Sunday, December 20, 2009

City as Conversational Hardware

Yesterday, when in the alley taking out the trash at work, I noticed that our dumpster had been spray-painted with the words: I love u. I wondered who this was for. Was it for a certain person who the painter was hoping would see? Was it a general message to anyone who walked by? Was it written ironically on the side of a dumpster as a form of protest against garbage? Perhaps a declaration of undying love for Smithrite?

Further down from my work, on a sign advertising a public garden, there is a Jim Pattison sticker and someone has used Sharpie to scribble out his name and then write "sucks". What was the purpose of the Jim Pattison sticker in the first place? Was it put there, again ironically, because Jim Pattison owns so much space in Vancouver, but doesn't own the public garden? And who scribbled it out and wrote sucks? Was it the same person, or someone different that came along and decided to join in on the conversation.

It's these kind of questions that make graffiti, tagging, bombing, stickers, or the inside of bathroom stall doors so interesting. These are pieces of city hardware--walls, doors, alleys, dumpsters--that are being used to open a kind of public discourse, a conversation which anyone with a Sharpie marker can join in with. City's treat graffiti as visual garbage to be painted over and swept away. But really it's the most democratic form of conversation there is, combining the anonymity of the internet with the wide audience of a public podium.

Imagine our city like a metaphorical message board where you can leave messages for strangers who can then respond back to you. We have a digital version of this on the web, but it's impersonal compared to stumbling upon "Good Bye" painted on the side of a discarded mattress in an alleyway. This mattress has a story to tell. Was the writer saying goodbye to the mattress? To the person that used to sleep on the mattress? Or is the mattress saying goodbye to me?

Street artists, like Banksy, have been using, abusing, and reassigning public property as message boards for quite some time, making political and social statements. But what if we opened this up to everyone? What if we did away with the metaphorical message board of alleyway writing and quickly scrawled fuck yous on bus shelters, and set up--somewhere in the city--an actual message board.

No doubt such a message board would garner crude and offensive material, but it would also, as the dumpster with I Love U scrawled on it shows, collect other kinds of conversation. But maybe taking these messages out of alleys and billboards and bus shelters and collecting them all on a sanctioned wall would miss the whole idea behind them, kill the conversation before it even starts. There is something strangely engrossing about reading an intricate web of arrowed sentences on the back of a public washroom stall that you might lose exposing it on a public wall. Perhaps, oddly, these conversations are meant to be private in public, reaching out to other city dwellers from the safe anonymity of a dark alley or locked stall door.

Meanwhile, somewhere in a dump, that mattress still lies, shouting its mournful Goodbye to any passing birds that happen to fly over.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

City as Panoramic Skyline

posted in altered form on Beyond Robson.

Brent Toderian, Vancouver city planner, will see a proposal before Vancouver city council in late January to allow four buildings (three on West Georgia, one on Burrard) higher than the usual allowed, one with a height of a possible 700ft. For some perspective, Vancouver's current tallest building, the Shangri-La building on West Georgia, is 646ft from floor to roof (the second tallest is the Wall Centre at 491ft). The height restrictions were originally created in order to protect 'view corridors'--allowing citizens of Vancouver mostly unobstructed views of the mountains, but as land grows scarce in the downtown core, and density reigns its green head Vancouver might be heading for taller buildings, and this doesn't have to be a bad thing.

There's no doubt that Vancouver's skyline is a beautiful and arresting sight. Traveling over any of the bridges offers some amazing views that mesh ocean, coastline, skyscrapers, and mountains into one sparkling liquid smear (I particularly like view coming over the Burrard bridge as it seems to bisect the city perfectly). But it is a skyline that resembles a buzz-cut, with the notable exception of the Shangri-La building which looms tall above it all, like a blade of grass missed by the lawnmower. It stands alone. For the moment.

Visually arresting city skylines depend on variation in height: Seattle, New York, Dubai, Toronto. In Vancouver, the eyes are immediately drawn upwards past the similar towers towards the mountains; this, of course, was a deliberate planning decision: protect the mountain views. Not a bad idea, but any regulation gone on too long and held too strictly seems to result in a visual monotony. Those images also reveal Vancouver's obsession with glass towers, which although has become the city's trademark, has also quickly gone too far. This is most prominent in Yaletown, an area which has undergone vast and quick condo tower development, leaving the area with the bitter taste of architectural boredom in ones mouth. Skylines need diversity in height and material.

I don't support getting rid of the view corridors, but I do support a case-by-case look at firms that propose buildings over the restricted height limit. They don't have to be a blight on the skyline, but could enhance it, they could--as the Globe and Mail article pointed out--rise and fall like the mountain skyline behind them, become a feature rather than a hindrance. Buildings can be beautiful, too.

I think Vancouver could benefit from taking more risks in the future with the look of the built city, whether that is variation in the types of material used, embracing strange and risky architecture, or altering the skyline with a smattering of tall buildings. If it's done right then we can have an arresting skyline that compliments the mountains behind it, instead of either one overshadowing the other. Architects in Vancouver have a unique hurdle in that the canvas they are painting on is already decorated with artwork, but this should be seen as a challenge by the city, not a reason to build boring buildings.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

City as Logo

A few days ago I came across the Absolut Vancouver vodka bottle. The bottle was designed by Douglas Fraser and consists of an almost Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow-style 'V' with a flying plane over it. I wasn't sure at first how much I liked it, but it has grown on me after my impulse purchase in line at the BC Liquor Store.

The bottle is a limited edition creation with a portion of proceeds to go towards a fund (upwards of $120,000) which Absolut will donate to an art installation in the city (contest details found on their website). But what does it really mean to have an Absolut Vancouver bottle?

In the past few years in the run up to Vancouver's Winter Olympics in 2010, this city has experienced a flurry of branding like never before, with the creation of so many different logos and mascots it makes my head spin. There's the official Olympic logo, the Vancouver Olympic logo, the Paralympic logo, the city logo, the family of mascots, the creation of an Olympic torch, the design and subsequent controversy over the Olympic sweaters, the rest of the clothing line, the Olympic athletes clothing, and so on and so forth.

So, now to add to that, we have our very own limited edition vodka bottle. And Absolut is not just a brand; it seems they've transcended to a higher plane where branding equals art and not marketing. Would we care if Special K came out with a limited edition Vancouver cereal box? Probably not. There are books dedicated wholly to cataloguing and showing off the different designs for Absolut bottles. It's a brilliant play on their part. I admit the only reason I bought this bottle was for the Vancouver design and not for the vodka it houses (although that will get consumed). But why did I buy it? I bought it because I thought it was neat.

I guess the real question you have to ask is: Was the bottle created to sell "Vancouver" or to sell Absolute Vodka? Or was it created to sell anything at all? What is Absolut Vancouver?

New York, Paris, London, Los Angeles, Tokyo. All these cities evoke feelings, images, ideas, when we hear their names. But what makes city branding different than product branding is that the products really ARE different. The value-added process of branding a product like jeans or t-shirts, is that you get people to pay more for something that is essentially the same as the next pair of jeans or t-shirt: people buy it for the brand, the logo, the image. It's what distinguishes one from another.

But each city, unlike a pair of jeans, is already pretty different and offers a different experience than the next. There is a tangible feeling that exists in cities that you can't get from wearing a pair of jeans unless a brand tells you to feel upper class, or punky, or hipster. Good cities are their own brand, their own logo. New York would still be New York without the I <3 NY shirts. But rip the label off a pair of Levis and they become just another pair of jeans.

So, back to that Absolut Vancouver bottle. I don't know exactly what Absolut Vancouver is: Is it a commercialized ploy to increase sales? Is it a philanthropic gift to the art community? Does it create a vain sense of "world city" in a city that is so obsessed with being a "world city"? Can we brag about this to our friends in Toronto?

Probably a messy combination of all of the above.

Monday, November 30, 2009

City as Redesigned Public Square (Sort of)

Originally posted for Beyond Robson.

Some months ago the Vancouver Public Space Network held a competition in which entrants were supposed to design a public square for Vancouver's citizens to gather in the downtown core. But, wait a tic--don't we already have a public square?

Built in 1980 by the late Arthur Erickson (the man who designed the SFU campus), Robson Square is a labyrinthine maze of concrete, waterfalls, benches, shrubs, and tilted glass, that covers the area from Nelson street up to the Vancouver Art Gallery across from Robson street. There is no doubt that it's an interesting and often beautiful area; it's a reprieve and oasis from the city streets below. The only thing is that it isn't really used.

Yesterday, I went back to Robson Square to check out the first phase of its reopening--the underground ice rink, which hasn't been there for many years. It was an Olympic dreamworld down there, with LED lights in our official pastel green and blue colours, a jazz band performing at one end, and the Olympic logo plastered around competing for space with the large GE logos stamped onto the surface of the ice and set to remain for a few months (it is the GE plaza after all). It was the first time I had seen people taking the time to come off the consumer flow of Robson to walk down the stairs and check out what was happening beneath the street.

Could this be the rebirth of our public square?

I guess it all depends on how they use the space from now on and after the Olympics. The ice rink will be an attraction if they keep it up, and will bring in tourists and residents who want to skate. The ice was packed with tripping 5 year-olds and teenagers attempting to take self-portraits for their Facebook profiles while trying not to fall down. Personally, I have never understood the thrill of being corralled in a space and made to slowly rotate in a circle with a group of other people. At one point, the guy on the speakers made everyone skate in the opposite direction, causing a few collisions and shouts of "wrong way!". Entertaining from the sidelines, anyway.

I have to admit, it looks nice. The rink, while not nearly as big as those in New York or Toronto, is still a decent size. Being under the street makes it a bit dreary, but they have spruced that up with the lighting system, which makes the ice glow a cool blue. Although, you can't really combat the fact that the rink is underground, hidden and away from street view and the people above. The area suffered from much under-use, considering its location below one of our busiest streets. But why would anyone have gone down there before? To watch the breakdancers that sometimes practice there? To check out the UBC downtown campus? To renew their driver's license? Fun...

Erickson was a good architect, but he did a disservice to this city when he built our public square underground and hidden behind a maze of elevated concrete paths and trees. I often walked around in it on hot summer days, when the streets just a few feet away were teeming with people, and found the place empty. This, when just across (or above) the street, dozens of people were sitting cheek to cheek on the steps of the art gallery, which has become the popular place to hang out. On a totally anecdotal side note, I have known two friends who have been jumped and beaten pretty badly while walking through Robson Square at night. The place does offer many nice hidden areas.

Even though, the rink area was filled, the rest of Robson Square on this mild, but wet Sunday was completely empty. I worked for almost two years right next to Robson Square, but never once chose to take my lunch in there. The thing is, it feels too disconnected. If you want to people watch (which is what the VAG steps are good for) then you won't find much to do inside Robson Square. On the same day the photo to the left was taken, I counted about over a dozen people sitting on the art gallery steps.

So, I guess we'll have to see after the Olympics and when the summer creeps up what exactly the fate of the redesigned Robson Square will be. If they can convert the ice rink into a kind of roller rink then perhaps you'll still find people under there during the summer months. But if the rest of Robson Square remains as closed off as it always is, then my guess is it will remain a place to walk through perhaps, but not sit down and enjoy the city from. All in all, I wonder exactly where all the 40m spent on the redesign went (the ice rink upgrade cost $2m). On the plus side, at least they didn't build the clamshell.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

City as Fast-Flowing Stream

The rush of people at transit stations, busy intersections, stairwells, movie theatres, classrooms, always seems so chaotic and unformed to me while I am in the midst of all those jostling bodies, scrambling for purchase, elbows tucked in—or thrust out, depending on the person—everyone attempting to just get the hell out of there and to wherever they’re going. It feels at these moments as if humans should have evolved with retractable arms, as I always find myself spinning this way and that, ducking my body and weaving like a drunken boxer in an attempt to slip my way through the crowd without accidentally punching or elbowing someone in the head.

But, these moments are not as chaotic as they appear to be at first. Perhaps in slow speeds, when you are stuck in the middle of them, they feel like they have no form, no poetry, just a bunch of random molecules bouncing off each other; however, when these scenes are sped up, they reveal an intricate and highly choreographed dance that we are all participating at all moments of the day, but to which we are very nearly always never aware of until it is shown to us through the lens of a camera, or we have a moment to stand up somewhere far above the fray and just watch for a good hour or two.

There are numerous examples of what I mean, but I think now to the film Koyaanisqatsi, the first of the Qatsi Trilogy by director Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass. Koyaanisqatsi contains many scenes of these high volume human traffic locations at their peak—these same places that seem so awful and slow and formless at the time—but which is revealed, through running the film back at high speed, to actually have a beautiful flow to them, an organization, a structure almost akin to that of a fast-flowing stream, curving and bending itself around rocks and logs and other obstacles placed in its midst in the symbiotic way that only nature seems to be able to pull off so well.

What is revealed in those time-lapse scenes of high volume human traffic is a vision of order, as if we are all performing a dance practiced months in advance. And it’s not just people that reveal this ordered choreography at high speeds, it’s other scenes in the city as well. Busy traffic intersections—which at normal speeds consist of yelling drivers, honking horns, nudging cars, red lights, and crossing pedestrians—also unfurl like a beautiful flower when we rewatch those scenes at high speeds. The tail lights blur into a single line, the traffic that seemed just a moment ago so chaotic and unordered, suddenly takes on the appearance of an assembly line of lights, stopping here, going there, continuing on and out of the factory.

There’s something comforting to me in knowing this; that while I might be experiencing frustration, I am in fact participating at that very moment in a complicated dance and ordered routine, one that is anything but chaotic. I think we even recognize this orderliness in the moment, if perhaps only in the back of our minds, in the way we move through the dense scene, the way we pull our shoulders this way and that, the way our concentration is broken and the whole machine stutters to a halt when we actually collide with someone, jolting us out of our choreography (but then again, slow-motion accidents and crash tests also seem to have a certain poetry to them).

Mostly, however--car accidents, pedestrian collisions, tripping on a curb--these are aberrations in the choreographed dance of the city, perhaps even caused by the fact that we are so subconsciously comfortable with this dance, know it so well, that we don’t pay attention, turn on autopilot and let the fast-flowing water guide us down the stream, around obstacles in our path and on to wherever our destination may be.