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Architecture and Cultural Rights

People opposed to the 105 Keefer development proposed by Beedie Group applaud the development permit board's decision to reject their application on Nov. 6, 2017. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

The proposed development of 105 Keefer in Vancouver’s Chinatown

Over the last few years there has been a conflict over a proposed new development in Vancouver’s Chinatown.  While this is a conflict about gentrification, it is also a conflict about cultural rights.  This is certainly not a unique example, but it bears some examination from the perspective of cultural rights.

The dispute arose first in 2017 with the proposed development of a 27m high-rise condominium project on an empty lot in Vancouver’s old Chinatown.  That empty lot is next to several buildings and monuments important to residents of the area – the Sun Yat-sen Gardens, the Chinese Cultural Centre, and a memorial commemorating the contributions of Chinese veterans and railway workers.  The community was upset at what they saw as an affront to their history and culture.  Further – and to the point about gentrification – it didn’t meet the needs of the largely senior population in the community.  It was yet another condominium development focused on profit and not the needs of the largely elderly population.  The community rose in opposition to the development.

Elevation of Beedie development at 105 Keefer (https://vancouver.skyrisecities.com/database/projects/105-keefer-street)

On the other hand, the developer and their architect had been working well with the City of Vancouver planning department to meet the zoning regulations for the land and the broader expectations that the city had for development in historic Chinatown and the surrounding area.  Having met the requirements of the planning department it was a shock to them that the City Council rejected their application for rezoning.  How could this be?  Why did the City Council reject the application when it met all the requirements of their own planning experts?  They initiated a lawsuit against the City for ‘acting in bad faith and violating private property rights.’

The City rejected the developer’s proposal after the vociferous objections by the community.  The City was – belatedly – responding to their demands.  The citizens were objecting not just to the failure of the project to meet their housing needs; they were objecting because the project failed to address the historical and cultural context.

How could this confrontation have occurred so late in the process?  No doubt this is, in part, a failure of the participatory process.  Why did the developer not see the rising resistance to their development? Or what motivated that resistance? 

There was an obvious failure here in the participatory process – a failure that produced conflict rather than consensus.

Beyond that, in the heritage designation that the City gave to Chinatown, there is a strong tendency to focus that ‘heritage’ on buildings much more than people.  There is some sense to that.  The buildings – especially in a heritage district – are meant to last longer than the people.  One generation dies out and the next generation has different memories, an evolving culture.  So why should we be listening to these old people in Chinatown?  Projects being designed now are designed for the next generation and a voiceless generation of those yet to be born.  In a participatory process for a development who should the City, the developer and the architect be listening to?  While we want to recognize the past, we are building (necessarily) for the future.

Pender Street after the defeat of Japan in 1945. Photo courtesy City of Vancouver Archives (https://zolimacitymag.com/hong-kong-in-vancouver-chinatown-is-fighting-for-its-life/)

But then what is culture but shared memory, language, customs?  This seems quite ephemeral, but we can see evidence in the built form, the arts, the language, as well as a culture’s myths and history.  We tend to focus on physical evidence because it’s easier to see.

Belle Cheung, a Cultural Planner with the City of Vancouver pointed out that, for any new development in Vancouver’s Chinatown:

“ . . . only the physical building is assessed. There are no policies or guidelines for Chinatown-responsive development, because existing policies are technical, rooted in numbers, colours, and square footage. They don’t work for Chinatown — a place overwhelmingly defined by its histories, heritage, and traditions — because culture isn’t technical. It’s human.” (Vancouver Sun, 31OCT17)

Planners, architects, and developers would much prefer to keep things to the technical.  However, culture is not quite so easy to pin down.  In that respect, architects and planners have at least some training in the recognition of culture as an important part of their decision-making.  In that respect, it is useful to turn to UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).  They have defined cultural heritage in a number of ways:

  • Tangible cultural heritage:
  • movable cultural heritage (paintings, sculptures, coins, manuscripts)
  • immovable cultural heritage (monuments, archaeological sites, and so on)
  • underwater cultural heritage (shipwrecks, underwater ruins and cities)
  • Intangible cultural heritage: oral traditions, performing arts, rituals
  • Natural heritage: natural sites with cultural aspects such as cultural landscapes, physical, biological or geological formations

The natural interest for planners and architects would be the ‘immovable’ cultural heritage.  But the buildings themselves have no cultural rights as such.  What rights they do have to exist is recognized by the regulations that protect them.  And those regulations are there because these buildings represent some of that cultural heritage.  But, as UNESCO points out, there is more to cultural heritage than the immovable and much of that is what UNESCO calls ‘intangible’.  Can there be rights to something that is intangible?  And, if it’s intangible, how do we protect it?

When talking about rights, we usually talk about individual rights.  This is particularly true in Western cultures.  Cultural rights, though, are group rights.  A culture is shared by many and even the tangible cultural heritage is filled with symbols and memory held and protected by generations of people.  All of this seems anything but tangible to the city’s planning department, the developer wanting to put something on the market for sale, and to the architect who may or may not want to be ‘contextual’.

If we are to meaningfully address Art. 27 of the UDHR (“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community . . .”), there must be a better way to recognize that right in the participatory process of urban development.  No party in the 105 Keefer dispute would want to repeat the conflict they continue to face, but what are the means to avoid it?

A first step, one which has yet to be taken by any public process in urban development I have seen, is to recognize cultural rights and act upon them.  Action is easier said than done but recognizing the rights of a community, a culture to define it, to promote it and to protect it is a step in the right direction.

Graeme Bristol
Graeme Bristol
Graeme Bristol is the ED/founder of the Centre for Architecture and Human Rights. He holds professional and research degrees in architecture from UBC and an LLM in human rights law from Queen’s University Belfast. He worked as an architect in Vancouver until 1994. Between 1994 and 1997 he was a supervising architect with the national Department of Works in Papua New Guinea where he was also a technical advisor to the PNG government at the Habitat II conference in Istanbul, and the Registrar of the PNG Board of Architects. He taught architecture at KMUTT in Bangkok where he worked with students mainly in slum communities and in construction camps with migrant workers and their families. He also worked with the UN during the tsunami recovery in Thailand. He has been writing and speaking on architecture and human rights for many years.

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