City of Glass


From Saturday Night (October 14, 2000)

by Douglas Coupland


In thirty years, most North American cities ought to be pretty much the same as they are now. The aura of Lincoln, Nebraska, will remain essentially untouched; Chicago will still be Chicago. Ditto Halifax, Tallahassee, and what have you. A few new buildings, a few more people, bigger trees -- you get the idea. But Vancouver? We have no idea what this place is going to be like next year, let alone in a few decades.

A case in point is what locals call "see-throughs," the glass condominium towers, pale blue or pale green, that have come to dominate the city skyline since 1990. They were built as contingency crash pads for wealthier Hong Kong citizens who were bracing themselves for the worst in the 1999 changeover of rule from Britain to China. The transition went smoothly, and thus the towers remain just as empty as they appear. An occasional landlord will put those $19.99 white plastic stacking chairs out on balconies to generate the appearance of occupation, but these spaces are going cheap, cheap, cheap. Many people are going to kick themselves in a few years for not buying these condos now when they're going begging.

These glass towers strike many visitors as a key element of the city's character. A friend from the States told his mother that Vancouver was a city of glass buildings and no curtains, and everybody gets to watch each other. A voyeur's paradise, so to speak. To Vancouverites, these towers signify a few things: the power of global history to affect our lives, and the average citizen's alienation from the civic political process -- they're large glass totems that say "F-you" to us. At the same time, these towers symbolize a New World breeziness and a gentle desire for social transparency -- a rejection of class structures and hierarchy. Regardless of any of that, it takes only a few weeks to build a see-through. Citizens go away on holiday and return to a completely different place. If only the people who build see-throughs could be in charge of the city's roadworks.


If Paris is a city of monuments, and if Tokyo is a city of small beautiful moments, Vancouver is a city of scenery. It coasts on its scenery quite shamelessly, and many builders take advantage of our love of mountain views to build charmless concrete dumps -- and when you call them on it, they say, "Oh, but I didn't want to draw attention away from the beautiful view." Yeah, right.

Architecture in Vancouver wasn't always so awful. In fact, in the three decades following World War II, the world looked to Vancouver for innovation and creativity. The dominant style of the era, pioneered in Vancouver and exported around the world, is called "post & beam." One of this style's main attributes is the (then) radical flat roof, as well as large windows that merge the interior of the home with the exterior, a possible metaphor for the Vancouverite's psyche as well.

The post & beam house was designed to spur on the modernist idea of a better human society through better design. The simplicity and lack of pretense was meant to imbue inhabitants with an appreciation for the simpler, more natural, and progressive ideas. That's a lot for a building to do. Curiously, most of these houses, given a coat of paint and a few good pieces of furniture, could easily fit into any current architectural magazine with ease -- they work.

Many factors converged to make Vancouver such an innovative post-war architectural hot spot: the forest industry's need to create demand for plywood; the need for more family housing; and the often dramatic and challenging vertical landscapes of West Van and North Van. Canadian style magazines from 1950 to 1965 might just as well have dubbed it "North Shore Architecture."


I grew up in a part of Vancouver called the British Properties, up on Hollyburn Mountain on the North Shore. It was a suburban subdivision begun in the 1930s by the Guinness family, who bought the land for some ridiculously low price. They then built Lions Gate Bridge in 1938, to link this land to the downtown core.

Anyway, a few years back, through a chain of circumstances too complex to relate here, I ended up spending a weekend at a Guinness castle in Ireland. This sounds much grander than it really was--chilly, rooms painted odd colours, taxidermied bits of endangered species--quite mad and sad. Abounding on the walls were photos of fat old lords with guns, standing behind hundreds of dead birds and animals--to be expected, I suppose. But then I looked at the names of the places-- Biddesden, Hadden, Pyrford, Elveden -- and realized that all the streets around where I'd grown up were named after these rich fat dead English guys or their estates or their black Labradors or what have you. And then I had this almost psychic vision of these fat old rich guys sitting around a fire in a London club one night sixty-five years ago naming all the British Properties' streets and getting big chuckles and ha-has as they named a street after "the bartender Fruity, killed when he got sloshed and stole Lady Quimby's electric car at Badminton last summer and drove it into the tables beside the croquet pitch."

England's relationship to Vancouver isn't all tea and crumpets. The English pretty much sucked all they could out of Vancouver for the first decades of the twentieth century: natural resources, men to fight their battles, rents, development profits. We were a branch plant cynically manipulated from afar. This process continues to this day, and I wonder to what degree anglophilia is encouraged simply as a calculated ruse to ensure further compliance from provincial bumpkins. For instance, that area you see above the highway on the North Shore, the one that resembles a dog's shaved stomach after it's been sewn up after an operation -- it's all owned by the English and is going to be paved and filled with the ugliest houses imaginable within a few decades. And there's nothing anybody can do, because some morons sold all the land for pennies back in the early part of the century. I hope someday there's a mass revolt and the land gets taken back, but that kind of thing never happens. So shave away, lads.


Statistics vary, but roughly one-quarter of Vancouverites speak Chinese at home. Punjabi and Vietnamese are second and third, with French a distant ninth, after Italian. To Americans and Europeans, this demographic mix is startling and seems almost like a "parallel universe." What if history had been rerouted in other ways? What if the continent had been settled from the west to the east, instead of from east to west?

I once took a night course in Cantonese, thinking it would be like Japanese, and boy was I wrong -- it is much harder than Japanese. But the most intriguing thing about the class was the mix of students. They were largely non-Asian men and women marrying into Cantonese-speaking households. One of them was a punk with a pierced nose and orange mohawk, learning to count to ten and to name the days of the week. Afterward, his girlfriend and future granny would come to pick him up, and granny would drill her future grandson-in-law like a marine sergeant, making darned sure he used only the honorific form when addressing her.


Vancouver isn't really a global corporate headquarters to much of anything. Instead it's a bedroom community to the global meritocracy -- a clan that tends to be morally and socially disengaged from local political issues. Perhaps because of the city's lack of distinct corporate entities, it is, along with many cities of the so-called Cascadia region, a wellspring of dissent against the forces of bland global corporate nothingness. The sight of U.S. riot troops tear-gassing young people out of a burning Seattle downtown core during the 1999 WTO meeting set a young Vancouverite's heart aflutter with noble thoughts.

In this same vein, it was in a Vancouver basement, in 1971, that Greenpeace was founded in anticipation of the U.S. government's detonation, on the Alaskan island of Amchitka, of a five-megaton Spartan missile warhead at the bottom of a 1.8-kilometre vertical shaft. The blast was labelled "Cannikin," and it took place on the afternoon of November 6. I was in a McDonald's restaurant for the first time, at the corner of Pemberton and Marine Drive in North Van, frightened beyond medical retrieval, waiting for the world to end in a blizzard of melting Hamburglars. The detonation, unnoticed everywhere else on the planet, electrified two Vancouver generations. Greenpeace went forth from fringe obscurity to radicalize much of the rest of the planet.

In general, Big is suspect. Vancouver distrusts Big. We don't want Big. Big is to be fought. The country's prime minister visits Vancouver as little as possible -- and we all know it. During those rare visits, elaborate efforts are made to ensure that the prime minister is neither egged nor ignored. It's the way it's been for all of the city's life.


The clusters of Japanese teenagers are one of the more exotic style tribes in Vancouver, jet-lagged and giddy from having recently escaped straitlaced Japan, all of them dressed to the teeth in outfits of breathtaking hipness, trying out Rollerblades for the first time along the Stanley Park end of the Georgia Street corridor -- surely one of the city's most cutthroat and ill-tempered stretches of pavement. Death can be only moments away.

The existence of untold thousands of such carefree slackersomethings is, if nothing else, a major reason there are so many good and inexpensive Japanese restaurants -- as well as a steady pipeline of Hello Kitty products. For these young people, Vancouver is an affordable, chaperone-free idyll before they enter Japan's corporate meat grinder. Here, they get to wear wacky outfits, sleep in, drink too much, get violently homesick, and attend language school -- deeply ironic, as most of these funsters will never speak an English word in their lives if they can help it.


A few years ago I was driving downtown when I heard on the radio that a dead grey whale had washed up in English Bay. Without further thought, I drove there to see it. It was mid-afternoon on a glorious Technicolor blue-sky day, and already a fair crowd had gathered around what, from a distance, appeared to be a fishing boat or a yacht lying on its side.

Up close the whale's skin was charcoal grey and covered in barnacles like a boat's hull, or like Deck-Kote marine paint. Local marine biologists were there taking samples to try and figure out why the whale had beached itself. From the head they'd cut a square chunk of tissue the size, thickness, and shape of a sofa cushion. It was orange and flaky-looking, like a tin of canned salmon. In the open mouth, I could see the whale's baleen -- thin fibrous strands it had used to filter out larger objects. It looked like a wiry broom, like an antique Japanese comb.

What really struck me was who'd come to see the whale -- people who'd been working at their desks or photocopying or having meetings, who'd maybe heard about the whale while in the cafeteria listening to the local news and ez-listening station, and then suddenly dropped everything and scurried off to see it. Men wore ties; women were dressed in their office clothes. Everybody was scrambling over rocks coated with razor-sharp blue mussels and barnacles. One woman had snagged her pantyhose on a piece of driftwood; another had lost the heel of her shoe; one guy had stepped in a tidal pool and soaked his leather brogue, but I'll bet you a million bucks none of them cared.

When non-Vancouverites make passé quips about the "Save the Whales" slogan, Vancouverites think, "What -- you want to kill the whales then?" Ecocynicism is a one-way ticket out of town. Use it sparingly if at all.


Richmond is the part of town located on the flat Fraser River delta area south of the airport. Locals call it "Ditchmond," but only they get to call it that. Richmond used to be pumpkin, corn, strawberry, and blueberry fields up until recent decades. Now it's one great big condominium, which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that, when the Big One comes -- and it will come -- the whole place will sink into soil that has liquefied into chocolate pudding, just like San Francisco's Marina District in 1989.

Vancouver doesn't get the same number of earthquakes as California, but we're part of the same tectonic system. The fact that there hasn't been an earthquake in a while only means that the one we do get will be huge. The city has been quietly seismically upgrading its water and bridge systems over the past few years. The city knows.

Richmond is popular with Vancouver's Asian community because its name contains the word "rich," and hence is lucky. I'm not making this up. My Asian friends also tell me that they like the fact the airport is nearby and that their grandparents are suspicious of bridges, which, during times of war, tend to be destroyed -- "And then where would that leave you?" Asian culture is ancient, and they know stuff we can't even imagine. During the Great War of 2087, Richmond might well be the place to be.


Some weeks ago I went to see a Hollywood thriller that was filmed last year, partly in front of my father's office building in North Vancouver. In the movie, North Vancouver was "Boulder, Colorado," and throughout the movie Vancouver doubled as Seattle, Denver, New Orleans, and a few other cities, none of them Vancouver. The thing is, Vancouver can neatly morph into just about any North American city save for those in the American Southwest, and possibly Miami.

Once, in Helsinki, I was in a hotel where the TV had six channels. Five were showing made-in-Vancouver cable films, and the sixth was CNN. I phoned my mom and we watched CNN simultaneously. It felt sort of like home.

Vancouver is North America's third-largest film and TV production centre after Los Angeles and New York. But you don't hear people talk about it much, and you don't see it seep into daily life the way it does in Los Angeles. This is not so much local modesty as it is a reflection of the fact that a lot of us feel uncomfortable about the movies-of-the-week and made-for-cable filming done here. It's not quite cheese, but. . . . To be blunt, many Vancouverites feel damn pimpy about the fact that we never get to be our own city in any of these movies. We used to say, "Yes, but The Accused was filmed here, and Jodie Foster got an Oscar for it!" But that was a long time ago, and it's wearing thin.


Vancouver originally had not one, but many names given to it by its first residents, the Stó:lo-- Nation, but most Vancouverites didn't know this until recently. By the same token, the Queen Charlotte Islands up north are called "Haida Gwaii," which makes good sense, as the Haida were the first folks there. I heard somebody on the radio once say, "Who the hell was Queen Charlotte?" Good question -- and so Haida Gwaii it is.

Growing up in Vancouver, you end up with a slightly schizoid relationship with First Nations cultures. In elementary school, you colour in totem poles and make Haida-style masks. Years go on, and everywhere you look, Native motifs are splashed about. You're told, "This is your culture, this is part of your heritage." But then you get older and realize that, well, it's actually somebody else's heritage, and you have no claim to it at all. This makes you feel queasy about the time spent thinking it was your own culture. And if First Nations culture isn't part of your heritage, then what should be your relationship with it? Do you respectfully keep your distance? Do you try and get involved? And what are you to make of the crowds who flock to stare at the totem poles in Stanley Park?

Native land rights are probably the biggest issue facing the province of B.C., let alone Vancouver. Unlike the U.S. and other parts of Canada, we never fought any major wars with the First Nations peoples, nor were there any treaties -- land simply got taken, so it's all mucky and undefined. Should this issue come to a head the same week that various Asian scenarios go critical and the Big One hits, Vancouver is going to be one heck of an interesting place to be.

From the book City of Glass by Douglas Coupland, to be published October 28, 2000, by Douglas & McIntyre v