That was brought home to me on one urban plan we worked on, where we tried to convince a municipal steering committee that a certain one-way thoroughfare through their downtown was too wide and intimidating for pedestrians, and therefore effectively was a wall to walkability, street based retail and other positive urban features. Our points about the thoroughfare’s negative impact were dismissed as theory and opinion until we walked groups of people to the relevant intersections. Not only were they unable to cross the street in one Walk light sequence, they couldn’t hear one another speak while standing on the curb. Cars ripped by at near highway speeds.
It was no place for pedestrians. City officials gained a new insight into why people were abandoning their downtown.
In contrast, the leisurely walking tour I took today in the James Bay neighbourhood of Victoria, BC, Canada gave me a new appreciation for the small details of city life and its history. Through those details, though, a big picture perspective on the future also emerged.
The tour was one of a series offered by the Architectural Institute of BC. James Bay is an old neighbourhood featuring a mix of government buildings (including the BC Legislature), neighbourhood commercial buildings, hotels serving Victoria’s tourism industry and a blend of residences of most sizes and shapes. Our focus was on the historic homes of the area, built between the mid 1800s and about 1920.
I have often walked (or run) through James Bay but with a guide and a group, stopping to look and pay greater attention, I developed a different level of appreciation.
Here’s some of what we saw.
As we stopped in front of this house, a painter at work on the side overheard our commentary and called out, “this house has enough trim to build half a dozen regular houses.” I’m not sure that he was wholly appreciative of that impressive level of trim, although I presume he knows how it supports his livelihood.
And it’s not only the wood work that is detailed. Almost every window in this home is a study in stained glass artistry.
And from time to time, just for contrast, our eyes fell on 1950s era apartment blocks like this.
No details to appreciate there.
It was a warm day (positively a scorcher for normally temperate Victoria, hitting 30C / 86F) so the shaded verandas and porches were cool and inviting.
The most famous house in the neighbourhood is the Carr House, long time residence of BC impressionist painter Emily Carr, whose powerful and evocative images of the west coast still give me chills. Her work features much of what we have lost as civilization “developed” and dominated the northwest rain forests. Carr traveled the world but was always drawn back to Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. Her family home is now open to the public.
Most of the homes in James Bay are in good repair but here’s one in need of some TLC. In fact, this property sported a redevelopment notice – the home will be restored and a complementary infill will be constructed beside it on the lot.
Seeing the detailed wood and paint and glass work required in these buildings gives one a new respect for not only the craftspeople who designed and built them but for the current owners and tradespeople who invest and work to restore and preserve this heritage. It is not easy or inexpensive work to undertake, especially in a 21st century economy that values mass production and time efficiency.
As it happens, our last stop of the day was a glorious large home on Government Street where a couple (who I took to be the new owners) were supervising a restoration crew at work.
We were impressed by the level of attention and care required by the work crew.
And as we watched, we also had thoughts about the (no doubt) deep pockets of the owner. This is someone who sees the value in the quality rather than just the quantity of a home. It seems most of today’s wealthy would prefer to show off the square footage rather than the small touches in their homes. It’s great to see that some of the values of an era gone by can linger a century or more later.
It can be said that economic conditions drive our architecture and other aspects of built form. Yet perhaps a case can also be made for an aesthetic – in this case, an appreciation for craftsmanship – driving the economy.