Animated Publics versus Damp Subjects
Not a chance, not in Vancouver at least. Of the 36 cities in North America with populations over two million, Vancouver has the most days with measurable precipitation. It rains more of the time here, than anywhere else on the continent. And meteorological data suggests it will get even wetter. Annual rainfall has increased by approximately six inches since 1960 and it’s widely expected that this trend will continue well into the future. Don’t put away the galoshes anytime soon.
While Vancouver’s sogginess unquestionably offers delights – magnificent fecundity, snow-capped mountain pleasures, succulent air – it also literally dampens critical aspects of urban life. On days without rain, Vancouver sidewalks pulse with an energy that is to be expected of its exceptional density, however, the same streets are comparably quiet when it’s raining. In other words, they’re rather quiet most of the time. This most basic and banal fact, that of rain, is perhaps the single biggest variable of a vibrant, public urbanity here. Yet architecture and urban form have done little in response. Instead of retreating to isolated, disjointed, and private interiors with perpetually soggy feet, how might a new Rain City Urbanism operate?
Sheltering the Collective
Extreme weather has provided the impetus for specific urban formations in many cities throughout history. In Canada, Montreal’s ‘Underground City’ (one of the world’s largest subterranean complexes) and Calgary’s ‘Plus 15’ (the planet’s most extensive pedestrian skywalk network) are, whatever one might think about their qualities as conditional public spaces, radical weather-based systems that effectively shelter citizens from the elements by means of large scale collective territories. In comparison to such places as Montreal and Calgary, Vancouver’s relative warmth and general absence of powerful storms are designated ‘mild’ – qualitatively and quantitatively distant from the extremes of elsewhere. The equation of dangerous weather with extreme whether that therefore necessitates profound spatial responses, has reduced the extent to which Vancouverites recognize the extremity of their own situation and the need for a comprehensive response here.
To see what our history might have been and to glimpse what we could become, it is useful to consider Bologna, Italy. With its thirty-eight kilometres of porticoes – covered public sidewalks – Bologna’s urban fabric offers continuous protection from the elements in a manner that is unqualifiedly public and with significant impacts on city life. Made compulsory by a 1288 law that’s still in effect, the porticoes provide an enlivened interstitial zone between public and private that is both sheltered circulation and covered outdoor space for a variety of uses, such as dining, entertainment, and even workshop production.
In sunlight starved Vancouver, perhaps the solidity of Bologna’s masonry porticoes is too heavy, too dark? The typical contemporary solution is the ubiquitous glass canopy – giving both light and shelter. However, Vancouver’s patchwork of glass canopies offers inconsistent coverage while at the same time being always dirty and leaf-strewn; an inevitable shabbiness that problematizing the very transparency of the glass. What if, instead, we pursued something as continuous and comprehensive as Bologna’s porticoes yet radically immaterial? In the late 1950s Yves Klein, the French conceptualist, explored ‘Air Architecture,’ a series of investigations and proposals for buildings made solely of the four elements (air, water, fire, and earth) in their pure form. As Holland Cotter reports in The New York Times, “out of this came the concept of shelters formed from envelopes of moving air, providing protection from rain – which could be blown away before it landed.” Could Bologna’s porticoes hybridize with Klein’s roofs of air? Offering a new urbanity in which air canopies modulate air velocity to produce desired atmospheric conditions in which natural light is plentiful, umbrellas are anachronisms, and citizens are transported from solitary dampness to animated collectives.
The Artificial Aesthetics of Rain
The surfaces of the built environment appear differently, of course, in different weather conditions. Rainwater typically renders surfaces darker, a shift in tonality that’s further amplified by the subdued light attributes of a rainy day. The potential for colour and light within the built environment to respond positively to weather conditions was more deeply embedded in past versions of Vancouver than the present. That 1960s Vancouver was described as ‘the neon capital of Canada’ has much to do with the city’s climate. Historian John Atkin says: “It rains a lot here, and neon and rain are the two sexiest things. You know, neon looks good in the rain.” The move away from neon represents an ideological shift to a more Arcadian vision of the natural city cleansed from the decadent perversions of artificiality. This fundamentalist stance unsympathetically overwrites potential positive combinations in which the natural and the artificial synthesize to heightened benefit.
Perhaps a contemporary avatar of neon Vancouver is a new form of colour urbanism that comes into being only when needed? When it’s raining, the colour of buildings could transform and blossom into bright colours, offering a dazzling counterpoint to months of gloom. When it’s sunny this artificial surface colouring could fade away, foregrounding the ocean, forest, and sky. How could this be done? A new generation of hydrochromic surfaces – that change colour when wet – have recently been developed and are beginning to be deployed in various forms. For instance, the British design house, SquidLondon, has a series of umbrellas, shower curtains, and rain capes that shift from black and white to a brilliant display of colour when wet. While hydrochromic surfaces have yet to find a place in the built environment, it would be fitting that Vancouver, a city with an abundance of water, would be an early innovator in their architectural use and in doing so realize a contingent interplay between natural and artificial phenomena in which each compensates for the deficiencies of the other. May all the rain drops fall!