Gaining and losing a downtown

BayMy friend who shall be known as the Queen picked up a brochure called “A Circular Self-Guided Tour of Downtown Vancouver Architecture and Public Art.” The idea was instantly appealing. The next Saturday, we met at 8:00 am, outside the Bay on Georgia. I had my nice little Sony digital camera, but Q has moved on, photography-wise. She has a flashy new digital SLR with lots of professional-looking lenses. We lingered and looked around, unlike the workers striding purposefully forward, heads down. We felt like tourists.

The Hudson’s Bay Company Store, according to the brochure, was built in 1913.

The lavish Neoclassical detailing of the terracotta exterior is in itself a sophisticated exercise in merchandising—the columns are decorative, camouflaging the rather utilitarian structure behind.

Nicely put! It is indeed a box with a lot of cosmetics on the outside. But softened with age and with a hanging basket in front of it, it’s not so bad. I contented myself with a few pictures. Q took five to my one. She loves that new camera.

PendulumNext on the tour was the HSBC building, its lobby dominated by the Pendulum, an impressive large conversation piece/artwork installation. It was hypnotic watching the giant pendulum move inexorably back and forth, and for a short time there was a flash of sunlight every time it swung through a certain point on its arc. When you look up, and you can hardly help doing that, it’s dramatic: overhead is glass and a network of steel beams dark against the light, with glimpses of sky and other structures in every direction.

There is a plaque on the door telling you that this lobby is a public space—but we hardly needed to be told. Simultaneously, Q and I were struck by the realization that we felt at home. Normally, we both feel a little alienated by downtown. It’s so big-money, so big-business. Usually, I am uncomfortably conscious that I am not a part of that world. But here we are, appraising these buildings aesthetically: here we are, capturing images of light and darkness; here we are, feeling at home. We are taking back downtown!

WindowsBy the time we moved out to appraise the view of Cathedral Place, complete with a window-washer hanging in a harness, we were laughing at every little thing and suffused with wellbeing. Although it wasn’t yet 9:00 am, we talked our way into the lobby of Cathedral Place. The security guard watched indulgently as we photographed the magnificent Navigational Device artwork by Robert Studer that dominates the lobby.

DeviceQ took her usual artsy shots, including one of herself reflected in a glass doorway. Instantly, the temperature dropped several degrees. The security guard changed his friendly tone to a slightly hostile one. He pointed out that we couldn’t take photographs of doorways that had locks and security systems. He started ushering us out. Not yet quite getting it, I tried to take a last photograph of the mirrored elevator doors. The temperature dropped still further. “I said no more photographs! I’ve been more than generous [more than generous?], but you’re only allowed to take photographs of the artwork.” Attempting to maintain some dignity, I asked why there wasn’t a sign to that effect. The guard didn’t deign to reply. We were to leave, with no possibility of appeal.

I was immediately back in high school, feeling unfairly chastised. I hated the hot, angry sensation of being powerless in front of someone wielding their authority. Now, I’m back to resenting downtown and everything that’s wrong with it: the overpriced luxury goods; the money- and power-based value system; the assumption that unknown people are up to no good; the absurdity of women-of-a-certain-age wearing sensible shoes, such as Q and myself , being likely spotters for a criminal gang. (Just to clarify my position, here: criminal gangs are bad, too, and they shouldn’t steal other people’s property, even overpriced luxury goods.)

It took a while for my indignation to simmer down. I wandered around the courtyard at the back of Cathedral Place, hostile and resentful. Finally, we moved on to Christ Church Cathedral.

And here was an open building, with no security guards or video cameras. It was dimly lit by lamps hanging from the high ceiling. There was a priest conducting some unknown rite, but he took no notice as Q and I shuffled quietly around, looking at the stained glass windows and the memorial plaques.

I hesitate to draw any easy conclusions from this, but I am glad the cathedral is still standing and that the developers didn’t get to have their way with the land in the 1970s. There was a plan back then to demolish the church and create a new space for it in a high-rise building to be designed by Arthur Erickson. The members of the church were in favour of it, but the public at large was opposed so the plan fell through and the cathedral was designated a heritage building in 1976.

Had the cathedral been in a high-rise building in 2007, no doubt we would have had to contend with security guards there also.

That temporary feeling of being completely at ease with downtown is not likely to return any time soon, but I will feel quite comfortable dropping in to the cathedral at any time. And we will resume our tour another day.

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