The City of Vancouver’s bonus amenity program, established in 1986, allows developers to build higher density properties in exchange for allocating space within their developments to not-for-profit social organizations or cultural initiatives. The Contemporary Art Gallery’s location at the base of the Mondrian high-rise condominiums is part of this program. Although the interior space was redesigned by nlm architect and Architectura Planning Architecture Interiors to fit the needs of a contemporary art gallery, the signs of its intended function as a retail space are still evident–in particular, the street level windows, which are better suited for product placement than the installation of art works. The windows are a challenge for the gallery and the artists who take them on. Existing works can rarely be adapted to fit in them. The shallow depth (just under ten inches) makes them hard to negotiate: installing is more of a contortionist’s feat than an act of precision. The openings to each window are small, making it almost impossible to get work in and out, as well as tools and bodies; the metal frame that divides the windows into three distinct sections can be distracting, interfering with an artist’s attempt to create a unified image.
It seems counterintuitive to invite a sculptor to make work for such a restrictive and compact space. But the awkwardness of the street level windows is exactly what interested Elspeth Pratt. In building her sculptures, Pratt used forms and materials that align closer with architecture than the history of visual art. At times she directly referenced the space in which she exhibited but more often her abstracted sculptures carried direct references to other, more ubiquitous architectural spaces. World Traffic’s (2004) curving cardboard dome and grated base reflect the now pervasive shape of many new airports. Her wall piece Pendulum (2000), which uses a stick, sponge and wire to precariously balance a protruding block of wood and suspend a carved piece of pink foam, is characteristic of a cantilevered stadium balcony. For Bluff, Pratt did both. She responded directly to the space, but also made reference to architectural forms.
Unfinished lengths of two by two inch pine were the basic material used to build Bluff. Pratt cut the lengths into irregular pieces. The cuts were awkward, appearing to be random and without a function. They didn’t conform to standardized construction measurements or angles, but each cut was considered. They were precise breaks visibly put back together to lengthen a piece again or joined together to form a larger irregular lattice-like structure. The lengths of wood were crammed into the windows in an erratic zigzag pattern of interlacing lengths joined with bulky hardware. With this seemingly happenstance composition Pratt constructed a unified design over nine of the display windows. The fact that there wasn’t just one way to do things is a credo that Pratt made manifest in the way she constructed the work. She created a contemplative space that exploits the use of familiar materials and openly demonstrates her process. The erratic construction and composition of Bluff was deliberately used to challenge the confines of the space and confuse the building’s uniform cladding. The piece’s apparent randomness worked in opposition to the rigid grid of the windows, glass and metal awning and evenly stacked rise of balconies.
The Mondrian is just one of many formulaic residential towers popping up to form Vancouver’s new cityscape. In a critical article on the problems with Vancouver’s manic building of residential towers and the current void and evacuation of corporate headquarters, Trevor Boddy sites the corner of Richards and Nelson as one of the most heinous offenders of “Vancouver’s already-low architectural standards.” These omnipresent towers are rising in incredible numbers in a short period of time. What Pratt is responding to is what she believes is a limited view of the future. These new residential buildings aren’t designed to age, to develop a patina.
Bluff is done with precision and chance that simultaneously stands in opposition to and reflects the “remove and replace” logic that is prevalent in new building practices. This designed obsolescence perpetuates a uniformity that is steeped in the fear of the future, in this case an unknown market. Boddy talks about the assumed demographic for these condos as “…mountain-biking software and computer game developers, walk-to-work denizens of the postmodern economy.” But he states that the actual new resident is better described as “…a golden global class temporarily parking their investment dollars, linked with a huge cohort of Canadian baby boomers planning to spend their final years in Vancouver, shaping a Penticton with point towers. Estimates are that one-quarter of downtown purchasers are international speculative investors and another quarter are Canadian non-residents who rent out their apartments…” The plethora of new towers are being built without a clear understanding of who will inhabit them and what the neighborhood will look like in two years, let alone twenty-five. Consequently Vancouver’s skyline is being built with no future in mind. Pratt’s Bluff, in part, worked in contrast to this practice. It had a character of its own, one that was constructed with an element of chance and not presented as a structure defined by an unknown everyone who has already bought into it.