Casa Blanca

By Gene Miller, May 2013

White and curvaceous, Shutters flaunts Victoria’s unwritten cultural code.

Shutters, the improbably-white and unexpectedly-sinuous condominium building in Songhees, is not so much a building as a sculpture people live in. Proper buildings, after all, are squared up and have right angles. Everyone knows that. And they’re brick-y red, not wedding-cake white. So, let’s study this one-off that flaunts all of Victoria’s unwritten cultural code regarding colour and shape of buildings, and that seems not so much to have been built as to have landed.

I was led to consider Shutters after I sat in one of the city’s coffee shops frequented by the double latte crowd, and overheard an artist/philosopher-in-residence explaining to the tattooed bunny at his table that white was not a colour but a concept, an idea.

White an artifice? My view is, if you can buy a can of it in a paint store, it’s a colour. I typed “Is white a colour?” into Google, hoping for Wikipedia solidarity, like: “Hey, stupid, do fish swim?” No such luck. I was immediately swept up into light theory, pigmentation theory, molecular theory. In a tactical retreat I plodded to the basement and dragged out the voluminous Benjamin Moore Designer’s Kit—the “Good Book” of colour. A whole fan of colour chips was labelled “Whites.” I rest my case.

But not in Victoria, architecturally. We may be mostly a white-people city, but not a white-building city. We’re much more in the shrubby palette: pomes, mustards, duns, beiges, greys, yam skin maroons…proper, serious, rooted colours. White buildings here stand out like college pranks involving lots of toilet paper. White’s about an endless faith in blue skies, and such faith is in short supply here on the raincoast. White’s sybaritic, Mediterranean—not Scottish, disapproving and hellfire. 

Hold on: white is also an aspirational colour, and it inspires the same meanings in many cultures. Think of how germs flee before a white starched nurse’s uniform, or how a tunnel of bright white light guides us to the afterlife, or how the good witch wears white. 

If you take white to this level of metaphor, Shutters is the one Victoria residential building that forces us to think about what white means expressively. Shutters was undertaken by Ian Gillespie’s Westbank Developments in Songhees, and designed by Vancouver architect James Cheng. It is the most architecturally flamboyant building in Victoria, all nerve, curve, brazen performance and exhibitionism. 

Shutters is entirely sun-loving, carefree and sea-cruise, and has taken its cues from Miami Beach, cribbing some of its design pedigree from architect Morris Lapidus’ Fountainbleu Hotel. I take slight liberties in describing it as a mismatched pair of single-loaded (units extend fully across the building) punctuation marks—a nine-storey comma and a six-storey parenthesis—on a roughly two-acre site in Songhees—to date, the only building “over there” to suggest that it might actually be fun to live at the edge of the ocean. The buildings share in common a resort-size pool that sits almost invisibly on an elevated patio space. Overall, the project scandalizes its grumpy, beige-painted or red shingle-hatted neighbours, and colour and shape-wise in Songhees comes off like a unicorn picking its way through a chivvying herd of hippos.

It’s an impossibly jazzy and sexy development, as dazzling, distracting and disconcerting as Marilyn Monroe captured by Cecil Beaton’s camera in gauzy white petticoats, or Marilyn standing on a windy grate, her white dress billowing sculpturally in the updraft—and enjoying it!

Shutters’ two building curves have been set on axes roughly at right angles to each other, and as you walk around the site, more of one building is revealed as the curve of the other recedes—a photographer’s dream and an urban aesthete’s delight. It’s interesting that in a city whose developers and builders will swear that every angle, jut-out, and deviation from the geometry of four straight walls spells financial ruin for the project, Shutters is nothing but circumference. 

The building is called Shutters because of a repeated design motif of quartets of white-painted louvered shutters that have been staggered from one floor to the next on the exterior walkways of each storey. Funny, actually, to have named so glassy and transparent a building after an object intended for opacity and privacy. Shutters wears all of its circulation systems on the outside: Glass columns enclose its numerous elevators and stairs; and its wide exterior entrance corridor makes occupants visible when they leave their front doors. The slightly hypnotic and spacey effect as people pop out of their homes, walk the corridors and visibly descend in glass-walled elevators is a bit like watching something from Second Life or a video animation. 

A friend who lives in the building informs me that short bridges cross a narrow void between the elevators and the curving walkways that lead to front doors. He suggests that the act of crossing over is a profound and dramatic event, akin to stepping across the gangway between dock and cruise ship: You leave one world behind and step into a new one. 

With room to burn, the building sports a graceful and remarkably spacious lobby filled with designer-istically geometric, furniture showroom-like white-and-chrome seating and table arrangements, bathed in a faint aqua glow from its glass walls. I note this because so many of our recent buildings, facing both cost and security concerns, seem to have opted for a penitentiary aesthetic featuring miserly lobby spaces and the lockdown look. 

On its lower south-facing side, Shutters rises glassily out of a low cliff of raw Songhees rock, emphasizing its crystalline grace. The landscape designer has lopsidedly dropped in a copse of white birches to one side of the main building entrance. Nice! In its totality the building must leave occupants happily confused about whether life’s a bummer or a vacation, and humming along with Tony Bennett, “Where am I? I’m a stranger in Paradise.”

In that vein, Victoria’s countless thousands of urban critics habitually bemoan how ego and idiosyncrasy invariably get boiled out of major developments because in the development field flamboyance is equated with cost and risk, if not outright mental imbalance. Westbank is a major developer, yet Ian Gillespie, the company’s president, presumably with his banker’s and investor’s approbation, has installed something eccentric and unexpected in virtually every one of Westbank’s buildings, often with great success—notably, the beautifully controlled The Falls on Douglas Street and his many projects in Vancouver including the Flatiron Building-like Woodwards tower in Gastown, the Fairmont Pacific Hotel and condominium tower near the new harbourfront convention centre, and the planned Beach and Howe Tower by BIG (the very hot Dutch architects Bjarke Ingles Group), a completely insane architectural tour-de-force that will rise between some of the Granville Street Bridge on-ramps and that looks in renderings, unnervingly, like it will fall over in a strong breeze or a tremor.

While the Bay building re-purposed as The Hudson stands in creamy, off-white splendour, and smaller white buildings, homes and such, dot the Victoria landscape, Shutters and the tower portion of the eponymously named The 834 at 834 Johnson Street remain the city’s two major residential studies in white. Not enough to nudge our city toward Mediterranean bliss. We may have to wait for the full-on local effects of global warming (tropical palms, a hot sun, blondes in bathing suits) before we shake off Edinburgh and embrace Miami.

Can Shutters be faulted for not respecting its context? Probably not. Ex-industrial Songhees itself has been a-historical—Victoria’s “wild west” where almost anything goes (and has gone). No reminders of our civic history excepting the nearby railroad roundhouse, car barns, assorted stores buildings and rusting railyard tracks remain to be offended.

Can it be faulted for being capricious, or overly self-congratulatory about its daring curves and good looks? These are hard questions to answer without tumbling down the rabbit hole into a swamp of architectural semiotics. Last time I tried, I broke my leg and almost drowned. What I sense—without knowing the mind of its developer—is that Shutters and Gillespie’s other clever and playful projects are not at all synthetic, Las Vegas products (Egyptian pyramids, castles, faux villas, etc.) but serious attempts to express a new architectural language—a mix of technical daring and design brio intended to bring character to large and tall buildings, and not just the iconic skyscrapers, but all.

Last, can Shutters be faulted for being too curvaceous, provocative and white in a city of well-behaved, soberly coloured cubes? 

Hey, do fish walk?

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.