The Reader XIV II - Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City

Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City

Edited by Paul Delany
Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 1994, $19.95
Review by Irwin Shubert

Since the metropolis is impossible to command except in bits and pieces, urban design (and note that postmodernists design rather than plan) simply aims to be sensitive to vernacular traditions, local histories, particular wants, needs and fancies, thus generating specialized, even highly customized architectural forms that may range from intimate, personalized spaces, through traditional monumentality, to the gaiety of spectacle. All of this can flourish by appeal to a remarkable eclecticism of architectural styles.

---David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity.

Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City, edited by Paul Delany, gives the reader an eclectic report on Vancouver's condition as a postmodern city venturing ever-so boldly into the 21st Century. In his introduction to the book, Delany, as if responding to Harvey's vision, states that "postmodernism is thus an unashamedly belated and reactive mode of consciousness. It maps the interplay of surface phenomena, as a system of collage and citation that floats above any determinate or determining ground (see Michael Jackson's face). . . . The postmodern city is a place where different semiotic systems are juxtaposed, instead of a place where culture unfolds or accumulates through time." Welcome to Vancouver, a city where anything goes and usually does.

Reader be warned. This book is nothing like Arsenal's other offering about Vancouver: Guy Bennett's equally eclectic, and often humorous Guy's Guide To The Flipside. Delany's collection of essays is meant for those who take their postmodernism seriously. Contributors to this collection cover a wide range of topics including: architecture, street kids, poetry, deconstruction, Chinese-Canadian art, Hollywood North, and everyone's favourite postmodern strip, (no not Kingsway), the "Drive."

After reading these essays, and this is what postmodernism can do to you, I was reminded of a #5 hit song from 1968: Kenny Rogers and The First Edition's "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." Not exactly a memorable song, but the title suggests a casual visit and that's what we get with Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City: a casual but intense guide to a city and its condition. How the city looks and feels depends a great deal on who is doing the commentary. For example, Paul Delany and Stephen E. Miller seem to have different ways of looking at Arthur Erickson's monument to the concrete Gods. Delany has this to say about SFU: "The massive new West Mall extension by Arthur Erickson is definitely anachronistic, a piece of sixties brutalism replicated in defiance of the contemporary spirit; it can be relied on to make the experience of being at SFU even more overbearing and monolithic." Miller, commenting on the three most important things in staging a film in Hollywood North---location, location, location---writes: "Other locations allow us to travel regularly into the future, thanks to the fantastic architecture of Simon Fraser University. . . ."

Besides these differences of opinion, Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City is a serious look at a city growing out of its West Coast shell to take its place as a major North American metropolis. This transformation is not without its problems, and some of these are made quite clear by the book's contributors. In "Where The 'Street Kid' Meets The City," Elaine K. Chang confronts feminism and postmodernism by examining Evelyn Lau's Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid. Runaway, Chang suggests, "invites us to look beyond the appealing surfaces of 'official' images, it offers more than a view of the city from the 'underside'. . . ." Lau's book, as well as Chang's essay, is about gender, race, class, age, and coping with a city that is, at the same time, hospitable and inhospitable. Chang feels that Lau's running "serves to situate Vancouver as a paradoxical place, at once home and not-home, here and there."

Vancouver as a paradox appears to be a common theme in this book. Bruce Serafin's "Cultural Workers and Moslem Hats," features Vancouver's most paradoxical street, Commercial Drive, a street dominated by its Old World charm and its diverse patrons. However, go one block east or west and you have your $300,000 homes and urban gentrification for those who want the comfort of the west side, but like their street life a little grittier. As Serafin notes the street is changing. Those taking over, those sipping their cappuccinos and talking politics, are, Serafin suggests, "animated not so much by a love of the neighbourhood as by a resentment of everything that surrounds it."

There is a little in this book for everyone. Vancouver's architecture is illustrated by Trevor Boddy's "Plastic Lion's Gate," and Alberto Pérez-Gómez's "The Architecture of Richard Henriquez." There are essays on the film industry, art and poetry. Literature is well represented by Jeff Derksen, "Sites Taken as Signs," Paul Matthew St. Pierre, "The Architectonics of Deconstructivism," and Paul Delany, "Hardly the Centre of the World." The latter essay looks at William Gibson's vision of Vancouver in the short story "The Winter Market." Gibson's dystopian vision of the future seems to be well-suited for Vancouver, a city that epitomizes Gibson's view that popular culture is now the religion of the people, technology its mantra. The story is about waste, as in garbage, and in a city where circumstance and necessity have led to a whole class of back-alley scroungers, the setting is perfect.

While the contents of this book that deal directly with Vancouver will be familiar to most, the postmodern angle might be difficult to grasp. However, don't despair. Postmodernism is a lot like a dog chasing its tail: it's always in sight, but just out of reach. Postmodernism is a product of itself, constantly trying to stay one step ahead of its detractors, constantly re-inventing itself and apologizing for it. To this end the last words go to Heesok Chang, who in his preface to "Allegories of Community" explains the book this way: "These essays---for example, this one---may just as well be read as a symptom of the spectacular culture it is attempting to diagnose." Indeed!

In his second life, Irwin Shubert completed a BA in English and a MA in communications. He is currently teaching at the Centre for Canadian Studies at SFU.

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