Friday, January 6, 2012

Rattenbury to Uptown. Victoria’s architectural heritage by Philip Willey

Bay Parkade Entry 1960 -  Hubert Norbury

Heritage, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is ‘something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor’.

With this in mind I found my way into The Legacy Gallery where the current exhibit, The Emergence of Architectural Moderism, explores, appropriately enough, architecture from the 50’s and 60’s when ‘… a small number of legacy architectural firms changed Victoria's built environment with forward-looking planning and bold new architectural forms. Using plans, drawings, photographs and architectural models from the period, this exhibit explores a number of planning initiatives, design projects and building programs that defined this important phase in the development of the Capital Region.’ It’s a fascinating exhibit and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in local architecture.

Indeed there was a lot of building going on in Victoria in the 50’s and 60’s. Affordable housing sprang up all over with infrastructure not far behind. Pretty impersonal stuff for the most part. What were young architects thinking? Were they imposing European styles on the West Coast or aiming for some kind of fusion? They obviously wanted clean lines. Keep it functional and uncluttered. Frank Lloyd Wright and Corbusier but no Gaudi thank you. Perhaps they thought we would all be living in Perspex bubbles, with attached helipads for those who hadn’t figured out how to levitate. This period saw the building of the Gordon Head Campus, which continues to perform its function very well and the less inspiring Centennial Square. This sort of brave new vision was not unique to Victoria. It was a postwar thing. People wanted to get married, raise children, buy appliances. What they needed was a clean sweep. Out with the old, in with the shiny and new. Nobody minded being part of the great new plan. Future orientated buildings were needed. 

But the young architects didn’t get things all their own way. Their ideal aesthetic was only grudgingly accepted in some quarters. Bold? Forward-looking? Perhaps at the time it was. Perhaps they even thought of it as radical. But Victoria is stubborn and inherently conservative. Francis Rattenbury’s foundations are nothing if not solid. He built to last and he had an eye for the best locations. Oak Bay is especially resistant to change. Hence the melange of architectural styles.

There was something of a backlash towards the end of the Sixties. Funky came back. He’d been living on Long Beach in a driftwood shack ingesting natural substances and developing an interest in conservation. Some kind of compromise was necessary. As any good architect who needs a job will tell you, heritage and contemporary design are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It was time to take a second look at bare wooden floorboards and big old wooden beams.

Mementoes from the fifties live on. We got a few concrete bus shelter-like buildings. They may look like broken kites from a distance but we’ve learned to live with them. Even love them for their period charm. Nobody was harmed during their construction. There was no controversy. Nobody got disinherited. Calm prevailed. In fact they are so bland we hardly notice them anymore.

What did the current crop of architects take from all this? Not much apparently if the new Uptown Mall is anything to go by. Their motivation is commercial rather than civic but instead of trying to drag Victoria kicking and screaming into the modern world they have simply pulled a few strings and created a sort of ersatz village. Take it or leave it. Here well-conditioned consumers can shop till they drop in big box grandeur. A few of them may even feel a touch of nostalgia for the windswept simplicity of the old Town and Country Mall. Stop that immediately. Enjoy the covered parking and the convenient escalators. It will all be heritage too one day.

And in spite, or because, of all the style changes Victoria is still an attractive city architecturally for the most part. The process is ongoing. We go to great pains to maintain vintage facades. New buildings are environmentally friendly. Following tasteful renovations the old Bay building, now the Hudson, offers inexpensive elegance in a downtown setting. Leakproof waterfront condos with a view are popular, unless you happen to live behind one, and we get used to things. Take a good look at the old Blue Bridge. It won’t be there much longer. The view down Johnson Street, past Michael Williams’ colourful string of renovations and Market Square to the state of the art new bridge (short version) will surely make an interesting addition to the city’s heritage.

The Emergence of Architectual Modermism II: UVIC and The Victoria Regional Easthetic in the late 1950's and 60's
The Legacy Art Gallery
Nov. 30, 2011 to Feb. 26, 2012 

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