The receipt says October 21, 2013. I was at a local restaurant (which shall remain nameless) with two architect girlfriends. As I looked over the restaurant’s faux-Victorian, Yukon gold rush brothel decor (readers of this blog know is something that has been irking me for a while) I asked for their opinions. When they started to get pointed and hilarious I turned the recording app on my phone on. After finding the receipt by accident, I went and dug up the mp3 of our chat as well as photos I took that night.
The conversation we had that night is what led me to start thinking about the mock-colonial aesthetic that has taken over this city and so many others.
Me: Who’s the genius who thought we should do this lighter tile on a circle against flocked burgundy brothel wallpaper?
Architect 1: [She crosses her eyes at this point, then says:] The chairs: such terrible design. Someone thought those were cool in 2002.
Architect 2: Oh come on, 2002. Those are chairs you’d buy at The Brick in 1997. [Pauses…] This place is such a missed opportunity for unique design.
Me: That Frankenstein’s monster of a wooden post/Italianate column. If it’s supposed to be an antique warehouse post, maybe to reference the neighbourhood, why is it plunging into that inexplicable fancy tiled barrel thing? Why does it end halfway down, with moulding tacked on at the join?
Architect 2: That’s to hide where loggers and capitalists meet. Snort.
Architect 1: Maybe they just gone one really huge timber and chopped it up, so they wouldn’t have to pay for as many (there are several of these posts in the room). They probably just bought one timber and then sliced it up for the column so that they didn’t have to make it go to the floor. So that timber probably is sitting on some sort of steel column on top of the foundation…
Me: What would you call this style?
Architect 1: The thin end of a pretty thin wedge.
Me: No but really, what would you call it?
Architect 1: [Flatly, after a pause] It’s a shitshow. It’s fucked up.
Then there was a lot of discussion about waiters in suspenders (photo below) and the meaning of the fetish for gold rush brothel decor and also wondering where the player piano was.
PS The food was excellent that night, and it still is. The overpriced cocktails that night were as bad as the columns, but the drinks have improved since then. The gold rush fantasy, however, lives on.
As a designer interested in history, who feels we should know and acknowledge our history and environment in our work, in some ways I’m torn here. Yes, in some ways this colonial style makes sense in the Vancouver neighbourhood known as Gastown because Gastown is Ground Zero of Vancouver history. Gastown was the terminus of the railway that linked Canada from coast to coast, and its local economy was that of successive resource rushes. Furthermore, an awareness and acknowledgment of our history is important in our effort to counter the affliction of historical amnesia that Vancouver is so famous for. Local architecture and design should reflect this awareness, whether or not their manner of dealing with it is riffing on it, aping it or trying to faithfully reproduce it in museum style.
Where I do see a problem is in the way that rather than deal with our history in a creative way, we have begun to fetishize our gold rush/colonial in a way that whitewashes the colonial era and thus inevitably borders on caricature and kitsch. I’m not saying this particular restaurant is overwhelming kitsch, if you take out the waiters in suspenders—let’s save that for the faux lumberjack hipster joints, which like to pretend they’re doing kitsch on purpose—but I’m speaking more generally about the colonialesque. Tourist locales in BC often fall into this trap, a sort of Klondike gold rush museum quality, and no one knows that more than I do. When very young I worked for two summers during an endless recession at the Gastown Wax Museum (now fortunately defunct) which enshrined characters like Matthew Begbie, BC’s wild west hanging judge. While Gastown is undoubtedly a tourist trap, this style now seems to infect the whole town. We need to remember that this style is an enshrining of a very small fraction of our local history: a white, gold rush, colonial fraction. Its romanticization of what was in fact a pretty brutal and far more diverse period is not helping us understand our past or our present, and it’s just not good design.
I have to admit that despite the Yukon brothel BS this place is pretty comfortable and not that badly done. It’s just that it and its many siblings are started to feel eerie and inappropriate. The province is undergoing another mad resource rush with mining and development. Let’s reassess this cosy narrative.