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The nonrenewable resource of some apartment buildings

November 23, 2014


Friday night I stopped what I was doing in a Fairview back alley to take a panoramic photograph of an old apartment building — one of the many stucco-clad, three-storey walk-ups that replaced a lot of single family homes after the Second World War.

People may now take these old buildings for granted but I think they should be appreciated for whatever is good and unique about them while they still exist.

For instance, what I especially like about this building is the use of vertical and horizontal strips of window. The limited amount of glass is artfully arranged in keeping with the modernist aesthetics of the day — they still did this back in the 1950s and 1960s. Buildings weren’t completely divorced from contemporary culture until the late 1970s.

For better or worse, I seriously doubt anyone will ever build anything like this — or like any of the other old apartment buildings — in Vancouver ever again.

That was then, this is now

You would probably have to comb through dusty reels of microfilm to learn how Vancouverites felt about the postwar transformation of Fairview.

Did they feel good about the sudden loss of so many single family homes to make an almost pure neighbourhood of renters?

Very possibly they simply saw it as a sign of progress. People were very big on progress in the 1950s. The future was very bright to them, especially compared to the olive drab of the recent past.

Even from our vantage point, some 60-years later, the sweeping shift to rental housing in Fairview seems positive. It appears back then that Vancouver’s commercial housing market was able to increase the supply of affordable housing on demand — a thing that now seems structurally impossible.

What changed? Well the laws and building codes for one thing.

I bet you couldn’t dust off the 60-year-old blueprints of a three-storey walk-up and build one new in 2014.

Most of those old three-storey apartment buildings were built for cheapness and fundamentally they violate all sorts of modern rules. For instance, as I read the provincial building codes, it may still be legal to build a two-storey building without an elevator but not a three-storey building — they must be accessible from top to bottom.

How much does an elevator add to the cost of a building? Probably a lot more than nothing.

When you were were done “upgrading” the old blueprints to meet today’s building codes, you probably wouldn’t have affordable housing anymore.

Another thing that’s changed in six decades are the people — both the developers and politicians. And, I guess, the economy and everything else has changed also.

Another difference that doesn’t compute

Consider this funny fact. When the apartment building I photographed Friday night was new, a person could get a job in Vancouver that easily allowed them to afford the rent in any number of apartment buildings in Vancouver. And it was understood that you could work hard and be promoted and save your money and realistically plan on buying a house and raising a family.

Yet back then you couldn’t ever expect to own a personal computer.

And no way could such a computer possibly fit in your pocket and allow you to instantly communicate with billions of other people and have thousands of times the computing power of all the computers on earth put together.

And no one would’ve conceived, 60-, 50, even 40-years ago, that when we all had the computing power to individually control and target all the ICBMs on earth and to map and predict planetary weather, in real-time, that we would instead devote that power to taking pictures of ourselves, telling each other what our cats just did and playing something called “Angry Birds.”

Sixty years ago, affordable housing was easy but personal computing was impossible. Today it’s exactly the other way around. Even homeless people have an easier time getting computers or cell phones than housing.

Who knew we could only have one but not the other?

Apparently, what’s changed more than anything else in sixty years is our collective priorities. Click the image to enlarge it.

From → Fairview

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