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A 'Plague' of Condos

And other observations on Vancouver from the author of 'Architecture of Happiness.'

By Charles Campbell 28 Dec 2006 |

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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De Botton on Granville Island. Photo by Charles Campbell.
  • The Architecture of Happiness
  • Alain de Botton
  • McClelland & Stewart (2006)

London, England's Alain de Botton has been in Vancouver for one day, and he's sitting in a Granville Island café, unsullied by incessant hype about 'Vancouverism' and its positive influence on North American urban redevelopment. What does the author of The Architecture of Happiness think of our new downtown?

"It's a condominium plague," he says. "It's like a locust invasion."

Lucky for him he's headed for the airport, after a late fall whirlwind North American tour with stops in New York, Washington, San Francisco and Toronto. De Botton blames the generic nature of the new development on architects from away who don't understand the city. On that count, at least, he needs a primer; Vancouver is good at using its own architects.

But first impressions matter, and de Botton's reflects a growing sense that our new downtown isn't entirely the equal of its glowing press.

What Vancouver buildings does he like? There's a long hesitation -- and the question is a little unfair to someone who has been here so briefly. Finally, he waves his hand toward the window, toward a temporary willow-branch sculpture and one of the few Granville Island industrial buildings that's still used for such a purpose. "I nominate right here as a good place."

How do buildings make us happy? In The Architecture of Happiness, de Botton explores the issue as he traces the history of architecture. He cites John Ruskin, who said we want shelter and we want to be reminded of what's important. He quotes German art historian Welhelm Worringer, who says society loves in art "whatever it does not possess in sufficient supply within itself."

He says himself: "We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves." And: "What we seek, at the deepest level, is to inwardly resemble, rather than physically possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty."

As you can tell, de Botton brings an academic eye to his work. He is the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life. But he's also an acclaimed TV documentary maker -- Architecture is the basis for a series on Britain's Channel 4 -- and a very engaging writer, despite and even because of all the Ruskin and the Proust and the Worringer. The Architecture of Happiness is one of those gems that occasionally shows up on a university reading list: a serious book that doesn't feel like a duty.

Here's what else de Botton had to say, including why we need a gun-toting individualist inclined to kill immigrants to help sell a more communitarian model of living.

On what is distinctive about Vancouver architecture:

"I think it is the integration of materials which you could describe as rough into settings which you could describe as elegant. Rather than making a distinction between what is fancy and what is simple, you get an upscale hotel that will have a bare concrete wall, you get an upscale house that will have raw timber.

"The good stuff is going for some kind of regionalism, with materials like concrete and quite dark wood, and furnishings with earth tones, woollen things, an attempt to build something that subtly sends out signals that you're in one part of the world and not another.

"Lots has gone wrong with these condominiums. There's just too many of them. I guess it's just a matter of people pulling the levers. The condominium structure is never going to be all that inspiring. The best of them are done with touches that are out of the ordinary. And I haven't found any evidence of that. I found that they are standard-issue stuff. And I think it is ruining the city. I think as an outsider it is clearly, clearly wrong. It's a real pity."

On what Vancouver architecture tells us about ourselves:

"It's kind of relaxed. I like this zone here. Where are we? It's half industrial. It's kind of a rough city. The grit is left on the surface. It's not all rubbed away. It's got a good kind of roughness.

"In parts of the States, if you've got money and you're trying to create a fancy effect, you don't leave a wall in bare concrete, you don't do any of that. I think what that reflects in the Canadian spirit is a greater democratic sense, a sense that there's less of a hierarchy, you can show up somewhere and be simply dressed, and that's okay. You're just part of the community."

On what we need to demand of our city:

"Really what we want is local identity. We want to know why we're living here rather than there. At its worst Vancouver is becoming like Anywheresville. No one likes Anywheresville, actually. What do tourists coming to Vancouver want to see? Do they want to see the parts of Vancouver that look like everywhere else? No. They will hunt out any kind of particularity. They will come here [to Granville Island].

"It's time for people to tell the city government that this is the case, that if they want to put the City of Vancouver on the map, if they want Vancouver as a destination, they are shooting themselves in the foot with their development, because the world has got no shortage of blandness. It's got no shortage of places without a history. The places where everyone wants to go are the places where everyone remembers who they are, and where they are, and where the architecture can communicate that. It's good business to create a place that remembers its history."

On the trouble with our road signs:

"One of the joys of travelling is to find places that have an identity, and we take delight in those things. One of the most disappointing things for me, coming to Canada, is that the road markings are exactly the same as they are in the States. If I were the autocratic ruler of Canada, I would say we've got to get Canadian at the level of our street signage. It's nice when you get light switches that are different from country to country, when you get regionalism at the level of doors, and paving stones and bricks. All of these things when they're done well capture the flavour of the local area."

On what North American cities he likes:

"I like Portland, Oregon. I kind of have a sneaking admiration for L.A., even though it's a horrific city. It's kind of interestingly horrific. I love the smaller places. Austin, Texas."

On who builds great buildings:

"Good buildings come when governments put in some minimal guarantees. They force architects to spend a certain minimal amount of money, plus 10 per cent, on good architecture. I think that architecture is too important to be left to individual property developers. I'm a great believer in the free market in some areas, but I do not believe that the free market can on its own produce great architecture. There will be too much temptation to cut costs.

"If you look at the great buildings of the world, they've either been the result of good strong central-government city planning or they've been the result of very wealthy aristocrats, and sometimes very wealthy corporations, though that's very seldom. Whatever your politics, if you care about architecture, you're going to lean toward a more communitarian, left-leaning model of how things get built."

On whether a great building has the power to change a city:

"There are buildings that are like a high achiever in a family. People say, if he can do that, then I can do that. A building can put a city on the map, like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. In London, on the south bank of the Thames, the Tate Modern has transformed that whole area. You've got to service that destination. There are hotels, bars, cafés. And then people realize it's a lively area, so they start building apartments. It's a virtuous circle."

On what Guggenheim Bilbao designer Frank Gehry is trying to tell us, and what lack he is trying to compensate for:

"He represents an escape from the austerity of the modern capitalist machine. He is the kid that we can't be. He's the showman and player that we long to be but are unable to be."

On whether green roofs and green buildings are practical choices or emotional ones that compensate for what we lack elsewhere:

"I think it's partly an emotional thing. It's sold to us as a very rational thing to do. It's efficient. It's sold to us under the language of efficiency and science. But in many ways it's an expression of a quite romantic, irrational desire for contact with nature."

On where the world should look for an example of great planning and architecture:

"The only city is Amsterdam, and it's the greatest city in terms of the attempt by the city government of Amsterdam to build out to the north and west new communities. They are world leaders; they are leagues ahead of anyone else in the world at doing this well. Any architect or urban designer who needs inspiration or wants to know how it's done should get on a plane to Amsterdam. For Canada, the Dutch model is a good model, because Holland is in many ways what Canada in its left-leaning moments aspires to be -- a society which reconciles the demands of the market with social needs.

"There's a development called Borneo Sporenburg, and there's another area called Ijberg. These are two new zones on former industrial land. It's low-rise -- two, three, four storeys -- on a tight urban grid. You can cycle around. They've actually built spaces that we all like -- this sort of area -- where we can all walk. They've built that new. Most places in the world just don't build like that. The only places that have these kind of human dimensions are the older areas. As soon as an area becomes new, you get motorway, tower, you know."

On whether there's hope that the world will start to get it right:

"We're getting the idea. But often what goes wrong is there are still zoning problems. And it ends up being sterile because it's only a pedestrian zone, or there's no businesses."

On how we can encourage better planning habits:

"It's like anything, you change the reward structure. Are [planners] rewarded by new tax revenue that comes in, or is there some sort of architectural board that awards them points on the basis of how well they've instituted certain ideas, and if they don't hit those targets, they'll lose their jobs."

On what Amsterdam has done:

"They've denied the right of any old person to do any old thing on any old piece of land. The land is part of the community. When you apply for a permit, the government will say, 'If you want to build on that, you must use one of these five teams of architects.' All of whom have been beautifully trained by the top schools in the Netherlands. If you don't want to use them, you won't be able to build on it. So bad luck. So they're going to use them. And they're going to make money. And everyone's going to be happy. They could have made more money, but what would they do with it? They'd only go on holiday again.

"In the end, that's how it works. That's how good, paternalistic government works. It tempers the short-term, blind, stupid impulses of individuals in the name of something greater. It's just common sense."

On how you sell a 'communist' message like that in today's North American culture:

"You know where I think this leads, it's like in many areas, like when you've got a serious problem such as AIDS. Who's going to be a spokesman for AIDS? Do you choose the sick guy who's disgusting-looking. No, you get the top model, and the top model becomes a spokeswoman for AIDS. And she's able to carry her message to communities that would normally not have listened to the message about AIDS. It's not that the message has changed, it's the spokesperson has changed.

"So, if I was trying to sell my version of 'communism,' what I would do is get an extremely rugged looking, individualistic multi-millionaire who has previously shown an inclination for shooting guns and killing immigrants, and I would make this person the spokesperson for a new kind of communitarian politics. Often the most courageous left-wing decisions have been taken by right-wing people, and the most courageous right-wing decisions have been taken by left-wing people. Because they're the only ones who can carry the idea across. Nixon goes to China, Begin makes peace with the Egyptians.

"That's what I would say you need. That's the problem with, say, Hilary Clinton wanting to become president. Everyone hates her in the South.

"Really, what we're saying is, how do you address people's fears of something? It's like being a teacher. You get people who hate learning. The good teacher is the cool teacher. The good teacher says, 'I'm cool, I know about music, but I'm going to teach you Latin today. And if you don't learn Latin, you're really uncool.'"

On why our schools should be beautiful, and why so many are not:

"What more important symbolic building do you have? We live in a world that is extremely utilitarian, and that recognizes primarily only financial values. Architecture is not a financial value. Good architecture is not about money. People who care about good architecture have a hard time persuading the accountants to spend a bit more money. It's very difficult to show economically the benefit of good architecture. You could do a cheap school or a good-looking school, and how can you tell what the benefit of the good-looking one is? People are likely to be happier there, and they may learn better, but you can't quantify that on an accountant's spreadsheet."

On why more communitarian models of living, such as co-housing, haven't become more prevalent:

"There are many good ideas in the world which have not been developed, not because of any problem in the idea, but because people are lazy, and there's inertia, and people are scared. It's true that we have only scratched the surface in many ways for how good architecture could be, and the interesting ways in which we all might live. Anyone who brings up children knows that the existing ways of arranging family living are really poor. The suburban family home is kind of a problematic institution, given the communal nature of raising children. Let's hope there are mavericks out there who will do some of these projects and make a noise about it and kick-start a movement. "

On architecture's role in how we marry and bury:

"What do you do in a secular world where religion has ceased to be the guiding way in which we interpret our experiences? How do you commemorate and mark those big events like births and deaths and marriages, just at the level of ritual? Then there's the level of architecture. How do you honour the dead? You can't put a cross anymore. We don't know about crosses. We want to get married. Can we build a church? That seems like an old sort of thing. And yet we still feel the need for buildings that can accommodate these sorts of things.

"The Japanese architect Tadao Endo did a wonderful crematorium, secular, built out of concrete. In Sweden there's some nice commemorative architecture, a very nice crematorium just outside of Stockholm. I haven't yet come across a wedding chapel that isn't kitsch. But that's no reason not to get up and do it.

"Again, what I think we're groping our way towards is a new kind of humanism that acknowledges the demands of major life moments and tries to give them dignity and weight, as religions used to do. A secular religious architecture. We're groping our way towards that. The closest we get to it is the museum. The museum is the modern temple. It's the building that we go to, and lots of money is invested in it. In lots of cities the museum is the great building. It's about more than art."