NB: This is the text of an essay submitted for the class “EDCP 403: Visual Arts for Classroom Practice” in the Faculty of Education at UBC.
On the corner of Broughton and Comox Streets stands The Lauren, an eclectic apartment building in Vancouver’s West End. On the one hand, The Lauren is nothing special: it’s just another apartment building in a city chockablock with glossy high-rises. On the other, it is determinedly atypical. The Lauren’s website attributes its unusual design to de Stijl principles, but to the untrained eye—or indeed, to the especially well-trained one—it seems less a unified homage to that minimalistic movement, and more a bricolage of influences and styles, from de Stijl to Arts and Crafts to postmodern deconstructivism. Everything about the place screams “both/and,” not “either/or”: there is a wide, columned entranceway adorned with a mosaic of stained-glass windows; from the sides of the building, balconies jut out in irregular patterns of curved, organic lines and jagged, toothlike triangles; and, teetering on its axis at the corner of the lot, like the masthead on the prow of this landlocked ship, “Triumph of the Technocrat” steers the eye toward its unbashful ostentation.
“Triumph” is the work of Reece Terris, a Vancouver-based artist whose practice includes sculpture, installation, photography, and performance. The site-specific installation, placed when The Lauren was completed in 2014, consists of two enormous, flat-planed spheres slotted into each other at an angle, so that one, rooted into its circular, fountaining pedestal, intersects the other to create simultaneous impressions of collision and balance. Insofar as the lopsided piece looks like it could fall over at any moment, “Triumph” presents a movement frozen in time, just on the edge of precipitous decline. The work manifests a salient commentary on the material nature of history, as the spheres used in “Triumph” are constructed out of wood and iron girders salvaged from the church that used to occupy the site. A nearby tombstone marker offers commemoration: leftover from the church’s original foundation, it reads “St. John’s Presbyterian Church. July 23—A.D. 1906.” Another reminder of the site’s heritage, a mosaic of salvaged stained-glass pieces set into the Mondrian-red titles of The Lauren’s façade, offers a literal and metaphorical window onto the past.
Equally important to understanding this sculpture is understanding its context. “Triumph” hovers above a reflecting pool, which itself flows down into a bubbling waterworks, a stream that flows from the base of the sculpture downhill to the bottom of a garden in The Lauren’s front yard. In this garden, there is a public drinking fountain, a tire pump for bikes, and wooden benches for sitting. By all appearances, The Lauren seems to be inviting the neighbourhood onto its front lawn, thereby blurring the line between public and private, between what’s mine and what’s yours. This “public” space is, doubtless, an attempt to give back to the community, to avoid—or counteract—charges that developments like The Lauren are gentrifying formerly affordable neighbourhoods. Indeed, considering that The Lauren—which received development funding from the City of Vancouver under the parameters of the city’s Affordable Housing Programming—rents its suites for between $1800 and $2925 a month, the public-private line may not be quite as blurry as its landscapers would have us believe. So, then, is The Lauren truly a progressive, inclusive, communitarian urban space, or is it just another “bougey” apartment complex, no better than the dime-a-dozen high-rises in Yaletown and Coal Harbour?
A poem engraved into the wall of the little river offers an answer of sorts—or rather, opens the question to greater interpretive possibilities. Written by Terris and Gary Snyder, the text reads:
A SLOW WET MEANDER ALONG THE STONED PLAZA OF FRENETIC URBAN STRUCTURE TOWARD THE DEMIURGE OF PUBLIC ART, THE FISCAL TRACE OF EXACTING DEVELOPMENT MOVING WITH PYTHAGOREAN ACUITY THE EARTHLY OBJECTS OF OUR COLLECTIVE CULTURE THROUGH THE BUREAU OF CIVIC DEMAD, THE SPIRIT OF HEAVENLY SMOKE SPIRALS FROM THE BURNT WOOD OF TRANSCENDENT ASPIRATION OVER THE LONG MARSH OF PANTHEISTIC DECOR AS THE SEEMLY SECULAR RISES AROUND US AND ART SLUICES DOWN A CRAFTY PIPE—SLEEPY SOUNDS OF SOFT DISTRACTION LIKE ANY OTHER TO TAKE OUR NEVER MINDS OFF MATTER’S PRESS—WHILE OVER HERE A WORK ROLLS THE GYRE UNTANGLING FACTS OF THE CIVIC AND ARCHITECTONIC UP SCALED FOR PERPETUITY’S LONG VIEW (FIFTY YEARS, MAX) IN A DEVICE FOR REFLEXION CALLED TRIUMPH OF THE TECHNOCRAT
On the page, it is impossible to recreate the experience of encountering this poem, as it is engraved on the low wall of the “crafty pipe” and cannot be read statically—one must travel uphill alongside the wall to read against the flow of the water, from the “end” of the river to its “origin” beneath the “Triumph.” Moreover, when I visited in mid-July, the landscaped bushes, flowers, and trees had grown high enough that trying to read the written words through the overwritten layer of branches and leaves was, at times, like deciphering a palimpsest.
The poem itself speaks to the very processes in which The Lauren is complicit: the little river is the “SLOW WET MEANDER,” while the artwork of the sculpture and the garden are the “FISCAL TRACE” of developments like The Lauren, which “[MOVE] WITH PYTHAGOREAN ACUITY THE EARTHLY OBJECTS OF OUR COLLECTIVE CULTURE THROUGH THE BUREAU OF CIVIC DEMAND.” In other words: gentrification has come to the West End. The next references are likely to the religious past of the site and its supplementation by a nonreligious urban space—“HEAVENLY SMOKE SPIRALS FROM THE BURNT WOOD OF TRANSCENDENT ASPIRATION”, clearing to reveal “THE SEEMLY SECULAR”—while the poem concludes with a humorous acknowledgement that, in a city developing as rapidly as Vancouver, “PERPETUITY’S LONG VIEW” is “FIFTY YEARS, MAX.” It is the phrase located between the dashed interruptions—“SLEEPY SOUNDS OF SOFT DISTRACTION LIKE ANY OTHER TO TAKE OUR NEVER MINDS OFF MATTER’S PRESS”—that acknowledges the redemptive qualities of the space, and represents our best impulses: our ability to sit awhile in stillness by a river or in a garden; and our occasional generous impulse, even in the midst of very expensive, very luxurious, very exclusive development, to create an opportunity for one’s neighbours to do just that.
What is a technocrat? The word is related to the idea of “technocracy,” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “Government or control by an elite of technical experts”; and “A society, community, etc., governed or controlled by such a group” (“Technocracy”). The technocrat in question, then, may be one such privileged member of society, a beneficiary of civilization’s best engineering and best design—the kind of person who might live in a building like The Lauren, perhaps, and whom might be said to have “triumphed” in some ambiguous sense. Or perhaps we are to understand this technocrat even more metaphorically, as representative of the trend in locations like Vancouver towards increased urbanization, gentrification, exclusivity, luxury, and technocracy, so that the technocrat is in some sense all of us and none of us—a process, not an identity. Either way, the sculpture and its landscaped setting make a decidedly ambiguous statement about the very processes that occasioned—and financed—their coming-into-being.
This artwork and its immediate historical and geographical contexts provide myriad opportunities for teaching. They offer jumping-off points for discussions about the nature of the public and private spheres; they inspire reflections on local trends that are, nonetheless, global in terms of their proliferation and implications; they offer a “hook” into the place-based pedagogies of B.C.’s First Nations Principles of Learning; and they speak to the intersections of political, social, cultural, and identarian concerns that are the hallmark of contemporary art criticism. A field trip to a site like this offers a viable alternative to the traditional gallery visit; or perhaps students could use the example of “Triumph” as a productive creative restraint to inspire their own artistic practices, whether visual, written, performative, or what have you.
Oxford English Dictionary. (N.d.) “Technocracy.” Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/198461?redirectedFrom=technocracy#eid.
Richardson, Don. (27 January 2015). “Triumph of the Technocrat.” Retrieved from http://thelasource.com/en/2015/01/26/triumph-of-the-technocrat/.
Westbank Corp. (2014). “Concept.” Retrieved from http://thelauren.ca/concept.