Vancouver’s Threatened Legacy

Globe and Mail
Trevor Boddy
December 29, 2007

Recently, some of the region’s most historic buildings have fallen victim to the wrecker, smashing to dust an irreplaceable part of a city’s soul. Is there any way to save the remaining architectural masterpieces?

It was downtown Vancouver’s last building that could remind us of the 1930s – a whirling wedding cake of streamline stucco that most of us knew as the Fido outlet at Georgia and Richards, first built as the Collier Auto Showroom. It got knocked down early one morning during the civic strike, leaving one more empty-tooth slot in the mug’s face of downtown.

Then, on Dec. 6, the wrecking crews went to work on one of Arthur Erickson’s most world-renowned and influential houses, a grand sequence of portals and frames elegantly descending down a Horseshoe Bay cliffside. This 1963 house for David Graham was featured on the pages of Life magazine and leased as a love nest to Warren Beatty and Julie Christie when in town to shoot Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

West Vancouver resident Barry Downs, one of British Columbia’s most-respected house architects and authors, says “the Graham House was Arthur Erickson’s Fallingwater” – a reference to Frank Lloyd Wright’s career-reviving, rural Pennsylvania concrete and brick house, which similarly cascades over rocks down a hill.

The Georgia Street Collier/Fido showroom was a vision in white from when modernism was new, and the West Vancouver Graham House was the evolution of these same ideas of seeing architecture afresh, but tempered to our climate, our building materials, and West Coast lifestyles.

Someone broke the law, surely, when these two got whacked?

Alas, no.

These losses draw attention to the weakness of British Columbia’s heritage legislation, as neither building had meaningful legal protection, and their owners needed almost nothing except a perfunctory demolition permit to excise these two crucial visual reminders of how we lived in the 20th century. Heritage advocates worry that the loss of these high-profile downtown Vancouver and West Vancouver buildings will clear the way for an end-of-the-building-boom destruction frenzy for many more, a kind of demolition derby.

Herb Stovel – head of heritage studies at Carleton University and one of Canada’s leading preservationists – says B.C. heritage legislation and programs are strong in the soft strategies of convincing and cajoling owners to preserve our history, but weak on legal guarantees to prevent demolitions like these. Prof. Stovel says B.C. is having some success with the “nurture and support” of conservation efforts, but cautions, “Governments need to preserve and protect buildings, too.” He notes that heritage-protection efforts are significantly blunted by a clause in B.C. heritage legislation requiring public compensation if designation reduces potential private redevelopment profits.

Heritage designation – or as the Americans call it, the “landmarking” of private buildings without owner’s approval – is commonplace in the don’t-tread-on-me capitalist United States, and a crucial historic preservation tool in every other nation of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

American preservation efforts are powered by the private sector, in large part because of tax incentives instituted under former president Ronald Reagan. With this public intervention into private real-estate markets in the name of preserving Mom-and-Apple-Pie America, maybe the Harper government will come to realize it can please Bonspiel and Tim Hortons Canada through similar tax changes here (starting with the brewing controversy over an entirely non-elitist construction, Kingsway’s 2400 Court Motel.)

Canada’s federal historic-sites protection for private buildings is even weaker than our provincial laws, in large part because of resistance to our central government asserting powers over heritage. Heritage preservation straddles land use and cultural concerns, and federal activism is seen to threaten entrenched constitutional rights of the provinces, especially Quebec. Federal political systems, however, have not stopped Australia and Germany from implementing strong heritage programs at both national and state levels.

B.C.’s weak heritage legislation is the legacy of both Socred/Liberal and NDP governments, right and left both eschewing perceptions of cultural elitism in preserving our best buildings at the cost of private development rights. Consequently, we all lose a common good – a sense of our own past. With every demolition, Metro Vancouver comes closer to status as a muscular and aggressive zombie-town, with no brain and no heart.

At both municipal and provincial levels, heritage efforts are understaffed and underfunded, with most current efforts devoted to research on sites and creative advice to owners and developers, backed up with modest grants (available to designated properties only) for their upkeep and occasional restoration. This means many micro successes – the replacement of rotting eave ornaments on many Edwardian former doctors’ residences, for example – but a few macro failures, such as the recent demolitions, and those which are likely to follow in the current regulatory climate.

At a level below official designation is the largely honorific category of heritage registers – West Vancouver’s is currently being compiled, while Vancouver’s is being updated – which are listings of potential heritage sites. Heritage registers are useful tools for heritage and urban planners to flag properties, so the soft arts of persuasion can be applied in the context of other land-use approvals. Some B.C. municipalities require the approval of owners even to be listed on their heritage registers, which seems to me the architectural equivalent of asking words if they want to be in the dictionary.

The District of West Vancouver debated adding the Graham residence to its draft heritage register shortly before it came down, but was reluctant to do so without the support of owner Shiraz Lalji, and everyone involved knew this would be symbolic, not actual protection. West Vancouver city planners and politicians did everything they could to hang on to the Erickson masterpiece, but in the context of current provincial legislation and funding programs, they had no arrows in their quiver; when it comes to heritage preservation, the province owns the whole armoury.

Soft strategies of moral suasion have had some success, notably the campaign led by Arthur Erickson Conservancy founder Cheryl Cooper to protect his Evergreen Building on West Pender. But crucial to this soft success, says Ms. Cooper, was some hard cash, in the form of valuable Transfer of Development Rights, which can be bought, then moved to another piece of downtown.

But even this device is not available today, as earlier this year Vancouver city council placed a moratorium on the issuance of new TDR agreements, while it examines the large stock of existing credits yet to be plunked down on a downtown peninsula already subject to hyper-development. Vancouver is the only municipality in British Columbia that has developed a density bank system, and incentives like these only work in building-hungry boom times, seemingly about to end.

With the Graham house now gone, preservationists’ worries have moved on to two even more important West Vancouver residences – houses-cum-painting studios with important gardens for artists B. C. Binning and Thomas Gordon Smith.

The self-designed 1942 Binning house – a National Historic site, and arguably the first residence in Canada entirely shaped by the European Modern Movement – was thought to be safe when Jessie Binning’s will stated a first preference to donate the house and garden for permanent use as a scholar’s residence or house-museum preserving the pioneering works of her predeceased husband.

But according to one of her will’s executors and former Erickson partner Geoff Massey, there has been no luck in convincing the likes of the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University or Emily Carr College of Art and Design to take on stewardship of this modest but sublime nexus of art and architecture. “If there was a half million dollars on the table, it could be done,” said Mr. Massey of the funds needed to endow repairs and property taxes, “otherwise, it is going.”

Similarly, and somewhat unbelievably, there is no heritage designation protection or conservation plan in place for the 1964 house designed by Arthur Erickson for Marion and Thomas Gordon Smith, recently named by his architectural peers as one of the top five buildings constructed in Canada in the entire 20th century.

The Smiths still live there, and unlike the willful decline of the Graham property, it has never looked better. However, the Smiths have talked of willing the house and garden to the Vancouver Art Gallery. With VAG’s announcement of their planned construction of what could end up being a quarter-billion-dollar new gallery building, there will be strong pressure to extract the maximum benefit out of the property – by demolishing the house or building on its integral garden.

I know and have chatted with all of our remaining stalwarts of heroic modernism, most well into their 80s: Erickson, Massey and Downs as architects, and the Smiths and the late Jessie Binning as clients. There is often a sheepish tone of resignation in their voices, as if it was inevitable that these markers of their lives and times will be destroyed, the self-consuming monster of modernism moving on to new challenges. These sentiments are understandable, but the duty to preserve these and similar buildings is not for those who made them, but for all of us.

Like many people his age, 83-year-old Arthur Erickson has good days, and he has bad days. I talked to him in both modes recently, and there is one strong word he voiced both times about the demise of the Graham house: “Tragic.”