Canada Day marked our second official gathering which began under the Granville Bridge by Granville Island. Amidst the throngs of tourists and patriotic locals who all came to enjoy the Island’s Canada Day festivities, we managed to find one another and discuss the history of South False Creek, its current identity and the art in the area.
It was evident from the crowds of red and white that Granville Island is an important part of Vancouver’s identity; a unique community in a spectacular setting, it is celebrated across the world and remains one of the most popular places to visit for both residents and visitors. So it came as a shock to learn that this idyllic location was once an industrial community, heavily polluted by the factories that used to populate its shores. Back then it was considered an eyesore by most residents, a highly polluted and uninhabitable place. It was difficult to imagine that as we stood facing the vibrancy of Granville Island, its pristine marina and scenic waterfront. What is now one of Vancouver’s most prime living locations and one of the hallmarks of the city was once intentionally avoided.
Catherine explained that the rehabilitation of South False Creek and Granville Island from this industrial past can first be credited to the implementation of Co-op housing during the late 1960’s. Although – and perhaps because – the area was still highly polluted and undesirable, the CMHC decided to pilot several Co-op housing developments in this location. Gradually, the city of Vancouver sought to further push the urban renewal of this area, and a formal plan was developed in 1972 to transform False Creek into a habitable community with market condominiums, co-op and low income housing, live-aboard marinas, and a vibrant waterfront market[i]. The area was slowly transforming along with Granville Island. The government had intended the area to be a “people place” that fostered arts and that goal has come to realization in the self-sufficient and vibrant community that is there today[ii].
As we walked west along the seawall, I found myself marvelling at the amazing legacy of successful urban planning that surrounded us. We headed towards Vanier Park and spotted several of Vancouver’s signature treasures: “Go Fish” fish and chips, the Kayaking Club, Bard on the Beach, and a well-known eagle’s nest just past the Burrard Bridge. When we finally reached the park, we were immediately confronted with “Freezing Water #7” by Jun Ren. This piece is impossible to miss as its huge, fluid, stainless steel form extends up and horizontally across from the open field, stretching out over approximately 15 meters.
Sitting down and enjoying some snacks – a favourite activity with this group – we analyzed this piece as well as the other noticeable artworks across the water at Sunset Beach. The discussion focused on how these public artworks fit into their respective environments and whether they enhance the space. Many people noted that public art in Vancouver is often easy to miss; it seems to exist within a small colour palette, blending in amongst its surroundings, with little signage or information to accompany it, which raises several questions. How are these artworks chosen? Why all the gray and brown steel concrete? And what level of accountability or educational programming does public art owe to its audience?
We learned that there are two organizations responsible for most the public art in Vancouver: The Vancouver Sculpture Biennale and the City of Vancouver Cultural Services. The artwork in the case of the Biennale is often already made and then chosen to be brought into Vancouver, whereas Cultural Services tends to commission works for specific sites in the city. It was interesting, though, that most of us thought that the setting of the works played a large role in our interpretations. For instance, Bernar Venet’s work “217.5 Arc x 13” (a piece selected by the Biennale) was interpreted by many in our group to represent a whale’s ribcage or the ruins of an old ship likely due to its close proximity to the ocean. But when the work was created, the artist intended it to represent a mathematical formula[iii]!
With the weather starting to cool we moved towards the Museum of Vancouver, our final destination for the day, passing a few more works along the way: “The Stop” by Michael Zheng, “Gate to the Northwest Passage” by Alan Chung Hung, and “The Crab” by George A. Norris. Many of us were visiting the museum for the first time, and we were surprised by this strange remnant of 1970’s architecture by Gerald Hamilton. This building comes as unique contrast to the verticality that often defines Vancouver's architectural style, as it is a wide and low circular building with a distinctive dome said to represent the woven basket hat made by the Northwest Coast First Nations peoples[iv].
Meeting with a guide from the museum she shared the history of the museum as well as its present focus on showcasing Vancouver’s past and present. A suitable end to the day, we were all given free admission to the museum where we enjoyed the “Fox, Fluevog and Friends” exhibit as well as the permanent “Historical Vancouver” exhibits, which retraced some of the history we had touched on earlier in the day.
Sam - the notepad kid