The Death of Vancouverism
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
(The Classic of the Way and Its Power)
From Chapter 11
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
What is true for the wheel, or the bowl, or the room, is more true for the city. Certainly it is the building that provides the profit, but it is the space between the buildings that make it useful. Usefulness of the city is in the voids, not the solids.
Vancouver became famous for its voids. We call it Vancouverism. Our mistake is to think that Vancouverism is about buildings, something to do with the “tower on podium” form. This is a mistake. Vancouverism is about the voids between the buildings.
Profit comes from the tower on podium form, the building, the object. We know this all too well. But utility comes from the space between the buildings. Utility comes from the voids, the streets, the waterfront promenades, the courtyards, the squares.
Vancouverism is the space of the street, the courtyard, the waterfront stroll, and the squares; spaces formed by the vertical walls of adjoining buildings. The building walls make the space of the city useful.
Vancouver planners of the 1980s and 1990s, led by Larry Beasley, knew this. He was inspired, as were many of his generation, by Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).
Jacobs was an astute observer of the choreography of the street. Her ability was enhanced by her lack of formal training in architecture, planning, and urban design. Training for all those fields focuses on what is there, not what is not there. Her perceptions would have been poisoned if she had been trained to see only what was there, poisoned as are so many young professionals, who see only the thing of profit, not the thing of utility.
Our city is losing the soul of Vancouverism, and we cannot see cannot see the void, only the solids. Our newest buildings manifest an illness striking not just Vancouver but every global city. New buildings interest us only for their peculiar form, for how “interesting” is the thing, how different is the object. New buildings no longer interest us for how they make the space of the street, the plaza, the square; not for how they are useful in making a city.
The Origami, the Curtain, the Cut, the Stacked Cubes, and, most symbolically, the Twisted Trump, all celebrate their thingness, as if it was the thing that made the city.
Soon Vancouver becomes like so many global cities, like Dubai, like Singapore, like Shanghai—places of shiny objects designed to attract global wealth, like so many perfume bottles on the vanity of the city.
The space between the bottles nothing more than a setting, no longer a city.
This is how Vancouverism dies.