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Wood, Brick & Glass: The Fabric of Vancouver

Old Vancouver was a city built of wood and brick, the complete antithesis of today's slender glass towers. The earliest wooden structures of pioneer Vancouver were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1886, after which brick became more common for commercial buildings. Walk through Gastown ("Walking Tour 2"), and you'll get a glimpse of what "downtown" Vancouver looked like in the late 19th century. If you stroll through the residential West End, you'll encounter remnants of Old Vancouver in the form of big sturdy wooden houses with high front porches and sober, not-too-extravagant trim.

Though some "heritage buildings" still remain in Vancouver's Old Town and Chinatown, the face of the city you see today is undeniably new. Starting in the 1960s, misguided city planners and developers seemed intent on demolishing every last vestige of the city's pioneer past, replacing old brick and wood buildings with an array of undistinguished concrete high-rises and blocky eyesores. It was called "urban renewal." Citizen outcry finally got the bulldozers to stop their rampage. A few tiny pockets of original buildings are scattered among the downtown high-rises, most notably Mole Hill.

What was lost? Vancouver as it used to be -- a place where you could stand at any downtown street corner and have an unobstructed view of the sea in every direction. With a couple of notable exceptions, such as the Sun Tower, the tallest building in the British Empire when it was built at Beatty and Pender streets in 1911, the 25-story Marine Tower (which took over the title as tallest building in the British Empire when it was built in 1929 at Burrard and Hastings sts.), and the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, the big Canadian Pacific Railroad hotel built downtown in 1939, the city was more low-rise than high-rise. Luckily, all three of those landmarks remain, as does the Vancouver Art Gallery, a neoclassical gem built in 1907 to serve as the city's courthouse.

The same city planners responsible for bulldozing so much of the old city in the late 1950s and 1960s encouraged the development of high-rise residential towers in Vancouver's West End, a scheme that was intended to create a compact urban core amenable to public transit, cycling, and pedestrian traffic. According to the 2006 census (the last available), Vancouver's population density on the downtown peninsula is 5,335 people per sq. kilometer (13,817 people per sq. mile). Vancouver is rare among North American cities for having this kind of dense (and desirable) downtown core where people live, work, and play.

A building boom for Expo '86 was spurred on by enormous amounts of cash pouring in (along with thousands of immigrants) from Hong Kong and Asia. The new quarter-block residential towers, made of glass and steel, are much lighter looking than those from times past, and have helped to generate Vancouver's hip, international image. It's this new construction, with the "view corridors" and sustainable urban planning that go with it, that have made Vancouver a model for livability.

A strong economy and the 7-year frenzy leading up to the 2010 Winter Games fueled what many believe was Vancouver's last major building boom; there simply isn't any more land to transform. Hence, the city continues to pursue progressive policies intended to increase density as an alternative to sprawl and to encourage environmental sustainability. For example, proposals to build high-rises in historic Chinatown are on a developer's agenda, a seeming extension for conversions of some of Gastown's heritage warehouses into funky condos and offices. The new buildings are characterized as mixed-use development, allowing street-level commerce and life to flourish. Though this booming city may now have its head in the clouds, it retains a street-level friendliness and accessibility. In fact, developing urban centers with mixed-use development has been referred to as "Vancouverism" because of the apparent success of such development.

Francis Rattenbury: Famous Architect & Murder Victim

Born in Leeds, England, Francis Mawson Rattenbury moved to the new Canadian province of British Columbia in 1891, where he won (despite having no formal architectural training) a competition to build a new legislative building in Victoria. Built on a grand scale in the Romanesque style, the Legislature (Parliament) Buildings opened in 1898 and led to more commissions. In Victoria, as Western Division Architect for the Canadian Pacific Railway, Rattenbury designed the château-style Empress Hotel, which opened in 1908, and the original CPR Steamship Terminal (1924). In Vancouver, he designed the Victorian Roedde House (1893) and the neoclassical Courthouse (1907) that serves today as the Vancouver Art Gallery. Then, as quickly as he'd become famous, Rattenbury and his architecture fell out of favor. Financial speculations led to conflicts with his business partners, and in 1923, he left his wife and two children for 27-year-old Alma Pakenham, an affair that led to public ostracism and contributed to his decision to leave Victoria and move to Bournemouth, England, in 1929. There, his relationship with Alma disintegrated as his financial problems worsened, and she began an affair with George Percy Stoner, her 18-year-old chauffeur. In 1935, aged 68, Rattenbury was murdered in his sitting room, suffering blows to the head with a carpenter's mallet from his killer. His wife and Stoner were charged, and Stoner was convicted and sentenced to death, although the sentence was later commuted to a life imprisonment (he served 7 years). Alma committed suicide a few days after the charges against her were dropped. The event was made into the 1977 play Cause Célèbre by Terence Rattigan.

Bill Reid: First Among First Nations Artists

William (Bill) Ronald Reid is the best-known of Canada's aboriginal or First Nations artists, and the man who helped to save and revitalize the traditions of Haida art and culture. Born in Victoria to a father of European descent and a mother from the Haida people, Reid first learned about his aboriginal heritage from his maternal grandfather, a Haida artist of great renown. While working as a radio announcer in Toronto, Reid developed his interest in Haida art and studied jewelry making. In 1951, he returned to Vancouver to help salvage many intricately carved totem poles decaying in abandoned Haida village sites and to aid in the reconstruction of a Haida village in the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology. Working in traditional Haida forms, Reid made jewelry of gold, silver, and argillite before branching out into larger sculptures. Visitors to Vancouver can see two of Bill Reid's most magnificent works -- the Jade Canoe, at Vancouver International Airport, is a large bronze sculpture of a canoe filled with human and animal figures; the Legend of the Raven and the First Humans, a Haida creation myth carved from Nootka cypress (yellow cedar), occupies pride of place at the UBC Museum of Anthropology -- and also visit the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, which showcases a selection of his work. Reid's work is also featured on the C$20 note in the Bank of Canada's Canadian Journey (2004) issue.

Native Art of the Northwest: A Culture of Carving

The art of the first peoples of the Pacific Northwest is colorful, distinctive, and absolutely unique. It is, in its essence, sacred art meant to provide a bridge between the spirit and animal world (through a shaman) and the world of humans. Pacific Northwest First Nations art was almost always carved from rot-resistant cedar wood (or alder wood) and brightly painted with natural pigments; hairlike strands of cedar bark were sometimes attached. Totem poles, the most familiar pieces of native art, were originally erected in front of village longhouses to identify clans, memorialize ancestors, and denote status. But the great carving tradition of the First Nations artists also includes dramatic and sometimes frightening ceremonial and transformation masks; drums and rattles; boxes, feast dishes, and spoons; and canoes and paddles. The distinctive carvings and painted surfaces memorialize myths and mythological creatures; spirits both good and bad; and familiar animals of the sea, sky, and land.

By the 1950s, after a century of physical and cultural decimation, the great carving traditions were on the verge of being lost forever. Efforts by Bill Reid, working with the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver and the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, helped to save major First Nations artworks and revive the carving tradition.

Figures that recur over and over in Pacific Northwest First Nations art include the mythological Thunderbird and the more familiar animals that native tribes encountered, observed, and hunted: Raven, Bear, Salmon, Eagle, Killer Whale (Orca), Beaver, Hawk, Owl, Kingfisher, Wren, Grouse, Frog, and Bee. Stylized masks represent humans and elements of the natural world (Sun, Wind, Moon). These spirits' images are often carved into masks (note that many variant spellings exist for these names):

  • Bakwas -- Wild man of the woods, chief of the ghosts
  • Dzunukwa -- Giant wild woman of the woods, bringer of gifts at the potlatch
  • Huxwhukw -- Cannibal bird
  • Kolus -- One of the great thunderbirds, ancestor
  • Kumugwe -- Lord of the Undersea
  • Noomis -- Ancestor, born an old man at the beginning of time
  • Nulamal -- Fool dancer
  • Pugmis -- Sea equivalent of Bakwas, collector of souls
  • Pugwis -- Messenger of the Lord of the Undersea
  • Pook-ubs -- Figure who is a victim of the sea with white body and skeletal face
  • Sisiutl -- Double-sided serpent with face in the middle

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.