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CITY FILE | Razzle Dazzle

Sure, you’re happy, but are you ‘concept
drawing happy?’ asks TOR LUKASIK-FOSS.

The other weekend I had the privilege to take part in Stories From Central, a walking tour throughout my community that made repeated stops to allow a half-dozen homeowners to buoyantly expound upon the history of their houses and the deep pride they felt as residents in a dramatically changing part of downtown. As perfect an event as it was, the most affecting part of it happened unintentionally. As we were walking down Barton Street to the industrial ghost town otherwise known as the West Harbour, I overheard a snippet of converstation from two members of the tour:

“You know, with the GO station almost done, you can really see how much sense it would have made to put the stadium here. People could just get off the train and walk two blocks to the stadium. It would have been so easy.”

“Yeah, how are people going to get to the stadium from the GO now?” “I don’t know. LRT?”

There was nothing all that remarkable about this exchange, but I loved how it got me thinking back to the stadium fracas of ‘11-12, specifically how challenging it was, even for supporters like me, to actually imagine a sports complex existing in the lower city, versus how effortless it is to imagine in hindsight. Moreover, it made me remember the original concept drawing for the proposed stadium; the one that had a stadium, a big ol’ running track and a velodrome stretch over five city blocks. The one where the CN Rail yard was obliterated by a long lush patch of green. As it goes with concept drawings, the whole thing shimmered like a still from an early Pixar movie: realistic but somehow disconnected with actual reality. I don’t recall if there was ever a moment where the stadium drawings hooked up with GO station drawings and made some kind of joint statement about how well they might have worked with each other.

I can honestly say I’ve developed a bit of a fetish for concept drawings — how can you not with the amount of building happening, or about to happen, in this city? There is something of a drug effect in looking at architectural renderings; they are so slick and effervescent. You get swept up by them, pulled in by those stock images they insert near their buildings of the alluring middle class women jogging with their tiny dogs, or the dad pointing out an interesting tree to his child. In the far background, there is always grass without dandelions, lush trees without ash boring beetles and seagulls that are always so far away you never see the garbage in their beaks.

These drawings are neatly packaged, fleeting visual fantasies, but I repeatedly find myself questioning their conceits. Does the dad point out the tree to his kid because the new architecture has somehow opened his heart to love? If the architecture doesn’t get built, can we somehow assume that the dad will no longer have time for his kids, let alone waste it by teaching them about trees? Would that jogging woman instead be mawing down a tub of ice cream right now if that building wasn’t around to goad her into fitness?

To me, the most indulgent concept design is the short animation for The Connolly Condos on James Street South, currently on their website. Watch it, but don’t look at the building; look at the way the city is depicted around it — it’s the cleanest, most organized conception of downtown Hamilton you’ll ever see. It’s both thrilling and terrifying in equal measure because it shows how great a city looks when you remove all the people. Then, once you’ve settled into the sterile yet hypnotizing soundtrack of muzak funk, get ready for the super cinematic final shot. It shows the front façade of the building reflecting the undulating light made from a timelapsed progression of clouds. As if God was somehow trumpeting from the heavens, ‘I made this church and now I will make this church into a luxury condo; all part of my great plan.’

Sometimes I yearn for a more grounded kind of architectural concept drawing. One that hypothesized more intensely on the interplay of the surrounding neighbourhood. Sometimes I imagine design plug-ins like “20 years of smog and gum” that could show us how a building might age. Or an app called ‘hindsight’ that would tabulate all of the architectural concept drawings of a city and measure them against the reality of what actually gets developed around it. We could catch a glimpse of what life would be like if the city consistently acted in its own best interest.

Those are just fantasies, however. What’s better are the places out there that, at the right moments, behave exactly like architectural renderings. On any given sunny Saturday — or Sunday— during the summer months, you can go down to Bayfront Park or Waterfront Trail (or La Salle Park or Van Wagner’s Beach — there’s lots of places) and you can’t spit — not that you would, mind you — without hitting an attractive jogger, inline skater, romantic elderly couple or dad pointing out a tree to his wide-eyed son or daughter. Everyone seems to be cheerfully behaving according to the intended design of the surroundings, and the spaces have been laid out to let them do so easily and naturally.

Those are the times I can actually say to myself, ‘Hey look! Those people aren’t just happy; they’re concept drawing happy!’