Imagining the Future for Old Vancouver

jansircusI come at place-making from the top down, – but differently from what we normally imagine. The work I have been involved with over the years has been fairly diverse but it has always revolved around the idea of story as a driving force in creating a place. But why do we want to involve a story? What is the story about?

A story is an accounting of real or imaginary events and people. Story is a way of creating some order around chaos in life. It’s a way of finding meaning. It’s a way of sharing ideas and feelings as people need to do. It connects with emotion. It connects with psyche. It is part of our humanity. And story has always been a very essential part of human development.

People say what has story got to do with places? Well places have always had story. Story provides structure. It provides theme. It provides meaning. And of course it has style. But ultimately it has purpose. The story provides a mechanism to bring people together to find a common purpose in imagining what the future might be.

We tend to associate story with literature, the movies, those kinds of media, – but story in places is not much different. If we look back historically story has always been part of cities, in particular in terms of places. We can go back in civilization before technology, before printing or other media we have now, and story was clearly imparted through frescos, through murals, through oral story telling, and of course through sculptures. So for the Romans, the Trajan’s Column was very much a story, and the stain glass windows in a Gothic Cathedral were the sort of IMAX of the day, and it provided, not just information and a sort of entertainment, but it was a very important part sort of socio-economic control by the powers that be, whether they were secular or religious.

So story has played itself out over the centuries in the architecture of places. We think of cities, particularly some of the older European or Asian cities as being very authentic and we go there and enjoy them for their authenticity, for their scale, for the way we relate to them, and for the stories that they impart because it’s about connecting back with memories, with heritage.

But what is interesting is that many of these places evolved for different reasons. Some had to do with very pragmatic issues, like defense for example, but there were other things at work as well. If we go to some of the older cities in Europe you see Neo-Classical buildings. If we go to Bath or Edinburgh and we look at the Neo-Classical facades and we say that’s wonderful, that’s authentic, and that’s real architecture as opposed to something that Disney might create, an invented architecture. Well the reality is that those places were actually created much the same as many places are created today by developers where the intent is to connect people back to a story, to an idea, so that people in the Regency times were buying into the world present when Bath was a development of the time.

They were associating living there with the grandeur of their experience on their tours to Rome and Florence and Venice and the classical buildings they saw at that time, and here it was being reproduced in their own hometown and they wanted to buy into it because it gave them those associations, and it gave them a feeling of grandeur or whatever it might be.

And the reality is if we look at those buildings they’re really theatre, their just pure theatre, the fronts are essentially a two dimensional skin that recreates the Neo-Classical world, the backs are just pure functional vernacular and much cheaper, and it’s no more authentic than Disneyland is authentic.

So it is really not about authenticity. It is not about being surrogate or real. It is not about whether we are creating a pastiche art. It is really about creating an environment where the story is meaningful to those who come there, to the audience, – whether the audience is a resident, tourist, or visitor it is imparting that sense of continuity, consistency, and fulfilling expectations. So in effect, as many cities do, we create a brand, – and of course brand is obviously a marketing word.

But the whole purpose of a brand is that we are fulfilling expectations. Just as some people are brands, – actors become their own brand, – so cities are brands, – so a city like Paris is a brand. It captures certain things. Some people would say that Paris is all about romance. It owns the word romance. Some people might say that Los Angeles owns the word entertainment, or maybe Las Vegas. But those are things that become deeply instilled in the way people relate to places and so if we depart from those expectations we set up conflicts and disconnects in that world.

If we think about why we enjoy places, one of the reasons is we feel comfortable and safe in those places. Part of that comes through the way the place is structured. There is some big idea – lets call it the theme.

So the theme we are talking about tonight might be called Old Vancouver. We create a vision around that theme. And of course there are sub themes. The sub themes in this case might be Chinatown, Strathcona, Gastown, or whatever they are, – and each one is an opportunity to create a unique story, – each a topic within themselves, – and they connect to each other in particular ways. The way we structure a place has a lot to do with theme, just as we have a particular structure within a movie or within a narrative story. Structure is very important. There are several shapes which are very important.

If, for example, we are creating a place that was about adventure we might create something that is very circuitous and circular and has a lot of side journeys. If we are creating something about discovery or science we might make something that is a little more connected, a bit more molecular in form. People understand these things, either consciously or subconsciously, and a clear structure is very comforting. A place like a Disneyland is very consciously set out in a hub and spokes arrangement. You start in the centre you go out on your little journey or adventure to a place and you might connect to another place but you always come back home. You always come back to that safe starting point. That is the sort of classic hero’s journey of three acts. Places like New York are obviously not laid out that way.

Using another invented place as an example, Universal Movie Studios is laid out on a grid. The original functional form demanded that kind of grid and we need to see that if we are going to understand that place as a movie studio. Just as we need to feel the security and organization of a Disney place, we also need to understand within cities what that particular set of relationships might be in order to feel comfortable, – and comfort and reassurance is a very strong part of what makes places successful.

But the other part has to do with legibility. What has happened over the years is that a lot of modern architecture has become increasingly abstract, increasingly difficult to interpret and understand for the average person. If we don’t make something visually legible it can be interpreted in many different ways. This may be fine in certain circumstances but when we are trying to create a consistent vision, a consistent story, a consistent point of view, it has to work from top to bottom, side to side, and be absolutely reinforced in every possible way. Creating ambiguity is not going to create a successful place. A successful place comes out of clarity, out of the reinforcing of ideas, and reinforcing the theme, and reinforcing the plot.

Places are not passive. Places unfold in many different ways. The advantage of a movie or a novel is you start at one point and you read through it all the same way. We see it in the same way. It follows a sequence. When you come to a place you can be approaching it from many different directions. That is an added challenge. It creates an interactive story, an interactive experience, – which is all the more reason for structure and what makes structure so important, – because the order in which you arrive at things not only affects what you see next but affects what you saw last. So if we are squeezed through a narrow street and it suddenly bursts into an open piazza there is a feeling of tension and sudden release and a feeling perhaps of great well being. If you start in the piazza and go into the street it is a very different emotion, and so tapping into the physical expression, the sequence of a place, and the way it is put together, taps into our emotions, and that could be very controlled.

It is no accident that places like Disneyland are not created by architects. They were created by movie art directors because they knew how to control emotion. Their whole job is to support the story through the physical environment and the physical experience. Sometimes it is very subtle, – you don’t even realize it is there, – and that is part of good art direction. It isn’t necessarily meant to be in your face.

When we take that into the three dimensional world we have this added compliancy of coming from and going in different directions so the clarity of the theme, the structure and the elements, and the images we are building is important.

So that’s part of it. And of course there’s perception. Our sense awareness has a lot to do with what we visualize, – what we hear and what we smell. If we go to Disneyland and smell fish and hear techno rap it doesn’t work. We go to some old cities like Edinburgh, Scotland and we hear a bagpiper playing on the streets in the old part of the city. It reinforces the story. It may come across as kitsch in some ways but it is absolutely true to the story and people love that because it fits the expectation.

Okay where is all this going? This is just a broad thing on story. This is just some of the things that someone like myself and people who work with story and places have to think about in creating a place. Obviously there are real program issues, there are social issues, there are financial issues, – there are all those things to be considered, – but if you can come with a big idea, a strong theme, a vision that everybody can get excited about, it can become an extremely powerful catalyst to keep everybody on the same page.

It doesn’t matter what the issues are, and I’ve dealt with many places, with many groups, boards of directors, and communities who have many different issues and people sitting on other sides of the room who frankly just hate each other, but at the end of the day, through the vision of story, we have been able to achieve 100% agreement, because there is a common response to story that people can accept that could support their heritage and their future.

And there is a process by which we can do this. It starts with an understanding of the place we want to create. It starts with an understanding, or maybe researching more about the stories of Strathcona, the stories of Chinatown, and what they might have been, – not what they are now, – but what could they have been had things been different. What is that place that could have been created and could be created now?

So from all that research and from all the stories you assemble that vision. And you go from here to there. Thank you.

Jan Sircus
from The Future of Old Vancouver
2009.03.09