Can one imagine the thrill of being asked at the age of only 24 to build one of the greatest buildings the world will ever see? That was what happened to Bernini when Pope Urban VIII presented the young man with the opportunity to design and construct the Vatican.
Most of us, after regaining consciousness, would have declined, or like me, hid under the bed. Thankfully, Bernini did not, and we have what we have in Rome, because after taking a large gulp, he started to design.
I often wonder what prevailing building codes Bernini must have overlooked or dismissed out of hand before inventing or at least bringing to flower the Baroque school of architecture. I once attempted to have a design student construct a petite garden shed that had a lyrical theme and would have bothered no one and brought only pleasure to the eye. A surly public servant claimed that said shed broke several hundred rules and would not be built on his watch.
I have begun to notice that our lovely city has now many wounds of an architectural nature scattered about the place. Let us start with that well-known outrage, the library on Broughton Street. One is faced with a wall of uninviting brick from one end of the street to the other. Why did the villagers not riot upon completion? Why were the people responsible not dragged from their comfy offices and made to repent?
Another canker is the CIBC building in the very middle of Victoria. A more unattractive edifice is hard to imagine and yet it looms over us daily. I do not lament the nightmares of design that also seem to flower in the suburbs, but in our midst, downtown? Where sensitive chaps gather to write sonnets to their true loves? I say not.
There is something called the Nootka Court that must be included here, a visual calamity at the corner of Humboldt and Douglas staring back at us with a loathsome look in its windows. Where is our native culture when we need it? The building is horrible on so many levels and yet very near to that glowing example of stone and beauty, the Fairmont Empress hotel.
That is my point in all of this — we have, unlike friend Bernini, past examples of what we should be aspiring to all around us, wonderful edifices that could remind us of our history.
Instead, it appears that architectural schools turn out dullards of design to go along with our withered building codes, which seem to only pour cold water on individualism and scope.
Perhaps many would think I am too hard on our civil servants, who are, after all, only doing what is expected of them in our modern civilization. However I am always taken aback when I hear those same workers, after their wonderful sabbaticals in Italy, France, Spain, etc., describe the vibrancy of colour and design of daring young architects fitting so splendidly with the old buildings extant. But upon their return they fling their berets into back rooms and start rubber-stamping the same old dreck. Where is the sense?
We need to be struck dumb by art and buildings; we should be awed by our surroundings, not made vomitous. Every culture will be remembered for its design and I fear that will be the case for us. There might just be an asterisk beside us with a note at the bottom of the page saying: “What were they thinking?”
There is time with leaders who are not frightened by election defeat or loss of pension. In Bernini’s time it simply took the direction of a pope who had the grandest scheme of his time, but it was also the time of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and the Renaissance. Never have we needed a renaissance more than now, and a committed leader who could galvanize us and all who visit us. Build on the past for an exciting future.
CIBC building in downtown Victoria.
Nootka Court building in downtown Victoria.
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