Bodies of Vancouver’s Downtown

Patrick Chan and Varouj Gumuchian discuss the performative bodies of Vancouver’s downtown inhabitants.

October 1, 2007

Background to study

Gentrification is a topic that is hard to avoid when speaking about Vancouver downtown development over the last decade or so. The duality between the city’s increasing number of new high-density condominiums and the downtown eastside’s desolated blocks with its underclass inhabitants is often the main focus. Commentaries on Vancouver’s new condominiums and their inhabitants often take on a slight self-righteous tone. Architecture critic Trevor Brody makes note of this form of criticism by recounting how, at a recent Royal Architecture Institute of Canada panel on urbanism, “Calgary architect Marc Boutin described the new downtown Vancouverites as totally immersed in this promotional oversell, lost souls trying to find themselves through the self-congratulatory latte-and-rollerblade lifestyle they have bought into.” 1 Current discussion centres on the invisible walls that separate these new downtown Vancouverites from the underclass inhabitants who often wander the streets just two or three blocks from the city’s trendy and upscale Yaletown. There are even a few fashionable condominiums in and around Gastown where one can frequently find members of the underclass wandering through. Of course, these condominiums are protected by ten to fifteen metre-high walls. It is without doubt that such commentaries and observations do reveal a telling correlation between Vancouver’s rising real estate prices and the city’s rising destitution.

Forming other subjectivities

What is sometimes absent in architecture & urbanism discourse about Vancouver is an engagement with the bodies of the actual Vancouver downtown inhabitants— both the Eastside underclass wanderer and the yuppie who lives in a trendy condominium. One of our main research questions is: How will the subjectivity of downtown Vancouver be transformed when the bodies of these downtown Vancouverites are treated as the primary site for engagement? Or, how might the binary identities of the yuppie and the underclass downtowner, or the ‘gentrified’ versus the ‘non-gentrified’, be re-conceptualized and re-spatialized? Due to the role of this article as an ‘incitator’ we feel that we should not dictate what needs to be done in order for current binarized imaginations of subjectivity to be transformed. What we will offer here is a particular perspective about what constitutes the body, and hopefully our readers can pick up the theoretical, conceptual and even textual and compositional forces of this perspective and begin to perform their own intervention with Vancouver and similar ‘downtown’ conditions.

A brief look at collective bodies

What becomes of one’s body when it is never there or here, but is everywhere? The bodies that one may encounter in downtown Vancouver will move and change – sometimes strategically, sometimes tactically – in order to place themselves in a certain physical modality that may reflect a certain mental or identitarian mode. The body may reflect one’s mental mode but it will nonetheless change, in fact, it is possible that a body in the process of changing in reaction to other bodies around it may introduce to the subject new senses of being. In this sense the body is never completely subservient to the mind or one’s own identity. This mind-body inseparation may offerup new and different ways of approaching subjectivity. Philosopher Moira Gatens, following Deleuze and Spinoza, offers an interesting perspective of this inseparation:

The human body is understood by Spinoza to be a complex individual, made up of a number of other bodies. Its identity can never be viewed as a final or finished entity, as in the case of the Cartesian automaton, since it is a body that is in constant interchange with its environment. Spinoza understands the body as a nexus of variable interconnections, a multiplicity.

[…]

The human body is permanently open to its surroundings and can be composed, recomposed, and decomposed by other bodies… The complexity of any particular mind… depends on the complexity of the body of which it is the idea.

[…]

Reason, or the power of thought, thus cannot be seen as a transcendent or disembodied quality of the ‘soul’ or mind, but rather, reason, desire, and knowledge are embodied and express, at least in the first instance, the quality and complexity of the corporeal affects. 2

What is at stake here for Gatens is how one’s body – insofar as it exists in relation with other bodies – will never be completely ‘ours’. A body is constantly being complicated by the forces it contracts from other bodies, and the forces it expels toward other bodies.3 What is important for those who want to re-imagine Vancouver downtown’s varied or varying subjectivities is to begin conceiving of the bodies of the yuppies and the underclass wanderers as one collective body. This collective however does not express a unified identity. This collective is a whole that is constantly changing. In this sense the collective body can also include the architectural, material and geographical bodies of the city’s building. All bodies are part of this whole changing collective body. Gilles Deleuze writes “nothing can change in one without there being some corresponding change in the other, and neither thing can change without the whole itself changing.”4 The various minds, corporeal bodies and building-bodies of Vancouver city together form this changing collective body.

Incitations

The above perspective of the body is only one of many. Our text does not act as an authority on what must be done with Vancouver’s downtown and the rift between the city’s ‘classes’. As Michel Foucault writes,

Knowledge is produced on the stage where these elements struggle against each other; its production is not the effect of their harmony or joyful equilibrium, but of their hatred, of their questionable and provisional compromise, and of the fragile truce that they are always prepared to betray. It is not a permanent faculty, but an event, or, at the very least, a series of events.5

A text written, as Maurice Blanchot argues, is “neither finished nor unfinished,” rather “‘it is.”6 Our text is here for our readers to dissect and use as variedly as they see necessary.

So, the question we may ask here is not what the yuppie or the downtown underclass wanderer’s corporeal body represents, but what sort of new subjectivities and sense of space may be produced when we treat these bodies as inseparable. As designers, a provocative design-methodological question may be this: What interventions in terms of transgressive mapping vehicular/pedestrian movement, one-to-one scale installations or charting edge conditions can be produced to promote this awareness of a collective body?

  1. Brody
  2. Gatens, Moira (2000) “Feminism as ‘Password’: Re-thinking the ‘Possible’ with Spinoza and Deleuze in Hypatia (Vol.15, no.2, Spring 2000).pp.59-75, p.61
  3. Spinoza, Benedict (1996) The Ethics (Trans. E. Curley), London & New York: Penguin Books. Book II, Lemma 4, Demonstration. For Spinoza “what constitutes the form of the individual consists the union of the bodies,” which can be bodies of other individuals, the State, institutions, the built environment, etc.
  4. Deleuze, Gilles (1992) Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza (Trans. M. Joughin), New York: Zone Books. p.106
  5. Foucault (1977), pp.202-03
  6. Blanchot, Maurice (1989) The Space of Literature (Trans. A. Smock), Lincoln, NB & London: University of Nebraska Press. p.22

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