This is a multimedia companion to an article of the same name in the May issue of Urban History, Volume 38, Issue 01: 124-149.
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This multimedia companion presents a selection of the chiefly visual discourse of planning in Vancouver 1945-1965. While concentrating on the Reconstruction era, the archival materials included begin with the picturing and imagining of the city during the 1920s. The selection intends to recover the tenor of expert rhetoric (the discursive amalgam of theory and experience), as well as of perceived and actual popular opinion; the captions also introduce summary information on the course of planning policy and practice in Vancouver over the two post-1945 decades. Consequently, it illuminates the emergence of a new level and diversity of media discourse on urban development and design accompanying the consolidation but also contesting of Modernist precept and practice in later modern North America.
The discourse on and the practice of town planning in Vancouver substantially increased in scope and depth during the post-Second World War era 1945-1965, and its evolution is the focus of this multimedia companion. During that period (in Canada denominated 'Reconstruction' after a series of wartime reports by specialist advisory committees published in 1944 and 1945) the redevelopment of the city became an issue of considerable official, professional and public attention and debate.
The concerted redevelopment of the rather haphazard growth of the port city incorporated in 1886 had come under serious consideration in the late 1920s. In 1929 the city Planning Commission had commissioned the St. Louis-based firm of Harland Bartholomew and Associates to reconfigure Vancouver’s inconsistent colonial surveyors’ street grid and to ameliorate the discrepant architectural fabric especially in the downtown business district. That district had been developed around the original settler Granville Mill site and the construction, subsequent to the city’s incorporation in 1886, of the railhead and port facilities for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Vancouver thus became the veritable 'Terminal City' of the Canadian Dominion and of its larger part-symbolic part-political connection, the British Empire. Dominion and Imperial expansion had, particularly between 1906 and 1913, greatly increased its demographic and architectural scale.
The Harland Bartholomew Report was completed in 1930. It envisaged a more monumental central urban environment running across the central isthmus between Burrard Inlet and False Creek. Their proposals were influenced by the City Beautiful and the Garden City Movement. The firm’s preference for Beaux Arts values was accompanied by a more liberal strategy for modernizing the city and surrounding hinterland that accommodated considerable growth in private motor traffic while advocating improvements to public (streetcar) transitory service. The firm also sought a pragmatic resolution between aesthetic and social considerations with respect to residential design: the provision of improved low-income housing had been associated with – largely failed – policies for veterans’ resettlement and housing in Canada.
The Batholomew Report represented the dominant professional mindset and political economy of between-the-wars Vancouver. Real estate interests were paramount. Urban development was as much a matter of investment – and institutional or commercial display – as of technical facilitation. The Planning Commission (despite some echoes of pre-1914 Federal Canadian legislation on Town and Country Planning) chiefly comprised men from commercial and engineering backgrounds. Indeed, one significant incident in the historical narrative charted in the print article was the establishment in 1956-1957 of an independent Planning Department. It was headed by architecturally-trained Town Planners who exercised authority over the formerly more influential surveyors, and civil and mechanical engineers.
The Bartholomew Report was generally well-received. But it confronted the tremendous and diverse economic collapse defined as the Depression. The collapse undermined the social economy underpinning their vision of modern urbanism; and it hugely augmented urban poverty and homelessness. Those problems became especially acute around the periphery of the downtown business district: mainly in the Strathcona area and around the industrialized shores of False Creek. The crisis was only effectively alleviated after the threat of European and Pacific conflict renewed the manufacturing and resource industries – the Federal Government Relief legislation and investment being modest in size and scope: a road from Vancouver to Squamish, an addition to the Federal (Post) office and a Militia Barracks strategically sited on one major thoroughfare leading to the wealthiest inner suburbs of Shaughnessy (developed by the Canadian Pacific Railway).
The local economy – but also the deficiencies in residential and commercial building stock – grew through the Second World War 1939-1945. Vancouver became again a thriving railhead and port as well as industrial shipbuilding and resource-processing centre. The population increased, initially during the process of demobilization of Canadian service personnel, and thereafter through growing immigration successively going beyond the earlier homelands of the British Isles and North America. The outcome of these several factors was social unrest and activism mainly from members of the local arts community. The ‘Art in Living Group’, for example, brought together artists and architects intention applying radical aesthetic and formal analysis to the improvement of the whole social environment. Their reflection of the origins of the European and Trans-Atlantic Modern Movement was manifest in three exhibitions on urban renewal and design of everyday spaces and objects – as well as invitation in 1947 of Richard Neutra to speak on contemporary architectural and planning practice.
Meantime, Harland Batholomew were re-engaged to reconsider and renew their 1930 Plan. Between 1946 and 1948 the firm published a series of pamphlets examining the city’s needs in overall planning objective and process, transportation, educational and cultural institutions, plus commercial property development. They worked in the changed conditions wrought by interventionist governmental legislation and emphasis on communal values in wartime propaganda.
The City Council, through the Vancouver Town Planning Commission, further encouraged public discussion, if not active participation; one contemporary publication was titled 'Planning Vancouver Your Responsibility' and reprinted an editorial advocating Modernist planning social and architectural from the May 1943 Architectural Forum. Such multinational (rather than truly international) sensibility manifested the idealist and universalist aims that, with its apparent technical efficiency, enabled the popularization of Modernist planning precept and practice.
The processes involved in the adoption, or more properly adaptation, of Modernism in urban development at Vancouver is the major concern of the print article. It brings together the official with the professional and popular media articulation of city design/development in order to chart the local planning discourse. The smaller purview of economic and urban development at Vancouver provides a more concentrated picture of North American conditions. It discloses the variegated nature of the so-called Modernist project, its interweaving into older and even oppositional agendas, and variable rather than consistent pattern of implementation. In the print article the larger chronological phases are defined as reconsideration (of existing paradigms), reconfiguration (of the planning process), redirection (of planning policy), resistance (the Modernist praxis) and re-presentation (of Modern urban development).
All images and maps courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives.
I am most grateful for help in preparing this material to Geoffrey Carr, doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British Columbia. Many thanks also to Dr. Philip Ethington and Curtis Fletcher, graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Southern California.