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Don't Forget the Country

Michael Kluckner wants us to honour rural heritage buildings as well as urban ones.

Charles Campbell 8 Dec

Charles Campbell is a Tyee contributing editor who lives in an Edwardian "Vancouver box" near Commercial Drive.

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Skookumchuk Village's Holy Cross Catholic Church.

Michael Kluckner has left the buildings. It seems inconceivable that someone whose life is so bound up in recording and protecting the history of B.C. should leave this place. But in late November, as the snow fell, he moved with his Australian wife Christine Allen to the place of her birth.

It's entirely possible that he'll come back for more than a visit. He'll be missed if he grows old in some 19th century town at the foot of the Blue Mountains near Sydney. At least he's left us a few books -- and three decades of persistent advocacy that have helped prop heritage preservation up on some wobbly feet. Things are hardly perfect. In rural parts of the province, we're losing historic legacies at a troubling rate. But we're better off than we once were, and much credit accrues to Kluckner, the 55-year-old heritage advocate, painter and (until recently) Langley farmer.

When we met at the Wicked Café at Seventh and Hemlock, a few days before his departure, he was without regret. "Every time I've gone to Australia, dating back to the 1980s, I've seen something differently than I did before. I've been able to get away from my predictable response to my hometown," Kluckner said. "We were finding Vancouver is wonderful in all of its newness and change, but still we felt that we'd been here for too long."

Perhaps it's not so surprising that Kluckner should leave, given the peculiarities of his outlook on heritage. He's not a fetishist, obsessed with this building or that style. And he's not a museologist of the kind that will dress up an old house with a spinning wheel to make it more "authentic." What interests him most are the neighbourhoods in the midst of change, the tapestry of buildings, and what the interactions tell us about ourselves.

He first brought his passions -- watercolours, old buildings and the people who live our history -- together in 1984, in Vancouver: The Way It Was. Now he's put 14 books behind him. The latest is Vancouver Remembered (Whitecap) -- a collection of photos, paintings of old houses, watercolour maps that arose from dreams of flying, and anecdotes that traces the evolution of our city. Of course, as Kluckner acknowledges in the book, the city's history has been fairly well canvassed. As such, Vancouver Remembered is at its best when it goes -- as it often does -- to the least obvious places.

There are far more unexplored corners in Kluckner's other recent book, 2005's Vanishing British Columbia (UBC Press). It surveys the province's threatened heritage, which is disappearing at an alarming rate. Blame political will, our cultural blind spots and the lack of capacity in many rural areas. Kluckner notes that when former Canadian Heritage minister Sheila Copps initiated the federal government's Historic Places Initiative, she figured the country had lost 20 per cent of its historic buildings in 30 years. In the West's rural areas, Kluckner writes, that proportion is much higher.

Often the buildings disappear with barely a whimper. In 1987, Kluckner notes in Vanishing British Columbia, Salt Spring's 1865 Travellers' Rest -- the oldest building in the Gulf Islands and one of the oldest in the province -- was deemed by the Gulf Islands' heritage inventory to be structurally sound with good potential for restoration. In 2003 it was demolished.

Kluckner believes Canadians' self-image is part of the problem when it comes to protecting such history. "In spite of all the changes [in Australia], the sunburnt homestead with a few gum trees still seems to tug at their national heartstrings," he writes in Vanishing British Columbia. "In Canada, most popular images are pure landscape containing no evidence of people at all."

While he was working on the B.C. project, he posted his watercolours on the Internet, which resulted in considerable feedback from people who ended up on his website while searching for local or family history. Their stories -- which are also disappearing from our collective memory -- help make Vanishing British Columbia a gorgeous and fascinating book.

Herewith, a few more observations from Michael Kluckner on what we've saved, what we've lost, and what he's leaving behind.

On Vancouver's big lie:

"I always felt that the worst canard that has ever been foisted on Vancouver is that it will always be Vancouver because it has the beautiful mountains and the view and the harbour.

"In the 1980s and 1990s, the city -- particularly the residential parts of the city -- didn't have an understanding of the values that made the place so interesting to live in. And it was the evolved neighbourhoods, the change in the layers of the landscape. I began to paint these things, focusing on things that were completely emotional as opposed to architectural. Dappled sunlight on the side of a building at a particular time of year, the way that the colours were. This is something that I would go back to every year to look at.

"As you clear-cut these neighbourhoods -- this analogy of clear-cutting came up because it was so much a part of the environmental movement -- it seemed to me that we were in the city at that time, and to a certain degree now in the multi-family [parts of the] city, we were living in something that was as visually interesting as a plantation forest.

"I tried [as a heritage advocate] to make the connections between the broader issue of sustainability and the environmental movement and heritage preservation, which is about reuse, and about controlling the rate of change, and about having layers in the landscape. The media in general and the broader environmental movement is obsessed with seals and bears and so on, and can't seem to make the connection between the way people live and the values they have about human-made objects and the richness of the city.

"Would you go to Singapore, which is all of one layer? Or would you go to Paris, which is layers on the landscape? Singapore 35 years ago had all those layers. Now it doesn't. To me the richness of city life is a combination of a 2000 building and a 1980s building and a 1912 building. It's the combination of textures and colours that obsesses me about heritage. I'm very little concerned about the minutiae of architectural styles, or great architects. For me it's all about how it works as a tapestry on the landscape, how people come and go, how people [including one at this particular moment in the Wicked Café] leave doors open in the middle of winter because this is Vancouver..."

On density as an excuse for redevelopment:

"If the current [Vancouver] council collectively had a brain, they would realize that eco-density is an area like South Granville. These walk-up apartments -- that to me is eco-density. There are 10 suites on a 66-foot lot. They're affordable suites. If you tore that place down, and replaced it with a building that was in theory more environmentally friendly, it would take you about 40 years to pay back the energy that you used in building the new place. Plus you would lose affordability, which is another aspect of what I think of as eco-density. These are the people that walk, that tend to use transit, that are supporting the local businesses.

"We may come back in five years and find that the neighbourhood has changed because the buildings have been torn down and replaced by wildly ostentatious crap that people are building -- the 'limited collection of fine residences' -- and I think you'll find that the net density will not really have gone up and affordability will be out the window. The place will work in a less environmentally friendly way, and you'll lose heritage."

On the value of the edge, and the demise of a modest apartment that housed Café Zizanie, at Seventh and Fir:

"Apparently it was city land. With the demise of my beloved little old store at Seventh and Fir, there's this little chunk that's gone. To me it was this accidental place that you'd come upon. I'd look at it in different light at different times of year; when the trees that were too big for the lot would change colour, it was an evolving piece of art as far as I was concerned. I must have painted it five or six times before it was demolished. When that type of thing disappears, the edge conditions disappear.

"Vancouver in the 1950s, '60s and '70s was all about edge conditions. It was all about this pending sense of change. It was something I tried to capture in the watercolours. There was always this sense of something waiting or hanging or about to become something different, and we didn't know what it was.

"The genius of Kitsilano in the 1960s and the Drive and Grandview in the 1980s was the juxtaposition of change. You'd see it reflected in the differences between houses and gardens, the places that were getting better and the places that were getting worse, different cultures rubbing together. That was really stimulating to me. Many neighbourhoods in Vancouver are coming to a point at which change is stopping, because the places are all finished and they're all tidy. Kitsilano to me has become a really dull place, because all the change has stopped."

On clear-cutting postwar bungalows:

"These returned veterans' bungalows -- with the low-hip roofs and the beer-bottle stucco above the foundation line, and the horizontal board siding below was always painted a kind of lurid turquoise, and they had one hydrangea in the front yard -- people want to double floor space. I love those places, but they were so under built on the lot. The reason that the Edwardian stuff has proved to be reusable is that they tend to be maxed out on the lots. Those classic Craftsman houses, on Stephens and McDonald, they're overbuilt."

On what Vancouver's doing right:

"In Vancouver, what we the activists wanted in the 1980s was a managed process that would retain buildings within development change. We got that. Vancouver's policy works really well. It's kind of a bloodless thing. It doesn't tend to engage people in an emotional dialogue about values in the city. But it works. Generally, you can still see the layers in most of downtown. If Vancouver had a really strong economy in the 1970s, a lot of that would have disappeared because we didn't have the sophistication in the public policies.

"The Stanley Theatre is a good example. The idea of transferring density off of that -- I think it went onto the Wall Centre -- that's a really sophisticated mechanism. Victoria has coped really well, but it hasn't had the pressure to change."

On British Columbia's two solitudes:

"But then you get out into the countryside, and you've got the two solitudes, the urban and the rural. In the city, most of the change is due to development. The city's rich, and it can make choices, and most of the time they are pretty good choices. But out in the countryside, change is due to abandonment, and there's no money. And so that layer of human settlement is just disappearing off the landscape, and I think the province is impoverished due to the loss of that layer.

"In terms of heritage planning and inventories, the province has actually been quite proactive at finding money. And now the energy's going into the so-called keynote buildings, because of the development of the national register of historic places. Planning to a certain degree works in communities that are organized. You see it in Kamloops and Kelowna to a certain extent, in terms of retaining these layers.

"But then there's these almost folkloric places. For example, Doukhobor community villages in the Kootenays. There are just a handful now instead of a hundred. This is the evidence of the largest communal living experiment ever in Canada, and fascinating from that point of view. You then get The Land Conservancy [of B.C.] coming in and helping to buy one of the key places. The land conservancies are one of the most positive of the initiatives that have come along, and they've come along privately. The TLC is just a remarkable organization. The Nature Conservancy of Canada is very good too. And they've gotten into cultural sites, as has the land conservancy."

On the virtue of taking individual heritage preservation initiatives out of government hands:

"One of the things I can take some credit for being involved in at the very beginning and suggesting it is the privatizing of the B.C. Heritage Trust and the creation of the Heritage Legacy Fund of B.C., which was given $5 million in seed money right in the darkest days of the Liberal government. I was the treasurer, until a few weeks ago.

"The Land Conservancy is one of the partners in the heritage legacy fund, and they're going out and doing things like this marvellous high-wire act with the Kogawa house [where Obasan author Joy Kogawa lived before the Second World War internment of Japanese-Canadians]. In a sense, they are showing how some public money, put into an endowment administered by a private foundation, with private fundraising, can really make a difference. You think of how significant the Kogawa house is as a site on the cultural map of Canada. They're able to save this in the hottest real estate market that Vancouver's ever seen.

"Politicians come and go, and they're focused on their term of office. Stewardship is a longer-term commitment. The National Trusts in Britain and Australia have never been governmental organizations. There are governmental organizations in England that perform really good roles, but I think the evidence is that governments, whether they are left or right, can't be counted on to have consistent policies that allow for stewardship.

"The grassroots desire to save the Kogawa house -- this is not something that was seen by the Liberal or Conservative governments federally as being important. But there were obviously people all over the country who said 'This is important.' The people are ahead of the government on that. A mechanism that allows this to happen is often much more flexible. The reality is that in Australia, England, Scotland, you get people's interests reflected through an organization more than you get people's values reflected through a government. Governments have other fish to fry.

"The city is somehow way more accessible to people. What's missing is the idea of heritage that is more holistic. Going back to the walk-up apartments on South Granville -- somehow these buildings have to be recognized holistically as being part of the city's future as much as they are a part of the past."

On why the NDP ignored heritage preservation:

"It was the Bill Bennett government that created the B.C. Heritage Trust. Those were the golden days, the late '70s going through the mid '80s, for the Heritage Trust. The Bill Vander Zalm government began to take it apart, but during the NDP years of 1991 to 2001, funding for the B.C. Heritage Trust was cut by about 85 percent.

"They couldn't make the connection between preservation of these sites and broader social, cultural and environmental issues. They were more interested in funding straight-out cultural stuff."

What the provincial government can do, and how the Liberals created a crisis for Barkerville:

"The province, in a systematic way, has to add to the endowment of the heritage legacy fund. The more consistent funding in the long term, the more capacity will develop all over the province, of people saying 'We can get some money to help with this project, because there are people over here who believe in this stuff long term.' They have to give consistent long-term funding to the heritage branch. The historic sites that were part of the B.C. government, the Barkervilles, they're in crisis. The big ones are really in crisis, because of underfunding before the Liberals came in and then the Liberals suddenly saying we have to devolve these things."

On the one thing he'd wind back the clock to save:

"In terms of more recent issues, in the main I've enjoyed the evolution of Vancouver. If you could somehow go back to 1949, though, and the demolition of the [original] Hotel Vancouver [where the Toronto Dominion tower and Sears are today]. That started the process of redevelopment around Granville and Georgia, and the eventual attempt to fix up Granville Street as a mall. I can say without any doubt that Granville was a hell of a lot better as a street in the 1960s. Granville was really exciting. Chinatown too. Chinatown will probably come back. But they can't undo the Pacific Centre. They can't undo the Vancouver Centre."

On the one attitude he would change:

"I think what annoys me most is the number of people I know who have driven every back road in Tuscany but have never been to Ashcroft. I think that annoys me more than any individual loss. Well-off, well-educated people with strong Canadian values have just completely ignored what is in their backyard. These places represent broad themes in our culture, whether it's the Travellers' Rest on Salt Spring, or some First Nations church on a little reserve up in the Interior."

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