destruction. Many contributors to Adderson’s page are involved in grassroots action aimed at changing the policies of a city singularly devoted to developers, opportunists and extortionists, from transnational firms to enterprising local flippers. Housing rights activists, preservationists and community organizers know that older buildings foster the creative arts and innovative businesses. This was put into a succinct formula by Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings” (Death and Life, 188). But Jacobs’ is a view explicitly opposed by Vancouver’s ruling class; former mayor Sam Sullivan was quoted last year as saying he wanted to “bury Jane Jacobs under concrete.”

Word has it that artists and writers are in fact abandoning Vancouver, unwilling or unable to buy into the city’s famously cramped and overpriced condos. Meanwhile, a local entrepreneur, sniffing out his niche, is developing “affordable” 100-square-foot free-standing dwellings. But Vancouver’s history of art and eviction goes back a long way. The city’s most distinguished resident writer, Malcolm Lowry, was forced from his home in 1954 and killed himself soon afterward. And while the author of Under the Volcano may have had more than one reason for taking his life, there is no doubt that the demolition of the home he called “paradise” was a blow he could never have recovered from. His poem “Lament in the Pacific Northwest” distills the writer’s heartbreak:

They are taking down the beautiful houses / once built with loving hands

But still the old bandstand stands where no band stands

With clawbars they have gone to work / on the poor lovely houses above the sands

At their callous work of eviction that / no human law countermands

Callously at their work of heartbreak / that no civic heart understands

Lowry's "Eridanus"

Lowry’s “Eridanus”

Lowry’s poetic and somewhat purplish story “The Forest Path to the Spring” re-lates the joyful times he spent with his wife Margerie Bonner living in a shack on the beach near Dollarton (price: $100), across the inlet from Vancouver. This humble dwelling is where the author lived from 1940 to 1954 and where he penned the final drafts of his most famous novel. A story bursting with love and joy, “The Forest Path” is also marked by the fear of eviction and bitter resentment of nearby real estate developments. The first words quoted in the story come from a tour boat’s megaphone pointing out the “squatters” on the shore. These intrusions of threatening reality are Vancouver’s unlovely signature on Lowry’s work.

The site of Lowry’s former beach shanty is now a park. A path in the woods will take you to the tree-lined shore where his home once stood. It’s a balmy autumn day. Large groups of families are picknicking on the grass. Never mind the nearby waterfront mansions and their private beaches where Dollar Road meets Lowry Lane; in a way the park seems like public space at its best. Then everyone’s head turns as a red Ferrari goes slowly by, engine quietly grumbling.

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