October 16, 2006

Carrall Street Redevelopment

The city of Vancouver is trying to complete a seawall circuit around the downtown peninsula but it has to go through one of the city's most historically rich and socially complex streets: Carrall Street.

To complete the Seawall walk, Carrall Street will go through a makeover.
It's refered to as the "Carrall Street Greenway Project".

Carrall Street will be the final piece of a puzzle creating a waterfront walk going from Crab Park in Gastown, all along the Burrard Inlet, around Stanley Park to a seawall along False Creek through Livingston Park to the border of Chinatown and Downtown or International Village.

The design is meant to attract tourists and encourage a vibrant street life for residents in the area.

It may not be the most expensive project in the city, it's only $5 million, but it is one of the major undertakings by the city even when held against major infrastructure projects such as the $1.7 billion RAV line.

Like the Woodwards development, the Carrall Street Greenway is situated on a site steeped with Vancouver's history. One can follow Carrall Street and move north to south and literally walk through the strata of architectural archaeology and community heritage.

On the north end are traditional landing points and settlements of First Nations. Some of the earliest industrial development took hold here in the 1800s including a mill at the north end. Then there is the growth of Gastown immediately south of it. Further south is Chinatown. Then there's the Expo 86 lands now being developed by Concord Pacific and eventually it will connect with the 2010 legacy with the athlete's village at False Creek South East.

It's a rich site and an intriguing site. Students at the school of architecture and landscape architecture at UBC have a studio class located on Carrall Street and their focus this semester will be studying and coming up with design solutions to connect the history, the sociology and the geography of the site through design.

Carrall Street blogger Carol Sill, who lives and works in the neighbourhood and is a member of the Carrall Street Stewardship Committee says, "Carrall Street is a microcosm of Vancouver."

Part of the microcosm includes drugs. Carrall Street is one of the hot zones when it comes to drug-trade. Pigeon Park on the corner of Hastings and Carrall has been historically thought of a place to sell crack or heroin. But there's also an alley way that has a notorious reputation. It's between Pender and Hastings. Roger Bayley, a principal with Merrick Architecture and chair of the Stewardship committee, says, "It is the worst alley way in the city."

Still, there are no calls to use architecture and design to remove the drug trade in the area. Instead, there is a soft, live-and-let-live approach.

Jessica Chen-Adams, a planner with the city, says the focus is strutural and physical. The sidewalks will be wider. There will be three rows of trees running north-south along Carrall and there will be possibly a street motif in the shape of a cresting wave or a spiral that will be found on bike racks, drain covers and lamppost.

The spiral motif has received some derision. In part it's inspired by the golden section, a geometric calculation dating back to the Renaissance that defines the most pleasing proportions to the eye. Many designers I've spoken too don't like it because it's out of place. Many would prefer historical references derived from the local (ie First Nations, early industrial development and Chinese Canadian heritage).

The other critique I've heard is the design may encourage motorists and cyclist to blow through the community. It won't provide adequate opportunities for business development and legal street activity.

But despite the criticism, Bayley says, "The project will be a mechanism for regeneration."

I'm not sure.

Along Carrall there is a green-cut that connects Carrall Street to Shanghai Alley.

Aesthetically, it's a nice looking space until you become familiar with it social use. In the words of one local storekeeper, it's a place where people get stoned and have sex and this is in front of a seniors home.

So this may be just the moving of deck chairs - or even just the painting of deck chairs. And once the project is done, this heritage-laden strip may only accomplish in demonstrating the limits of architecture's social impact.

Will Carrall Street become beautiful and still a dive at the same time? It is possible.

That said, the city should be commended for restraining any impulse to socially engineer the zone.

Who knows, the project may be at the tipping point. The area is experiencing lots of commercial and social housing development with the work of the Portland Hotel Society and the designs of Merrick Architecture.

Perhaps, if the makeover is done well, maybe we will have a great Vancouver street.

Construction starts in January.

October 2, 2006

BC Fashion Week Spring 2007: Blushing pretty, Gottler constructs minimal Mannerist wonders

From Mara Gottler's Spring/Summer 2007 collection, the designer contrasts minimal jacket details with a profusion of expressive pant pleats

BC Fashion Week wrapped up. I went to two shows that caught my interest: Shelley Klassen of Blushing Designs and Mara Gottler. They were a study of contrasting design approaches.

Both their runway shows were on Friday night at Performance Works Theatre on Granville Island in Vancouver. Seen together, they provoked thoughts about the role of BC Fashion Week.

We are in a globalized fashion and media environment where places like Paris, New York and Milan seem to get all the attention and eclipse local efforts to the point, one needs to ask, "Who needs local design?"

And who needs BC Fashion Week? Doesn't it merely ape what goes on at the fashion centres. More importantly, do exercises like BC Fashion Week have any impact on design and fashion culture in this city and beyond?

Shelley Klassen, the head of Blushing Designs, is a good example of what is pragmatically possible for a fashion designer based in Vancouver.

Represented across the country and featured at the laudable Canadian by Design section of The Bay Downtown in Vancouver, Blushing's strength are it's dresses.

(Katherine Raso, head of media communications for The Bay in Toronto never heard of Canadian by Design or the woman who heads it, Ruth Ho...hello, you're on the same team...and you're supposed to be an iconic Canadian retailer!!!)

Where was I...oh, yes, Blushing clothes are designed AND made in Vancouver. Speaking with Shelley Klassen, she says, "The focus is on 25-to-45-year-old women but basically, it's clothes I like."

And what she likes is pretty and what showed in her Spring 2007 collection were pretty, feminine and comfortable dresses that showed off the body.

Standouts included a jersey wrap dress with a blue ribbon detail at the waist that took avantage of the liveliness of a floral print and the fabric's natural springiness.

For me, Shelley represents the balance between the pressures of price point and designer vision. And she has used platforms like BC Fashion Week to her advantage to advance the brand.

That said, her dresses don't make for the best runway shows. Neither outlandish in construction nor complicated in their details, maybe even flat, her dresses tend towards to graphic emphasis and pattern. Klassen keeps it feminine with a flattering line, flirty hems and showy hips. All simple moves that make for an economic aesthetic.

They make for great seasonal archetypes - in this case the summer dress. And this is not to be derogatory. Pretty-girl summer dresses don't have to be fancy or expensive.

I actually felt bored at the show (maybe the beers made me sleepy) because Blushing dresses don't make statements and simultaneously, I could see from even the back row that if I saw a woman wearing a dress by Blushing, they'd be one of the prettiest, sun-drenched outfits walking down the sidewalk that anyone would hope see next spring. Yes. Context is everything.

Like the great Red House Painter song says, "Summer dress, makes you more pretty than the rest."

Now, Mara Gottler is on the custom/studio side of the couture spectrum and her look was made for the runway.

I would suggest, she is the deep thinker of the Vancouver scene. Her looks are tailored, sophisticated, not remotely girlish and extremely urbane.

This year she took her inspiration from the Adriatic pleasure zone of Dubrovnik in Croatia where she claims familial attachment.

Terracota orange, white and beige were her colours for spring. It was totally sun-drenched collection.

But colour isn't what counts. Tailoring and construction -- subtely beyond the ordinary -- is Gottler's unique offering to Vancouver.

As a costume designer for Bard on the Beach, Gottler is used to creating one-offs that are comfortable under the spotlight of starring roles. As a matter of fact, her theatre work and her fashion work and they are beginning to synthesize. One feeds the other. And I've spoken to women who've been turned on to her clothes because of what they saw treading on the Shakespearian boards at the Bard this summer.

That said, Mara's clothes are not wacky theatrical constructs yet within them are embedded a strong sense of drama.

Like her Fall 2006 collection, her Spring 2007 has secrets held in the form.

Last season, Mara created mysterious folded and gathered wrap dresses and jackets. This season the mystery factor has found it way into hot orange linen jackets with no fasteners. There's a minimalism, a peek-a-boo nature, where the tailoring and the construction is revealed and yet it gathers and overlaps in sensual ways that are not simple and never fully reveals what's going on.

And while, Mara was in love with the beige and the orange in her collection. I think Mara actually is the master/mistress of white. She doesn't need anything else and here's why: In the show, there is a bistro skirt that had gored hems that flared at the bottom and simultaneously a set of vertical pleats running up the front. In this simple flaring skirt were both the ideas of tight and flowing entirely captured and expressed through the cut and construction.

And it's this level of sophistication that will send Mara far beyond the local trade.

Her clothes have meaning and reward both the body and thought. They're sensual and intellectual without being cerebral.

Can I say this: there's an intuitive semiotics at play in her clothes and it reminds me of Michelangelo. For the master renaissance artist, white marble was fine. You don't need to paint Michelangelo's sculptures. And Mara, well she doesn't need embroidery or pattern to bring her clothes to life.

There's volume. It's sculptural, and all her clothes hold a drama within the fall and the folds of her fabric without resorting to tricks. There's contrast and push and pull and beautiful backsides and in the end it makes her clothes stand out and more importantly, it brings out the woman inside it.

As a designer, Mara Gottler is fully in control. And though she's relatively new on the fashion scene when it comes to whole collections, she has come to it fully-formed and with a considerable vision, coherence and maturity. I hope her clothes go across the country and around the world because she's doing original work.

And you can see it live at the Bard or BC Fashion Week.

blushingdesigns.com (Spring 2007 not mounted on the site yet)