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


Octavian's Marble
Saturday, August 22, 2009

I have been visiting retired architect Abraham Rogatnick daily for the last two weeks. My reward has been an increasing knowledge of art history, architecture and wonderful stories of our city’s leading architects. It seems that Rogatnick, who is now 86 taught many of them. Today, as an example he was telling me of three young students of his who showed promise. These were Paul Merrick, Henry Hawthorne and Bruno Freschi. It was like being in that classroom with Rogatnick and peering into the young faces of three men who have left their stamp on our city.

This is why architects have been on my mind. I looked for the picture of Dr. Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe who is a professor and head of UBC’s Art History, Visual Art Theory Department. In 2005 I photographed Dr. Windsor-Liscombe in one of his favourite spots involving Vancouver architecture. He loved the look of the post office boxes of our main post office on Georgia Street.

Because this is a Federal building I was only able to shoot 5 exposures before we were almost man-handled by security guards who threw us out. In fact I had a just as scary situation when I was attempting to shoot with my panoramic camera inside of the CN Train Station. Tourists can happily snap with their digital cameras but if you show up with something that does not fit that profile you are considered to be a terrorist casing the joint.

I have always been fascinated by our main post office on Georgia across the street from the CBC and opposite the Vancouver Playhouse and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The main post office is supposed to be one of the largest welded steel structures in the world. Since my knowledge of architecture is limited (in spite of Professor Rogatnick’s efforts to change that) I would assert that the building inaugurated September 14, 1958 is a Vancouver salute by architect Bill Leithead to Russian/Rumanian heroic architecture. It certainly is not a wall of glass suspended from a steel interior like some of the office buildings of Vancouver. It is a building that would perhaps be the safest place on earth during an atomic holocaust, particularly the mail transfer tunnel that was built to link the post office to the CPR Train Station at the foot of Seymour. The post office was too late with the tunnel as airmail was the norm. And they got another one wrong as the helipad on the roof has never been used.

For me what makes this building so special is its monumentality. You go in and if you happen to look up you will note the very high ceiling. High ceilings seem to be verboten now as all efforts have been made by some misguided modernist (not in the architectural sense but meaning someone trying to “improve” on the past) to hide it. I like the solidity of a building in a city where so many of the homes seem to be made of cardboard. I was told when I came to Vancouver in 1975 that it was not cardboard but something called gyprock. I also see a comforting familiarity with the buildings of my city of birth, Buenos Aires where Juan Domingo Perón wanted to make sure people remembered him by the endurance of his buildings.

I sometimes abuse my commercial plate and park our car on the back alley next to Holy Rosary Cathedral. From there Rosemary and I (and sometimes Rebecca, too) walk to theatrical performances at the Playhouse or for Ballet BC or Vancouver Opera shows at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. It is pleasant to pass, note, and touch the smooth surface of our post office’s granite walls. Augustus and his Romans liked marble, I like marble. There is very little of it in Vancouver. At least our post office has polished granite.

And unless we are told exactly what is going to happen to our Main Post Office it would seem that our future holds even less marble and granite.


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