Sunday, February 28, 2010

Vancouver redux

Here is an interesting assessment of Vancouver from the viewpoint of a transit planning consultant. One of the main points is that Vancouver represents the city of the future, based on the Asian model, high density and fewer cars.

From the photographs he posts, my opinion stated here has not changed. I still see lots of tall, uninteresting buildings which in my opinion, for what it's worth, detracts from my overall impression of it.

Oprah bags on my mom

An update to my post from the other day, Oprah Winfrey has canceled tapings of her show for next week. This means that my mother is not going to get to go. Easy come easy go for her, someone gave her the ticket last week. Quite a bummer on the other hand for all the people who waited years to get theirs.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Architecture you can hang your hat on

Vancouver, B.C. is by all accounts a fantastic city. It boasts a natural setting that is second to none and rates at or near the top of practically every list of best places to live in North America.

These past two weeks the beautiful West Coast city has been at center stage as the host of the Winter Olympic Games. As we found out here in Chicago last year, the cost-benefit ratio of hosting the Olympics is a matter of much controversy. Nevertheless it cannot be debated that the games provide a tremendous opportunity to showcase a city. If done well, the broadcast of the Olympics can provide an indelible impression to the world and open doors to possibilities down the road that projections and statistics cannot take into account.

As I've written before in this space, my impressions of many cities have been formed by their hosting the Olympics. I'll never forget the amazing panorama of Barcelona with Gaudi's Sagrada Familia way off in the distance, seen as the backdrop for the diving venue of the 1992 games. Or the Sydney Opera House and the magnificent Harbour Bridge that were so prominently featured during the Summer games of 2000. I never had a visual reference for the city of Turin before the last Winter games four years ago. From that point on I will forever associate the city with its most striking landmark, the imposing tower of the Mole Antonelliana.

Well a funny thing happened during these Olympics. After watching the coverage of the games for nearly two weeks, I still don't have much of an impression of the city of Vancouver. While I used to have an image in my mind of an attractive town set in the mountains with an ever so slightly old world ambiance, the city I see today is populated with nondescript skyscrapers, the likes of which can be found in virtually every North American city. It seems as if the signature image of Vancouver is from up above, not at street level. The standard view is of the modern skyline, not specific landmarks. It features the harbor and the mountains in the background, but not architecture. Beautiful indeed but to me, little of the built environment gives the place much identity.

From my readings on the subject, it seems that any man made structure is considered by locals to be an affront to the natural beauty of Vancouver. There has been little concern for historic preservation and many buildings fell to the wrecking ball during the tremendous building boom over the past twenty years. Not that there aren't interesting buildings in Vancouver, you just have to dig deep to find them. Some fine buildings from the first half of the Twentieth Century such as Sun Tower, the Marine Building and the Hotel Vancouver have survived. An interesting recent building is the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library, whimsically inspired by the Roman Colosseum. Its architect was Moshe Safdie, perhaps most famous for his Habitat apartment complex built for Expo 67 in Montreal. The building that has been the de facto Vancouver landmark during the coverage of these Olympics has been Canada Place, Vancouver's big exhibition hall, trade center, entertainment center and pier rolled into one. It was built to be the Canada pavillion for Expo 86 World's Fair and was designed by Eberhard Zeidler, one of the architects of Toronto's Eaton Centre. The white sails adorning part of the structure make this unquestionably the most distinctive building in the city.

While these buildings are worth noting, it's quite clear that Vancouver does little to promote its architectural heritage. Even the inescapable TV commercial promoting tourism to British Columbia shows the city as an afterthought snuck in between glorious glimpses of sea, sky and mountains.

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is there really a there, there in Vancouver? The general question I am interested in is this: is the urban experience enhanced by distinctive architecture, or are signature buildings merely superficial ornaments that bear little or no significance to a city's true meaning or identity?

Arguing in favor of the former, I would say that distinctive architecture does matter. Not that every building has to be unique, a masterpiece like a painting in a museum. But I believe that a city greatly benefits from architecture that sets it apart from other cities.

I live in a city that is well known around the world for its architecture. We have more landmark buildings in Chicago that I can possibly list without reference. Yet many of our iconic structures are not necessarily our greatest architectural treasures. They may not be good architecture at all and in fact, they may not even be buildings. What after all is more symbolic of Chicago than the L?

My wife and I just returned from a week in London. (A detailed report on that is forthcoming). London certainly has its share of iconic buildings. But what we found equally compelling were the little things, surprises that kept popping up seemingly out of nowhere.

Yet at the same time, we were embraced by the very London-ness of the place. The Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, the Wren churches, Regent Street, Westminster Palace and the London Eye, not to mention the pubs, the red phone booths, the double deck buses, the bobbies, the mind the gap announcements, all these things unequivocally reminded us that we could have only been in one particular, very special city.

I can honestly say the same for every city that I have ever visited and loved, which of course includes my own city. The wonders and joys of each place inevitably come from the unexpected balanced with the features that are unique to that particular city.

If I can be so bold as to criticize a place I have never been, I would say that the lack of truly distinctive architecture might be the one thing missing in Vancouver. I would love to pay a visit if only to prove myself wrong.

The buildings and monuments, the particular joys and frustrations, tell a story about a city, about its history, about its people, and about its place in the world. The architecture that you can hang your hat on if you will, defines a city, and is an important part of what makes it great.

A tough ticket

The conversation this morning went something like this:

Mother: You'll never guess where I'm going Monday morning.
Son: You're right.
Mother: Although you probably won't approve.
Son: Try me.
Mother: C'mon guess.
Son: Ok, The Ice Follies.
Mother: No seriously...
Son: I give up.
Mother: I'm going to a taping of the Oprah show!
Son: I'm truly happy for you.
Mother: Well I couldn't pass up an opportunity like that.
Son: Certainly not.
Mother: I bet even you'd go.
Son changes subject.

My mother got a ticket to what is no doubt the toughest ticket in town from her niece who could have given it to any number of her countless friends. So it was quite flattering that my mom was chosen.

Like it or not, Oprah is as big a Chicago icon as they get, she's as big as the Sears Tower. Some (not me) might say with an ego just as big. In some circles around the country she has replaced Al Capone as our most famous citizen. If you want to get a ticket to her show you have to mail in a request and wait years before it arrives in the mail.

The other way to get in, well in true Chicago fashion, you have to know somebody.

There is only one person I can think of whose status in this town came anywhere close to Oprah's, and his show was just as tough a ticket. He and his show is familiar to anyone who grew up in Chicago during the sixties and seventies.

He name was Bozo the Clown.