Written for Daily Hive by Graham McGarva, Founding Principal of VIA Architecture
Fifty years ago Canada did not exist. It was there on parchment, still dripping spoil from its umbilical cord, but it didn’t really exist solidly in the mind, instead floated rudderless between myths. Like you, I wasn’t there, and today Canada is not burdened by a lack of common history – it is a place that lives in the present. Today Canada does tangibly exist – and that is its difference.
The fall of 1973 brought my foreign hitchhiker’s thumb to the shore of the mighty Pacific Ocean at the mudflat of Quebec and Terminal. In those times, the Pacific was the edge of the known world, not its centre, and it was beyond Vancouver that lay the exotic and unimaginable.
After my first day or so, the clouds slid off the North Shore Monoliths and, having already seen the models for the proposed new community of False Creek South on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I had an idea of what Vancouver might want to be. I chose to stay, become part of this community.
To keep a short story short, I quickly stumbled into reshaping the city and rescuing it from the suburbanism that had started to depopulate its core. An informal collaboration of activists was transforming this place that had captured our hearts, including hippies and mayors, designers, entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats, councillors, counsellors, consolers, and people of all differences who were hard to tell apart, despite all the shouting.
Five years later, at the centre of the action but penniless and with a family, we had no option but to live where normal people wouldn’t dream of living, a waterfront townhouse on False Creek’s industrial mudflat. We have lived here since for 37 years.
The hippy wedge had its cold war edge, it was a time of universals and their opposites, and understanding the leverage of hierarchy. Now our time of micro tech has brought us the mass customization of complaint, and the paralysis of decision making.
I could claim that nothing has changed, except which numbers are counted and how. But then we will start taking about the numbers, as though that is what the art of city building is about.
It is not the mathematics that counts, it is the realm of the spirit.
Maybe only some of the above is true, and we can argue about which bits, and how true. For that is the difference in today’s Vancouver. Those differences were hard to tell apart in the ’70s because we barely acknowledged them in a focus on liveable urbanity. That focus, built out in the ’90s became attractive to an increasingly diverse population, and diversity transcended any one vision of what Vancouver ought to be.
Fifty years ago Vancouver existed, and Canada did not. Now it is the reverse. Vancouver no longer has a single unifying myth. It is a pile of differences all struggling to thrive in the same place. It is through recognising the power of our differences – ethnic, cultural, gender, economic – and to then harness the reasons for them to celebrate being here together, that the next generation will take Vancouver to its greater potential.
When I was young I worried too much about retirement, I took all of the world’s problems too seriously. As I get older I am more and more interested in partying and learning from the youngsters. I think, I exist. And I think I have them in the right order, now it is over to you. I am just learning to be young again.