Media on the City The Lee Building (Oct 08 - Jan 09)
Kate Hennessy and Oliver Neumann
Media on the City – The Lee Building is a video projection that documents the dismantling of a billboard and its steel substructure on the top of Vancouver’s landmarked Lee Building over a period of four months. Constructed in 1912, the Lee Building is known as Vancouver’s first “skyscraper,” and still stands out prominently against the downtown skyline. The billboard was erected in the 1950’s, and is commonly assumed to interfere with the view of Vancouver’s downtown and mountains from residential buildings recently constructed in the area. The recent deconstruction of the advertising sign follows the loss of a decade-long court battle by the building’s residents and owners that contested the city’s 1970-era ban on billboards in the city. The removal of the sign is a manifestation of two parallel but also contradicting ideologies shaping the city: new urban living and developments versus the preservation of existing inner-city neighborhoods and buildings and their embeddedness into the existing urban fabric. In a city that draws heavily on its surrounding landscape, the transformation of the Lee Building raises questions regarding the scales of reference central to urban life, playing with tensions between active neighborhoods and the commodified city with its focus on the visual.
Observing the demolition of the building’s advertising panels, Media on the City – The Lee Building positions the rapid transformation of the city against the recurring everyday experience of the city dweller. A singular view of an instance of urban architecture illustrates the ongoing negotiation of shifting ideologies of the urban in a rapidly developing young North American city. The video documentation takes the presence of the building as a constant; shifting light and weather conditions through changing seasons document and reposition the building in its urban and landscape surroundings. References to foreground, middleground, and background are constantly redefined. At the same time, the video positions the viewer as an active participant in the negotiations of spatial references. Changing weather and lighting dynamically alter the visual field and reconstitute the experience of the urban context.
This ongoing re-setting of the architecture highlights the contradictory ideologies at play in Vancouver that ultimately tie urban culture to notions of scale. Rather than an obstruction of the view of Vancouver’s downtown skyline in its natural setting with the Pacific Coast Mountains beyond, the owners and residents of the Lee Building see the advertising panel and the related income as a contribution to the local community. Proceeds from the advertising helped finance the building’s residential and commercial units and made spaces affordable for local artists and community initiatives. The city, to the contrary, views Vancouver’s natural setting as a central part of its experience, and any obstruction of the view that threatens to disconnect the city from its landscape background is seen to undermine the city’s character and needs to be removed.
Kate Hennessy is a Doctoral Candidate in Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Her research explores the transformative role of new media in museum and academic practice, and her multimedia works investigate documentary methodologies to address indigenous and settler histories of place.
Oliver Neumann is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on the role of digital technology in the building process and in broader speculations of emerging material culture. Together they document transformations in urban and rural space to reflect cultural, social, and environmental conditions in flux.