With some surprise I see that this year's RAIC festival is in Nanaimo. Gone are the days when only large cities could host large conferences, by dropping down in size, clearly new, interesting venues are available. That said, Nanaimo? I look carefully at the tours and significant buildings: very few, if any, in the public domain. For someone who lives in Nanaimo it seems to be one very long highway of strung out malls and car lots, and a struggling downtown where rents are so high that a third of the storefronts are empty. And then a tragic mistake made some years ago, to take away one side of a third of Commercial Street, the crooked main street that originally followed the coastline, by building a convention centre, all smoked glass and blank street wall. I’m confused about it being considered an architectural destination worthy of an RAIC conference. Perhaps, however, architecture isn’t about architecture any more, rather it is about culture and community: get these right and then one’s heart will be in the right place to do an appropriate architecture.
I wonder if this is correct?
The conference theme is Connexions, why this strange spelling is not clear. Perhaps it is to update the idea that all will be well if we only connect, in this case, the public and the architects of Canada. Shawn Atleo is one of the speakers. First Nations have been rewarded with significant architectural attention in recent decades, something difficult to reconcile with the inability to get basic infrastructure right in the northern reserves: are community centres, schools and friendship centres meant to be seed projects for continued federal attention that might spill over into schooling, health, safety? Patrick Stewart (Tzeachten First Nation) and Alfred Waugh (West Vancouver), both First Nations architects, illustrate two generations of aboriginal architecture. Patrick Stewart, older, shows late post-modern commercial on his website, Waugh, a more recent graduate, the Peter Busby-inflected architecture of curves and exposed structure. Oh, and Peter Busby is a speaker as well.
The connections appear to be green building, first nations needs and small town planning. In theory, this might lead to the development of a vernacularism not based on historic models, but on present needs: small towns are more intimately connected with First Nations, especially in British Columbia; there is the powerful westcoast legacy of Greenpeace, David Suzuki, environmental activism and a new aboriginal veto on industrial development of pipelines, mining and logging; and there is a particular geography of separations in British Columbia – islands, valleys, coastal settlements. This is a distinctive trifecta that indeed could lead to an originary architecture, if allowed to naturalise itself.
I’m an optimistic person, I hope this is what this conference leads to.