Downtown

15 August 2022 — We’re downtown, giving ourselves an architecture tour-by-ricochet — i.e., loosely inspired by one of the City’s self-guiding tour maps, but then wildly divergent, following our own curiosity as we go.

It’s almost a reintroduction to downtown as well, because neither of us has been down here much since COVID hit town. We see a lot that’s either new, or had slipped from memory. And on top of all that, we’re of a mind to gawk, and to appreciate.

Look! TELUS Garden! Completed in 2016 (Gregory Henriquez, design architect), and belonging (I say this approvingly) to what I think of as the school of Twisted Cereal Box.

Basically rectilinear, like any well-behaved cereal box — but then twisted here, thrust there, and finished with a swoop. Which then offers us all this lovely energy & play, still with simple lines.

(Need I add I know nothing about architecture? Pure personal opinion.)

We continue along West Georgia, and stop flat to stare at what now greets us at Homer Street. Definitely new, not forgotten. Once again rectilinear, once again with a twist. But very different from TELUS Garden.

Meet the Deloitte Summit office tower, open early this year, with Merrick Architecture as Executive Architect. My mind jumps back more than half a century to early Moshe Safdie, and the stacked-box design of his Habitat ’67.

It’s only later I appreciate my Safdie moment. At the time, all I see, as I draw closer, is a dramatic juxtaposition of forms — jutting cubes on the right, smack up against Library Square and the rounded, Roman Coliseum curves of the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch.

Later, I do my homework. I learn that the 1995 Library Square complex (VPL + Federal Office tower on the left + public plaza) was the work of… Moshe Safdie & Associates. I hope you’re as amused by this as I am.

Another juxtaposition, this time from West Pender as I eye this pair of buildings the other side of Victory Square. One is heritage; the other new-ish and an effort to combine redevelopment with both private gain and public good.

On the left, the Dominion Building: 13-storeys, steel-framed (a wonder in its day) and, when it opened in 1910, the tallest building in the British Empire. On the right, Woodward’s 43 (aka W-43): sympathetic lines & tones, considerably taller (43 storeys) and completed in 2009. The former, considered by some to be haunted (well, so they say); the latter, considered by some an example of how hard it is to do good and do well at the same time. (A Westbank Project with Henriquez Partners, it is a mixed-use tower, with both market and non-market residential units, and part of the larger redevelopment and repurposing of the old Woodward’s footprint.)

We continue north to West Hastings, to 601 West Hastings to be precise, where we run our eyes up this newly-completed 25-storey office tower and then slide ourselves in under its welcoming street-level canopy.

No tower name that I can find, apart from the street address, but online recognition that it is the work of B+H Architects, and that it offers commercial mixed-use facilities while retaining (says the B+H website) “a useable community plaza.”

I wouldn’t quite call this a community plaza…

but it is at least open to the street, and very peaceful once you tuck yourself inside. A wall of light & colour; a watercourse the length of that wall; and, in lieu of benches, a number of bum-friendly sitting stones.

We’re back on the street and walking away when I snag on one final, truly wonderful, touch.

This, the lettering solemnly announces, is the doorway to the 60l Grind.

“Grind”? It is a reference every Vancouverite (or visiting hiker) will immediately catch. The Grouse Grind is a 2.9 km trail straight up (very up) the face of Grouse Mountain; the 601 Grind is 549 steps straight up this building.

More West Hastings, now between Hornby and Howe streets. And more juxtapositions. On the right, the quietly ornamented but still quietly rectilinear lines of heritage architecture. On the left…

the 2011 Jameson House, where bubbles come out to dance with the world of rectilinear. In the process they stack 26 storeys of apartments over 8 storeys of office over shops. Everybody seems to be enjoying the dance.

(There is even more juxtaposition than my eye takes in at the time. The Jameson House project includes restoring the 1921 Ceperley Rounsfell Building and retaining the façade of the 1929 Royal Financial Building as well.)

We walk on west, then pause to admire a long view of one of the city’s most iconic heritage buildings.

Down there at West Hastings & Burrard , glowing in the afternoon light, still dominant though long since out-towered by many other buildings — it’s the 21-storey Marine Building, which opened in 1930 and is considered the city’s best surviving example of Art Deco style.

Leaning in from the far right, the Edwardian-era Vancouver Club, which opened in 1914. Behind it, a more recent building whose tones (like W-43) are sympathetic to its heritage neighbour.

On the left behind the Marine Building, a 35-storey twist of soaring glass, the MNP Tower, which opened in 2014.

We walk on, and eventually crane our necks upward, following the soar. (Credit here to my friend, whose camera caught it better than my own.)

Then, necks and all, it’s back to ground level — and, look at that, at West Hastings near Thurlow, it’s also back to this year’s Vancouver Mural Festival.

We climb up the steps and we climb back down the steps; we thank the VMF in general and Laura Jane Klassen (Studio LKJ) in particular for this latest addition to city art and cheer; and then…

we head home.

Behind the Paint

11 August 2022 – There are the murals, and then there are the stories that take you behind the paint on the murals. I’m reminded of this when I join the Mount Pleasant-area mural tours offered this week by Vancouver DeTours, the VMF guided-tour partner.

I already knew the murals; I didn’t know the stories.

For example: big, bold Courage, in an alley I often pass angling down Kingsway near East 11th. I even know, because I can read signage, that it was created in 2021 by Ariel Buxton.

What I don’t know is that she created it in collaboration with Rabble Rousers, a group of young adult mental health advocates, and that it faces a youth mental health facility housed in the building opposite. The powerful one-word main theme is supported by smaller images, each important to the young people involved. A yellow rose, a cactus, a shamrock and, here on the mural’s east edge, an acorn topped by a butterfly.

As we’re being given this background, I notice a tour member waving vigorously. Big smile on his face. I turn. Arms attached to a whole window-full of faces in the building opposite are waving at us. We wave. They wave. Everybody waves some more.

And then we walk on.

On down that same alley, closer now to Watson Street, a 2018 mural by Pakistan-born Sara Khan. It is called Recycled, for reasons that escape me, and flows strong colours and dream-like images across the wall.

We learn that when the sketch went to the City for final approval (many partners, many steps), the reclining male figure was anatomically correct. When he came back, he was a Ken-doll.

Okey-doke. (Many partners, many steps, and the art of the compromise.)

But ever since, again and again, anonymous citizens have crept forth, paint brush in hand…

to restore his manhood.

One of the tours takes us past the 2022 Melanie Jewell mural I showed you in my murals teaser post, From Bach to Bears. Remember?

Now I learn that the bears, while deliberately painted in folk-art style, are much more than (as I called them) “adorable.” Each one represents a member of this Northern Dené artist’s family; together, they resonate with deeper meaning.

This cuddling pair, for example, represent her grandmother and mother.

They loved each other. They were both, one generation apart, survivors of the residential school system. And when Jewell’s grandmother unexpectedly fell ill and was dying, her mother — at the time a small child away at school — could not come home for one last visit.

There are more stories, other places. Happier ones, for example the time requesting shop-owner permission to paint on her back alley wall ultimately led to the City installing lighting in that alley as well. Upshot: the woman finally felt safe going out to her car in that alley late at night — and even had something beautiful to look at.

So by the time I’m trucking back down Kingsway, I have a head full of stories to go with my eyes full of murals.

And then — right there on the sidewalk in front of Budgie’s Burritos — I see one more.

Well, if they say so!

From Bach to Bears

8 August 2022 – Oh my dears, the Bach Festival…

is so last week!

Now we have adorable, and very freshly painted, bears…

to show us that the Vancouver Mural Festival is underway.

Melanie Jewell’s tribute to the peoples, creatures and swirling Northern Lights of the NWT is my first sighting of work in progress…

but I plan to see lots more this week.

… And the Edge of the Tracks

26 July 2022 – It couldn’t look more different, but this is the continuation of the walk that took us along the edge of Coal Harbour. I left you with those not-polite Canadians (feathered variety) at the Convention Centre — but I kept on walking.

On east into Gastown, following an alley squeezed between Water St. and the train tracks.

No more sparkling water, foliage, gamboling doggies, and cafés to tempt their owners and the rest of us.

Instead, the grit of an alley. Showing not its Water St. Gastown-tourist face, but its back-door strictly functional face. And displaying, in the process, powerful graphics. Once again, geometry at work. I’m captivated by the lines and curves, but I don’t romanticize them.

This is a DTES (Downtown East Side) alley, and it is not romantic. While I tilt my head in appreciation of a spiral staircase (below), three bicycle paramedics roll by on one of their regular overdose patrols.

Both/and, eh? The reality of those paramedics, but also the reality of these bold lines that make me tug my camera out of my back pocket once again.

The spiral, the verticals, the punch of yellow, the graffiti…

the stark “H” of this (I think) loading dock & the inadvertent colour-blocking all around…

the angles of the window security bars…

some zig-zag…

and gleaming loops of razor wire…

that ground a perfectly framed vertical to the sky.

And then I put my camera away. I really, truly do.

The Edge of Coal Harbour

19 July 2022 – The “edge,” both in geography and in time. In geography, because I walk the northern boundary of this neighbourhood, eastward along the Burrard Inlet sea wall from Stanley Park to Canada Place. In time, because here I am for just a few hours, one afternoon in 2022, on territory that has been inhabited for millennia.

Not that I have such lofty thoughts in mind as I jump off the #19 bus at West Georgia Street and cut down through Devonian Harbour Park to the water. I’m just out for a walk. This mini-park, smack at the eastern limit of Stanley Park, seems the perfect starting point for an agreeable afternoon in the semi-sunshine.

Pleasure + frustration as I go. I can find no ID for this dramatic sculpture…

neither in the park nor later online. Grrr.

Vancouver, like everywhere else, is opening up again. Cruise ships are back, and so are movie crews. A seaplane drops noisily over a marina as it streaks toward the Harbour Flight Centre beyond…

while we obedient pedestrians below halt in our tracks, obeying the director’s call to “Stand still please, for just one more take.”

I’m enjoying sights & sounds as I go — the activities & lingo of dogs/gulls/ravens/seaplanes/people. I’m not snagged by the historic depth of the area until I stop to read some of the inscriptions on & beside the Coal Harbour Fellowship Bell. It honours, say the plaques, the people & companies who made the industrial marine history of this area, 1890-1979.

Then & later, I learn a little more. First inhabitants, the Squamish First Nation, millennia ago; first settlers (i.e. non-indigenous) in the early 1860s, drawn by the discovery of low-grade coal. The coal never led to anything much, but the 1884 decision by the CPR to make this the railway’s western terminus launched a near-century of industrial activity: sawmills, warehouses, shipping piers, and — as that engraved bell reminds us — a long history of shipyards, engine & propeller shops and all the other trades & services that built & repaired Vancouver’s fishing & tugboat fleets.

‘Round about here, I start playing peek-a-boo with a big cluster of red container cranes some three kilometres or so farther east — just past Canada Place, marking both the planned end of my walk and one of the terminals within the Port of Vancouver.

Ignore the bench-sitter, the jogger with wonky left knee, the dogs, the kids. Follow Purple Hoodie Lady’s right arm. She is, inadvertently but accurately, pointing to the “giraffes” (a friend once called them that; I still do), the cranes whose long necks stretch high above the busy dance of ships & containers below.

I now find myself looking for them at each turn in my walk.

Sometimes prominent across open water, in spikey contrast to the bulk of the cruise ship…

and sometimes hard to distinguish — the merest scribble of one more silhouette above the rows of boats & houseboats in Coal Harbour Marina, who in turn are dwarfed by city towers beyond.

I look landward as well. This construction site sinks my heart as I imagine some monstrous tower, right at water’s edge…

and then I read the signage.

Coal Harbour Phase 2, it tells me, will provide an elementary school, daycare centre and 60 affordable [sic] family-sized rental units, in a complex designed to quality for LEED and Passive House certification.

Art work, here in Harbour Green Park, that I can identify. (Thank you, signage.)

Light Shed, by Liz Magor, is a half-scale replica of the freight shed that was located on the Vancouver City Wharf here in Coal Harbour, about a century ago.

(See the giraffes? We’re getting closer…)

Water fountains add sparkle to a café beyond…

and water provides liquid tarmac for the seaplanes that come & go from the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre.

(Another hit of that cruise ship beyond. And the giraffes.)

I’m almost at my end point, almost at Canada Place, walking my way around the West Convention Centre building toward Bon Voyage Plaza.

All along the railings, signage to teach us a little more about the natural and human histories of the area. Some I pass by; a few I scan for key phrases; and one stops me flat. Because… look at the power of that gaze.

Meet Lucille Johnstone, whom I had never heard of, but who for good reason is saluted here as Queen of the River. A high school grad, she began as receptionist for a little company called River Towing, and soon was its one-woman office staff. I could go on about what happened next, but instead I’ll let you read it directly, the same way I did.

I think this is terrific, I think she is terrific, and I love the further detail that explains the funny little tugboat next to her photo. When the Vancouver Airport authorities wanted to name something in her honour, as a tribute to her service as a member of the board, she requested it be something fun for children. Which is why that tugboat was built, and installed on the Departure Level.

More art just off the corner of Bon Voyage Plaza, and a whole different mood and style than the tugboat.

Twenty metres of bright blue raindrop, named (of course) The Drop, created by a Berlin collective known as Inges Idee. I’ve always loved it — simple, graphic, perfect scale for its location, perfect image for its physical environment.

And now, finally, here I am.

I have walked around the edge of the Convention Centre, then around the high edge of Canada Place, and I am about to drop down the staircase on the eastern side to ground level. I am as close to the giraffes as I’m going to get. There they are — just beyond that SeaBus shuttle route between Waterfront Station this side of Burrard Inlet and Lonsdale Quay over in North Van.

I put away my camera. All done. Then I take it out again, because I have to show you this.

World, you have been warned.

Ghost. Busted‼️

12 July 2022 — Despite the date, this post has nothing to do with King Billy and everything to do with the Ghost of Ivy Past.

Remember? The West 6th Ave. wall that had been stripped of its once-rampaging ivy, leaving behind this ghostly root-print.

Two different reactions, in reader comments:

1 – Nancy L. does a little hop of glee: “The only good ivy is ghost ivy”… while

2 – a member of the Medicinal Plant Specialist Group rises to the botanical challenge. “Not Virginia Creeper, but something rootier…” which therefore requires “a nerdy search of ivy roots.”

Nerdy search conducted; seriously rooty culprit found & identified.

English ivy.

That Group member may now add one more title to an already-impressive list of academic & professional credentials (along with the personal title of Cherished Friend):

Botanical Ghostbuster!

Wall Art

8 July 2022 – Nature’s art, thrown against downtown walls.

Alley walls, to be precise, with exuberant clusters of wildflowers sprawling against the fences & concrete barriers that divide them from Polite Society — but also showcase them so beautifully.

Like this…

and this…

and this…

and this.

Then I’m out of the alley, looping back east along West 6th — and, suddenly, the wall itself is the art.

And surely the work of some human hand? A wall-to-wall, ground-to-roof triumph of delicate pointillist tracery — perhaps a precursor of our Mural Festival yet to come?

But no.

The art is on the wall, but it is nature’s art after all.

The Ghost of Ivy Past.

The Decision Tree

30 June 2022 — Have you ever noticed?

No matter how rigorous your methodology…

No matter how scrupulous your self-analysis…

All paths lead to sugar.

City Centre: The Triad of Transformation

24 June 2022 (et salut, la Fête St-Jean-Baptiste) – You don’t look at it and say, “Aha, a triad of connected interests, a strategic partnership, just look how that business plan is rolling out.”

You say, “Wow! Look at all that paint!”

Indeed. Paint has taken a 1950s motor hotel, which finally closed its weary doors in 2021…

and turned it into this.

May I introduce you to the City Centre Motor Hotel? A Mount Pleasant (Vancouver) landmark, iconic as all-get-out, pure mid-century North American vernacular architecture — and an anachronism. A magnet for urban historians, but not for travellers.

No surprise it was sold. No surprise it was bought by a real-estate group “for redevelopment potential.”

And that’s where the surprises began — the phone calls & sparky minds that brought together The Narrow Group (an East-Van group dedicated to providing art/music/dance/food/drink in historic spaces), Nicola Wealth Real Estate (dedicated to “creating cash flow and wealth through real estate”) and the Vancouver Mural Festival (dedicated to “providing large-scale murals, street art and experiences”).

They found a community of interests. Nicola Wealth knew it would take years to sort out redevelopment best options and permits, and was receptive when Narrow Group’s David Duprey called up suggesting a temporary lease. Deal! VMF was happy to jump into the mix — a new hub for its work as well.

Result: some 70+ ratty old motel units have been transformed into low-rent artist work spaces, and the Mural Festival has just pulled off its biggest mural yet, with more than 30,000 sq ft of building/parking lot coverage. The city has its newest temporary (2 1/2 years or so) community space for art and social connection.

I suddenly pay attention because all that paint is being flung around quite literally under my eye (when my eye happens to be on my balcony or up in our roof-top garden). Also because this very weekend will be a launch party for the repurposed building, and a tease for the Aug 4-14 festival, promising 30+ new murals in 8 neighbourhoods and 11 straight days of paint, talks, tours, events and street parties.

Here’s your preview: last-minute prep for this weekend’s party…

but so much already in place, whether your eye tracks vertical…

or horizontal.

For all the happy colours and popping design, the artists and everyone else close to this world know there is a dark side with dark stories, lives no longer being lived but honoured “in memory.”

So it is not through ignorance, but with a kind of clear-eyed courage & optimism that these artists & urban adventurers throw all their creativity & shrewd instincts into exploring what else they can do, what else is possible, how to dance the best damn dance to the beat of the day, this very day.

And in the process, they offer the rest of us a whale of a time.

Yaletown: art & history & life & even buttercups

18 June 2022 – Well, that title is a big promise but the City’s Yaletown Art Walking Tour delivers as promised, yes it does. So lace up your imaginary boots, and away we go.

The loop is just 3 km long, from green-go to red-stop, but it circles us around downtown streets and the north shore of False Creek, with reminders all along the way of the past that informs our present.

This area has been home to indigenous peoples for millennia, and to settlers since the late-ish 19th century. It gained this name after the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) finally crossed the entire country, and then relocated its construction equipment & repair shops from the community of Yale in the Fraser Canyon to the railway’s new western terminus in Vancouver.

This area, therefore, now gentrifying at a bright glossy pace, is built on a history of long maritime use and more recent, but intense, industrial use. Public art references all that history, and picks up on modern concerns.

I walk the loop, but not quite exactly as shown. Since I arrive by Skytrain (“M” on the map), I’m already launched on the tour and skip the Roundhouse Community Centre starting point. That makes me also skip the tour’s first example of public art, but I substitute my own: the Blossom Umbrellas once again blooming in Bill Curtis Plaza next to Skytrain.

After that I do what the tour tells me to do. I make discoveries in the process, since I’ve never before walked this bit of territory just east of the station. First stop, Leaf Pond (aka Big Leaf), at the N/E intersection of Cambie & Pacific Blvd. I think this is the work of Barbara Steinman, but couldn’t quite pin it down.

I move in close. Indeed a leaf, indeed a pond — and I wish I still had the nimble legs to dance me down the leaf’s central vein.

But I don’t! So I prudently admire it from the sidewalk, and walk on.

The next work of art is anonymous — and that’s sort of the point. It is an 8-metre high gear salvaged from the swing span of an earlier Cambie Bridge (1911-1984), mounted here as Ring Geer, in tribute to all the workers and all the bridges that have served this part of town.

A bit farther east, and it’s time to turn south through Coopers Mews, leading me to False Creek. Coopers and the barrels they created were important to the area’s industrial strength, and an installation by the same name, Coopers Mews (by Alan Storey), honours that history.

The punctuation mark for the whole installation — of course — is five wooden barrels.

This brings us to the Seawall along the northern shore of False Creek, just west of the current Cambie Bridge. Surprisingly this art tour does not point out a significant work of art, on the very pillars of the bridge itself.

See? Those blue stripes, titled A False Creek (by Rhonda Weppler & Trevor Mahovsky), mark the 4-6 metre rise in water level now anticipated because of climate change. Even though not part of this walking tour, this installation is featured in another online brochure of public art in the area. It’s worth the click.

Westward ho, everybody, on along the pedestrian path that borders False Creek. For a while, the railing that separates us from the street above is itself a work of art: Lookout (by Christos Dikeakos & Notel Best). Words & phrases remind us of the layers of natural and industrial history that underlie what we enjoy today.

“Million and millions of herring” … “Acres of ducks” … “fish stories” …

Down at the foot of Davie Street, the soaring I-beam towers of Street Light (by Alan Tregebov & Bernie Miller)…

with texts incised into each limestone base that evoke another vignette, another moment, for our imaginations to relive.

Soon after, one of my favourite Seawall signs. Not part of the official tour, of course not, but it’s part of my tour. Pedestrian and cyclist paths run side-by-side, and this sign urges us all to pay attention.

Duly attentive, we walk on. This next installation, running from Davie Street on west to the foot of Drake, is a good example of “I don’t much like it but I’m glad it’s there.” Welcome to the Land of Light (by Henry Tsang) consists of words/phrases in both English and Chinook (a trading jargon of the day), all along the shoreline railing.

No, I don’t much like it as art, but yes I’m glad it’s there — both because public art should have a broader range than my own personal taste, and also because I suspect it’s the kind of work that seeps into your consciousness over time, and enriches you in the process.

Next up, something I do like very much, though I can’t say I understand it. (As if that mattered…) The Proud Youth (by Chen Wenling) came to us courtesy of the Vancouver Biennale. I remember heading for it, that first time, expecting to giggle. Instead, I admired it. Still do.

On again, more installations I love to revisit. We’re taking the long approach, lots of time to anticipate what we’ll see as we follow the curve of David Lam Park.

Track that line of stones to the point where the shoreline veers sharply left. See the circle of rocks? Good. Now track left, past that B&W pedestrian couple, to the circle of pillars topped by a ring . Good.

Those are a pair of sister installations, by Vancouverite Don Vaughan, landscape architect and artist. The first, Waiting for Low Tide

is complemented by the second, Marking High Tide. Vaughan also wrote the short poem incised into that upper ring: “The moon circles the earth and the ocean responds with the rhythm of the tides.”

The rhythm at the moment is such that there is no water to be seen — but yes, the tide washes in and out, and the dance continues.

I promised you buttercups! They’re all over the place at the moment, all that bright cheerful energy smacking your eye at every turn. We’re now climbing the steps up out of David Lam Park back to Pacific Blvd, and buttercups fill the slopes.

I like the sight of that guy over there — back to a tree, at peace in the sunshine with his iPad. Just one more of all the people enjoying this place, in all their different ways.

City pavement now, north side of Pacific Blvd between Homer & Drake. The pavement design is pleasing in and of itself…

xm

but there’s more to it than contrasting colours & herringbone pattern. This stretch, running along an ancient shoreline & punningly titled Footnotes (by Gwen Boyle), features 57 inset granite markers. Most are just a word or two — “Salmon Weir,” “Mussels,” “Beached,” “Hello,” “Shore Line” — but a few say more.

My favourite: this 1967 poem by poet & novelist (& GG Award-winner) Earle Birney, about a walk he took at the mouth of False Creek.

End of the walk, the loop now looped, we drop into the south plaza of Roundhouse Community Centre. The tour instructs us to notice the installation Terra Nova (by Richard Prince) on both the ground and the wall behind.

There it is. But what I like even more is the life all around it.

Here in the foreground, that man belting along on his tricycle (with walking poles stowed behind), and there in the background, close to the wall, a bride and her attendants, posing for post-wedding photographs.

Art, history, life and buttercups.

  • WALKING… & SEEING

    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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