A Day, 900 km, and Time to Reflect

Back in 2007, I was living on the west side of Vancouver, BC, and business needs required me to attend a meeting in Vernon, 450 km (281 mi) away. I drove there in the morning and back later the same day, and these are my thoughts while traversing the Fraser Valley, climbing over the Cascades, and descending into the valley of the Okanagan.

It’s a long drive to the Okanagan from Vancouver — a good five hours when one observes the speed limits and takes a rest and stretch break — and to get up early, go there, meet a prospect and then turn around and return home all in the same day is a tiring experience. However, long drives are also wonderful times to think — both in general, and about what one is seeing and feeling in response as the kilometres unwind.

Out of this trip, which occurred last year, something solidified: I am a European at heart.

Much like a citizen of the Roman Empire who takes from his Greek teacher a sense of the glory that was Athens, who then visited and fell in love with that way of living and that sort of world, then returned home to his villa in, let’s say, the hills north of where Circencester would one day stand and thought about the society being built out on the fringes of the Empire in the new British province, no matter how beautiful the Cotswolds are and how much building was going on, and how much room the villa here had compared with what you could get in older communities, it is that cramped life layered with a thousand years of history that really feels “right”. I suspect I will move back across the Atlantic one day, if opportunity and immigration regulations allow.

For, here, there is no doubt that British Columbia is beautiful (even with a set of hydro lines in every scenic photograph you might want to take). The mountains, the tall trees, the ever-changing skies, the many and varied geologies: all of these play their part to calm me. It is when one looks at the realm of the man-made here, though, that it all falls apart.

It is, I suppose, mostly a function of youth. It is easy to forget just how new all of BC is — and how fast it changes in response.

Along the Coquihalla Highway, there are no farms evident, despite the ranging cows beside the motorway. Once — it is only forty years ago! — those valleys were reached by the Kettle Valley Railway, and I suppose there were farmsteads by the rails (which would have meant by the rivers) and up above, on the high passage now used for high-speed auto and truck traffic, were the fields.

The valley felt as though it would have been quieter then, and more ordered, more of a community, despite its isolation. Time would have been measured by the coming and going of the trains (themselves new; the line was there well less than a century) and the passing of the sun.

Now the cows come on a schedule, trucked to their pastures, and the traffic speeds by, vehicles controlled by people with glazed eyes (for motorways desensitise in a way two-lane roads do not), cellphones keeping email and conversation flowing, and the endless desire to push just a little faster, to bring it all to an end. It is no longer the journey, but the destination, these days.

Buildings here are not built for the ages: ones built when my parents were children (we are talking the 1930s and 1940s) are considered “heritage structures” (or mostly just torn down). Even today they are not built for the ages, but either to cheaply replicate each other (Concord Pacific, I’m talking to you) or as stunts by starchitects, most of which do not stand the test of any time.

In Vancouver, the Art Gallery almost alone dates from the City Beautiful period of the 1900-1920s. It alone was built to be a public building and hence a monument, with sight lines, public space and most of all a human scale. Today it sits surrounded by the effluvia of modernity, tall boxes designed for efficiency, ease of rents and minimalist care, or public spaces that, frankly, do not invite, such as Robson Square just behind it. Next door, the Pacific Centre expresses the real intent of Vancouver architecture: turned inward, with blank walls and shadowed glass facing the street. “Let’s not let the shoppers look at the mountains and sea! — they need to spend!”

Viewing the man-made landscape of British Columbia’s premier city is to be assaulted at best by the ordinary, and often by work that has no human scale, balance or theme to mesh with its surroundings. Each is built to be sui generis and as a “statement”, but not to create harmonies. As individual structures they may well be award-winners, and some certainly catch the eye; as a cityscape they do not begin to hold a candle to simple streetscapes in, say around Russell Square in London or the 8th Arrondisement in Paris, where each building was separately built yet made by its builders to carry forward the lines and motifs of its mates, so as to make the streetscape as a whole harmonious and more than the sum of its parts. Even a linear street off Central Park in New York, brownstone after brownstone with churches, schools and the like wedged in as part of the fabric, has more to offer than what we have built here.

This is not a matter of money, although each neighbourhood I have mentioned is relatively well off today. But it is like that because it is a world made for men and women to live in. When you build without a sense of human scale, or balance, or to a theme, you end up with what James Howard Kunstler called a “Geography of Nowhere”. This is as true in the downtown core as it is in the residential districts: Yaletown, an endless sea of postage-stamp condos is as heartless and unrelievingly disspiriting as are city detatched homes on streets on the west side, where, in a rainy climate, the dominate motif is dark grey stucco and black trim. None of these, of course, are truly as horrific as the suburbs ringing the central municipality, with their wide avenues of fry pits, supermarkets, and other big box structures whose dominant façade is that of the automobile, with the parking lots that face the viewer, and the endless sameness of suburban street after suburban street.

Please don’t get me started on the provincial habit that streets with names should have them removed and replaced with numbers!

What makes this even more dispiriting is that this is amongst the best in the province. Certainly the entire Okanagan valley, which with its microclimates from desert (Canada’s only true desert) through Mediterranean-style orchards and vineyards, to the greener treed hills and fields of the north end, the deep lake, high ridges, and so on ought to be a place of beauty. It has instead been turned into a vista of big box stores — all junk buildings stamped out of the “throw up concrete walls and strap the roofline together so they don’t fall back down” school of construction — a sea of parking lots, the endless neon and lights of the same chain operations you can find anywhere: it is one long eyesore begging for demolition.

What ultimately makes the endless drive on the boring motorways of the Trans-Canada Highway, the Coquihalla Highway and the Okanagan Connector bearable is that their endless stretches come without such pathetic sights. Although, to be fair, when one does see a structure beside those roads, it is inevitably either surrounded by detritus, in poor condition, or plastered with signage.

Nowhere, in all of this, does any of the man-made world try to honour the natural beauty it was gifted with. It does tend to make the provincial licence plate motto of “The Best Place on Earth” ironic in the extreme.

Most places are boring — good old flat Toronto, where I was born, where there is nothing to frame a horizon, is far more typical of the world’s settings than is either Vancouver or the Okanagan in BC. It is almost as though we no longer have a sense of what beauty might be, having grown up in and been fed a steady diet of crap for so many decades.

There are odd pockets here and there in North America that are both human and soulful, but by and large this entire continent is filled with junk, as has been the portions of Australia that I have visited.

There was a time when I was engaged in a conversation about the ugliness of service alleys (since they are not used for anything other than trash bins, parking entrances and utility poles). (Some such alleys have been turned into residences intermixed with garages — Toronto’s Croft St., for instance — and these “smarten up” nicely.) My interlocutor was trying — hard — to convince me that these alleys had their own beauty, that my dislike for them was just a prejudice. Since I know that there were times in history when alleys also came with flats and lesser offices and businesses — you can still see the remnants of those days in Gastown in downtown Vancouver, or in Chinatown — I do not find them as they are now beautiful at all. Functional would be the highest praise that would pass my lips.

The attitude that endless ugliness breeds — the testiness with other people, the sense of always needing to rush (mostly to get away from the dreck that surrounds you), and the constant thought that the next project will somehow heal all the psychic wounds — are things I simply do not need to surround myself with. I would rather keep my sanity and my good disposition, thank you very much!

The post-World War II banlieues around French cities; the endless terraces of suburbia that surround English ones; the amazingly colourful but curiously mundane nieuwe architectuur that is Rotterdam (at least there they tried) and much of the approaches to Amsterdam and Den Haag in the Netherlands: all of these are more than ample proof that there is appalling ugliness in Europe, too, made all the more hideous because the evidence of a people who one had a sense of style — many of them, layered one on another! — and now seem to have lost it as well. (Try looking at the hideous mess made of Bracknell in Berkshire, England, when the village was ripped up and replaced by a concrete central pedestrian zone surrounded by the same “box with glass and plastic curtainwall” treatment office complexes, one that must be locked up at sundown because no one of good purpose would want to be there!) No, things are not perfect there, either.

For all that, the European countryside retains a human scale and a restful aesthetic. It is what touched me about Cheshire in England, about Provence away from the endless condominia and hotels of the seaside conurbation on the Côte d’Azur (and the same, but more strongly, in Languedoc!), once one got up in the hills at the edge of the Schwartzewald, even in the villages of the “Groen Hart” of the triangle defined by Amsterdam-Den Haag-Utrecht, Europe’s most densely populated region and yet filled with places that are still themselves, separated from each other and not part of some vast endless sprawl.

The central cities still, too, have their sense of place, from the canal houses bending on their U-shaped streets around the canals of Amsterdam, to the vistas laid out by Hussmann in Paris, to the more varied yet still unified streets of London. That unity comes from centuries of deposition, all built with a sense of how the landscape ought to be patterned, whether those patterns be Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Georgian, Neo-gothic, Victorian…

You can instantly, by the way, see the difference with a city like Manchester, a product of the nineteenth century, as compared to Chester, which dates back to Roman times and still has a solid mediaeval core. Already the demands of Industrial quantities of movement affected the design of Manchester. Even so, far better it than anything that starts life as does the automobile!

Yet both Manchester and Chester are in large measure still built to a human scale, and offer fewer of the eyesores than does, say Coquitlam, or Richmond, or Vernon (or especially Kelowna) in British Columbia, supernaturally new that it is.

The blend of the centuries is far more pleasing (at least to my eye and spirit), than a monoculture; even Manchester has far more to offer the soul than does much of anything not on the east coast of North America if one must choose places here.

We cannot, of course, go back: the spirit of how to build with novelty joined in harmony to what already exists does not just come about by happy circumstance. We shifted our focus from the townscape to the individual building quite a while back — shortly after we decided that urban planning was about moving cars and trucks and not about walking about — and our standard for a building from longevity, adaptability and beauty to a functional economic view alone. This is why Rotterdam could not be reconstructed but had to be simply a new town planted on the ruins of the old, despite all the evidence of Leiden, Delft, Den Haag, etc. around it.

Aesthetics, in other words, are philosophical-psychological movements that run deep in our souls: adopt a technological mindset, as Heidegger discussed in “Die Frage nach der Technik”, and we literally close off the very ability to see any longer that something in us is missing. This is why La Défense and the other “grandes projets” jar against Paris, itself basically a nineteenth century, Belle É poque creation — its streets have an aesthetic unity (“commonly ugly and outsized” is not a unity, just a heap of droppings) that the new projects do not have.

For all of that, a manicured, human landscape does exist still across the Atlantic (under pressure though it is) to complement woodlands and vistas galore. There, too, locality has been mostly extinguished in favour of the mass-produced excreta of our times — the tasteless industrial baguette comes immediately to mind! — but there, too, lives lived still hold a centre and a rhythm that speaks to our Western culture, or what’s left of it.

Spengler, you see, was right: one need only live and actually take the time to see how we live in the New World to realise that, as with the Romans, we are barbaroi living off the legacy of the cultured, and imposing our lust for the bigger, the more shocking, on the very roots that sustain us. (Perhaps rural Québec will turn out to be able to continue to endure le WalMart, le Tim Horton et le Roi du Burger stretching out around their historic towns in part because their villages, dominated by churches now largely abandoned, were built when European culture was still alive and vibrant even in la Nouvelle France — a grace note of “Greece” under the present-day rule of “Rome”.)

The time has come to acknowledge the truth, that des Abendländes sind gesunken. If so, I cheerfully choose to be surrounded by the remnants, rather than the marches of the legions. No mountains, and no highways through them, can ultimately make up for the call of the heart.

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2 Comments

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  1. Thank you – a wonderful read for a Saturday morning. I’ll never look at “big box structures whose dominant façade is that of the automobile” the same way again!

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