Mahler's necktie

By Gene Miller, February 2013

Why don’t more multi-family buildings in Victoria pass the sniff test?

In a recent weekend fever dream, I was trapped in a maze of walled rooms filled with a vast selection of coffee beans in sacks and hundreds of different grass outfits that hung in thin air; and the only way to advance toward an exit was to grind a pound of coffee and to wear a straw clothing outfit in just the right combination. If I got the coffee/straw suit combination right, walls would reluctantly part just enough for me to squeeze through to the next room, where I faced the same task again. Plus, every room featured its own distracting adventure or sub-dream. 

Monday, happily, brought bracing news about English daredevil Ian Rothwell, who recently consumed at Bindi Restaurant a chili-laden curry named “The Widower,” so hot that it’s prepared by a chef wearing goggles and face mask. A media source stated “Rothwell took about an hour, but that included a 10-minute walk outside during which he began hallucinating.” No details were provided about his hallucinations, beside a hint that he saw hell firsthand. 

Ian, real hell is grinding coffee and wearing straw clothing.

I had set myself a less risky if more ambiguous task for the week: to unlock the messaging and social mysteries of the (generally four-storey) apartment building. I’ve been pondering this for a while on walks around town, noticing how on mixed-form streets the houses say “Home” and the apartment buildings, rental or condominium, say “Product.”

Why don’t more multi-family buildings pass the sniff test? With the cold charm of filing cabinets and an aesthetic borrowed from highway motels, how did they get here? Do their deficiencies reveal some subtle disapproval—a kind of social punishment—built into the very form and design? 

Here we are, living in a city that richly demonstrates the spirit-essence of home and the art of creating appealing streets and neighbourhoods; so, bearing on apartment buildings, why hasn’t more of that culture rubbed off on civic leadership, municipal planners, developers, builders, architects and, for that matter, buyers and tenants? Why hasn’t it been bottled—codified in policy and design practice? Or is that an impossible task because we have a cultural predilection toward houses? It’s telling that our one art form is the conversion of large, older homes into suites. And it says something about our city that what could have been the genius of the place—the design and creation of hundreds of remarkable apartment buildings—has instead found its voice mostly as a patented neurasthenia any time the status quo is threatened. 

There are no accidents or unimportant details in architecture. Nothing is extraneous, everything is choice, every detail has an impact. Here I take cues from a line in John Bird’s biography of composer Percy Grainger: “Arnold Schoenberg once said that nothing about a great composer is irrelevant and that it would have been a pleasure for him to have observed Mahler putting on his necktie.”

Scattered here and there in Victoria are Mahler’s neckties: multi-family buildings—some vintage, some contemporary, some short, others tall—that suggest or outright demonstrate the potential of multiunit building form. There’s the Mosaic on Fort Street and the Reef in James Bay, co-executed by tortured creative/nail-banger-turned-developer Don Charity and would-be artist forced to manage his family’s trillions Fraser McColl Jr. 

The Reef, of course, is neighbours with Shoal Point, David Butterfield’s exceptional, monumental, sculpture-bedecked confection beside Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Then there are the city’s two authentic art deco masterpieces, Tweedsmuir Mansions on Park Boulevard and 895 Academy Close, both purpose-built apartment buildings (full disclosure: I live in Tweedsmuir). And nearby is stately Hampton Court at 159 Cook Street, south of the village. 

On the James Bay side of Beacon Hill Park, across the street from Mile Zero, is the Coté family’s eccentric but inspired three connected houses, converted corner ex-motel and townhouses. 

Also, there are the new-built Aria behind the Crystal Gardens and Swallows Landing high above the Esquimalt end of the Inner Harbour—the first influenced, the second designed, by Paul Merrick. 

Songhees may be the locale everyone loves to hate, but no one should overlook the Fountainbleu-esque Shutters in Songhees, or architect Eric Barker’s understated but architecturally important deconstruction of a standard residential cube at 27-33 Songhees Road, beside the Delta Ocean Pointe. 

An even more imaginative example of Barker’s sits at 940 North Park, and is worth a walk-around and serious study. Almost single-handedly among Victoria architects, Barker stands out for creatively deconstructing the four-storey apartment building, pushing its conventionally centred mass all over the place: to the front, sides or rear of the site, distributing parts of its usual block-y volume in the form of two-storey townhouses or three-storey mini-blocks close to the sidewalk, and creating semiprivate landscaped voids in the centre—that is, voids in the very space where the entire building would normally sit. 

And last, there is a two-storey-plus-dormer masterpiece that sits on a single lot, a humble gem of a building—white with grey window frames and black doors—at 427/429 Chester Avenue and 1133/1135 Hilda Street in Fairfield. Well, you have to check it out to understand the complexity and accomplishment of this building.

This is a partial list, and I’m sorry if I haven’t mentioned your favourites. But to understand why there are so many disappointing buildings, let me take you through the essential conditions of multi-family development. 

First, remember that while many other professions are credentialled, developers aren’t required as a condition of practice to formally study history, architectural aesthetics, story of place, design for human comfort, authenticity, or any other discipline related to successful habitation and community-building. That said, the fickle marketplace and high stakes do force developers to be keen students at the School of Risk Management. Show me a successful developer, and I’ll show you a coward, if you take my meaning.

Land ownership is highly fractured and land costs in our region are stratospheric, and this pushes developers in the direction of the greatest saleable density, and away from capriciousness about volumes and space use. There are economies in repetition: It’s easiest for the trades and it saves money. Slice and dice, baby! 

There is a problematic regulatory landscape. Zoning bylaws can be highly prescriptive, unfriendly toward creative response, and strong determinants of the character and morphology of apartment buildings. For example, bylaws generally ask multi-family buildings to maintain front yard setbacks as if to mimic the “propriety” of adjacent single-family houses. Ironically, the front yard is an increasingly vestigial feature of functional living for single-family homeowners; though, of course, it retains powerful cultural meanings. 

Price sensitivities in a competitive environment (and fears of excluding parts of the market) tend to force developers away from idiosyncrasy, amenity and costly design conceits. In addition, the pressure to achieve high building efficiency (net saleable square footage) and the technology of double-loading (units facing front, units facing back) combine to produce penitentiary-like corridors and no-man’s-land lobbies and common areas. Security issues make buildings hermetic and impregnable-looking (though rarely impregnable). 

On-site parking requirements mean that the entire property must be undergirded with a big concrete box, which leads to unimaginative cosmetic planting managed by landscaping companies.  

And ownership or tenure itself unwittingly creates obstacles. You own or rent no further than your suite’s front door, and common areas are kept free of the slightest hint of human presence. Apartment buildings (rental and condo) are professionally managed and rule-heavy. They are not places of carefree personal indulgence. You can’t leave things lying around. Of course, you can always hang a Peace sign in your window.

Given so extensive a catalogue of conditions working against imbuing apartment buildings with character and idiosyncrasy, is it reasonable to say, simply, that if you want homey things, live in a house? 

Could be. Still, in the face of all the challenges I’ve piled up, there are apartment buildings old and new in our city that show character, appeal and singularity, which makes one wonder: What are the characteristics and qualities—the DNA—shared by successful apartment buildings—buildings that contribute to the street and to the living quality of their residents? What conditions might be created to make standout buildings the rule and not the exception? 

No treatise has been written to address this question, as far as I know. But let’s assume that study of this issue will unearth all the usual complexities, contradictions and counter-intuitions that plague even apparently simple questions. Going beyond a friend’s unhelpful suggestion: “Make developers live in their own buildings for a year,” I promise to devote the next column to exactly this question: What would it take to substantially improve the looks, functioning life and citizenship of apartment buildings?

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.