Chinese creative constructions must be within constraints

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Does the world need more strange buildings?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Mar 2, 2016

When it comes to art, there is nothing more impressive than a city that sparks imagination with its façade while also facilitating practicality. There are countless unique buildings of great significance in the world that we can identify in a flash: the Pentagon, the Burj Khalifa, and the Petronas Towers, for example. These aren’t monuments like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, these are functioning buildings where people work and live everyday. So what’s wrong with making them look interesting?

On February 21, China’s State Council announced that there would be stricter guidelines for urban planning. What does that mean? Well, in the past few decades, China has been erecting odd buildings all across the country, many without any links to cultural heritage or functionality. In another word, China was making buildings weird for the sake of being weird. Buildings shaped like pants, coins, and even a pile of debris can be found in China.

Now, I love art. I don’t always understand it, but I like the fact that it exists. I live in a city full of art instalations that serve no purpose but to take up a spot where a bench or a garbage bin could have been. But it gets people talking, so that is a positive.

However, I always question the monetary value of a piece of art. I know artists need to get paid and all that, but when the money is coming out of taxpayers’ pockets, there better be a damn good reason for the art. China, of course, is now faced with the same predicament. They want to construct interesting buildings, but when the production to make them “original” is costing more than the façades are worth, then the projects need to stop.

A building at its most basic is a box. No matter how interesting a building is, once you are inside, you are in a box. The world would be a pretty awful place if all the boxes looked the same. Take a look at suburban America, where every house is constructed from the same blueprint. That is something we must avoid at any cost… even if the cost is saving money.

Economically, keeping buildings cube-shaped makes sense. It saves room, and in a world with limited space, that’s important. But we need landmarks. Humanity is built upon landmarks; that is why we have the Great Wonders of the World. But greatness is not just about being strange or impressive, it’s backed with history.

It doesn’t matter how the world sees it, it matters for the people who walk in and out of those buildings every day. Yes, tourists will come and go. They’ll snap pictures, and they’ll share the image with people all around the world. Yet, for the people who work and live there, buildings need to be a structure of pride. We spend so many hours of our lives in buildings. Let’s create ones that aren’t just weird, let’s create ones we are proud of. And pride is worth paying a premium for.

Vancouver’s viaduct variables

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What shall we do with the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaduct?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. November 11, 2015

Now that the filming of Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool has ended, I guess we can start talking about how awful the Vancouver viaducts are. If you are unfamiliar with these viaducts, they are the two roads that connect Prior Street, Strathcona to Expo Boulevard, Stadium/Downtown. It’s the big concrete bridge that runs alongside the SkyTrain from Chinatown to Rogers Arena.

Built in the 1970s, the viaducts were designed to be an entry point into the urban core of Vancouver. I’ve taken it to and from the city as long as I can remember, and it has never—ever—been a pleasant experience. Now, with the inception of the bike lanes, the viaducts are hazards left, right, and centre. And let’s not forget about it also being a seismic calamity waiting to happen. So when the city council voted to replace the ultra thin, unsettling Hot Wheel tracks with a six-lane, ground-level road that offers neighbouring areas more space for parks, residential, and commerce, I was all in.

But once the viaducts are torn down, what will ultimately take their place will be high rises. Let’s not lie to ourselves, we are running out of room in Vancouver, and building upward seems to be the only feasible solution. While some people have a problem with that initiative, I don’t. Done correctly, buildings can be as beautiful as the waterfront. Buildings can become the ripples of the city, where the waves are the ripples of the ocean; both can be majestic and encapsulating to look upon.

The problem with so many big cities is that their infrastructures end up fencing people from one corner away from people in another corner. Basically, crossing the road becomes a great hassle, so people don’t do it. This creates a divide, which eliminates cross-community engagements. The viaduct truly makes it difficult to traverse. Nevertheless, we should not make the same mistake. The great big cities of the world—London, Paris, and New York—have channels that connect pedestrians, not just vehicles. In Hong Kong, people never have to touch the solid ground; there are walkways connecting to every part of the city, some call it a “pop-up city.” I digress; we shan’t be one of those, albeit it does sound cool to live in such a futuristic metropolis.

Those designing the new roadway systems are assuring us that it is going to be better. I believe them, because honestly, I don’t see how it could be worse. I fear that one day we are going to be like Los Angeles with layers upon layers of highways. With the demolition of the viaducts, I can feel relieved that at least for the moment we are taking a step away from that.

Gassy Jack statue in Gastown

March 7, 2013

By Elliot Chan

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Formerly published in MeetVanCity.com.

A small settlement established in the mid-19th century sat at the lip of downtown Vancouver. It was there that the city sprouted into the urban metropolis it is today. Gastown, the six-blocks long district that influenced so much of the city — But to understand the area, we must first understand the man the town was named after, Captain John “Gassy Jack” Deighton.

The word “gas” was an old Victorian slang. If someone was to be gassy, that meant they were very talkative. And Captain Deighton had a reputation for storytelling. The name Gassy Jack stuck and Gastown followed suit.

He was born in Hull, England where he became a sailor for a British fleet, but made a transition to American ships because they were of better quality and had greater provisions. Gassy Jack later became a well-respected steamboat captain on the Fraser River before he settled down and opened his saloon. Back before the cobble streets, Starbucks and high-rises, Gastown was an industrial area set in the wilderness. Gassy Jack took a gamble and developed a community to serve the mill workers. Inadvertently, he became the father of a new town. Expanding from his saloon out, Gastown and Vancouver grew from there.

His establishments were relocated multiple times, during the course of the town’s expansion. But the most memorable spot was on the intersection now known as Water and Carrall Street. It was an early construction, a 12-feet by 24-feet beaten shack that stood amidst the maple trees. The spot received the name, Maple Tree Square. The early days in Vancouver were not pleasant, as Gassy Jack describes, ”A lonesome place when I came here first, surrounded by Indians. I care not to look outdoors after dark. There was a friend of mine about a mile distant found with his head cut in two. The Indian was caught and hanged.”

Times have changed; but in the spot where Gassy Jack shaped the core of downtown Vancouver is a statue resurrected in his honour. For the man that set the city in motion, Gassy Jack will remain a prime figure in Vancouver history.