Isn’t that proposed new building a soul-crushing piece of shit?

Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological. This article, republished with permission, was first published in Focus on Victoria in July 2021 under the title Victoria’s new buildings are evidence of a moral failure in architecture. We are using the article’s sub-title as our headline in reference to artists’ renditions of some of the recent proposed developments in Qualicum Beach. — Editor

WHY CAN’T I SING LIKE MARVIN GAYE? I won’t say that’s the only gift I’ve ever asked for, but it’s the most elusive. Listen to Marvin on YouTube singing Wholy, Holy

Marvin Gaye

Jesus left a long time ago,

Said He would return…

He left us a book to believe in,

In it we’ve got a lot to learn.

Love, love, love, love

If I had Marvin’s gift, that’s the very song I would sing at a local UDI (Urban Development Institute) luncheon. Room full of developers, money-men, architects, real estate insiders. I could be the warm-up for the transfixing keynote presentation, Real Estate Differential Income and Cost Calculation for Tax Profile Management.

“Yes,” I’d start, “this song’s for you, so stop munching your breaded veal cutlets and swapping lies for just a minute and listen up: Jesus wants you to put a lot more love, love, love in your buildings. And if you won’t, or don’t, then you’re going to spend eternity in Hell: 320 square feet, third floor, north-facing.”

And protests would rise from the audience: “What’s the matter with our buildings the way they are? What’s the problem? And even if there is some problem, isn’t that what the City’s design planners and advisory design panel and City council are for? Because they keep approving our plans and telling us ‘good to go.’ We’re just following the City’s rules and design guidelines, and if the buildings are okay with them, why come carping and moaning to us? Besides, we must be giving the market what it wants because people vote with their wallets….”

Love, love, love, love.

Generally, we don’t think of our sweet town as a battlefield (apart from the tussle over road space and bike lanes), but the battles of history and culture are being played out here as much as anywhere, the stakes are sizeable and the outcomes, which are taking on definition as I write, are not promising.

It’s rare for a civic culture to emphasize not just its gifts, but also a citizen’s responsibility to sustain the gifts. It needs a vision of a shared identity or future, and social tools—political, policy and otherwise—to perpetuate and to bring renewed health and energy to such a vision.

How does it happen that developers are allowed to undertake projects capable of transforming the entire appearance, mood, social identity and character of a city—that is, the story of place that a city tells to the people who live there—with no expertise, training in or understanding of urbanism or urban design, no understanding of social history, impacts and consequences, no considered ideas about how physical architecture strongly influences social expression and possibility, but with only the business skills bearing on opportunity capture and risk management?

Answer: “It’s the free market. Plus, I got an architect looks after design.”

The day an architect looks his/her developer client in the eye and says: “This proposal is a soul-crushing piece of shit,” I’ll believe in architects again.

Highly educated, open-minded and widely read are among the attributes developers need to produce beautiful, appropriately scaled buildings that add visual appeal and character to the city and amplify, rather than damage and diminish, its identity.

This topic doesn’t receive a lot of public thought. It’s hard stuff to get your head around, and the malevolent, un-budging potency of how-we-do-things-is-how-things-should-be-done creates a high wall for attitude and value change. The public (affected individuals or small clusters, really) grumbles over this or that but seems generally unwilling to invest much social capital or outrage at the level of principle—a shame, because this is exactly where the battle for Victoria’s future is being fought. 

The world is changing,” we say—a toss-away phrase with monumental import. The terms and the basic conditions of social identity everywhere are shifting; becoming in the moment more virtual, more externally managed. 

In Victoria, the city’s physical and social gifts—not just their numerical presence, but also the potency and reach of their messaging—are losing both amplitude and dominance. 

Our city’s distinguishing story—its identity, its why/because tied to place and to a shared life—seems in this mutable age less determining, less culture-shaping. Significant counter-forces—technological, social and environmental—are atomizing us and threatening our traditional city-making instincts and skills. In this setting, the meaning of “citizen,” a city stakeholder, turns ambiguous.

Victoria offered home, place, a life together. The “little bit of Olde England” stuff was always just by-play, fluff, “patriotic mythology,” to borrow George Packer’s phrase—decorative icing on the cornerstone qualities of protection, identity, definition, security. Yes, times have changed, but urban design choices are also a factor. The city now operates with less of those qualities and increasingly leaves its people homeless at home.

The tragedy and irony is that most North American cities, built up on some variant of the Calgary model and now a scary social chapter or two ahead of us, would kill to have more Victoria, while we seem not to know how to preserve and reinforce our remarkably successful urban design signature to serve us now and in the near-future. It’s as if we misplaced the recipe.

Starlight’s proposed mega-development for the Harris Green/Yates and Vancouver area in Victoria, BC.

Marc Bloch in his 1940 Strange Defeat explains France’s implosion in the face of German aggression, noting that leadership “worked with the tools which were put into their hands by the nation at large. They could be only what the totality of the social fact, as it existed in France, permitted them to be.”

It’s rare for a civic culture to emphasize not just its gifts, but also a citizen’s responsibility to sustain the gifts. It needs a vision of a shared identity or future, and social tools—political, policy and otherwise—to perpetuate and to bring renewed health and energy to such a vision.

Most of Victoria’s recent multifamily efforts are socially, morally unsure. They read less as homes than as contraptions that confusedly ask: how, and for what purposes, are people supposed to live together? What are we supposed to accomplish and create together?

In other words, there is moral failure in architecture—failure of a building to celebrate and enrich its surroundings, to enrich the possibilities of shared social identity, of purpose. Failure to understand.

Every moment carries its own urgencies, and maybe a city can be excused for failing the future, failing to articulate ideas and impose policies of urban design and place-making that ensure its citizens wake up next to the same city every day, to put it really inelegantly.

Still, through the leadership and agency of the city, the present times require that developers be scholars, philosophers. And not because an answerless God is going to pat them on the head and say: “Good child!” They have to do this out of the realization that being a developer is not just opportunity-spotting, risk-managing and all the sub-arts of “putting up stuff,” but also a moral practice.

The high-rises going up in Victoria? Sterile, mechanistic, loveless. Certainly not feminine or maternal, and not even masculine, but strangely post-gender and free of human juice. Conceived by developers, articulated by architects, advanced by bureaucrats and approved by politicians—insufficiently mindful of the city’s story, or the way in which buildings—their form and character—bind people to this city’s story.

Might be time for a city name-change: Victoria to Vista 30, maybe.