Maybe Beauty Just Wants to Settle This Peacefully
There it was, all-caps against a full-page hot pink background, watermarked with graffiti: "Isn't the absence of beauty the biggest proof of its value?"
WTF, I thought. Someone wants our attention. Despite the shouty all-caps and the desperate, look-at-me pink (a shade even Ms-motherfucking-Pink would have to admit is obnoxious), the headline didn't exactly scream... It was more like an overheard sentence caught out-of-context as you pass between two pretentious assholes at a party—ten-dollar non sequiturs suspended in a cloud of smoke and European cologne—to which you roll your eyes and press on towards the bar thinking, "thank god I'm not single."
But there it was in my lap, a syntactic miscarriage that just wouldn't stop poking me in the eyeballs.
"ISN'T THE ABSENCE OF BEAUTY THE BIGGEST PROOF OF ITS VALUE?"
No... It REALLY isn't.
Who the hell was behind this shitty nonsense? And what did they want from us? I was making these demands out loud, to the room in which Mr. Pink and our friend were trying to enjoy a friendly X-Box tennis match. The friend, intrigued by my ire and volume, drifted over. He took in the headline and reacted as one would hope, "what the hell?!" I know, right?? I explained, to the best of my limited knowledge, that Westbank is a condo developer, but if they're not selling anything, what are they trying to buy with all this ad space? The URL for the campaign was the obvious hook, but I wasn't about to visit it (and let them win).
A week later, the Georgia Straight upped the ante with fresh hot pink word-crimes committed all across the back and half the front cover. My ranting the week prior had piqued our friend's curiosity, so the next time he dropped by, the first thing he did was throw the newspaper down in disgust right in front of me. We began barking back and forth like a couple of angry seals, stabbing at the air with the newspaper to punctuate our outrage. Mr. Pink tried to shut us out with headphones. In the days that followed, we took to greeting each other with Westbank-inspired gibberish:
"Is not the absence of sunlight the biggest evidence of Summer's value?" Countered by:
"In the absence of grammar, is not the biggest value mere proof of its silence?"
I finally decided to compromise and research the developers, and the first thing I discovered, much to my annoyance, was that they're behind Vancouver House, my favorite building under construction.
I found several recent articles about a controversy wherein the company was accused of doing pre-sales marketing to overseas investors before making their properties available to local buyers. (This is especially contentious at the moment, as Vancouver has just introduced a tax to discourage-slash-fine foreign investors from driving up housing prices.)
I was inundated with Fight for Beauty banner ads after that. Their reach was impressive—for two weeks it seemed like every site I visited was hijacked by obnoxious pink boxes served up with every Google search, cat video and "social" interaction. I started to miss those "lose 10 lbs." ads.
From the Westbank website: "Westbank has evolved into a cultural practice and this exhibition offers a glimpse into a new and interesting part of our world. 'Fight For Beauty' is yet another way we are attempting to express our evolution and share our journey, while describing the enormous effort we continue to pour into our ongoing fight for beauty."
So anyway, we went to the exhibit. (What—it was free and did I mention they're behind my favorite building?) Anyway, the neon "poem" at the top of this post is the first "station" in the exhibit—oh, yeah—so it's an art exhibit. That wasn't intuitive. The exhibit is in its own "purpose-built" showroom across from the Fairmont Hotel, and both facades are swathed in obnoxious pink runners that can be seen from blocks away.
Inside is a glossy, overstaffed installation featuring some of the company's greatest work (well, not exactly... It's the work of multiple artists and architects curated by Westbank, who generously opened the pop-up pavilion so they could share it with the public out of the goodness of their 'arts. ;) You know how the British Museum lets the public in to see all "their" priceless Egyptian artifacts? Like that.). They featured scale models of several buildings like Vancouver House, a Chinese dragon-looking sculpture reminiscent of living wax drippings, a massive metal ficus and a piano that looked like it was carved out of Cool Whip. And dresses. I liked all the things.
This steel sculpture was described as a "building," which I found confusing, but I liked it anyway.
Below is one of several pictures Mr. Pink took of the future Granville Bridge underpass/gallery/promenade, or to quote Westbank's Vancouver House Marketing Brochure, "the under-bridge mixed-use zone, flanked by new retail-office pavilions... Westbank has applied its Total Design Philosophy to improving the entire public realm here, adding public art and animation to make the Beach District the Granville Island of the 21st century."
(Vancouver's zombie apocalypse will be an exclusive, invitation-only affair. Pre-infection rates will be made available to select, pre-approved offshore market segments, on the D.L., limited time only, while supplies last. No pets or rentals. Burn after reading.)
The day we went to the exhibition, we were the last members of the public admitted because a "private event" was scheduled that evening, to which we were not invited. We were, however, accidentally offered drinks by one of the servers just starting her shift. A catering manager or curator or Grand Mistress of the Plywood Pop-up approached to let us know the "event" was starting. "So..." We asked if we could have five more minutes and she left us alone, directing the servers to stand against the walls until the last of the public had vacated the room. We walked around for another ten minutes, finished our drinks, then left just as a pack of junior stock broker/date rapist types were arriving, outfitted in matching cobalt blue suits and skinny ties.
In the first few days of Westbank's Fight for Beauty Blitzkrieg, I was desperate for a sign that I wasn't the only one seething with rage at the pretentiousness, bad grammar and sheer WTF of it all. It turns out I was just a bit premature, searching for proof of a sentiment that had just been seeded. It needed a week or so to incubate within the hearts and minds of the masses whose voices hadn't yet formed an outcry, let alone a rebuttal. But that is no longer the case... because what could be easier to hate than a luxury condo developer in one of the most expensive, yet so very livable, cities in the world...
CBC News profiled local web developer Melody Ma, who created a parody website based on the "Fight for Beauty" aesthetic, turning Westbank's words and hot pink fonts against them. Her poem, below, is a counterpoint to theirs. You can visit the Real Fight for Beauty to read more.
Personally, I'm a little more conflicted. I love skyscrapers, but I hate the economics that make them contentious. I also love the art, culture and underground communities that thrive in the margins of great urban economies—in fact, it's the only place they do thrive. The city is their natural habitat, a rich, varied ecosystem that fuels the creative spirit.
A city absent these elements, scrubbed of its rough edges, would be a metropolitan Stepford, sanitized and stripped of all vitality, a stagnant reflecting pool slowly choking on the fumes of its own toxic narcissism. Money is the greatest monoculture of all.
As of today, there are 19 units left in Vancouver House, starting at $608,000 for a 361 Square Foot, 1 Bedroom, 1 Bath on the 10th floor. One of three penthouses, a 3 Bedroom, 4 Bath was listed at $9,488,800 and sold in December 2015. But before you judge... they're going to be spectacular! The world will be a more beautiful place with them in it. Sure, I'll probably never be inside one of them, but why should that stop me from admiring them from afar? (It's kinda the same way I feel about Angelina Jolie.)
There is nothing more undemocratic than art. Writing music, painting or distilling complex emotions into a few lines of Spartan poetry—these are quintessentially, stereotypically solitary acts. We imagine the furrowed brows of Beethoven, Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath, toiling late into the night, wracked with the birth pains of creation.
But cities aren't built by lone geniuses or investor-tycoons (except maybe those weird ghost cities in China). Real cities are the slow-cooked, potluck product of the masses, both in cooperation and in competition—the artists and activists, starchitects and stock broker/date rapists—all sharing space and connecting and clashing and compromising over generations to produce their masterpiece.
By definition, beauty has nothing whatsoever to do with proof or value, two words that describe objective ways of measuring things that can be verified and quantified. "Beauty" is the antithesis of both those concepts—at the most basic level, it's about the entirely subjective, sensory pleasure derived from observing it.
When I look out at the skyline of Vancouver, I don't see spires crowned with the trademarks of their creators—Westbank, Bosa, Solterra—I see something more immediate and more eternal, the city as an endlessly shifting canvas caught in the act of self-creation.
I see a shining forest of glass, thousands of windows, each lit from the inside and offering a glimpse into the lives of the people within.