January 14, 2007

Link-up: Beyond Robson

PT reader Dan F recommends the Beyond Robson blog: “a worthy endeavor that could use some more press.” 
If you like hip lefty, arty scene that dominates the SSM (Side Stream Media) in Vancouver, you’ll like the tone of Beyond Robson.  The best reason to check it out, though, is its Morning Brew – a quick survey of the local media/blog scene, with links to items you’d otherwise never know about.
[PT Readers: Send in recommendations you think are worthy to Link-up.]

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PT reader Timothy Thomas writes in:

Lisa Rochon hits the nail on its monotonous little head. Finally, after five years, I understand the paradox: how Vancouver can be progressive in livability but so maddeningly conservative in design.
If the Olympic Village architecture leaves another disappointing legacy, maybe they can install an explanatory plaque: “They didn’t want it good. They wanted it Tuesday.”

Rochon’s Globe and Mail piece – “Time to build outside the box” – critiques the architectural scene in Vancouver, now that previous planner Larry Beasley is off to Abu Dhabi.

Over the past decade, Vancouver has developed a culture of urban rules rather than a culture of great design. There are rules for just about any move an architect might want to make….

And now that Beasley is gone, architects speak up:

“It’s a huge challenge for the new director,” says Bing Thom, a prominent Vancouver architect. “We’ve become a victim of our own success. There’s smugness and fear of change. The planning department knows what it wants, the architect knows what the planning department wants and nobody dares to rock the boat. Everybody is in bed together. The podium-tower formula keeps getting stamped out in Vancouver, because everybody knows that will get quick approval.”
“The Beasley regime was so formulaic,” charges James Cheng, another of Vancouver’s major architects who designed the 60-storey Shangri-La luxury hotel and residence currently under construction on West Georgia Street in the city’s downtown.

Hmmm. The supposition seems to be that if the architects were freed of the Planning Department’s constraints, great, iconic architecture would spontaneously appear.
Sorry, don’t buy it. Market-constrained design is inherently conservative. Once the developers discern the minimum acceptable standards, they set the ceiling, not the floor.
I well remember an informal meeting I had in James Cheng’s office with one of the City’ Hall development-permit architects. They were responding to a concern I had, after seeing the model for Quayside – the Concord Pacific complex that now lines Marinaside Crescent, between Davie Street and the Cambie Bridge – that it was all too much the same. How about at least a little variation in colour?

Both of them assured me that, though it was subtle, it would fit well into the larger palate that was planned for the megaproject. I didn’t get any sense that the City was forcing a reluctant developer into a straight-jacket.
As a Councillor, there really wasn’t much I could do other than express my concern. Other Councillors didn’t like getting involved in design decisions – the job, they felt, of the professionals. And indeed, the development process in Vancouver keeps politicians out of the approval process once Council decisions have been made on zoning and general policy. It’s one of the reasons the quality of urban design is high: no deals are done to dumb-down projects; negotiations are done at the staff level, insulated from the politics.
Yes, there’s a need for more ‘iconic’ foreground buildings in Vancouver. But too often the suggestion is made that by negating, amending or ignoring some general policy – like height limits or view-corridor requirements – we would get brilliant architecture as a result. I just don’t think the record, the experience of other cities or common sense gives a guarantee of that.

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Don Buchanan cycled through the park a few days after the first big windstorm and caught this shot of the blowdown completely covering the road just to the west of Lost Lagoon:

The impact of the storm was very selective. I saw the Lumberman’s Arch area a few days later and it seemed completely untouched – not even much tree litter on the ground. I’m told that only one of the nests in the heronry next to the tennis courts looked to have been blown down – a testament to architectural and construction ability of birds – though I wonder how they weather such storms.
So far I’m ambivalent about the impact. This is part of nature, after all – and something to be expected given past history (Hurricane Freda) and the fact that we stop fire from doing its job. This is how nature regenerates.
Ironically, in some ways the park will be a more interesting experience – at least from a human perspective. The views through to the water will be enhanced around Prospect Point: blue glinting through green is more captivating than the forest wall which lined most of Park Drive. And it will likely encourage people to wander into the interior of the park and look more carefully at the actual fabric of the forest, something very few of us actually do.
And, as I noted in my column below, it will make the issue of climate change a very personal reality.

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What to do with this concrete white elephant?
[And why isn’t there ever any accountability for those who promoted and built it? B.C. Place was Socred Premier Bill Bennett’s megaproject: a toy for the boys. Build it and baseball will come, they said. The boys with the balls never showed up, and so every year the stadium loses big bucks. And yet still promoters push the idea that government should subsidize these things.]
There’s talk that B.C. Place will be demolished after the Olympics in 2010. Combine the deficit, the cost of the replacing the roof and the value of the land underneath, and it seems to make sense. And yet … if we are to take sustainability seriously, we have to account for the embedded energy in all that concrete. Are we to truck it all off to the landfill as though it had no value? But what to do instead?
How about Lucca on False Creek?

This Tuscan town is best known for its fortifications, a Renaissance tower with trees on top (Richard Henriquez’s inspiration for the Eugenia) and the remnant of an old Roman circus that evolved into the oval piazza you see in the picture.
How about building an Italian-style hilltown on the bleachers of B.C. Place, with a dense urban fabric, Habitat-like, cascading down both sides of the roofless stadium? In the centre, playing fields, the town square, a great urban space, maybe even a small lake. Narrow lanes wind up to the top, aerial trams go up and over, perhaps a highrise references the Lucca tower.
Surely we can do better than just imploding this sucker and turning out more of the same point-and-podium stuff we already have so much of.

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This just in today from Paul Krueger, a planner at City Hall, who got this shot from the roof at 12th and Cambie.

[For those who don’t get the title reference, locals refer to B.C. Place as “the marshmallow in bondage” – at least when the fabric roof is inflated, unlike at the moment when, due to wind damage and rather like stadium management, it’s very much depressed.]

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ArchNewsNow.com – a daily e-newsletter indispensible for those into architecture – has a nice piece on the American Institute of Architecture’s Top Ten Green Projects Award. As one would hope, Vancouver is well represented – and, indeed, they’ve highlighted two winners from past years:
From 2004, the White Rock Operations Centre by Peter Busby.
And from 2000, the C.K. Choi Building at UBC by Matsuzaki Wright Architects.

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January 10, 2007

More evidence, here in The Independent, that the passivity which characterizes our current attitude to climate change is dissipating fast



EU: Climate change will transform the face of the continent
Europe, the richest and most fertile continent and the model for the modern world, will be devastated by climate change, the European Union predicts today.
The ecosystems that have underpinned all European societies from Ancient Greece and Rome to present-day Britain and France, and which helped European civilisation gain global pre-eminence, will be disabled by remorselessly rising temperatures, EU scientists forecast in a remarkable report which is as ominous as it is detailed.
Full article here.

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Just in: a response to Price Tags 90 from Brent Belsher. Normally I’d put it in the comments section, but I draw your attention to the link Brent provides at the end to an article on “The Living Room” – a new cinema that is oh so Portland. Check it out.

I loved the Portland profile. I’ve got family there and have been traveling up and down I-5 for years, but what’s been going on over the last few is really quite something. I wish this whole Cascadia thing would become more of a reality. I’d love to see us become more connected with our regional neighbours to the south. Articles like this will only help. I’m going down with a group of friends this spring that have never been there before. Your Price Tag has just created a little more excitement around the trip.

Now if we could just get a gondola up to SFU from the skytrain….


Did you see this place when you were there? I love the concept:


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This shouldn’t be necessary.  But I’m going to acknowledge that the new federal Environment minister John Baird at least made the connection between the wind storm that devastated Stanley Park and climate change.
“Weird weather … is a ‘wake-up call,’ ” Baird is reported as saying in today’s Sun.  “‘It’s another reason why we have to act on climate change.”
We’ll see if appropriate policy follows, but at least we have a responsible politician making some connections – unlike Gordon Campbell, our provincial Premier, who has managed to be almost totally oblivious on this issue. 
I pursue that theme in my column in the latest issue of Business in Vancouver.

I think we just had a Katrina Moment – a weather event so sudden, so severe, it disturbs not just the landscape but the status quo.
The December 15 windstorm, the third in a week, reinforced the usual fear about the vulnerability of our technological web and added the fear of retribution. Was nature’s wrath a consequence of the progress that has made us fat and happy? Has the climate-change issue turned personal, and moral?
At this point, it is compulsory to note that a single extraordinary event does not an argument make. Even those who believe that the science is clear on climate change will issue that standard disclaimer.
But the burden of proof has shifted. Now it’s the skeptics who are obliged to argue that an event consistent with climate-change theory that projects more extreme weather is not a cause for worry of worse to come. With every Katrina Moment, it becomes tougher to defend indifference.
Most politicians would prefer to avoid addressing global warming and are so far doing an excellent job of it. The B.C. Hansard of 2005 shows a total of two paragraphs devoted to climate change. I asked a selection of people, some of whom are Liberal supporters: “True or false – Gordon Campbell has had nothing to say about climate change.” Without exception: “True.”
It’s understandable. Why take on climate change when the danger is distant, the costs unknown and the global difference we would make almost insignificant? The 3-D strategy of doubt, deny and delay has worked pretty well so far. But the evidence keeps getting worse. With each Katrina Moment, more and more people wonder how our leaders are going to respond to our anxiety. Normally dry debate over “sustainability” is turning emotional.
Marc Jaccard, the author of Sustainable Fossil Fuels and a past chairman of the B.C. Utilities Commission, recently wrote that our provincial politicians will be asked: “What did you do for the atmosphere, Daddy?”
“My bet is,” he concluded, “that B.C.’s cabinet ministers will avoid telling their children about the difference they could have made.”
Jaccard was questioning the province’s decision to allow coal-burning power plants with no carbon capture. To do so, given available technology, is like saying, not only are we ignoring climate change, we don’t believe there will be any unexpected economic consequences over the life of the project.
That’s pretty much the position of Don Potts, the executive director of the Joint Industry Electricity Steering Committee, who represents the major industrial users of purchased electric power in B.C.
“To reject these facilities now,” he argues, “sends a costly message to those in the private sector who may want to help supply the growing need for electric power in B.C.”
That’s an astonishing position, given the likely economic retribution that will occur as other jurisdictions take action.
California is considering prohibiting the state’s investor-owned utilities from buying power from any source that emits more carbon dioxide than does a modern natural-gas power plant.
Says Jaccard: “This will force coal plant developers to move more quickly to coal plants with carbon capture and storage – which will still be cheaper than natural gas plants, nuclear and most renewables.”
In the next few weeks, a new energy strategy will be announced by the province. The premier, who has had nothing of consequence to say so far, will have his chance. A leadership vacuum, like a natural one, does not remain unfilled.
Gordon Price is the director of Simon Fraser University’s city program and a former Vancouver city councillor. His e-mail address is pricetags@shaw.ca. His column appears monthly.

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