Vancouver: Nice Mountains, Really Bad Architecture


From National Post (October 21, 2000)

by Adele Weder

Vancouver is the first big Canadian city to grow up without the 19th century. A lot of people hate this about the place but Douglas Coupland finds it exhilarating, so he lives here. It seems that with Coupland -- author of Generation X, Microserfs and other Zeitgeist novels -- history is just so much fusty baggage.

City of Glass is hard to classify. Not a guide, really (no practical information per se). Not encyclopedic (laconic text; lots of standard entries missing). Not a coffee-table book (paperback, no bigger than a deluxe CD set). Not the "official" take on Vancouver, as Coupland notes on the jacket cover, but a nicely weird collage of text and image that somehow conveys more about Vancouver than most of the touristy and scholarly tomes on the subject.

Coupland grew up in Vancouver, went away and then came back. That seems to have helped him see more clearly than the out-of-town pundits who crash at a downtown hotel for a few days and then declare Vancouver to be a European-style pedestrian-friendly city. (American intellectual Robert Kaplan is the most notorious naif in this arena.) In truth, Vancouver evolved with the car, and its citizens have, as Coupland says, an "entrenched get-me-there-in-a-car-or-don't-get-me-there-at-all mentality." Conversational text swatches are interwoven with brilliant photojournalistic images, giving us a flaneur's-eye-view of Vancouver.

His urban anthropology is deftly candid, from Hollywood backlot film shoots ("Many Vancouverites feel damn pimpy that we never get to be our own city in any of these movies") to the exotic-but-insular Japanese slackers ("Hey you guys! Talk or something!").

Then, suddenly, we plunge into the city's dank corridors, by way of a sweet dark novelette (originally published in Life After God, Coupland's 1994 collection of stories.) At 13 pages, "My Hotel Year" is a kind of short and bleak version of Antoine de St. Exupery's The Little Prince: bites of street-level philosophy framed with charming hand-drawn doodles. Our hero travels up and down Granville North, Vancouver's dingy galaxy of porn shops and grotty corners ignored by mainstream guidebooks. Home base is a fleabag hotel room, where he talks, mopes and hangs out with other disaffected creatures like Cathy, a Kamloops runaway. "Now: I believed you've had most of your important memories by the time you're 30," recounts the narrator, about Cathy's using up her youth on a dead-end boyfriend. "After that, memory becomes water overflowing into an already full cup. New experiences just don't register in the same way or with the same impact. I could be shooting heroin with the Princess of Wales, naked in a crashing jet, and the experience still couldn't compare to the time the cops chased us after we threw the Taylor's patio furniture into their pool in the eleventh grade. You know what I mean." Then the Little Prince-ish narrator meets Donny, a hooker for whom "anything was better than the job he had before, driving a shuttle bus between the airport and one of the downtown hotels."

The novelette ends as abruptly as it started, and we return to the fun splashy collage of sushi and beach volleyball, which is at once relieving and disturbing. The very next entry is "Kits," on the city's Kitsilano neighbourhood, "where all those beautiful, athletic, fun-loving, Jeep-driving beer drinkers" from the beer commercials live. "Kits is so perky it almost begs the question, 'Does it have a dark side to it?' The answer to this may well be no, which in itself is a kind of darkness."

Now, City of Glass is basically a fun, light book; but for those who insist on a Larger Meaning of It All, these unsettling juxtapositions of blight and perk will do fine. Vancouver is so spoiled rotten with its splendid backdrop that no one seems to care much about the man-made features, or what transpires within them. Vancouver, writes Coupland, "coasts on its scenery quite shamelessly," meaning that the goal of most new buildings is to afford its tenants views of water, sky, mountains -- anything but the rest of the city.

As a result of this haphazard architectural race to the sky, Vancouver is stuffed with the worst architecture of any Canadian metropolis. "Many Vancouverites carry around mental detonators and, as they walk around the city, eliminate eyesore after eyesore," writes Coupland, perhaps betraying a covert eagerness for The Big One, the massive earthquake scheduled to puree our town any year now. Come what may, we'll still always have Grouse Mountain. And there, writes Coupland, "the air is thin, the view is spectacular, and the presence of something holy is always just a breath and a glance away, off in the hinterlands."