Vancouver artist Ken Lum took the opportunity of a Pecha Kucha appearance to talk about the his city, its history and its habits, and its demolition and disappearance. Though he said little about his own work, none of the concerns or ethic of his art were missing. His offhanded, throwaway tone only barely conceals outrage. And there’s a surprise ending.
Like me, Ken is one of the few Vancouverites with deep roots here. Of course Ken has now left the city, and we miss him.
How many others will leave now that the city is up for grabs by Big Money, derelict government and careless stupidity?
Ken’s right when he says that the demolition of the Pantages Theatre—the oldest vaudeville theatre in the country, soon to be condos—was an “abomination.”
The following slide got an immediate laugh of recognition from the audience. ”It just shows you how crummy the details are now when you look down at the street…”
In case you think that what follows is an exaggeration, please take a quick look at the recent articles listed below. They are only a small selection from a rising wave of articles on gentrification and the new super-rich. It’s interesting that the New York-based City Limits piece mentions Vancouver first; we are after all a world leader in unaffordability, non-regulation, luxury towers and property speculation. But the Paris article is particularly depressing. I’m not even going to go into the mega-developments inflaming Istanbul.
I’ve noticed little consideration of what the disappearance of the middle class is going to mean, in a concrete way, for cities, architecture and design.
As most of us are quickly priced out of our former living arrangements by the buying and investment practices of the new global elite—by the lack of regulation that allows these practices and by the real estate development industry that profits from them—most of us have only two choices. We must either migrate out to suburbs or outlying towns, or we can attempt to hang on in the cities, accepting smaller and smaller spaces, higher rents, higher land prices and rising property taxes. (Or move to another city altogether, hoping for a job in a place not subject to global speculation.) Meanwhile the very urban “density” supposedly designed to combat unsustainable urban sprawl now sits largely empty, awaiting infrequent or nonexistent visits from jet-setting owners, and sprawl proceeds apace while big developers make wild fortunes at everyone else’s expense.
It feels increasingly creepy that the “shelter magazines” promoting home decor haven’t really dealt with this yet, except in an accommodating manner. Yes, they’ve always pandered to the very rich, and to those who like to look at the homes of the very rich (myself included), and they will keep doing that. (Though I’m not sure how they’ll deal with the increasing unease about income disparity that is starting to seize all sectors of their readership, at both the top and near-bottom of the income scale.) Meanwhile there is now an entire industry in “decorating in small spaces” publications. Despite being a homewares designer myself, I realized lately that somewhere along the way I stopped buying shelter magazines. Maybe it’s that their disconnection from reality crossed a threshold into a creepy surreality that’s part Brazil, part David Foster Wallace, part generic dystopia. That whole world seems to have its fingers in its ears right now. La la la la I can’t hear you.
As for the design effects, the eradication of the middle class is almost certainly already affecting the design and quality of manufactured items, as well as the form of our architecture and the development of architectural styles, in ways no one seems to talk about. I’d be curious to know if anyone has yet inventoried these formal changes and market patterns. The loss of quality, the loss of design integrity, the cheapness at the low end, the grotesque baroquerie or conspicuous consumption at the top.
The first pattern that comes to mind is architects taking a back seat to developers and marketers in the profit-maximizing climate. The result is what’s known around here as “marketecture.” Increasingly the form of buildings has nothing to do with what city-dwellers or planners would like to see built, or that good architects would envision. Instead it has everything to do with what developers can get away under the limits imposed upon them by building regulations and horse-trading with city halls. The architect of these structures is pure profit maximization in partnership with what’s allowed by building codes. Insert those two parameters into a blender and what comes out at the other end is a generic glass tower. When a think tank of Harvard planners visited Vancouver last year, one of the remarked upon looking at downtown Vancouver from across False Creek “can you have good urbanism without good architecture?”
Pardon this meandering essay, which takes on too many points at once around the issues of income disparity, design, property speculation and a host of related problems. Just thinking aloud.
As for the design magazines and house porn I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at beautiful places, or that it’s wrong to be curious about how others live, nor that we should spend every minute in painful awareness that we’re fiddling while Rome burns, even if we are. It’s just that personally I don’t want to browse through any more photos of tiny, boring, contempo, cream-upholstery-with-dark-wood-veneer, cheaply built 600 sq.ft. condos that cost half a million bucks as if everything is still fine. Why are we willing to live in cramped and indebted conditions when all our surrounding culture and vibrancy is quickly exiting our cities and relocating in the suburban sprawl? While small living is good, environmentally speaking, cramped living must be offset by other cultural benefits and vibrancy. The thing is, the opposite is happening. The current speculative climate is driving those compensations away, leaving us just with unaffordability and urban sterility.
We should be pushing for multiple forms of regulation of the real estate industry, including tax deterrents and other mechanisms, and we should be forcing on governments the understanding that housing, like food, should not be viewed as just another class of asset or investment tool. Housing must be viewed as a human right and should be protected as such.
This will improve not only the affordability of our cities, and thus ensure the vibrant mix of people who live in them, but it will also improve the physical form of our cities, architecture and design. But I think the architecture and design communities can no longer behave as if they operate in a realm separate from an increasingly distorted political economy.
What can we do? Vote in civic elections, and make sure we don’t vote for any candidate or party that takes donations from developments. That’s rule no. 1.
221A is pleased to present Cube Living (Phase 2), a 4-week artist-in-residence with artist and designer Alex Grünenfelder, running from January 23 to February 25, 2013. Grünenfelder will examine how real estate developments operate as containers that capture living space as urban spatial commodities through the packaging of bodies, objects, lifestyles, identities, capital and politics.
Grünenfelder will begin a limited release of micro-properties measuring 1 cubic foot. This innovative product addresses the stagnation and endemic unaffordability of Vancouver’s real estate market. In developing a spatial commodity that can be purchased in very small units, Cube Living is able to offer affordable properties at prices under $50! Micro-properties are an accessible solution to the inflated real estate market crisis that threatens to push Vancouver’s economy into decline.
Many Vancouver residents find it difficult or impossible to enter the market. Despite government urban densification policies that have brought 10,000 new condo units to the city each year,  Vancouver remains the second least-affordable city in the world. 
Vancouver has experienced explosive real estate development since 1986. In the 2000s, then-mayor Sam Sullivan’s Ecodensity program initiated radical urban densification with the aim of promoting housing affordability and environmentally sustainable neighbourhoods. Pundits declared that flooding the market with new condos would result in more affordable—or at least stable—prices, so that new buyers could purchase small units and eventually trade up into a larger living space. Buildings got taller and condos got smaller, but prices have kept rising. Development and construction hasn’t been able to meet the goal of affordability and now the city is faced with a dire situation.
“The current property market is almost saturated. Sales are in decline because people can’t afford to lower their asking prices. We need to expand into new markets, and the only way to produce a lower tier of affordable entry-level properties is to create highly liquid, easily tradeable micro-spaces. This is the only way to address the affordability crisis within our market-driven real-estate economy.”
RBC. “Vancouver’s housing market: moderation in store but vulnerable to a harsher outcome.” April 2012. Page 6. http://www.rbc.com/economics/market/pdf/vancouverhouse.pdf
Here’s the story. It’s the case of a condo marketing company, MAC Marketing, posing two of its own employees – who are not even actually sisters – as sisters scouting for condos before their parents arrive from abroad carrying wallets. The photo above is a screenshot from a CTV news broadcast. This little bit of fraudulent theatre is a bald-faced attempt to drive speculation in the condo market, which is currently in an unprecedented slump, in the hope that it will start up again. Obviously the danger is that local buyers will pay far too much for starter condos if they believe the hype that money from abroad will reignite the still-inflated yet stagnant Vancouver real estate market. This story is reprinted from the Globe and Mail, in response to the blog that originally broke the story. Read on:
“A Vancouver real estate marketing company is apologizing for having two employees pose as prospective homebuyers in televised news segments on a supposed spike in sales around the Lunar New Year.
The two young women – presented as house-hunting sisters, whose parents would be in town from China for the New Year to help them purchase a condo – are in fact an administrative assistant and a sales assistant with MAC Marketing Solutions, president Cameron McNeill confirmed to The Globe and Mail.
“All I can say is that I deeply apologize for having misled the media for being there,” said Mr. McNeill, who said he was out of town over the Family Day long weekend when the news segments aired on local stations, including CTV and CBC. “We were busy and I don’t know if the girls were put up to it, or just put on the spot, or if it happened spontaneously. Regardless, it was wrong and I take full responsibility, on my own shoulders.”
The news segments were on the supposed spike in sales activity in the weeks around Lunar New Year – a pattern Mr. McNeill insists is “100 per cent true.” In one news segment, the women tour a suite in downtown Vancouver’s Maddox condo development – which is being marketed by MAC. One woman tells the camera they cannot afford to buy on their own and must rely on assistance from their parents.
“We definitely like it here, but we have to talk to our parents,” she says. “Maybe tomorrow we will bring them here.
“If we like this place, we have to tell them and they make the decision. Usually, Chinese people like to buy during this time.”
In reality, the women are not even related.
The misrepresentation was first spotted by the local online community and then dissected on local blogs, message boards and comment sections. Some noticed that a Google search of one of the women’s names turned up her Facebook and LinkedIn pages – both since deleted – which stated she worked at MAC.
Mr. McNeill said there have been discussions about the incident within the company but it is not yet known who is behind it.
“I’m trying my best to figure it out,” he said. “Will there be some heads rolling? I don’t know.”
When asked if the ploy may lead to terminations at the company, Mr. McNeill said it would depend on the depth of responsibility.
“If it was blatant and on the hands of one person, then I think there might be some severe repercussions, but it’s hard for me to answer that without knowing all the details surrounding it.”
He said he is not aware of anything like this having happened at the company before.”
This is one of the more interesting short talks I’ve listened to, and I’m posting it here in the hope that it gets wider distribution. It was presented by Elvy Del Bianco, a researcher with major BC credit union VanCity, itself a cooperative. Del Bianco’s position at VanCity is quite unique; his job is to research the relationship between arts and innovation and promote a cooperative business model in an attempt to foster social capital locally. What is social capital? Well, the short answer is that it’s the various benefits of cooperation. Del Bianco explains using the model of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, one of the most profitable in the EU thanks to its “lego economics” in which smaller businesses (balsamic vinegar, parmesan, even Ferrari) combine resources to leverage economic power. Culture both plays a role in and benefits from this model. It is also interesting to note that the region is not just wealthy but is one of the most democratic anywhere, with a small income gap in what is historically a left-wing Italian heartland with a long history of employee-owned companies.
Below is Del Bianco’s 6-minute talk at Vancouver’s Pecha Kucha, and it’s well worth watching no matter where you live. The audio is a little challenging at points, and as I found out when I spoke at Pecha Kucha, you have to speak quickly if you want to fit complex ideas into a 6 minute spiel. But it’s an extremely interesting talk. His comments the challenges facing arts and culture in Vancouver are interesting; he talks about condo development speculation driving unaffordability, as well as the massive, unique-in-Canada massive cuts to cultural investment on the part of BC’s provincial government.
Bianco is himself an artist, having worked many years as an actor after training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He grew up in East Vancouver.
From my friend Jonathan, who posted this Google Maps screenshot along with the assessment “No comment.”
It would please me to blame this sudden proliferation of sports bars on the damn Vancouver 2010 Olympics. However, though I’m sure the Olympics didn’t help, the causes predate 2010. For starters we have the pricing out of non-corporate culture through the condo-ization of the city and related real estate speculation and astronomical commercial rents. Skyrocketing property values and rents have made it extremely difficult for restaurants to make a profit. Then there’s the intensification of hockeymania through corporate PR and broadcasting. There’s the aggressive expansion of generic restaurant chains taking over older venues which have trouble paying inflated rents and competing with said hockeymania. There’s the whole culture of aspirational consumer aesthetics and the insecure anti-cultural swagger of what was historically a resource extraction town. Maybe too there’s just laziness and lack of imagination in the restaurant industry. Not doing well? Put up a TV screen.
It’s very difficult for any venue or event to compete with the juggernaut of hockey marketing and hype. Restaurant bars seeking for scant revenues in a town with a median income lower than Windsor—we are Canada’s Detroit—will most often resort to profiting off that hockey fan market. Chronic lack of provincial/local contribution to the cultural realm doesn’t help counter any of this, in a town still noticeably suspicious of ideas and remarkably incurious about its own history. PR is key for arts non-profit culture just as it is for hockey etc., and it costs money. Money that arts organizations and restaurants don’t have because too much of their budget goes to rent.
Anyway, as a friend pointed out last week, if you’re looking to hang with guys who look like metrosexuals but who talk like hockey fans at megaphone volume about ”kicking ass,” even when the game’s not on, it looks like you have about 55 choices.
Another friend joked about the map above, “The map is not yet entirely obscured by red. There’s still opportunity for growth in this sector.”
I’m not even going to go into the design of these places; but look.
What I’d love to see on Google maps for Vancouver is a visual guide of every restaurant that contains no TV screen. And if you could add in a filter to exclude any place with fluorescent lighting, you’d really be getting something useful.
Photo below from UBC Thunderbird story about Sin Bin Sports Bar, restyled as sports bar after nearby Olympic Village became ghost town post 2010. Look at that place.
To read about my book project on Vancouver's UN-Habitat Forum event of 1976 concerning just and sustainable urban settlements, click here. Few know that Buckminster Fuller, Margaret Mead, Mother Teresa, Paolo Soleri and Maggie & Pierre Trudeau, along with many thousands of others, came to Vancouver in 1976 to talk about better, safer, fairer and greener cities worldwide. In fact it was the founding conference of UN Habitat, an agency built around a foundational document called The Vancouver Declaration. My book is about what happened that year and is a snapshot not just of Vancouver but of how people around the world began to view cities and themselves differently in the wake of, among other things, the first oil crisis.
This blog is a long, somewhat messy photo essay on design. I started it because I felt that the historical context of design - design of objects, dwellings and cities - is too often ignored. History can be fugitive in the New World, with everything so decontextualized in the flow of commodities. Don't even get me started on tumblr and pinterest.
I am more interested in the modern/contemporary and the ancient than I am in what lies in between. I don't understand the appeal of cathedrals which I find garish and oppressive. I like the space-age, the futurist and the rustic, the utopian and the anti-utopian, the unstuffy and the unstaid, the frugal but sensual, the possibly-not-entirely-lost promise of the 1960s and 70s, the creative, the practical, the ingenious, the mixed, the unorthodox, and the way people actually live in real spaces. I am interested in bricolage, in making do, and in the way necessity mothers invention.
I like the sheer level of cultural borrowing evident in design, the actual impurity of design traditions long considered pure, and just generally the wild miscegenation of everything.
That's not to say that all mixing is a good idea. I'm definitely not talking about the faux-historification of our cities, the demolition of our actual past followed by its replacement with a faux nineteenth-century 'originality'. That's when you get elements of the past and the future, combining to make something not quite as good as either, as the Mighty Boosh would say.
Because design is never divorced from anything else, this long essay is also about urban planning, philosophy, art, political economy, architecture, sociology, geography, neurology, pyschology and anything else that pertains to design, which is everything.
The word "ouno" is a name in both Finnish and Japanese, two of my favourite nations for design. Apropos of nothing, the word also contains the symbols for both zero and one, and it's the same right side up as upside down. My dad was a mathematician in love with puzzles, so please excuse the nerd quotient and arithmophilia.
Speaking of which, this blog makes no attempt to avoid being nerdy or critical. There are plenty of nicey-nice boosterist design blogs out there and if that's what you're looking for, you will happily find many of those. I wouldn't blame you for going there. I just think that without critique and complaint, the design of dwellings and cities in North America won't get any better. And it needs to get a lot better than it is—less creatively impoverished, more democratic and a lot more pleasurable. We do after all spend almost all of our lives in buildings and towns and cities and altered landscapes, all of which have a overwhelming impact on our conscious lives, our unconscious lives, our health, intelligence, creativity and our social interactions. These things affect us every moment of our lives whether we're aware of them or not. And not only do we need more humane spaces in which to live, we need—above all—to ensure affordable housing for all. Without this, all our interest in decor is just privileged fiddling while Rome (or insert your city here) burns. Housing is a human right. Public policy and regulation are the only ways to insure people are housed and can afford to live in the cities where they work. The market and private industry are not going to get us there.
We all need to fight the worsening property speculation! Dear Canada and the USA and beyond, quit letting developers run—and ruin—this show.