Don’t you want me, baby?
Ad by the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion.
Don’t you want me, baby?
Ad by the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion.
Orange Cars Powell, 1973, Photo reprinted by kind permission of Equinox Gallery and Fred Herzog. (Contact the gallery if you’re interested in purchasing one of this edition of 20.)
The Ming Sun Building is still standing. So far. Please see the previous post on the building, written in December when its survival seemed even more precarious.
The Restore 439 Powell group posted the above photo today. Thanks to eminent Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog and Andy Sylvester of Equinox Gallery for allowing us to republish it. Fred’s support of this conservation effort has been valuable and most welcome. We were glad to have him visit the site in late December.
The Ming Sun building at 439 Powell Street, one of the 20 oldest buildings in Vancouver, still remains under a demolition order by the City of Vancouver despite being deemed structurally sound by more than one set of structural engineers. One of these engineers actually told me that it’s much more structurally sound than many functioning buildings in the city. One of the reasons it’s in such good shape is that it was meticulously maintained over the years by its various owners. The Ming Sun Benevolent Society has a perfect record regarding inspections and in fact exceeded the City’s requirements decade after decade, including installing sprinklers inside when it was not required to go to the expense of doing so. All of this maintenance was methodically documented, so anything you read in the media about it being ill-kept or derelict is absolutely, patently false. It is very disturbing to hear staff and a councillor continue to spread this misinformation, when they’ve been shown ample evidence to the contrary. This building was a clean, well-lighted place, to lift a phrase from Hemingway, and it provided excellent housing for low-income seniors. Even the appliances were all new.
The situation with the Ming Sun Building, as explained in the previous post, was triggered when the building immediately to the east was hastily demolished by the City after it suddenly (perhaps not so mysteriously) developed structural problems. Subsequent to that demolition, the City arbitrarily deemed the Ming Sun building at 439 Powell to be unsafe as well. Here are only a few of the questions we have about this situation: If as more than one set of structural engineers has confirmed the Ming Sun building is structurally sound, why did the City hastily deem it a hazard and evict all its elderly tenants? Why not bring in engineers to look at it before evicting? Having evicted the elderly, why did the City not find those tenants replacement housing, leaving an organization to attempt to re-house them all in under 10 hours before nightfall? Then, having disallowed the Ming Sun Benevolent Society and its tenants from entering, thus leaving the building open to vandalism, why did the City not secure the building? Not surprisingly, extensive looting of items like copper electrical wire and other recyclable metals ensued, causing major damage to the interior. This was then followed by suspiciously expert sabotage of the sprinkler system during which someone turned the building’s water back on at the main, smashed key sprinkler heads and then left all the pieces on the floor (indicating this wasn’t looters looking for metal to recycle). The building was then flooded overnight, and while this failed to destroy the building, it caused extra heartbreak and damage. Where was the City while all this was going on? Additionally, why was a police investigation into the vandalism called off? There are too many questions that remain unanswered regarding events at the Ming Sun building. I have omitted many here, particularly regarding high-handed actions on the part of the City and some of its staff. And then there’s the neighbour who owns the lots on either side of the Ming Sun building (including the one where his now-demolished building stood) and who has in the past openly stated he would buy the Ming Sun’s lot too. There are other even more concerning facts and questions which I’ll leave for now, but the story cries out for a TV drama.
When the above picture was taken in 1973 by renowned Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog, the Ming Sun Benevolent Society building was light blue and bore a sign saying “Bak-Mei Kung-Fu Association” above one of its two shopfronts. But its history goes back much further, to 1891, and includes a long history in the Japanese community. Many “firsts” in the Vancouver’s Japanese community occurred there, and then enjoyed a similar role in the Chinese community under the Ming Sun Benevolent Society. The building thus acts as a lens for viewing a large chunk of the city’s history. Take a look at the website that our Restore 439 Powell Street group has built for ample evidence of this.
To sum up, the Ming Sun Building was needlessly deemed uninhabitable, the tenants were needlessly evicted, damage was needlessly allowed to happen, and a huge amount of work was needlessly inflicted on the many of us trying to rectify the situation.
The City of Vancouver must pay restitution for everything that happened under its orders and on its watch. It needs to foot the bill for getting the building up and running, just the way it was when City Hall set all of this needless destruction in motion.
I will post more updates soon. If you have any spare cash, please make a small (or large) donation to our fund, which helps pay for security and other immediate repairs/building protection until we can get the situation sorted out.
I’ll end with an item from the UN Habitat Declaration on Human Settlements, as part of values affirmed by the international coalition of municipalities:
“We shall promote the conservation, rehabilitation and maintenance of buildings, monuments, open spaces, landscapes and settlement patterns of historical, cultural, architectural, natural, religious or spiritual value.”
Other interesting stories on this building that may be of interest:
• Detailed account of the demolition fiasco from the 439 website
• A letter on the important, early Japanese history of the building in historic Nihonmachi or Japantown, by a well known activist in Vancouver’s Japanese-Canadian community.
• Omni TV aired a history of the Ming Sun Benevolent Society, mentioning its role in funding the overthrow of the Qing, the last imperial dynasty in China, and helping Dr Sun Yat-sen in Vancouver.
• Two very interesting articles in the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong daily with an enormous readership:
Outrage at demolition order for Chinese elders’ Vancouver home – Distraught Chinese tenants of Vancouver benevolent home claim property developer is behind council’s action to evict them
Volunteer watchmen guard the legacy of Vancouver’s threatened Ming Sun Society
The frantic festival of demolition continues in Vancouver, a city whose demolition rate is double that of Toronto’s. And Toronto is no paragon of heritage either.
The City of Vancouver is attempting to force demolition of the 122 year-old building which belongs to the Ming Sun Benevolent Society. The building, on a significant block of Vancouver’s vanishing old Japantown, functioned as a clean well-run SRO with eight units and a community reading and meeting room, all above an extensive cultural space rented out to an art collective called Instant Coffee. The art collective produced the poster above.
The building was said to be structurally damaged (it wasn’t) when the building next door, for unknown reasons (vandalism? sabotage? maintenance issues?) cracked and then was hastily ordered demolished by the City. By most accounts the City bears responsibility for this situation. Following the demolition next door, the City then condemned the Ming Sun building and barred tenants from entering. These elderly tenants, mostly Chinese Canadian and First Nations, were evicted without warning. They were given no time to collect their belongings. The City took no responsibility for finding replacement housing for them, and some went on to sleep rough. It now appears that the building will be demolished by this Friday. The owner, a Chinese family association, is unable to pay for the demolition and rebuilding and will therefore be forced to sell the lot to the City.
Members and former residents of the Benevolent Society are beyond distraught.
In all of this there is rumoured involvement of a neighbouring landowner, said to have ties to the City, who has had his eye on these lots, but this is not yet confirmed. In any case there have been reports of what appears to be suspicious vandalism of the Ming Sung building since the City closed it off.
Access to the building is currently barred. The Instant Coffee art collective is unfortunately away in Korea working on a project. Its friends in Vancouver would like to help but are unable to enter and clear out all its goods. The City has been arbitrary and unresponsive throughout with all parties. Its uncommunicativeness serves to give the appearance of wanting to bury the story and complete the demolitions as fast as possible before an outcry can be raised. If the belongings of the tenants are destroyed in a demolition – and since tenants can’t get in to retrieve their possessions this seems inevitable – will the City compensate them? And in a city that is the 2nd most unaffordable in the world relative to median income, where will these tenants go?
The City has said, and will no doubt continue to say, that the public doesn’t have all the facts (and given the lack of transparency of the current administration, there’s often some truth to that), that the offending building is a “fire trap” (ie. the municipal version of the “national security” excuse), and in short that the City knows best.
But does it?
This is one of the the twenty oldest buildings in the City and a good example of that era’s boomtown architecture. It offers affordable housing to seniors in the Downtown Eastside. It is an important component of cultural life for the Chinese community. It played a major role in the history of Japantown and the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver. And it provides valuable affordable art space in a city where that commodity is fast diminishing. Affordable housing, a hedge against homelessness, a sturdy old resilient building made of old growth lumber that would be non-ecological to replace, a piece of architectural heritage for many communities and for the whole city, and affordable studio space for the arts. This building matched every stated objective of the current regime at City Hall. And they’re now mandating its demolition, for no reason. They must make this right.
How is any of this in line with the City’s stated commitment to affordable housing, to protecting the arts from unaffordability, and to heritage values? The city’s new heritage plan was announced only this week. Other cities maintain buildings in far worse shape than this one.
How is any of this demolition part of a Greenest City initiative?
Those of us who live and work down here are closely watching the City of Vancouver, the ruling Vision Vancouver party run by Mike Magee, and City Manager Penny Ballem. This level of hermetic and arbitrary behaviour is undemocratic and just one more example of the poor urban management we’ve been enduring here.
The first demolition on the Powell Street block in question. This photo taken in August.
Russell Baker, Allahppliqué, 2013
Pine, paint, tape, cushion, hockey sticks, pom-poms, leather, fabric. 1 of 1.
I ended up buying this chair at the auction I wrote about previously. I had no intention of buying anything nor any budget to buy but that is why they serve you champagne at auctions. Though I guess if I’d thought about it the chances of leaving without this chair were always going to be small. The proceeds go toward building a new Presentation House Gallery in Vancouver.
I know Russell as a fellow designer. Like me, he comes from a visual arts background. He himself makes chairs (and other furniture) and is also a writer and art critic. His company, Bombast Furniture, is named for the cotton stuffing inside upholstery. The street meaning of “bombast” does not apply to his furniture, though, which is not loud and which is carefully designed and constructured to last at least 100 years.
There is humour in Allahppliqué but of course that doesn’t make it frivolous. I could talk about this piece at length but instead I will let Russell do it. Below is the text he wrote to accompany the chair. It stands as a statement about design in general, and I love it for its re-statement of the original critical or revolutionary impetus in Italian design.
Allahppliqué: Toward a Radical Bricologic
It was while I was sitting in front of the Hermes boutique in Terminal 4, Heathrow, when transiting from Tangier (aka the Interzone) to Vancouver, that I first intuited that Enzo Mari, the man who famously called Rem Koolhaas a “pornographic window dresser” to his face—it was while sitting in front of the Hermes boutique that I realized Enzo might never have heard of Dina, the greatest living belly dancer in the Arab world. How this (merely probable) fact might relate to my project, I was at that time unsure. (How does one account for solitudes of this nature?) When I subsequently passed the Hermes boutique at YVR upon my return home, I had a better idea of how, precisely, the Enzo Mari/Dina axis (as I now refer to it privately) related to my project.
To back up a few steps—and for the purposes of clarity—I should add that before my departure for the Interzone I had been invited to participate in a fundraiser auction for Presentation House Gallery. The Gallery had offered me an Enzo Mari “Sedia” chair and invited me to do whatever I wanted to the chair. Upon completion, my manipulated version of “Sedia” would be offered at auction to supporters of the gallery in a relatively standard dinner-format fundraiser.
The “Sedia” is of course the most famous manifestation of Mari’s legendary DIY project (“Autoprogettazione”) from 1974. “Sedia” is a form rich in associations, and has been variously interpreted; it has been read as a gesture of disgust, as an offer of freedom, as a shot over the bow of the good ship consumerism from “the critical conscience of Italian design.” It is also, now, repackaged and delivered in a ready to assemble (RTA) format, something different than it once was.
My challenge, as I understood it, was to reinvigorate or reactivate the revolutionary potential lurking beneath various layers of historical accretion that had attached to the “Sedia” since its original appearance. As Mari has himself observed, the chair found its way very quickly into the arena of pure kitsch — was assimilated almost immediately into the marketplace as an (admittedly exemplary) manifestation of the decorative category “rusticity”. How then to reactivate a revolutionary object that had, by its creators own admission, enjoyed such a fleeting moment of relative power uncontaminated by market forces? To put it more simply, how was I to save “Sedia” from becoming just another signifier of belonging for an ever-growing group of puritanical internationalist consumers whose apparent appreciation of “simplicity” so perfectly paralleled an earlier generation’s drive toward “rusticity” (cf. Terence Conran, terra cotta, balsamic vinegar, Jennifer Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous). No small challenge indeed!
To understand the “Dina Thing” (by which I mean my unconscious concatenation of Hermes, Enzo Mari, and Dina) you would have to have had the experience of being shadowed by CIA operatives in Cairo, just before the so-called Arab Spring; to be innocently enjoying a belly dance extravaganza, at four in the morning, in a night club that seemed the perfect meeting place for secret agents, crooks, fellow travelling fruits and gamblers — a veritable Eldorado for the fun-loving but decidedly dishevelled Gulf State “Haute Volée.” (Boy can they drink!)
Such was the experiential ground of the symbolic fusion that linked Hermes, Enzo Mari and Dina in my mind. For it was upon identifying the CIA operative in that bar, and realizing that his reason for being there was me, that I came to a rather concrete understanding of the new geopolitical realities. (It didn’t make me feel safer.) That I had somehow been mistaken for a “person of interest” in the most serious of international conflicts in our time for simply expressing a passing interest in the Islamic world (how else can I characterize my interest in Dina?) was food for thought. Could the dominant world order (symbolized here synecdochically by the “global” brand Hermes), be so fragile that my peripatetic, merely touristic wanderings through the Islamic borderlands actually attracted official attention? If this were so, might there be in this fact a clue as to how to reactivate “Sedia”?
What I was looking for was a recipe for (market) unassimilability that yet might somehow simultaneously invite a higher union. Was such a thing even possible?
—Tangier, Morocco. October, 2013
Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery turns 30 this year and will soon move to a beautiful new building designed by the eminent Vancouver firm Patkau Architects. To mark its birthday and raise money for the move, PHG is holding an innovative benefit auction in which major Vancouver artists and designers have been given a classic 1970s Enzo Mari Sedia 1 chair and asked to modify or reinterpret it. See the full list of artists and works on the auction blog (just note that not all of the works have been delivered, so some of the entries don’t have photos yet). The auction is on Saturday, November 23, 2013. Tickets available by phone 604.986.1351. As of publication of this post I think there are a small number of tickets left.
Above is “68.3 chair” which is the original Mari chair sandblasted by noted Vancouver designer Omer Arbel, principal at Omer Arbel Office and creative director of Bocci. Presumably Arbel’s title refers to the percentage of the original chair left after sandblasting, by weight? Perhaps this is how the original chair would look had it been left to weather in desert winds since the 70s.
Below is an as yet untitled chair by Russell Baker, partner and principal designer for BOMBAST Furniture. I like many of the chairs in the auction but on balance I think this is the one I would bid on if I had the dough. It’s beautiful, and its atypical combination of emblems and identity markers is poignant in a way that is hard to put your finger on. I like that Russell also consulted a YouTube video on how to make pompoms so he could construct these by hand.
Above, Achilles by artist Elspeth Pratt and architect Javier Campos. The chair has been treated using a traditional Japanese method of preserving wood by turning its surface to charcoal using a torch. Architects Shigeru Ban and Terunobu Fujimori have used this ancient preservation method in their architecture. Using it here, however, renders the chair non-functional since the carbon seems likely to rub off on clothes. That is, the treatment effectively renders the chair a work of art or conceptual architecture, not furniture. (In fact though I am sure the surface has been treated in such a way that this wouldn’t happen.)
Above, Ian’s crates by artist Brian Jungen. Brian has famously worked with chairs before, his whale skeletons made from disassembled white plastic chairs. Here, however, he does not disassemble a Mari chair but actually copies one from an old art crate that once transported the work of fellow artist Ian Wallace. Clever play on the contrast between functionality and art, furniture and meaning, utility and transformation.
And below, SMPTE Colour Index Study Number 001, the Sedia 1 chair disassembled and reassembled in one plane and painted in video colour bar tones by Douglas Coupland. Who was, by the way, born in North Vancouver’s nearby Lion’s Gate Hospital, so PHG gallery is close to home for him. Another copy of the original chair is included in the photo by way of comparison.
Check back to the blog over the next week as more photos will appear.