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Work and city planning

There’s a new exhibition at Victoria’s LegacyGallery, a UVic-affiliated downtown art venue. It’s called From a Modern Time: the architectural photography of Hubert Norbury, Victoria in the 1950s and 60s (the link goes to the Legacy Gallery’s “Upcoming” page – no specific web info otherwise).

On Vibrant Victoria, a forumer posted a pointer to the exhibition, with the following info:

A retro Victoria comes alive through the work of architectural photographer Hubert Norbury, on display at the Legacy Art Gallery and Café this summer.

Norbury succeeded in documenting a building boom that transformed Victoria from a sleepy retreat to a vibrant city, rejuvenated by progressive town planning, a new university campus, and an international airport. His photographs serve as a rich and detailed record of a unique era in Victoria’s architectural history when modern ideas and new building technologies were embraced by its architects and increasingly accepted by the general public. (link)

Curators need to write texts that accompany exhibitions, but I have a problem with the way they (or he or she) framed this one.

First a caveat lector: What follows is by no means a completely baked post. It’s in the category of “thinking out loud” and “place-holder for more.”

Here are some problems I have with the blurb that presents the exhibition…

It claims that Victoria was transformed in the 50s and 60s from a “sleepy retreat” to a vibrant city? Hm… Through building projects? Double hm and “really?” Just take a look at Centennial Square

I’m not sure why UVic’s curators would insist that the fifties and sixties were some Golden Age of city planning in Victoria. If anything, lots of built heritage was destroyed, the urban fabric torn asunder by so-called renewal (things like getting rid of “old junk” and making the city more car-friendly). The idea that the renewal undertaken at that time was beneficial really needs to be challenged. UVic certainly isn’t challenging it. It’s reinforcing it.

Furthermore… I really don’t believe anymore that if you build it, they will come. Something else has to happen first – or at least concurrently… Otherwise you do that “rejuvenation” thing through “progressive town planning” and end up with not that much.

At some level, some parts of our planning department seem still to subscribe to the “build it and they will come” agenda. And some of our councilors are “aesthetes,” idealists who think it’s possible to conjure up some kind of City Beautiful by fiat.

But what would a materialist say, someone who pays attention to work, to production, to economics?

I don’t think that buildings by themselves can change a city (Bilbao notwithstanding). There has to be a readiness for a new way of seeing and experiencing the city, otherwise buildings mean nothing. A starchitect edifice might help nudge new ways of seeing and experiencing, but those new ways can’t take hold if there isn’t some larger material fact underpinning that process already.

In most cases that larger, material underpinning is work, labor: how people make a living and sustain themselves. Do they work (and yes, consume) as factory workers, or in head offices and corporations, or as government bureaucrats, small business people, farmers, or entrepreneurs, or in the service industries, as retirees, or in the cloud? Are they experiencing disruption – at all levels – or are they staid and cut off from what’s going on in the global economy? Do they matter at all, are they producing matters of significance, or are they punching the clock …or already retired?

Victoria has had a varied history when it comes to work. Most of it centered on resource exploitation – from seals and whales to tourists, and every other resource in between. Some people think it’ll be IT – get-rich-quick and then blow off work to enjoy the island Lotus Land with its plentiful access to nature: hiking, golfing, kayaking, and so on. (Victoria must be one of the few places I’ve ever lived where it’s cool for 20-somethings to play the old man’s game of golf …and they can do it all year ’round here.)

The curatorial blurb I referenced at the beginning of this post says that Victoria was a “sleepy retreat” before the urban renewal schemes of the fifties and sixites. Yet that leaves out a whole swathe of prior history, including a prior of history of vibrancy and non-sleepiness.

Victoria may have been dead as a doornail in 1950, but it was a vibrant city in the late 19th and early 20th century – why?, because back then the city still mattered as a point of reference. Once the railroad linked Canada and terminated in Vancouver, however, Victoria began to die off because we weren’t that important anymore in the global world of work. Vancouver became the new reference point. The nature and value of how work was done here changed, and so did people’s perceptions of the place. No longer proud, and proudly the capital, more likely the slighted lesser city, where government only stayed by virtue of the infrastructure …which, admittedly, was and is a building. If the impressive Legislature building hadn’t already been here, I bet we would have stopped serving as the provincial capital long ago.

But the decision to make Victoria the capital was made first, and acted on first, and then the Legislature got built. The decision was acted on because of the way things were going: back then it seemed that Victoria could work.

Today, it’s like we haven’t figured out how to make this city work in ways other than boom-and-bust. You can build all the fancy new buildings and plazas and what-nots you want, but unless there’s a concomitant change in how people perceive the city (a perception that’s influenced at both ends, by the material stuff and by ideals) and in how they can work here and get ahead, public plazas and buildings alone won’t be able to generate the change(s) for the better.

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