by Kiel Torres
Condo, trendy café, forward vegan restaurant, hip record store, swanky boutique, Vancouver Special?!, condo, condo, condo…
Ken Lum has transformed 221A’s new outdoor exhibition space at 271 Union Street into the site of crossroads between two Vancouver housing typologies with his new installation, Vancouver Especially (A Vancouver Special scaled to its property value in 1973, then increased by 8 fold). What was once an empty lot sandwiched between two new condominium complexes is now occupied by Lum’s 1:3 scale replica of a Vancouver Special. The term “Vancouver Special” refers to an architectural style of home characterized by its boxy structure, stucco/brick façade, and shallow upper-floor balconies. Between 1965 and 1985, an estimated 10,000 homes were built in this style. They were designed to be affordable with maximum living space, and were commonly occupied by working class families. The 1/3 scale of Lum’s replica was determined by the $45,000 artwork production budget, which is comparable to how much a Vancouver Special would have cost in the 1970s.
While walking east of Main down Union Street as I approached the site, I observed what was typical of Vancouver: a stretch of pavement lined with hip, retail—fronted condominiums. I knew I was on the borderline between Terminal Station and Chinatown, but something felt off. I had to ask myself: if I am standing in one of the most abundantly historic and vibrant neighbourhoods in the city, why does this street feel as if it could be anywhere else in Vancouver?
As I stood facing Lum’s installation, it was difficult to determine what felt more out of place: the playhouse sized Vancouver Special, or the new building complex surrounding it. I knew that not too far up the next block were Vancouver Specials very similar to the one rendered by Lum, thus calling into the history of the 271 site. With its grubby stucco exterior and grimy white fence juxtaposed against the trendy buildings surrounding it, Lum’s structure can be read as a humble symbol of defiance in the face of urban development. For this reason, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between Vancouver Especially and the old man’s house in the movie Up.
As a post—secondary student still living at home, I found that Vancouver Especially exuded a sense of melancholia. Vancouver Specials were built with affordability in mind, a concept that one can only dream of in our city today. If this un-functional $45,000 structure is already unaffordable, what hope do I and other young people have when it comes to moving out?
Rather than idealize its exterior, Lum’s Special is depicted in a familiar weathered condition, which draws upon the irony of the name of this architectural typology. Truth be told, there is not much that is special about the Vancouver Special—what makes it special, what makes it a home, are the personal histories that occur inside.
Lum alludes to this by inviting viewers to peer into the Special’s bedroom window. Inside, one can see the glow from a bedside lamp illuminating a modest interior. As I pressed my nose against the window, I could hear snippets of conversation from other visitors:
“I grew up in one of these,”
“I remember cutting my knee jumping over the fence once,”
“Our third stair was creaky,”
“I grew up in one of these, too…”
In this intimate moment it became clear that despite its ubiquitous presence and standard appearance, Lum’s Vancouver Special does not merely represent a monotonous housing model, but rather a nostalgic history that is both personal and collective. To any passerby it is just another Special, but to the occupants, it is a home.