This Friday, I’ll be interviewing Ray Spaxman – Vancouver’s City Planner from 1973 to 1989 – as part of the City Program’s Paradise Makers series.
[November 2 at SFU Harbour Centre (515 West Hastings) at 7 pm. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 778-782.5100 for a reservation.]
This should be an extremely informative evening for anyone interested in how the Vancouver of today came to be.
I also talked with Ray last week – and wrote a few comments as a result:
These days, developers and their marketing departments all want something iconic – at least the imprimatur if not necessarily the architecture. Some will simply name the building after the I word and call it a day. But assemble a gaggle of architects and be sure that they’ll bemoan our icon deficit. Too much green glass, not enough titantium.
Some architecture students even held an international competition – ‘pototype’ – to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the ‘Vancouver Style.’ At a panel discussion, all agreed: Vancouver may be good at background buildings but how about something gutsy in the foreground?
Or at least something taller. That was the option Vancouver pursued at the beginning of this century, when the traditional downtown height limit was shattered in return for a commitment to more adventurous architecture. You’ll be able to judge for yourself on Georgia Street, when at least three new super-talls open by the Olympics.
But one voice is already urging caution – and it’s a voice worth heeding. It comes with perspective.
Ray Spaxman was recruited as the City Planner by Vancouver’s leadership in 1973, when the public was in full flight from the excesses of modernisn and out-of-control development. Only a decade and a half previously, the tallest building in the West End was the Sylvia Hotel. (“Dine in the Sky” said the sign on the roof.) And not many people thought several hundred concrete slabs had really improved our urban ambience all that much.
Spaxman was responsible for changing the way planning and development was done in this city – and he summed it up in one word: “neighbourliness.” A building had to be respectful of its neighbours, and of the citizens on the street. Nothing expresses it better than the canopies which now make it possible to walk downtown on a rainy day without having to take an umbrella.
Buildings, in other words, had to be more than sculptural objects on vacant plazas – ‘pigs in space,’ as some planners still call them . It didn’t matter how ‘iconic’ a building was if it selfishly ignored the urban environment in which it dwelt. The best bad example: the original Eaton’s at Pacific Centre, with its acres of blank white walls. Very iconic, very unfriendly.
Spaxman fears that ‘iconic’ may be just a shorter word for ostentatious. As we pile on the density though bonusing and well-intentioned transfers, we may lose the all-important sensitivity to site that becomes increasingly difficult as the scale overwhelms through sheer massing, no matter how well articulated.
Spaxman’s contributions to Vancouver are, as they said of another English architect, all around us if we only look. He served at City Hall for a quarter century, he transformed a bureaucracy, and he trained a generation of planners who carried on his legacy. By any standard, he deserves the title of ‘Paradise Maker’ – one of those leaders from the 1970s and 80s who not only felt an obligation to maintain the quality of life and the environment in the Lower Mainland but to make it better.
In the next City Program interview, scheduled for November 2 at SFU Harbour Centre (515 West Hastings) at 7 pm, Ray Spaxman will discuss his life and times – and the challenges that face this fast-changing metroplis. (Email email@example.com or call 778-782.5100 for a reservation.)
There’s a good chance the word iconic will come up in the conversation.