Google-eyes

I spend a large amount of time off the island, so I‘m frequently homesick for St. John’s. But recently, I’ve found a way to remedy this: Google Earth Street View tourism. I can take a fractured, low-resolution stroll through the streets of downtown, check out the harbour, and look around at all my favorite places. There’s a kind of poetic beauty to those images, warped by the inverted-fishbowl lens of the Google car camera. They’re actually somewhat analogous to my memory of the city, as reconstructed by the lens of my own mind’s eye; distorted and blurred, exaggerated and pieced together.

While it’s amazing to see the full city in a navigable 3-D model, the Google Street View experience highlights the shortcomings of the medium itself—its inability to express the richness of the architectural character of St. John’s that I know so well. I can’t help but think about all the things behind the facades along the streets, and how they are far more complex, and way less regular, than what Street View is showing me. If I had to show this to a friend who was not from the city, I wouldn’t think it to be a sufficiently descriptive tool. Which makes me wonder what it would be like to construct a Google Earth St. John’s from my memory. What would be included? What would be forgotten about? Are there vast spaces of nothingness between all the memorable buildings? Perhaps the roads are more narrow, the hills are much steeper, and Signal Hill is much higher. Maybe the stone peak of the Anglican Cathedral is sharper and the sky between the narrows is a vivid, electric purple miasma. Maybe MUN is a massive, bleak concrete terrain with a knotted circuitry of tunnels weaving through the ground like incandescent worms, and the Battery is a pixelated wall of psychedelic color sparkling in the sun. These are the definitive architectural moments of our city, as unique as the memories and imaginations of each individual citizen, yet somehow still holding a common thread for all of us.

It can be said that our emotional experiences frame our memory of space, but there are other external factors influencing our memory of space, too. Take for instance the tourism industry, and its model of our city as a quaint, quirky seaside town, buoyed by imagery of articulated Victorian row houses and bed linens in the wind. This idea has been digested by us and then regurgitated into new buildings like the Stella Burry Housing Centre at Rawlins Cross, or all around the city in the refinishing of 50’s era suburban-style housing with heritage-color vinyl siding.

Is the present wave of new heritage-style buildings a reflection of a real tradition, or a revival of only one moment in the city’s long history of architecture that includes such movements as modernism, brutalism, neo-gothic, post-modernism, critical regionalism, and art deco, amongst others? Are we generating an architectural mythology of our city? Is that bad? As there is an accelerated pace of development in the city right now, it is essential for the public to engage in the discussion of the architectural character of the city, so that we may help direct those things—meetings, agendas, and decisions—that often seem beyond the public influence. It is important to consider what shapes your idea of the architectural identity of our city.

There is an urgency in this changing city to create an alertness to the possibility and potential of design that is present here. This new column will be a venue for investigations into issues surrounding the growing design culture and practice in St. John’s.

Talk to you again soon.

3 comments

Cycling across Europe painting cows

Part adventure, part fundraising effort for local artist-run gallery Eastern Edge, Hillock is headed to Italy with a bike and a trailer with an easel strapped on. She plans to ride her bike 2700km across the continent.

7 May 2009

  1. Nic · May 7, 2009

    St. John’s has certainly created a mythology about the character and historical time frame of our architecture. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, just inaccurate. If you’d like to create a downtown with victorianesque architecture then do so because you have an appreciating for the style not because you’re trying to replace what downtown once looked like.

  2. Esron · May 7, 2009

    I absolutely love how you described MUN! It was one of the most eloquent b****slap ever.

  3. Anonymous · May 7, 2009

    Many of the old buildings downtown that are so aggressively guarded by the heritage crowd have no real historic value at all; They’re just old. “Old” and “historic” are not necessarily the same thing. Everyone complains about the ugly boxes in many modern cities, but many of the buildings that we have downtown were just the ugly boxes of their time. They’re not even THAT old, this city’s downtown has been gutted by fire on more than one occasion. Those crumbling firetraps are ready for the wrecking ball, so we can make way for positive, progressive development in this city. And the ringleaders of the heritage protesters know this. Most of them don’t give a damn about the supposed historical value of those buildings; They’re just folks on Gower Street who don’t want to see the property value of their homes decrease by having condo and office towers block their view of the harbor.