Jeff Wall on Vancouver’s Last Good Building

Until about 1970 there was something called old Vancouver, that city still characterized by the wooden houses in which most of its inhabitants dwelt, houses built on a restricted number of plans and patterns, the Beaux-Arts stone architecture of its most prominent structures, the British gardening of private and public spaces, the not-yet-complete infill of urban space, the low streetscapes of shop fronts with their canvas awnings over the sidewalks, the wide streets free of heavy automobile traffic, the articulate and tasteful street signage.

For many reasons, that all began to come apart in the ’70s. A combination of land speculation, urban zoning and rezoning, accelerating suburbanization, as well as new standards of taste in building types and materials has resulted in the disappointing city we live in today. Vancouver in 1950, 1960, or 1970 had a real beauty. There were many very commonplace structures, of course, but almost all of them conformed to acceptable norms of building type, use of materials, size, shape, and order. Part of the reason for this is that there were relatively few such building types and most structures were put up in accordance with them. And since the types were so common and familiar, there was little need or impulse to innovate. The resulting structure, whether a single-family home of the kind preserved at Mole Hill, a corner grocery store with a few apartments above it, a gas station, an office building like the Vancouver Block or Nat Bailey Stadium, had a gracious air of appropriateness. Most of that has been swept away.

Today, whatever you can say about Vancouver, you cannot say that most of its buildings are gracious and appropriate to their settings. They are vulgar, cheap, ugly, and even ridiculous. I will not go on to belabour this account with descriptions of corner malls, “po-mo” corporate headquarters, “maxed-out” fourplexes on lots previously fitting one house, and so on. Nor will I bend over backwards finding justification for all this in the “eco-density” apologetics so popular with many wise civic elders. None of them seem to notice the density of disappointment and the envelope of depression that’s been created by the total abdication of leadership by politicians, patrons, and professionals in architecture, planning, and urbanism, the hapless capitulation to institutionalized civic ugliness.

That’s why I don’t think we can have a photographer like Fred Herzog now. This is not to say there aren’t photographers good enough to do as he did and capture with such gentle affection those streets, doorways, backyards, and shop windows. It’s that, in order to have that affection, there has to be something to have it for. Fred had it—and still has it—for the shops along Powell and Hastings Streets, for the yards of what’s now Yaletown and Strathcona, for the port, for the traffic and colour of Granville Street, and for everything else of that sort, whether he managed to photograph it or not. The only problem is those objects of his affection no longer exist. Or if they do exist, they are just vestiges of what they were in 1957 or 1961, when he captured them perfectly.

What replaced those objects of affection are objects that cannot elicit that kind of feeling because they do not contain it. It was not put into them when they were created. I’m sure that many of the people who put up the nice but now mostly spoiled buildings along Powell Street in previous decades didn’t think they were doing anything but trying to make some money. They were no more motivated by an aesthetic of good building than is the average developer today. But, happily, they didn’t have to be. They simply had to be content to work within that limited range of familiar building types, and of course they were content to do so because that was the cost-effective way. Almost every city in North America benefited from this situation from the day they were founded until the older building types were dispensed with in the period when the various versions of “modern architecture,” “modern design” and “urban renewal” emerged in the later 1950s.

At that point something that seemed like a new creative freedom came into play, and that new freedom—along, obviously, with some valid new ideas about space, light, movement, and style—made it seem logical and justifiable to remove thousands of perfectly good buildings and to replace them with what we can now clearly see are inferior buildings almost without exception. I’m not arguing that every old building in Vancouver ought to have been preserved. Nor am I claiming that there is no good modern architecture. I am observing that in almost every case where an older building was replaced with a newer one, the newer one is uglier, less gracious, and less enjoyable. In having become uglier and less enjoyable, they express only the lifelessness of their designers and builders, a dullness that is transmitted to the occupants and passersby. And this lifelessness has been the central artistic problem for photographers in Vancouver for the past 30 to 40 years.

Fred Herzog is fortunate to have evaded this morbidity, lucky to have been able to make pictures like New Pontiac, in 1957. Here he shows us the back of the lot at 746 Hamilton Street (see additional images). The green house is a laneway house and had a separate address, 748½ Hamilton. The site is where the CBC building has now stood for the past 35 years. The two-tone Pontiac reminds us of the time when automobiles were painted with enamels and had the saturated yet subtle colours only that kind of paint can produce. The car is new, and the two houses are emphatically old and weathered, the corrugated iron shed even more so. But the old structures are colourful, too; their paint has faded and gotten a superb wabi-sabi patina.

So the theme of the picture is, at least in part, the aging of paint, the transformation of colour over time, expressed in a meticulous composition filled with delicate greens, browns, greys, and blues, with three touches of red echoing each other and relating near and far—the car’s tail lights, the almost jaunty red roof of the ramshackle portico on the green house, and the panels on the façade of the new post office a couple of blocks away, glimpsed between the houses. And the colour harmonies, echoes, and subtleties go on: the laneway house has a pale green door that somehow relates to the bright but faded blue on the tin shed as well as the lighter tan roof and side panel of the car, making a separate movement of related higher keyed areas of different colours. The pale blue of the shed seems echoed in the bright bluish reflection on the car’s back window. These brighter tones die out to the left of the picture in favour of darker ones, mainly the strong blue of the closer house, but also the blackened ground behind the car where the dirt meets the paved alley surface. The green house then echoes the tone of the blue one, being similar to it, and so the darker tonal register is seen to bend back around the picture to the right, emphasized and punctuated by the blackness of the two windows in the green house wall and of course by the ashen colour of the roof and the wall facing the lane. And around we go, back and forth, our eyes never resting, never going static, all liveliness and enjoyment of the way the world looks to human eyes. There is a “fittingness” to the picture, just as all the little and large, old and new structures are fitted together into a particular urban ensemble, that ensemble of the old, “fitting” Vancouver, that still-beautiful city, where shabbiness could still stand its ground.

Herzog’s affectionate reportage was made out of a feeling for places and structures that, because of their specific qualities, evoked a particular kind of response—an impulse to savour, celebrate, and commemorate. 748½ Hamilton Street is an old entity brimming with life, a life that can be seen in its colours and proportions, its materials and their handling. But it’s gone. There is no 748½ Hamilton Street. It’s conceivable that someone born around 1998, today’s 13-year-old future Fred Herzog, that boy or girl whose childhood and adolescence is being lived in today’s streetscape and who will carry the personal memories that will bind him or her to this shopping mall display window and this escalator and that Starbucks, will feel the same affection for those places that Fred Herzog feels for 748½ Hamilton Street and so will make photographs that contradict what I am saying here. And, for the sake of that person’s artistic chances, I hope that can happen.


Images courtesy of the Equinox Gallery, 2321 Granville St., 604-736-2405.


Adapted from the book Fred Herzog: Photographs © 2011. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Douglas & McIntyre. On sale November 2011.