Some Kind of Terrible: The Festivalization of Architecture

Way back in May, we stumbled upon the grand, public opening of Vancouver’s Olympic Village (redubbed Millennium Water) built to house athletes and officials during the 2010 Winter Games. There, masses lined up at a few small apertures in the “village’s” perimeter fence, its uniformed private security guards holding positions throughout the development’s grounds.  The price of entry was a brochure with an attached and schlocky 2010 Games pin, which the folks at Millennium dressed in a suspiciously artsy “limited edition” label. The brochure and line-ups set up a kind of a “celebratory” preamble to what was an unusual and rather telling event symbolizing the festivalization of architecture.

Inside, a number of canopied and manned booths were visible, lining a main plaza space that aped a public square, whose centre had a makeshift bandstand to present live music performed by the city’s Fire Department band. The booths’ occupants were a motley lot unified under the eerie umbrella term “community marketplace.” Consisting of city departments, utility companies (BC Hydro), a national drug store chain (London Drugs), a local gourmet grocery (Urban Fare), national bank (Canada Trust), newspaper (Vancouver Sun) and broadcast media (CKNW radio) outlets, high end athletic gear retailers, ecotour companies (Ziptrek), and Starbucks and McDonald’s, among others, the booths showcased existing and specific organizations, but in reality represented a more generic trend, namely strategic public/private partnerships set up between government, finance, retail, media, and other industries to build, communicate, and circulate consensus values.

Besides music and food, balloons, Olympic medals, and prizes (including a “prizehome”) were available, contributing further to a festival atmosphere. Apparently, over the course of the day more than 12,000 visitors circulated through the development many of whom stood waiting sometimes over an hour to see the condo suites on display. Billed both as a waterfront condo community and Vancouver’s last waterfront property, it was striking to see how marketing for this development extended beyond this contradictory sales lingo and into strategies of spatialization and festivalization, as well as “sustainability” discourse.

For instance, the central plaza, masked as public space in this festival, gave the appearance of a friendly and accessible zone, where one’s civic and consumer needs and desires might be met and perhaps even exceeded. In this zone, one could imagine music providing the soundtrack to gourmet afternoon picnics taken in artfully landscaped patches of native flora. Close by public art, park benches, and, the waterfront might allow for the experience to coalesce into a short-term serenity.  Moreover, residents of the development might feel further at ease because “sustainable” building practices were used to construct their homes.

I am not at all opposed to green building and personally support methods of reducing waste and energy in construction and other processes, but it is revealing that the development’s architectural designs were not marketed at the grand opening so much as its other features, including its sustainability practices, Olympic heritage, so-called last waterfront property, and, of course, its “community” and “marketplace.”  I am, thanks to a rather profound article by Jeff Derksen for Fillip 12, extremely suspicious of the term sustainability and ask what it can possibly mean if it does not take into account social equality as a pre-requisite for sustainability? How can we be sustainable if our society is built upon inequalities?  For whom are we sustainable? Given that Vancouver has a notorious and visible homeless population, the exclusionary basis of this development and the celebration of its exclusivity is troubling at minimum. The fact is is that a perimeter fence kept people out of simply walking into the village grounds and the purchase price of housing in this development will continue to keep people from getting in. By way of example, starting sales prices for 600 sq. ft. condos were $595 k while the larger units ranged from $1 to $4 million.

In this sense, the title of this post is a bit off because the grand opening was not a festivalization of architecture per se, but rather a festivalization of real estate. This is not to say that the architecture here is irrelevant. And, there might be a building or two within the development that is interesting on a design level, but the entire project as a whole privileges real estate over architecture and as such can never make the site itself more than property, a cladding of concrete, glass, and other materials formed around a hollow centre. While the buildings attempt to break away from the monotony of the blue-green glass skyline that dominates Vancouver’s tourist literature, the “architectural diversity” here feels forced, thin, and synthetic. It is a simulation of vitality and organic urbanism, the kind that makes a place feel metropolitan or cosmopolitan. Alain de Botton has, I think, lodged one of the most succint and insightful criticisms against Vancouver’s architecturescape, calling it a “plague of condos.”

In thinking about my experience at the Olympic Village grand opening, I was reminded of Streamside Day Follies a work by Pierre Huyghe from 2003. Here is a description taken from the Dia website:

After opening with scenes from an Edenic landscape, Huyghe’s film traces the formation of a burgeoning community hypothetically located in the Hudson Valley. A young family is seen relocating to the new housing development. The first of two sections limns a mythic kernel that is then instantiated in scenes from a typical inaugural celebration devised to forge communal identity. Orchestrated by the artist for the nascent residential development that served as the prototype for his fictional construct, the celebration boasted a costume parade, a feast, music and other activities. Huyghe’s multifaceted project employs a diverse range of cultural representations garnered from a myriad of references including nineteenth-century utopian social projects, Hollywood films, Disney animation, contemporary fiction writing, and romantic landscape painting.


When I saw the video component of this work at Dia I have to admit I did not care for it much. I found the placement of a faux community festival in a suburban development to be not so interesting considering the context – suburban developments never pretend to be communities. Their developers do not hide the identical and formatted nature of these properties nor do they build community centres to try and pass off these sprawling tracts as tight-knit neighbourhoods. And, everyone knows that this lack of community in the suburbs has alienated countless families and individuals. This is the stuff of great American poetry, literature, music, and film.  So, it seemed odd to me to set the festival in the ‘burbs because it is so kick-you-in-the-head obvious that it is a site of alienation that no festival could soothe. The tension created in Huyghe’s piece was one placed between the innocence and purity of an Edenic landscape shown in the beginning of his video and the forced, dirty-capitalistic festivalization of the housing development, which exploits our yearning for togetherness, community, and home to legitimize the destruction of nature.

Looking back, I can appreciate what Huyghe anticipated – the festivalization of real estate. I think he only misplaced his exploration of social alienation in the suburbs when it should have been the city, or the urban village, in particular.  Also, for all the problems and ugliness of the suburbs, they have in fact offered affordable housing to middle and working class families.  The Millennium development offers no such thing and yet receives subsidies from a city that is made up of these constituents, among others. To pass it off as a kind of public square/amusement park at the grand opening felt obscene and Disneyesque.

I will admit that the  park along the development, which extends the South False Creek Seawall, offers something to the general public that is used and appreciated. In this sense, public funds were spent on something for the actual public. Of course, we must then ask at what cost and distance? Does this project create an opportunity for the city’s maximum enjoyment?

I do not know. All I do know is that there is something rotten in Denmark.

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