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.