A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


A Failure Of Our Reactive Media
Saturday, August 29, 2009

I took the photograph above of architect Arthur Erickson as he entered "his" VAG when it was inaugurated in 1983.

For two months I taught two photography classes at Focal Point on West 10th avenue in June and July. My classes were from 2 to 5 and from 7 to 10. What was I going to do for those two hours between classes? My friend Abraham Rogatnick lived around the corner so I suggested we meet somewhere to eat something light and chat. Abraham suggested a place oddly called T Room Bakery and Kitchenware on 4445 West 10th Avenue.

Abraham would walk with his sturdy cane the one and a half blocks (a steep climb coming) and we met around 5:10. We soon found out that the T Room had a garden in the back with chairs and tables with awnings. The female Chinese owner had lived for man years I Brazil and not only spoke Portuguese but excellent Spanish. We soon felt at home and Abraham had a fondness for the flaky palmiers (the dark ones were his choice) while I enjoyed the eggplant sandwiches and the delicious and strong Kemba tea from Africa.

We would chat until the T Room would close at 6 and we would slowly walk back to Abraham’s house where we would continue with our conversation until around 6:45 when I would head for my class.

In one of our meetings Abraham brought architect Bruno Freschi whom I had never had had the fortune to meet. In that meeting and in several ones after Abraham told me, “I would like to get this off my chest and go public before I die." I did not know then that he knew he was going to die soon. He wasn’t kidding. I told him I would see what I could do.

Abraham believed that our VAG in its present location was at an ideal location. It is the city’s centre. It is in the back steps that political manifestations are held. Robson Square is there even in its reduced form and now covered in tarps and with work that few know what its purpose might be.

Abraham taught art history and history of architecture at UBC for many years. Some of his students include Bruno Freschi, Henry Hawthorn, Bing Thom, Paul Merrick, and many more including one odd one, Glen Clark! With his background and his two Harvard degrees (one in architecture) Abraham had the credentials for sound opinions. It was his opinion that from the middle ages art galleries and centres of learning were always placed in the centre of the city. He cited the Louvre, the National Gallery in Washington DC and the Metropolitan in New York. “It would be cuckoo to move a gallery from that centre,” he said to me, gesticulating and using that favourite word of his, cuckoo. He explained how E.M. Pei had gone underground at the Louvre and beautifully combined the old building that was the old National Gallery with a modern extension in concrete that was almost seamless in its transition from marble to the concrete. Since I have been to those two museums and to the Metropolitan I was able to agree with him and to further agree that to dig down on the Georgia Street side of the gallery was a good idea. “There is lots of room down there. We don’t have to have a Pei glass pyramid there but it would be a marvelous opportunity to get rid of that awful rock fountain.

That rock fountain was Arthur Erickson’s bête noire. Erickson hated it (I do too!) and was never able to convince anybody about it. Last year I asked him about the equally ugly Olympic countdown clock. His one word was, “Awful.” Abraham told me that he only heard Erickson swear once since he had met the man back in 1955.

Abraham said that the two proposed sites for the VAG were equally cuckoo. The whole city block that was the old Greyhound Station was too far from the centre and too close to the theatre district in his opinion. Abraham wanted to install West End type housing (families without children as no schools are near that area) and a large park and shops. He had even done some sketches based on topography charts he had obtained from Bing Thom. The other site at the Plaza of Nations has land that is still settling. As a matter of fact ex-mayor Sam Sullivan’s office is there and he has noted how his office has been sinking. Bruno Freschi, our Expo 86 architect confirms the land is unsuitable.

I decided to do some research and talked to Max Wyman and architect Henry Hawthorn. In what seems to have been separate planning meetings as Wyman and Hawthorn were not in the same room plans were discussed which included the incorporation of at least two floors of the Cesar Pelli Simpson Sears building (ex-Eaton’s) and its linking to the VAG by either underground escalators or elevated walkways.

“Surely, these would be cheaper solutions to the alternative of starting from scratch somewhere else,” Abraham told me with a luxury of detail that has no place in this blog.

I made this list:

1. CBC, On The Coast
2. Studio 4, Fanny Kiefer Show
3. Bill Good Radio Program
4. David Beers at the Tyee
5. The Editor-and-chief of the Vancouver Sun
6. Two columnists, Fiona Morrow and Tom Hawthorn at the Globe.
7. Paul Grant the arts reporter at the CBC was retiring at this time so he was never an option.

And this was the result of my efforts:

1. The CBC was a maybe and then I heard no more.
2. Studio 4 told me that the VAG was too Vancouver and not enough BC.
3. Bill Good never responded.
4. David Beers of the Tyee did respond to tell me he would keep it as an option when the VAG did become an issue.
5. The Editor-in-Chief responded to say she had forwarded my communication to the Editorial Page Editor.
6. There was no response from the Globe writers.

It soon became evident to me that our conventional media as it is today in Vancouver is a reactive media. Few will take the chance on being first in blowing the whistle to a future issue or problem.

For a while I suspected that Abraham's stance on the VAG was to defend the legacy of his friend Arthur Erickson and that of Francis Rattenbury. "No, no, no!" he angrily told me. "It is about its location. It is in the middle of the city. That is where it is and should be. I would be a folly to move it."

As Abraham got worse I understood that the TV or radio was no longer an option. Ex counselor Gordon Price and Max Wyman both suggested that an OpEd at the Vancouver Sun would be the most likely vehicle for Abraham Rogatnick’s proposal. I told Abraham that the best possibility of success was to write the OpEd and submit it. I was ready to take dictation on a computer. But Abraham’s health deteriorated quickly and nothing was ever written down.

I wonder if there is anybody in Vancouver willing to pick up the fallen baton.


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