Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 128: Reframing Heritage in Vancouver — with Javier Campos

Speakers: Fiorella Pinillos, Am Johal, Javier Campos

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Fiorella Pinillos  0:01
Hola oyentes. Mi nombre es Fiorella Pinillos y esto es Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by architect and Heritage Vancouver President Javier Campos to chat about reframing the conversation on heritage. Enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  0:31
Hi there, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again, this week. We're really excited to have Javier Campos with us from Heritage Vancouver and many, many other things. So welcome, Javier.

Javier Campos  0:44 
Thank you, Am. Glad to be here. 

Am Johal  0:46 
Yeah, wondering, we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit. 

Javier Campos  0:51  
I certainly can. Though, I think that we're going to be talking about heritage. So even before I introduce myself, I think it's important to talk about is this conversation will be framed around Vancouver, which is a city that's existed slightly less than 200 years. And it's certainly important to acknowledge that in any talk about heritage, we need to know that, you know, that this land has been inhabited for 1000s of years before the settlers arrived. And the fact that this talk will likely be framed around Western concepts and the City of Vancouver, that this should certainly not be taken as a sign that we're not in important need of addressing the detrimental legacy of the colonial project that we have here. So having said that, my name is Javier Campos, and I have been the president of the Heritage Vancouver Society for the past eight years. Through those eight years, we've been working very hard on reframing the heritage conversation, and the ideas that we use to frame heritage. I'm also the principal of Campos Studio, which is a design firm based in Vancouver that draws on the Pacific Northwest critical regionalist tradition. And we work along mainly the Pacific Coast, from Mexico up to Haida Gwaii.

Am Johal  2:06 
Great, Javier. Heritage Vancouver's taken a novel approach to looking at what heritage means and certainly different than perhaps itself as an organization looked at it, and certainly how other cities might be framing it, in a conventional sense. And can you maybe describe the approach that Heritage Vancouver is taking that you're taking in the past few years in terms of reimagining what heritage could be, might be, is intended to be?

Javier Campos  2:36
Maybe should be? Since we're militant? In any case, I think that, you know, I'm incredibly fortunate to have found a group of like-minded individuals that really, eight years ago, and before started to see heritage as cultural production, and really saw the need to change the conversation that's been going around heritage in Vancouver. Certainly, I know this is relatively recent history, but it does seem like another lifetime considering all the things that have gone on not just in the past couple of years, but you know, the epistemic shifts that we've had. I think that when we started, we saw that heritage was a conversation based on premises that went largely unquestioned. And I think we felt that heritage and heritage discourse is anything but neutral. I think it was part of if we see it as part of cultural production, we see that it lives within our messy world of politics and interests and other things. And therefore, that needs to be talked about and brought out. You know, I think for us, at Heritage Vancouver, we certainly see heritage just as not as an immutable practice, but something that changes and moves between progressive and reactionary impulses that happen within our city. And this is an important change for us. I think it's incredibly, incredibly important for us to let people know about heritage, because it's one of those things that is almost like world peace or something. It's some general statement that people think it's something but it's actually something else. I'm not sure that, you know, you can ask everybody, they'll give you a different answer. But certainly everybody thinks they know what heritage is. And it's really for us very contested ground that needs to be explored. I think if you allow me, I would like to go down a small tangential avenue to, I think, give a brief historical context to heritage. I think it's important for us to understand where it comes from and how it's been conceived over time in order that we understand where we are with it now. I think, you know, it seems that heritage has been around forever but really heritage as we know it now was invented in the late 1800s, in England. And I think very much in the mold of Panofsky, his idea around the creation of the classical world that there's this epistemic break between where we are now and what we see as the past. And therefore we have this distance. We see this past and we try to define it and create and create something out of it that's distinct from ourselves. And it is very different than living in the culture, in a moment of cultural production, which you wouldn't do that. And one of the things that is incredibly interesting about this, which, this is called antiquarian or archaeological heritage, was that you really had to have something that was a ruin. So if you had something that was alive, it was an abbey that people were still using, it wasn't considered heritage, because that was still considered to be living and not part of the past. And this was incredibly important. Because, you know, we have a past that's discrete and different. And something that from our current condition we see is worth preserving this heritage is conceived as another, as the bones of a dead culture. That has a lot to say about us that we feel that our present needs something from the past. And this is really geared, like with this early modernization that we see. And so people are looking for values of the past, something that we see at this time. And really, this set out some, what I believe are kind of reactionary roots that are quite pernicious in heritage. This, you know, it's but it can be quite a reactionary practice. And something we have to live with. This kind of heritage, you know, went along for a while. And then there was a second iteration that came to be known as commemorative heritage. This I think, we're something quite familiar with something that certainly Stephen Harper was keen on bringing back and have a swallow, hook line and sinker about nation building. This commemorative, you know, some of the examples that are always given are like, Mount Vernon, you know, George Washington's home. This is this, or, you know, the Fort Anne of the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, these are not rooted in place anymore. They're rooted in events. And these events were selective in the way that they were brought out. You know, we see this shift from object to events, is there are events that are significant to nation building, and the creation of a myth. And this is a place where heritage developed some really dark roots, I think. Because by tying itself to the creation of these myths, and the advancement of the colonial settler project, it begins to silence the voices of those who are inconvenient and oppositional to that, and, and so we see a lot of exclusion in heritage and the creation of this one story. And I think this is a legacy that remains with us today as part of the heritage discourse. Then we see a kind of other shift that happens, as society becomes more technocratic, and so the late 19th century, earlier 20th century, where heritage really adopts the role of the expert, or the arbiter of excellence, or some idea that we can get to something that was the epitome of whatever we're looking at. And one of the things is, you know, Williamsburg in the United States became Williamsburg. And that was a style. That's the thing and it spawned the complete industry around this. You know, you can buy Williamsburg inspired colour, you know, paints and this and that and shingles and things to get back to this one thing. We've seen it here, you know, we have Upper Canada village, right, where they went in. And even though all the buildings were the same age, they tore some buildings out because they were deemed deficient. And so the myth overall had to wrap this thing around what it was. And it's something that's ongoing today. That's, you know, somewhat disturbing to me, because it's this erasure and changing of history. I was at the National Trust Conference, and somebody was talking about Lunenburg in Nova Scotia. And there's these houses and they have two... The style calls for two venting dormers on the roof. So they were renovating an original house, right, you know, from the original period that had three dormers. So they had to make a decision. Do they stick with what was built then? Or do they transform the house to conform to their ideas of what the style is? And sadly, they took the dormer out and made two because it really needed to conform. And this is very strange because you're re-writing history, right? And this really brought about this idea of that of you know, that we see a kind of legacy in our city around, you know, what the what we call character, the Craftsman style and all these ideas that become prescriptive guidelines that create this idea of fake heritage and designification. And that remains, of course, to this day. So these are kind of three contesting, all these types of tendrils. And one of the things that, you know, is old, but new to, you know, relatively new to a lot of heritage discourses is, you know, after the post birth of the environmental movement, we saw much more interesting interest in a holistic approach of a system, or something that was larger than the object and to create these pockets, these ecological pockets, and it is called ecological heritage. And that was quite interesting because it moves the focus from an object, an event, or something that some expert deems to be of high quality to a community. And how does that community work? And how do we support this community? And this is still ongoing today on something that at Heritage Vancouver were really sort of like to adopt, it's a kata we support the community. So they write their heritage for themselves. And we do that. And one of the last major shifts that happened was this idea of intangible heritage. An intangible heritage is not about objects, it's actually about cultural practices. And this is, what are the cultural practices that we need to preserve, whatever they may be. And this is about knowledge transfer. And this, these are deemed to be important things that we have. And I think, you know, to us, the real point of this digression, you know, was to understand, you know, the work of Heritage Vancouver and what it's based on, and to actually understand the history of heritage and what we are in opposition to. These ideas that keep going on here. I was hoping to give a sense of the complexity of the discourse. And to ensure that sort of more current ideas around heritage circle around cultural production, and that they're rooted in the communities that they're based in.

Am Johal  11:22 
This isn't your grandparents' Heritage Vancouver, this is today's Heritage Vancouver.

Javier Campos  11:27 
Exactly. And there'll be a tomorrow's Heritage Vancouver, exactly. We'll have all those Heritage Vancouvers that we need to have. And it's no joke, but it's certainly something that we talk about, because we certainly, as a society, talk about, you know, it'll be somebody else's. They'll change. And we base it on this idea that whatever we think today may not be good tomorrow.

Am Johal  11:49  
Javier, there's some important processes that have been unfolding in recent years, including conversations around the Heritage Action Plan at the City of Vancouver, the early beginnings of a city wide plan consultation. You recently spoke on a panel on complete neighbourhoods related to that. And what are some of your thoughts on the as the city develops its own plans, kind of what some of the blind spots might be, particularly as it relates to how heritage is thought about, but also at the level of neighbourhood.

Javier Campos  12:27 
This is a very interesting conversation to have. You know, the Heritage Action Plan was a very well-intended, progressive leaning piece of work that was undertaken at great cost. People devoted a lot of time. And it was significant for us to revamp the heritage policies that existed for 25 years. But, you know, ultimately, it's a moribund document. It hasn't gone anywhere, not really through any fault of its own. It's just that the ground that underpin the principles on which the Heritage Action Plan was based, suddenly shifted in a radical way. And so that was one of those cases where what they were thinking five years ago no longer had, you know, the relevance that it could have had. Had it been done 10 years before, it would have been a fantastic document. And now it's not. But that really speaks to the point of how much things have shifted. And so I think it'll be an interesting document to see how to resurrect some of the things that are in it, you know, in terms of heritage practice, but it's certainly there. As for this City plan, it's very difficult. It's been a rather opaque process. And the city has really tried to shift. I mean, they went kind of hard right on preservation and then went, you know, hard progressive on on trying to do reconciliation. And, you know, we don't know a lot about it, honestly, some of the stuff. But, you know, in my opinion, I think one of the main things that can do and address is to take us for heritage to recognize and address the role which heritage discourse has played in systematically excluding communities, and the voices of those whose story didn't conform to the colonial narrative that Vancouver heritage policy is based on.

Am Johal  14:23 
I'm wondering, at the level of the neighbourhood, what are some things that the City could be looking at, or perhaps examples from other cities in terms of the preservation of neighbourhoods from, from a heritage perspective?

Javier Campos  14:39 
Well, I think the main thing that it has to do is first, you know, move away from the reliance that it's had on objects, on the urban form. That's the number one thing it has to do. And it's a very, you know, inglorious history, I think, as I mentioned, at the talk on the complete neighbourhoods, you know, we have this idea of the monster home that's, you know, has made its surfaced many, many times in the discourse of Vancouver and its urban fabric. And, you know, really, it's a proxy for aesthetic inadequacy, and really, for a kind of native nativist racism, concealed in heritage policies. It's based on that expert idea, and our traditions of colonial settler history. So I would say that, you know, we need to move away from that and move away from making decisions that, you know, this building, this house, this park is not worthy of something and really engage the communities to help them to write their own history. It is their right to create their own heritage is their right to have their heritage recognized within our city, whether it be underclass communities, Filipino communities, Chinese communities, whatever it is, Chilean communities, you know, whatever it is. I think that that's, it's more of a facilitator role to help communities feel recognized within our urban fabric. I think that's something they could do to neighbourhoods.

Am Johal  16:03 
Javier, you mentioned earlier in your comments around contemporary conversations on heritage can't overlook the reality of the dispossession of Indigenous lands and the forms of violence that it took. And in the, in the contemporary context, new developments such as Sen̓áḵw, by the Squamish Nation, others by MST development. They have the possibility to rewrite the narrative of what heritage is, in terms of what built form these developments might take. How would you describe the tension between the more traditional heritage advocates and the forms of development that are going to be happening in the coming years, particularly those led by local nations?

Javier Campos  16:53 
I mean, that's a tough question for me, because, you know, it's actually not necessarily my battle, because, you know, I'm not on those, you know, what I would consider sort of more regressive groups, you know, that are there. You know, I think a lot of that stuff is tied in the protection of property and continue the legacy of systemic racism is things that we don't do. But having said that, you know, I don't really see any reason why these groups should not be allowed to write their own history. And I don't feel that we have anything to stand on to judge what they're going to do. If they want to do mega towers that look dystopian, right? It is their right to do that. And I think we should not, you know, idealize these communities and what they want to do. Our real role is to give them the space for them to do what they want to do. They will live with their heritage. I think it's incredibly interesting, you know, their land tenure model, which they don't give up the land, is I think it's quite radical, and incredibly interesting. And I think that if I was to say anything, I would make the flow the other way for the City of Vancouver to understand that they shouldn't be selling their land off. They should keep keeping their land, and then they can reevaluate it and make it useful for citizens for the greater good and we have lots of models of that around the world. So any kind of community, I don't think that we're, you know, have the ability or the right to tell them. I think it's just, you know, that's what, that's what they do. That's what these communities do. And I think there's a lot of interesting things that they're doing. There's probably things that I would disagree on, but it's not for me to say.

Am Johal  18:29 
Historic neighbourhoods in Vancouver like Chinatown, the Punjabi market, many, many others have had huge gentrification pressures the past few decades, as the city has had, overall, across its neighbourhoods. From your perspective, what can be done better to preserve historic neighbourhoods that carry some of that living heritage within them?

Javier Campos  18:53
You know, this is a tough question, and it's probably I probably have deviant thoughts on this, you know, compared to a lot of people. But at the end of the day, I mean, what does preservation really mean? You know, we just meant to keep the urban fabric and create a Soho where we, you know, it looks like Punjabi market, but it's full of people, you know, who created scarcity and demand, and there's lots of wealthy people living there. I think, you know, are we freezing the neighbourhood? Are we making a ghetto? I mean, I think one of the things that we need to remember is that these are ghettos. That's what they were, right? I mean, Chinatown was not a place that, you know, was like, hey, I want to go live in Chinatown. It was like, hey, here's a bunch of colonial people saying, we don't want you living anywhere else. You know, and then people go to these communities. And I think what we really need to do is, in a way, support these communities. And it's hard for me to think about freezing anything, because at the end of day, cities are dynamic and changing. And the real questions for me are like you are, like Gauguin said, you know, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? And I think that heritage can help with some of these questions. Because the real thing for me is to focus on the reasons for the change. And at the end of the day, gentrification is a complex system, you know, comes at the confluence of wealth generation, urban land policies, and things that really don't have much to do with heritage. And you know, we don't have Neil Smith to help us out anymore. But, you know, we know that it's another process altogether. And I think, for me, what I don't support is change that is imagined outside of a community and change that it's been brought about for the purpose of wealth generation and benefit, benefiting people outside of that community. That's a kind of exploitative model at that point. Whereas I think that change that's directed and conceived by the community itself, and that benefits that community itself, is where we need to aim. And that's where I think heritage can help empower these communities, help them understand, you know, their urban fabric, what they are. So for me, it's not really a model of like, what do we do to preserve? You know, like, the urban fabric. It's, how do we support the people that are living there to be in charge of their fate? And what they want to do? I mean, it could be that people in the Punjabi market want to have, you know, have skyrises, you know, skyscrapers there. And because for whatever reason, and we're going to say, No, no, no, no, you see, wait a minute. The heritage is this, and you need to do this. And that's not really for us to say, but it's really for us to help them determine their future. So I think it's like the sort of knee jerk reaction that we need to preserve these things. You know, it's difficult, like, I'm not, again, deviant thoughts that, you know, I'm not against the kind of densification of Chinatown. I'm just completely against how it's being done, and who it's been done for, right. And the way that it's patronizing towards the community. I think this is a problem. The change is not the problem. It's actually how the change is being done.

Am Johal  21:54 
I know that you defined heritage in a set of ways and gave a background to its histories, but historically, Heritage Vancouver has looked at buildings and public spaces that have historic and historical and heritage value, that are currently under threat that oftentimes Heritage Vancouver is articulating in public why it would like to see something preserved. I'm just wondering, from your vantage point, are there three or four examples of either buildings or public spaces that you think are worthy of preservation or are seemingly under threat under the present development processes underway?

Javier Campos  22:37 
You know, I mean, that would be such a personal answer that I don't, you know, for me, it's, um, you know, again, with everything that I've said before, it's really up to each community to determine what it is. I have my own biases, you know, being, working in architecture, you know, like, there's certain buildings that I like, for my own reasons, or there are certain neighbourhoods. But I really believe at the end of the day that it's, you know, it's, it's always framed in this idea, like, you know, how do we, how do we incorporate the new into the old? And, and I don't see it that way I kind of see it as how do we incorporate the old into the new, understanding that our city is constantly changing and shifting. And that, you know, we have to preserve some of that history as we go along. But that history is different for all of us. And so, you know, the buildings that I would choose, I don't know which buildings have, you know, cultural significance for everyone in the city. And so there are things that I would say, you know, that are, for me, important, but, you know, anything else is kind of based on this grand narrative. And that's why like, you know, when heritage Vancouver actually started, they started as a reaction against the demolitions that they saw. And I would argue that it was a kind of very reactionary kind of organization, but it was of its time. That's what it was of its time, and it didn't question things. And, you know, they want to save old houses and things. And they, you know, they did save things like the, you know, to help save the Lionsgate bridge, and they worked on the Burrard, you know, they work on big projects, as well. But you know, those days of the grand narrative, you know, are no longer with us. Or if they are, then you're in a different, different political sphere, as far as, you know, I would see it. And so yeah, so I, respectfully, don't want to answer your question.

Am Johal  24:21
Fair enough. That's a good answer. What are some examples of other cities from your vantage point, do you think are taking a more progressive approach to heritage in the way that you've described it, historically, some of the kind of contemporary tensions inside of the question of heritage. What are places that are looking at these questions, and in a far more interesting way than we are than we might be here?

Javier Campos  24:47 
You know, again, it's a difficult question, because each city is an individual city and translation is difficult. But in general, I think I would say that the cities that are doing good heritage work are the cities that understand heritage as cultural production and their heritage programs are cultural programs. You know, and we have a lot of that, you know, models in Vienna and other places. And I think that the ones that I would consider they're not doing well, the ones that are clinging on to the idea, you know, with a single-minded focus on the preservation of urban form, whether it be buildings or things. It's not that preservation, you know, is not important. I'm not, I'm not that, people always confused that when I talk, that I'm against preservation. But it's not, it's actually really, for me a question of why, and for whom? Those are the two important things when we do preservation. And the cities that have programs, alluding to this are doing a very good job, in my mind, because they're being progressive and leading the way.

Am Johal  25:52 
Javier, I'm wondering, we haven't had a chance to speak about what you do besides your voluntary role as president of Heritage Vancouver. You do have an architecture studio practice and wondering if you can talk about the kinds of things that you're thinking about now and working on now and in your other work?

Javier Campos  26:10
Yeah, I mean, you know, I think, you know, in our studio, definitely, you know, one of the things our studio is based on, and it's this idea that some of the things that carry over to Heritage Vancouver. I mean, we certainly don't believe in grand narratives. And we certainly are very rooted in the idea of place and cultures we work and you can see is rising out of the critical regionalist tradition that's spawned here in the west coast of being, you know, having buildings that are rooted in place. I mean, for us, if we do something successfully, we would imagine that you can't take that building and place it anywhere else. Like for us, that would be something we can explore these ideas as we work along the coast. I think as you know, we work all the way from Baja, California and Mexico up to Haida Gwaii. And we are in different climatic zones, and they allow us to explore very different ways of inhabiting space. And based on the climate, we pay a lot of attention to, you know, the things that people pay attention to. We're kind of excited, you know, we're, we just got published in a book on small houses, which is very exciting out of Barcelona. And then we're in a small exhibition in Venice, and dying to go but I'm not sure Trudeau has sent me the letter that I can actually go to Venice. Which is a funny show, because it was called the 100 Best Houses. It was supposed to happen last year. Now it's 140 Best Houses. It's just added a few for this year. So anyways, we're hoping to be able to do that.

Am Johal  27:38
You've had a practice very much built around, for a very long time, around sustainability and ecological approaches to architecture as well, right?

Javier Campos  27:49  
I have. I was incredibly fortunate in my life that, you know, my first project was, my first commission was an off the grid house in Mexico. You know, we're sort of talking back, you know, 20 years ago, when that wasn't the thing. And you know, these ideas of serendipity I'd been in South America, and I ran into somebody who was doing rural electrification. And his partner worked on the first fully off the grid house in North America, and then really learned a lot about how to do passive design and understanding this. You know, one of the ideas around our work, and we've been doing some teaching in Panama, that we use this as the basis for the studio is this idea that through the Koppen-Geiger map, you can understand climate along 23 axes, so you can find areas of the world, you know, Baja, California has a lot of similarities to areas in Tunisia and parts of Australia. And then if we take that, and then we look at the, you know, pre modern architecture, in other words, the Indigenous architecture that didn't rely on energy inputs, in order to provide a habitable climate, we can then extract from those ideas that we can use in our own architecture, to create passive designs. So you know, we're trying to tap on this idea of, you know, people lived in the arid desert for 1000s of years, and they were able to figure out how to do it. You know, who am I to think that I'm going to come and invent something new. Whereas, you know, I can do it in a very contemporary way that reflects my time here on the earth in this moment, but I can certainly draw on their knowledge. So we, that's the work we continue to do is based on that. And that's a really interesting piece of, of, of our work, and we're always looking for new locations, because then it gets exciting, you know, lot of research whenever we do something new.

Am Johal  29:43 
Yeah, Javier, anything you'd like to add?

Javier Campos  29:47
Yeah, I mean, I think it's really one of the things for people to take away from this, around heritage. For me, it's like, heritage is an important part of how to understand ourselves. So I was, you know, always got curious, when I first started, why I would be involved in heritage. I don't do any heritage work. I have not much to do with heritage, you know. When we do heritage work, we really do a lot of research. And to me, it's like learning a dead language, right? It's like, you know, we learn to speak this dead language that we no longer use, and we do it. But, you know, heritage is incredibly important, because it's like, other narratives that we use, they're stories that helped to define ourselves at the end of the day. And it's important to understand that, you know, as much as we tell ourselves, these things, these stories can also define the limits of our thinking. Right? So it's important to question those because they also limit the possibilities of the future if you're too entrenched in your discourse. And so, you know, we need to understand that heritage is part of our narrative, that we need to explore it so we can have different possible futures. And I think the work at Heritage Vancouver is quite interesting because we keep exploring the idea of heritage in order to present new possibilities for the future, through understanding, you know, what we had in the past.

Am Johal  31:09 
Javier, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. And we look forward to working with you at SFU and Heritage Vancouver to get the Shaping Vancouver series going again. Thank you. It'll be great. 

Javier Campos  31:22  
Thank you very much, Am. Appreciate the time,


Fiorella Pinillos  31:27
This has been our conversation with Javier Campos. Head to the show notes to find links to Heritage Vancouver, Campos Studios, and some of the other projects mentioned in this interview. Thanks for tuning in, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
July 06, 2021

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